“Murder, greed, corruption, exploitation, adultery and treachery… all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts.” So begins the musical Chicago, coming to us this autumn. But was Chicago in the 1920’s really all that bad?
Well, quite possibly, yes… The 1920s were the time of Prohibition in the USA, when the manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks was prohibited – hence the name – by law. But the legislation couldn’t remove the demand for alcohol, and one of the main results of Prohibition was to create business for organised crime, who manufactured alcohol illegally, or smuggled it in from Mexico or Canada.
With Canada just across the waters of Lake Michigan, Chicago was perfectly placed to be at the heart of this illegal trade. Add in corrupt politicians and public apathy, and Chicago became a city of organised crime, with rival gangs fighting it out to control the lucrative trade. The most famous of these gangsters was Al Capone, but there were many more.
The then, was the background to the two real-life murder trials which inspired Chicago. The story of murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly and their companions at the Cook County Jail were first told in a 1926 play of the same name, written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, and based on two actual murder trials she had covered as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
The first of these was that of Beulah Annan, the model for Roxie Hart. Beulah was tried and acquitted for the murder of her lover in 1924, despite changing her story several times. According to reports of the trial, after the shooting, Beulah sat and listened to a foxtrot record for several hours whilst her victim died. Like Roxie, Beulah’s husband stood by him, and just like Roxie, she unceremoniously dumped him when she regained her freedom. After her release, Beulah – who was dubbed ‘the Jazz killer’ by the press – married and divorced again before her death from TB in 1928.
The inspiration for Chicago‘s other lead murderess came from another unrelated murder case in the same year. Like Velma, Belva Gaertner was a cabaret singer, performing under the name Belle Brown. Estranged from her husband, a wealthy industrialist, Belva was accused of shooting dead her lover, Walter Law, a married man with one child. Law was found in Belva’s abandoned car, a gun and a bottle of gin on the seat beside him. When she was found at her apartment with blood-soaked clothes, Belva admitted she had been drunk and driving with Law, but had no recollection of what had happened to him. Her defense, which the jury accepted, was that Law could have killed himself.
Maurine Dallas Watkins, the writer of the original Chicago play, interviewed Belva, who told her: “No woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren’t worth it, because there are always plenty more. Walter was just a kid—29 and I’m 38. Why should I have worried whether he loved me or whether he left me? Gin and guns—either one is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess, don’t they?”
Sound advice… Although we’re not sure Roxie, Velma and their friends on the cell block would ever be able to follow it…
You can book for Chicago here.