With today’s relentless news cycle, it’s easy to forget the genesis of our current media fascinations. You may think that the 1990s was when the media, celebrity trials and America’s love for gawking oozed together to create the concept of the courtroom as an entertainment venue. The truth is, you have to go back a bit.

Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City provides a captivating look at the killer women who dominated headlines in Chicago and across the United States in 1924. More than a dozen women called Murderess’ Row in the Cook County Jail home, but two grabbed most of the attention: Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan. Cabaret dancer Belva’s meeting with her drunken lover ended with him fatally shot and her glamorous clothes blood-splattered. And after shooting her lover in the apartment she shared with her husband, 23-year-old Beulah danced to her favorite record, “Hula Lou.”

Dripping with scandal, beauty and savvy, these attention-hungry women had a glorious chance to deliver the performances of a lifetime. They didn’t disappoint. Covering this for the Chicago Tribune was rookie reporter Maurine Watkins, who took her bitterness over the women’s manipulation of the system—Beulah changed her shooting story three times and the all-male jury still let her walk—and turned it into a hit Broadway play, Chicago.

Perry takes a sturdy foundation of murder, sex and Chicago’s scandal-happy newspapers and builds a nonfiction marvel. His bouncy, exuberant prose perfectly complements the theatricality of the proceedings, and he deftly maneuvers away from the main story without ever losing momentum. Perry uncovers illuminating background details on the Chicago newspaper wars and the female inmates who took a backseat to Belva and Beulah, and pushes Watkins back into the spotlight. He captures the pulse of a city that made New York look like a suburban block party. The Girls of Murder City not only illustrates the origins of a new media monster, but reminds us that we’ve never been that innocent.

 

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