Thursday, April 24, 1924
The most beautiful women in the city were murderers.
The radio said so. The newspapers, when they arrived, would surely say worse. Beulah Annan peered through the bars of cell 657 in the women’s quarters of the Cook County Jail. She liked being called beautiful for the entire city to hear. She’d greedily consumed every word said and written about her, cut out and saved the best pictures. She took pride in the coverage. But that was when she was the undisputed “prettiest murderess” in all of Cook County. Now everything had changed. She knew that today, for almost the first time since her arrest two weeks ago, there wouldn’t be a picture of her in any of the newspapers. There was a new girl gunner on the scene, a gorgeous Polish girl named Wanda Stopa.
Depressed, Beulah chanced getting undressed. It was the middle of the day, but the stiff prison uniform made her skin itch, and the reporters weren’t going to come for interviews now. They were all out chasing the new girl. Beulah sat on her bunk and listened. The cellblock was quiet, stagnant. On a normal day, the rest of the inmates would have gone to the recreation room after lunch to sing hymns. Beulah never joined them; she preferred to retreat to a solitary spot with the jail radio, which she’d claimed as her own. She listened to fox-trots. She liked to do as she pleased.
It was Belva Gaertner, “the most stylish” woman on the block, who had begun the daily hymn-singing ritual. That was back in March, the day after she staggered into jail, dead-eyed and elephant-tongued, too drunk—or so she claimed—to remember shooting her boyfriend in the head. None of the girls could fathom that stumblebum Belva now. On the bloody night of her arrival, it had taken the society divorcée only a few hours of sleep to regain her composure. The next day, she sat sidesaddle against the cell wall, one leg slung imperiously over the other, heavy-lidded eyes offering a strange, exuberant glint. Reporters crowded in on her, eager to hear what she had to say. This was the woman who, at her divorce trial four years before, had publicly admitted to using a horsewhip on her wealthy elderly husband during lovemaking. Had she hoped to make herself a widow before he could divorce her? Now you had to wonder.
“I’m feeling very well,” Belva told the reporters. “Naturally I should prefer to receive you all in my own apartment; jails are such horrid places. But”—she looked around and emitted a small laugh—“one must make the best of such things.”
And so one did. Belva’s rehabilitation began right there, and it continued unabated to this day. Faith would see her through this ordeal, she told any reporter who passed by her cell. This terrible, unfortunate experience made her appreciate all the more the life she once had with her wonderful ex-husband—solid, reliable William Gaertner, the millionaire scientist and businessman who had provided her with lawyers and was determined to marry her again, despite her newly proven skill with a revolver. He believed Belva had changed.
Maybe she had, but either way, she was still quite different from the other girls at the jail. She came from better stock and made sure they all knew it. Even an inmate as ferocious as Katherine Malm—the “Wolf Woman”—deferred to Belva. Class was a powerful thing; it triggered an instinctive obeisance from women accustomed to coming through the service entrance—or, in this lot’s case, through the smashed-in window. Belva, it seemed, had just the right measure of contempt in her face to cow anybody, including unrepentant murderesses. She was not beautiful like perfect, young Beulah Annan. Her face was a sad, ill-conceived thing, all the features slightly out of proper proportion. But arrogant eyes shined out from it, and there was that full, passionate mouth, a mouth that could inspire a reckless hunger in the most happily married man. She’d proved that many times over. When Belva woke from her blackout on the morning of March 12, new to the jail, still wearing her blood-spattered slip, she’d wanly asked for food. The Wolf Woman, supposedly the tough girl of the women’s quarters, hurried to bring her a currant bun.
“Here, Mrs. Gaertner,” she’d said with a welcoming smile, eyes crinkled in understanding, “eat this and pretend it’s chicken. . . . It makes it easy to swallow.” With that, Katherine Malm set the tone. By the end of the week, the other girls were vying for the privilege of making Belva’s bed and washing her clothes.
To her credit, Belva adapted easily to her new surroundings. The lack of privacy didn’t seem to bother her. The women’s section of the jail, an L-shaped nook on the fourth floor of a massive, rotting, rat-infested facility downtown, was crowded even before her arrival, and not just because of the presence of Mrs. Anna Piculine. “Big Anna,” the press said, was the largest woman ever jailed on a murder charge. She’d killed her husband when he said he’d prefer a slimmer woman. Then there was Mrs. Elizabeth Unkafer, charged with murdering her lover after her cuckolded husband collapsed in grief at learning of her infidelity. And Mary Wezenak—“Moonshine Mary”—the first woman to be tried in Cook County for selling poisonous whiskey. Nearly a dozen others also bunked on what was now being called Murderess Row, and more were sure to come. Women in the city seemed to have gone mad. They’d become dangerous, especially to their husbands and boyfriends. After the police had trundled Beulah into jail, the director of the Chicago Crime Commission felt compelled to publicly dismiss the recent rash of killings by women. The ladies of Cook County, he said, were “just bunching their hits at this time.” He insisted there was nothing to worry about.
The newspapers certainly weren’t worried; they celebrated the crowded conditions on Murderess Row. Everyone in the city wanted to read about the fairest killers in the land. These women embodied the city’s wild, rebellious side, a side that appeared to be on the verge of overwhelming everything else. Chicago in the spring of 1924 was something new, a city for the future. It thrived like nowhere else. Evidence of the postwar depression of 1920–21 couldn’t be found anywhere. The city pulsed with industrial development. Factories operated twenty-four hours a day. Empty lots turned into whole neighborhoods almost overnight. Motor cars were so plentiful that Michigan Avenue traffic backed up daily more than half a mile to the Chicago River. And yet this exciting, prosperous city terrified many observers. Chicago took its cultural obsessions to extremes, from jazz to politics to architecture. Most of all, in the midst of Prohibition, the city reveled in its contempt for the law. The newly elected reform mayor, witnessing a mobster funeral attended by thousands of fascinated citizens, would exclaim later that year: “I am staggered by this state of affairs. Are we living by the code of the Dark Ages or is Chicago part of an American Commonwealth?”
It truly was difficult to tell. Gangsterism, celebrity, sex, art, music—anything dodgy or gauche or modern boomed in the city. That included feminism. Women in Chicago experienced unmatched freedoms, not won gradually—as was the case for the suffragettes—but achieved in short order, on the sly. Respectable saloons before Prohibition didn’t admit women; speakeasies welcomed them. Skirts appeared to be higher here than anywhere else. Even Oak Park high school girls brazenly petted with boys, forcing the wealthy suburb’s police superintendent to threaten to arrest the parents of “baby vamps.” Religious leaders—and newspapers—drew a connection between the new freedoms and the increasing numbers of inmates in Cook County Jail’s women’s section.
I can hear my Savior calling,
I can hear my Savior calling,
I can hear my Savior calling,
“Take thy cross and follow, follow Me.”
Where He leads me, I will follow,
Where He leads me, I will follow,
Where He leads me, I will follow,
I’ll go with him, with him, all the way.
Those killer women made a sweet sound. Belva, the “queen of the Loop cabarets” before Mr. Gaertner came along, knew how to carry a tune, and she gave herself the solos. And now that she had grown accustomed to “jail java” instead of gin, and the tremors had subsided, she sang with confidence. Katherine Malm was game, too, her voice soaring, dueling for the light, right up there with Big Anna’s booming alto.
Not everyone, though, had the spirit of the Lord. Beulah Annan didn’t see anything uplifting about being in jail. “How can they?” she’d bleated on her first day in the pen, shuddering at all those raspy voices trying to sound angelic. The hymns made her think of her childhood in rural Kentucky. She was an angel, for sure, back then, leaning her cheek against her mother’s elbow during services, the prettiest little girl in town. She was an angel still, as far as her husband, Al, was concerned. All she had to do was turn those big eyes on him, her mouth puckering as she began to cry, just as she had when he came home to a dead man on the floor and learned that his wife had been running around on him. She’d done a lot of crying since that day—to no avail. Her dear Harry—the man she should have married—was still dead. Beulah could hide alone in her cell, she could squeeze her eyes shut and bury her face in her bunk in the middle of the day, but she could not get her brain to change what had happened.
The jail itself was an effective reminder. It assaulted newcomers with its simple reality. The bare stone walls that rose into sticky blackness. The small, steel cells, one after another, each one interlaced with string for drying wet towels, underwear, and uniform blouses. A smell permeated the block—an institutional smell, old and irretrievably unclean—as though vomit had perpetually just been wiped up somewhere nearby. Plus the smells and sounds of the women themselves, the sudden blasts of argument, the hawking up of phlegm, the moronic giggles and beany toots. A choir hardly made up for it all. On that first day, having exhausted herself from hours of desperate babbling to the police and the state’s attorney and reporters—confessing volubly, endlessly, reenacting her crime over and over—Beulah barely moved for hours. She took no food and confessed no more, just cried alone in her cell, softly but monotonously, like a faucet that wouldn’t quite turn off. At one point Sabella Nitti, an immigrant woman convicted of killing her husband with a six-pound hammer, stopped in front of the cell and stared in at the weeping young woman. There was not a great deal of sympathy in Sabella’s old, worn face. “The writer who visits these prisoners week after week noticed a faint atmosphere of resentfulness when pretty Beulah Annan recently was added to the group,” one reporter wrote soon after Beulah arrived on April 4. “The others thought of the effect her beauty might have on the jury which tried her.”
It was a legitimate grudge. Only men made up the jury pool in Illinois, and when it came to judging women, it seemed men only truly cared about one thing: beauty. And Beulah was a vision. She knew it, too. At every opportunity she posed for the news photographers. She would rub her lips into a respectable frown, pull her shoulders in and down to highlight her fragile frame. The image proved irresistible: the thin straight nose; the high cheekbones, so high and sharp they seemed to force her eyes wide open; the gorgeous red hair that rolled off her head like a prairie fire. Once Beulah’s wistful gaze began staring out at newspaper readers, fan mail arrived by the bucketful, along with flowers and even a steak dinner. Odds were, she wouldn’t be convicted. The pretty ones never were—not once in Cook County’s history. Maybe that was why Beulah didn’t make a run for it. She’d just washed the blood off her hands and waited for the authorities to show up.
“Sorry? Who wouldn’t be?” Beulah liked to say when asked how she felt about killing her boyfriend, shot squarely in the back. “But what is there to do? We can all be sorry after it’s done. If only we could go back. If only we could! It’s so little we get out of cheating. But the pleasure looks big, for the moment, doesn’t it?”
The singing in the rec room went on without Beulah every day, but it barely got started on this Thursday afternoon before petering out. Everyone’s thoughts were elsewhere. The hymns would have to wait. The inmates, instead of singing, started to debate, laying out the possible fates for beautiful Wanda Elaine Stopa, the next girl to join Murderess Row. Assuming the police ever found her. The cops had no idea where she was. This morning she had shot her boyfriend, or maybe she shot his wife, and then she disappeared. The whole cellblock seemed to be leaning forward, expectant. When the evening papers arrived in a couple of hours, the inmates would find out what had happened. They’d get to see pictures of this girl the entire city was talking about.
Beulah couldn’t bear it. She sat in her cell in a pique. Ever since she’d arrived, it had been all about her and Belva. They were the stars of Murderess Row, and Beulah, the pretty one, always took pride of place. Now, suddenly, there was real competition. “Another Chicago girl went gunning today,” one newspaper blared across the front page of a special edition, which was blasting through the presses at this very moment. Outside the steel bars of the Cook County Jail, out in the free world, Wanda Stopa was on the run. Beulah wanted her to keep on running—far, far away.
© Douglas Perry, from "The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired 'Chicago' " (Viking, 2010)
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