Gin and Guns, and all the Lady Killers

Gin and Guns, and all the Lady Killers

Picture Chicago in the summer of 1924.  Liquor is banned, the city is growing at an increasingly rapid pace, and nowhere in the city is quite as exciting as a small strip of real estate inside the Cook County jail known as Murderesses Row.

You want drama?  Hymns?  Stories?  Glamour? Beauty?  That’s where it is in the summer of 1924.  Capone and his guys may be running wild through the streets of Chicago, but it’s the women that best define that summer and the case for radical change.

“Gin and guns…get you in a dickens of a mess,” was the line delivered by Belva Gaertner to journalists that came to the jail to tell her story.  Despite being found covered in a dead man’s blood, she was later acquitted by an all-male jury, captivated by her beauty and struggling with the concept that women could murder a man.

Belva was in good company.  Women like Beulah Annan, who killed her paramour and then danced for hours in the same room as the body, “Big Anna” Piculine who killed her husband when he said he liked thinner women, and “Moonshine Mary” in the joint for selling poisoned whiskey made for what might have passed for the nation’s first reality escape.

Despite the interest in Murderesses Row, it was Maurine Watkins of the Chicago Tribune that was assigned to cover the grisly cases of Chicago’s beautiful killers.  Initially, she set out to convince male jurors that women should be convicted of cold blooded murder.  It didn’t happen, though, the women were acquitted at shocking rates, so long as they were beautiful and of a certain class. Maurine didn’t spend too long crying into her gin about her failure to make the jurors act with reason.  Instead, she bolted from the Tribune and wrote a little play known simply as “Chicago.”  Yes, that “Chicago.”

The women weren’t treated poorly in jail.  They had plenty of contact with reporters from all over the city, often had food sent in by well-wishing men waiting on the outside for their release, and enjoyed lengthy photo-ops intended to influence the juries.  It sounds, by most accounts, far more like living in an all-girls’ dorm than it does the Cook County jail.  Still wearing jewels and makeup, pinned hair, and expensive meals the women never really left their high class society while they waited patiently for their trials.

The rash of lady killers and inexplicable acquittals sparked more radical social change in Chicago.  Several years later, Illinois decided perhaps it was time to trust women to act as jurors, supposing, that women would perhaps believe that women were capable of murder.  How do you think women would have voted in the case of Big Anna?

That we knew in 1924 that beautiful, wealthy people of a certain “social class” are less likely to be convicted in the courtroom says something about who we still aren’t.  It also best defines the 1920’s in Chicago.  Glamour and gin, guns, and sex ruled the streets and those that weren’t involved in the deadly escapades had the time of their lives reading the papers and living vicariously through the more exciting lives of their fellow Chicagoans.

Written by Amy Williams

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