The crime section of the newspaper isn’t where one usually expects Broadway dynasties to originate, but in the case of smash hit Chicago it makes perfect sense. Before Roxie Hart took to vexing Velma Kelly in brassy song, two real life jazz era maidens were committing crimes and making headlines in the titular city.
Maurine Dallas Watkins, author of the original play from which the Broadway musical is adapted, gleaned the idea for her fabulous convicts from two sordid cases she covered during a short stint with the Chicago Tribune. Both crimes took place in 1924 at the height of the jazz age, and both carried an air of sensationalism not only because of the boozy haze of mystery surrounding the events, but also thanks to the theatrical nature of their perpetrators.
The first murder involved the woman who would become the inspiration for Velma Kelly’s character, Belva Gaertner. Belva was a cabaret singer who allegedly murdered the man she was having an affair with after a night of drinking at the local jazz holes. The man, Walter Law, was found in the front seat of Belva’s car next to a gun and a bottle of gin, and Belva herself was found in her apartment near some blood-stained clothes. However Gaertner was acquitted a few months later on the grounds that Law could have killed himself. But before the dust could settle surrounding Gaertner’s case, another murder would capture the attention of Chicago’s jazz scene.
Beulah Sheriff-Annan, who would be fictionalized as Roxie Hart, was working at a laundry when she met the man that would become her victim. During what appeared to be an illicit meeting between her and co-worker Harry Kalstedt, she shot him and then sat listening to a record and drinking cocktails while he expired. Although her specific story changed over the course of the trial, it was clear that Beulah was the killer. Thanks to the funding and support of her inexplicably faithful husband, Albert Annan, Beulah was acquitted in short order. Yet in a move to rival the coldest femme fatale, Beulah publicly left her husband the day the trial ended.
Unlike the musical, the two convicts don’t seem to have had much of a relationship in the real world. Yet their stories are so similar and happened in such close proximity the criminal legacies of both women live on as a single tale, inextricably linked to its time and place. So whether it’s being taken straight from the headlines or belted out on a Broadway stage, it’s no wonder that Chicago’s history of smoky nights and dangerous women continues to captivate.