Maurine Watkins is known primarily for two things: her work as a Chicago Tribune crime reporter and her play, Chicago, which inspired the popular musical of the same name. Seemingly unrelated, these moments in Watkins’s career are actually deeply intertwined.
During her time at the Tribune in 1924, Watkins covered the stories of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner—two of the female prisoners awaiting trial in the Cook County Jail block known as “Murderess Row.” What many people don’t know is that Annan and Gaertner would eventually become the blueprints for Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, the lead characters in Watkins’s Chicago.
For more surprising details about Watkins, Chicago, and the women of Murderess Row, check out these facts from He Had It Coming—available for purchase on our website and from the Tribune’s virtual store.
1) “In 1924, there were more than a dozen women on [Murderess Row], most accused of killing a husband or lover.”
Though Watkins’s reporting primarily focused on Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, she also covered the stories of other women at Cook County Jail—including Katherine “Kitty Malm” Baluk and Sabella Nitti. All four of the prisoners served as inspiration for characters in Chicago.
2) Described by Watkins as “the prettiest woman ever accused of murder in Chicago,” Beulah Annan frequently received fan mail and gifts from her admirers during her time at Cook County Jail.
A May 1924 poll of the women on Murderess Row revealed that none of the prisoners believed that Annan would be found guilty of murdering her lover. One inmate stated that “A jury isn’t blind and a pretty woman’s never been convicted in Cook County.” In fact, prosecutors believed that Annan’s beauty might sway the verdict and they took special care to assemble a “beauty-proof” jury.
3) In addition to crime reporting, Watkins also wrote articles on “health issues, including birth control and innovations in anesthesiology and child psychiatry; commentary on style; and updates on women leading the pacifism movement.”
When Watkins joined the Tribune staff in February 1924, she had no professional journalism experience. Female reporters were few and far between at the time, though some publications were beginning to seek new voices to appeal to different audiences. Watkins quickly distinguished herself when she began her work interviewing the women on Murderess Row—an assignment that editors had considered “too boring” for the male reporters at the paper.
4) Watkins first gained recognition for her playwriting skills when she was only eleven years old.
In 1907, Watkins made headlines when she wrote the play Hearts of Gold for the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Crawfordsville Christian Church. In an interview with the Indianapolis Star, Watkins later told reporters that “We made $45 with Hearts of Gold and it all went to the heathen, but since then I’ve become far more mercenary.”
5) Chicago has been performed almost ten thousand times since Watkins wrote the play in 1926.
Watkins’s play was an “overnight hit” in New York City and ran for a total of one hundred twenty-seven performances—a rarity given the quick turnover rate in most theaters at the time. Since the release of the musical adaption in 1975, Chicago has become one of the longest-running shows on Broadway, second only to The Phantom of the Opera.