Review: Murder Most Female—He Had It Coming, by Kori Rumore and Marianne Mather

He Had It Coming Kori Rumore and Marianne Mather Midway: An Agate Imprint

A crime only gains sex appeal after it’s been committed, and it’s usually an ingredient added by those covering it. But when you investigate the actual facts of most “sexy” crimes and criminals—prostitution, “hot” felons, teacher/student pairings, and purportedly smooth criminals like vicious serial rapist/killer Ted Bundy—your rising libido will receive a cold shower.

Yet sex and crime remains the media’s salesmen of the month. Both sold plenty of newspapers in 1920s Chicago when young playwright/novice journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins covered the trials of four women on Cook County Jail’s so-called “Murderess Row”—Beulah Annan, Belva Gaertner, Katherine Baluk, and Sabella Nittifor the Tribune. Watkins’ stories inspired her to write a hit play, Chicago, leading to several movie adaptations and later the musical and its 2002 film version. As it turns out, and despite serpentine choreographer Bob Fosse’s part in creating the fetish-fest connected with the play (dancing dominatrices perform nut-busting moves in both senses of the phrase), the real stories were neither glamorous or arousing. What’s more, as shown by Watkins’ coverage, replicated through clippings and Rumore and Mather’s contemporary work, a pretty face, or lack thereof, has always had an effect on the course of justice.

He Had It Coming is another Agate Publishing (under its Midway imprint) gathering of historical true crime ephemera akin to 2018’s The Leopold and Loeb Files. But where the latter book was a hodgepodge of evidence and testimony, He Had It Coming’s contents are carefully culled from the Tribune’s archives, and backed up by research and essays providing a more rigorous look at the original stories.

Fans of vintage photos and tatty, discolored historical newspaper clippings will find much to enjoy here (one wishes for scratch and sniff snickers providing the evocative scent of old paper and subbasement damp for full effect). Vintage crime buffs too might appreciate leaving the well-trod Chicago criminal paths of Mr. Loeb and Mr. Leopold, Al Capone, and other Jazz Age villains. Best of all, it provides a thorough perspective on the subject of women behind bars back in the bad old days, and the perpetual misogyny that still determines a female defendant fate.

Watkins’ accounts, while a tad purple and melodramatic, at least stuck to the story. Part of that story involved a public intrigued by female (accused) killers and all-male juries who gave pretty girls a miss and plainer ones the noose. Through  21st Century eyes, it’s hard to see what was so tantalizing about the women and their crimes. A mixed bunch—one was a bookkeeper, another a cabaret singer, the other a purported gun moll, and the last a farmer’s wife—the photos show the peculiar effect the more punishing past had on our ancestors—making everyone look about 20 years older than their actual age. One can read hard and/or fast lives in careworn face of Katherine Baluk (referred to as “Kitty Malm” and the “Wolf Woman”, and presented as a sort of gangster tigress) and the sun-beaten visage of Italian immigrant Sabella Nitti. Frequently touted as the “prettiest” of the murderesses, even Beulah Annan (who supposedly shot her lover in self-defense then listened to a  jazz record as he bled out), on her best day only kinda/sorta resembled Maggie Gyllenhaal. Greater efforts appeared to be made to doll up the defendants rather than work on their defenses.

In an unpleasant counterpoint, He Had It Coming shows how Beulah, like her musical counterpart Roxie Hart, played the media and the jury to receive a not guilty verdict. Down the row, Sabella, illiterate and possessing poor English skills; saddled with an incompetent attorney and a hostile jury; and facing only circumstantial evidence (her husband’s body was never definitively found), was condemned to hang along with her farmhand Peter Crudele. No willowy ballerina like actress Ekaterina Chtchelkanova, who played the doomed Hunyak in the film version, Sabella was regularly mocked for her looks in court and by the press. Luckily, unlike the Hunyak, Sabella found help in young Italian-American lawyer Helen Cirise, who defended her and ensured her release. Sadly, even Cirise saw the need to make Nitti more acceptable through grooming and English lessons.

Of all the stories covered in He Had It Coming, the best of the bunch belongs to the mysterious Maurine Dallas Watkins. While not quite an historical phantom, little has been written or revealed about the journalist and playwright despite the musical’s popularity. I suspect the intense presence and ego of Fosse has, in part, pushed her to one side as Chicago’s “creator”. Rumore and Mather provide a fine accounting of Watkins early ambitions as a playwright before taking the Trib job, writing up page one crime stories, and leaving after just eight months. She wrote Chicago the play, which earned her a fortune on Broadway, invested wisely, traveled the world, and collected hats, but never wrote another blockbuster. A happier ending than Beulah and Kitty’s, who both died at 28. Belva and Sabella, on the other hand, lived into their eighties.

All told, He Had It Coming is a taut yet comprehensive document of true crime(s) that manages to be as flashy and fantastic as the musical that appropriated and even subsumed them.

And with nary a fishnet or jazz hand in sight.

  He Had It Coming is available for purchase at most bookstores and through the publisher's website.
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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.