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The real story behind Chicago's Merry Murderesses, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly

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Nov 10, 2020, 3:03 PM EST

Since 1975, Chicago has sung of the glamorous murderesses of the Jazz Age. On the Broadway stage and on the big screen, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly came alive through catchy tunes and sexy dance numbers. But amid the razzle-dazzle of it all, some viewers forget that this outrageous tale of mirth, murder, and media manipulation was based on a terribly true story.

Get on your glad rags and pour the bathtub gin, because we're looking back to the Merry Murderesses that inspired Chicago.

Before the names were changed to protect the not-so-innocent, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly were known as Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner.

At 23, Kentucky-native Annan was on her second marriage. However, she soon tired of her mechanic husband and began taking up with a hot number named Harry Kalstedt. On April 3, 1924, he'd be found fatally shot in her bedroom. As in Chicago, this confessed murderess claimed, "We Both Reached For The Gun." This paved the way for her self-defense argument—even though Kalstedt was putting on his hat and coat when he was shot in the back. Then, as he lay dying, Annan put a record of a jaunty foxtrot called "Hula Lou." She played it for four hours while drinking cocktails and waiting for her lover to breathe his last breath. Once he was dead, Annan rang her husband to report she'd killed a man who'd tried to rape her.

Prosecutors would argue Annan had shot Kalstedt because he'd planned to end their affair, which she herself admitted to at one point. Nonetheless, her husband Albert Annan stood by her side and frantically used his life savings to fund her defense. Yup, he's just like poor Amos "Mr. Cellophane" Hart.

While awaiting trial on 'Murderesses Row' in the Cook County Jail, Annan met Gaertner, who was also charged with killing a boyfriend. Chicago takes more liberties with her story. Like Velma, Gaertner was a performer, specifically a cabaret singer who used the stage name Belle Brown. But while the fictional femme fatale slaughtered her sister and cheating husband, her real-life inspiration allegedly shot her married lover. On March 11, 1924, Walter Law's corpse was found slumped over in the front seat of Gaertner's car. He had a gun at his side and an illegal bottle of gin. Gaertner was not at the scene. She'd be found at her apartment. As Velma claims in "Cell Block Tango," she was discovered covered in blood and claiming she had no memory of what happened.

Annan was a pretty young wife with a blue-collar husband. Gaertner was a 38-year-old socialite with wealth and two to three divorces under her garter. Prosecutors argued the same motive to both: vengeance on the lover who would leave them. In response, both played on public sympathy to win their freedom. With tears and an expanding sob story, Annan claimed she was pregnant, and that was the source of her fatal fight with Kalstedt. So, you see gentle public, she wasn't only shooting him in the back to save her own life but also the life of her unborn child! Reportedly, this story sounded all the more compelling told with her "lovely soft Southern accent."

Meanwhile, Gaertner was peddling herself as a victim of the evil jazz scene. She confessed to Chicago Tribune journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins, "No woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren't worth it, because there are always plenty more. Walter was just a kid — 29 and I'm 38. Why should I have worried whether he loved me or whether he left me? Gin and guns — either one is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess, don't they?"

Over six months on this beat, Watkins made a name for herself by recounting every detail of these cases, the accused stories — even as they changed — and the way they looked. Of Annan, this groundbreaking reporter wrote, "They say she's the prettiest woman ever accused of murder in Chicago — young, slender, with bobbed auburn hair; wide-set, appealing blue eyes; up-tilted nose; translucent skin, faintly, very faintly, rouged, an ingenuous smile; refined features, intelligent expression—an 'awfully nice girl' and more than usually pretty."

Annan, Gaertner, and others took advantage of this attention to appearance, which extended far beyond Watkins' coverage. It's said they set up a beauty school in the prison to help their sisters in stir look like captivating captives to the court and their all-male juries. Still, Watkins worked in a juicy thread of skepticism in her columns about these alleged killers. (Read some for yourself!) It didn't seem to matter. The press and the public ate up the gossip, the details on dresses, and the sob stories about bad men, booze, and devilish jazz. Prosecutors began to think you couldn't convict a pretty woman in this town. As for Watkins, she believed her influence was key to the acquittal of both the Merry Murderesses. As she felt the pair were guilty and likely lying through their teeth, she had mixed feelings on that. So, she wrote about it.

In 1926, Watkins went from reporter to Broadway playwright with Brave Little Women, a satirical stage play that would later be retitled Chicago. It was she who transformed Annan, Gaertner, their victims, husbands, lawyers, peers, and reporters into characters like Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly, Billy Flynn, Mary Sunshine, and Go-To-Hell Kitty. She hoped this dark comedy would highlight how appearances and sex appeal had become too important in the justice system.

The show was well-received, running on Broadway for 172 performances and spurring a silent movie adaptation directed by lauded filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. However, the musical we know today came about only after Watkins died. That's not a coincidence. She'd repeatedly rejected Bob Fosse's pleas to adapt it. Her estate did not, and so Fosse's Chicago hit Broadway in 1975. It went on to become the longest-running musical on the Great White Way, as well as a 2002 movie that won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

But what became of the real Roxie and Velma? After four months in jail awaiting trial, each was found not guilty.

After her acquittal, Gaertner reunited with her last ex-husband, who was a wealthy industrialist. However, the pair separated shortly thereafter when he claimed that she threatened to kill him. Aside from that and a drunk driving charge in 1926, she kept her nose clean and lived a life of relative obscurity, dying at age 80 of natural causes. Annan's story proved to be more the stuff of sensational headlines.

The baby she claimed to be carrying was never born. It's speculated she faked a pregnancy to save her own skin. The loyal husband that stood by her through infidelity and murder charges was ruthlessly dumped. The day after her acquittal, she told the press, "I have left my husband. He is too slow." However, in their divorce papers, she later claimed he deserted her. Then a free woman in two ways, she went on to marry again, a boxer this time. However, their love would not live long as Annan died of tuberculosis at age 28. Or 29. Or 30 — depending on which source you favor.

Nonetheless, these women's legend lives on, not only through Chicago's smirking celebration of drink, sex, murder, and all that jazz but also through homicide trials that lean hard on how a woman presents herself instead of on the facts of the case.

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