Monday, February 25, 2013

Unladylike Behavior

Historically, Chicago has gone by many names--the "Windy City" being the  most common and least provocative. I started reading The Girls of Murder City (2010) recently. It was next up on my list of Chicago non-fiction, between The Devil in the White City (2004) and Sin in the Second City (2007). Taglines for each promised murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America; fame, lust, and the beautiful killers who inspired Chicago; madams, ministers, playboys, and the battle for America's soul.

Chicago Tribune reporter, Maurine Watkins.
Who could resist?

It probably doesn't take a genius to recognize the pattern here. After the huge success of Erik Larson, there was an onslaught of Chicago scandal lit, and I'm the beneficiary. Each book tackles a very different subject, but they share the same setting (Chicago, of course) and a narrative tone that I find agreeable--all worth reading on their own merit.

Douglas Perry's The Girls of Murder City has high-lighted the origins of many concepts I take for granted in 2013. One "character" in particular, Maurine Watkins (pictured above) is the embodiment of a both Victorian ideals and burgeoning feminism. Hired by the Chicago Tribune at a time when women were considered too dainty for the workplace, her demure looks often aided her in prying the most damning of details from the most dangerous of men...and women.

In the early 1920s, after the passing of the 18th and 19th amendments (which sparked prohibition and gave women the right to vote), a rash of female murderers were filling the Cook County Jail. Because it was commonly believed that women were far too delicate to commit murder, there was an unbroken string of 35 acquittals for alleged "husband killers" in 1919, and by 1923, 29 more would go free. An idea was taking root that one mustn't be a deranged psychopath to kill, but that such crimes can sometimes be the product of circumstance.

In other words...men drove them to it. Not guilty!

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