As a former weird theatre kid, I immediately fell in love with the movie musical Chicago when it was released in 2002. My theatre days are over but I will randomly bust out an impromptu version of “All That Jazz” from time to time. Apologies to my friends and family.
Now as an adult who writes about murder on the Internet, I get the tell the little-known true story behind my favorite musical.
The musical tells the story of Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, two murderesses in jail and on trial for killing their respective husband and lover in 1920s Chicago (which sounds super lit). Bathtub gin? Flapper dresses? Where do I sign up? The craft beer slugging Millennials in organic cotton t-shirts ain’t got nothing on the flappers of yesteryear.
The character of Roxie Hart, played by Renée Zellweger in the 2002 movie, is based on Beulah Annan, who like the character of Roxie was suspected of killing her lover.
There isn’t much information available about Annan but there are a few cool newspaper articles from her trial online.
Annan was born Beulah May Sheriff on November 18, 1899 in Owensboro, Kentucky. Watch out for lady Scorpios from Kentucky (AKA yours truly). She married her first husband as a teenager and soon left him for a man named Albert “Al” Annan. They moved to Chicago together and married on March 29, 1920.
Al started working as a mechanic and Beulah started working as a bookkeeper at a laundry mat. At the laundry mat, she met Harry Kalstedt and the two began an affair that naturally led to murder.
On April 3, 1924, Beulah murdered Harry in her home she shared with her husband while he was at work. She claimed that she shot him after they started drinking wine and argued. There was a gun on the bed and they both reached for it at the same time. If you’ve seen the movie or the musical, you’ll know the super catchy song about this incident.
Beulah beat Harry to the gun and fired. Let’s face it, someone named Beulah is bound to make it a gun over a Harry. After shooting him, she played the record of the foxtrot song “Hula Lou” on repeat, drank cocktails, and watched him die. Honestly, that is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read.
After Harry died, she called her husband, Al and stated told him she killed a man who “tried to make love to her.”
She was arrested for the murder after she confessed. She then changed her story and said she shot him in self defense. Another version stated that she shot Harry after he told her he was breaking off their affair. At the trial, she changed her story yet again and said she was pregnant and that they both attempted to reach for the gun in her room and that she got to him first.
Beulah was acquitted for the murder. The day after the trial ended she left her long-suffering husband, Al after he spent of all his money on her legal defense. She stated, “I have left my husband. He is too slow.”
They divorced in 1927 and she married a boxer named Edward Harlib. The marriage only lasted three months and Beulah divorced him and was left with a $5,000 settlement. She then moved on to another man and died a year later at age 28 of tuberculosis at the Chicago Fresh Air Sanatorium.
Annan’s short tragic life not only inspired the 2002 movie musical but also was the basis for a 1927 silent film also called Chicago and for a 1942 film Roxie Hart.
And people think the fascination with true crime is new.
Both of these cases were sensationalized thanks in part to journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins who went on to write the stage play version of Chicago.
The real-life story of Belva Gaertner, a fellow member of Murderess’ Row was the inspiration behind the Chicago character Velma Kelly played by Catherine Zeta-Jones in the movie musical.
Like Velma Kelly, Belva Gaertner was a Chicago cabaret singer accused of killing her lover, Walter Law. Gaertner was married three times total. Her second and third marriage was to William Gaertner, a wealthy business man twenty years older. After only five months, he annulled the marriage after he found out her first marriage not had been finalized. #1920sProblems
They married again and were separated by the time Belva was accused of murder. On March 11, 1924, Belva allegedly shot and killed Walter Law, a married man she’d been having an affair with. At the time of his death, Belva was 38 and Walter was 29.
Walter’s body was found in her car along with a gun and a bottle of gin. Belva was found at her apartment covered in blood. She was arrested for the murder and claimed that she and Walter had been drinking and partying at jazz clubs but couldn’t remember anything else.
At her murder trial, one of Walter Law’s co-workers stated that Belva was possessive and had threatened Law with a knife when he attempted to break off their relationship. Law also stated that he feared Belva would kill him someday.
Belva used her notoriety and charm to sway the judge and jury during her trial. Like our girl Beulah, she was also acquitted of the murder. The judge claimed that Law could have killed himself. At the trial, she stated, “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?”
Good Lord, Belva.
After her trial, Belva re-married William Gaertner. They were divorced again in 1926 after he claimed she was an abusive alcoholic. He also stated that she threatened to kill him after he found her with another man. The same year, she was convicted of driving drunk.
Belva lived the rest of her life traveling with her sister and living in Europe and California. She died at age 80 on May 14, 1965.
Good Lord. That was a wild ride. Jazz will kill you, kids. Stick with Black Metal.