22 DEATH ROW LADIES
Not all of what Chicago newspapers reported about gangsters, the police, the lawyers and politicians was unfriendly. Capone appreciated the press coverage or so he said. He called it free advertising for his business. The behaviour of the press also made him a celebrity. Capone might have resented the media diversion caused by four women on death row in Cook County jail. The police raid on the Sieben brewery when Dean O’Banion and Johnny Torrio were arrested made the Chicago newspapers but it was the appearance of Beulah Annan in court that featured on the front page. Movies have been made about those five women on death row. Roxie Hart is the best of them but Chicago is a superior musical. The movies and musicals were inspired by the play written by Tribune reporter Maurine Watkins. Somehow Cecil B De Mille managed to produce a silent version of a talkie play. Watkins struggled to find another stage hit. In Hollywood, she wrote one good script called Libelled Lady. Her play Chicago had defined what she wanted to say in the theatre, and one movie script did the same in Hollywood. Watkins wrote other movie scripts but the early fame dwindled. She retreated into a private life.
The physical appearance of the women on death row in 1924 was important to what happened. Beulah Annan was not really beautiful but the clothes, expensive tastes, confidence and figure of Belva Gaertner turned male heads. Katherine Malm was ordinary looking but young and slim. Wanda Stopa committed suicide before she could be arrested but her crime and beauty made her an honorary death row member. Sabella Nitti was different. The betting was that she would be the first woman to be hanged in Illinois. Sabella Nitti was poor and unkempt. Her features had been brutalised by heavy agricultural work. The Chicago press were unsympathetic. Tribune reporter Genevieve Forbes described Nitti as ‘seamy faced’, ‘gibbering’ and called her ‘a cruel animal’. If luck had sidestepped Sabella most of her life, she had the fortune to attract Helen Grise to her case. Grise was a dedicated lawyer with the instincts of a pioneer. She gave her client a good scrub and found her some decent clothes and cosmetics. The other women on death row helped. The woman that had been the most likely to be hanged was released on bail. Nitti returned to her farm and waited for her second trial. The first trial of Nitti was subsequently dismissed as a mistrial, and Nitti stayed on her farm or so we think.
Kitty Malm had been present when her husband Otto killed a security guard during an attempted robbery of a sweater factory. Her husband admitted guilt but Kitty pleaded innocent. A jury found her guilty of murder. Kitty had still been married to Max Baluk when she wed Otto. That indiscretion did not help. The newspapers christened Malm the Wolf Woman and Tiger Girl. Again there were hopes. Before Kitty was found guilty in the summer of 1923 the record of prosecution attorneys against girl-gunners had been unimpressive. All of the previous 29 attempts to convict had ended in acquittals. Chicago male juries regarded women as victims rather than instigators. The acquittals of female murderers almost became a convention. Five years earlier in 1919, a Swedish immigrant was found guilty of killing her husband but before this lady there had been thirty-five uninterrupted not guilty verdicts of husband killers. The conviction for Malm stood. She learnt typing and shorthand in prison and intended to become a stenographer on release. Her two requests for parole were not granted. While she was in prison Malm caught pneumonia. She died in 1932. Her misguided loyalty to her not quite husband earned her nine years in a cell and a premature death. Husband Otto was not a model prisoner like his wife. He participated in prison riots and was declared insane. After killing another convict he was given an additional life sentence.
Belva Gaertner was married to wealth. Husband William was twenty years older than Belva. His inventions and company had made him a millionaire. Quiet rest was what William preferred after the exertions of either building or maintaining his fortune. William met Belva while she was a cabaret dancer. Belva liked to dance, drink and have sex with young men. In the daytime she also liked to ride horses. It appears that late nights and hangovers were not an impediment because she rode a horse almost every day. Belva and William were already divorced in 1924 when she was arrested for killing Walter Law. The divorce was a consequence of her late nights out alone. Belva could talk herself out of a difficult situation but the excuses and deceits added wear and tear to the marriage. William hired a private detective. Belva was caught committing adultery.
Walter Law was nine years younger than the 38 years old Belva. He was married, and Law and his wife had one child. On March 11 1924, and when the Chicago weather remained cold, Walter was found dead in the car of Belva. Next to him was a gin bottle, and a gun that had been fired. Two policemen found Belva in her apartment. Blood soaked clothes were on the floor. ‘Gin and guns,’ said Belva, ‘they get you into a hell of a mess, don’t they?’ Belva admitted there had been an argument and a struggle with a gun but in court her defence was that she could not remember what happened. She suggested that Law might have killed himself. Thanks to her glamour and the persuasiveness of her lawyer she was acquitted in 1925. Belva celebrated by posing for pictures with the male members of the jury. In The Girls of Murder City author Douglas Perry describes how the other female convicts were deferential to Belva. As leader, she created a group spirit amongst the women on death row. William was distraught when he heard that his ex-wife had been charged with murder. They remarried but the drinking and adultery of Belva continued as before. William discovered Belva in bed with another man. William retreated to another room and prepared for divorce. Belva moved to California and died of natural causes when she was eighty-years-old.
Wanda Stopa stopped breathing a couple of weeks before her twenty-fourth birthday. This was a shame because Wanda was a girl that did like to party. Wanda graduated from the John Marshall Law School. She became an assistant district attorney in Chicago but the career in law was abandoned. Stopa wanted to be an intellectual and an artist. She moved to Greenwich village, met bohemians, drank, had sex and took dope. The writer Scott Fitzgerald said that it was easy to be popular. And it is for some, especially when you have Slavic cheekbones and memorable blue eyes. Wanda did, though, kill a sixty-eight-year-old handyman. But the girl people remembered was smart and likeable. Her colleagues from the Chicago office of the attorney and her bohemian friends from Greenwich village remained loyal.
Yeremah Kenley Smith was an advertising executive that liked to patronise art and artists. He recognised the artistic ambitions and perhaps the potential of Stopa. Support and encouragement was offered by Yeremah Kenley Smith. Most people assume that Smith and Stopa had an affair or at least they had sex. Smith argued with the police that the relationship was platonic. Something, though, happened to make a free spirited young woman become obsessed with an older man. The Smiths moved from New York to the outskirts of Chicago. Stopa returned to the windy city and took a taxi to the home of the Smiths. Wanda forced her way past the maid and searched for Mrs Smith.
Vieva Dawley ‘Doodles’ Smith was suffering from the flu and recovering in bed. The maid had alerted the handyman Henry Manning about the female intruder. Manning entered the bedroom and saw Stopa pointing a pistol at under the weather Doodles. He stepped between the two women and Stopa fired. Stopa missed Doodles and killed Henry Manning. Doodles may have been suffering from the flu but she was able to make an escape through the bedroom window. Stopa returned to the taxi and the waiting driver. In Chicago a train to Detroit took Wanda to the Detroit Statler Hotel. In her room she swallowed a cocktail of water, sugar and cyanide. At her funeral, 10,000 mourners or sightseers lined the streets.
Beulah Annan was not only prettier than Belva Gaertner, she had a better memory. If she pleaded innocent to killing Harry Kalstedt, she did remember firing the shot that killed him. The story of how this happened and the role of Kalstedt in his demise changed over time. The cops that found the dead Kalstedt in the apartment of Buelah heard that she had shot at the intruder because ‘he kept coming at me’. Kalstedt, though, had been shot in the back. Beulah then claimed that the gun had been on the bed and there had been a struggle. Before calling the police, Beulah had sat alone and drank. Witness statements and medical reports suggested that Kalstedt had been alive while Buelah waited to call the police. Rather than be bored, Beulah had passed the time listening to the record Hula Lou. The lyrics included the lines, ‘And I don’t care how nasty I may be, I’m the one gal the sailors all crave.’
Beulah was married to Albert Annan, and he remained loyal. He used his savings to secure ace lawyers W W O’Brien and William Scott Stewart. A triumphant acquitted Beulah shook hands with all the male jury members after her trial. During the trial she had claimed she was pregnant but she never gave birth to a child. The day after Beulah was acquitted she divorced loyal husband Albert. ‘He’s too slow,’ she said. Perhaps, but ten years later Albert was charged with the manslaughter of Otilla Griffin, the woman that then shared his apartment. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence. Lawyers O’Brien and Stewart hit pay dirt defending gangsters. O’Brien was walking alongside Hymie Weiss when the gangster was assassinated. According to O’Brien the last words from the fatalistic gangster was, ‘You better lay down, Willie.’ A bullet in the forehead killed Weiss. Bullets hit O’Brien in the chest, stomach and arm but he survived. Beulah married again but the marriage lasted no more than four months. Whilst living with her mother she was diagnosed to be suffering from tuberculosis. Beulah died in March 1928. The disease had left the 29 year old raggard and thin. Her beauty and fame had long gone.
Howard Jackson has had fourteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book BORIS JOHNSON PFEFFELS AND PIFFLES is now available here.