Chicago: The True Murders That Inspired the Movie

Nancy Gupton
for National Geographic News
Updated March 24, 2003

"Gin and guns—either one is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess, don't they."—Accused murderer Belva Gaertner, 1924

Sizzle, sequins, sex, and murder. It sounds like the stuff of movies—and it is. But the Oscar-winning courtroom musical Chicago is based on true murder cases: a laundry worker and a cabaret singer both accused of killing their lovers in 1924.

The stage and screen versions of Chicago stem from one source. Former reporter Maurine Watkins based her 1926 play, Chicago, on her Chicago Tribune stories of two women—Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan—accused of murdering under the influence of drink and jazz.

But were Gaertner and Annan anything like the characters played by Best Actress-nominated Rene Zellweger and Best Supporting Actress-nominated Catherine Zeta-Jones?

In 1924 Belva Gaertner—the model for Zeta-Jones's Velma Kelly—was a cabaret singer accused of shooting her lover in her car, then leaving his body there with a bottle of gin and a gun.

One month later Beulah Annan—the inspiration for Zellweger's Roxie Hart—was arrested for shooting and killing her lover in her house. There's no evidence the two ever met outside of jail.

In Chicago, the two women meet on Murderess Row and become rivals in and out of Cook County Jail.

So how do the real cases stack up against the Hollywood version?

Selective Amnesia?

In the movie, cabaret vamp Velma Kelly shoots her sister and husband after catching them together. Later she says, "I can't remember a thing."

In real life, twice-divorced cabaret singer Belva Gaertner—dubbed the "most stylish" woman on Murderess Row by reporter Watkins—was accused of shooting her lover in her car. Gaertner, 38, said she had been drinking and had no memory of what happened.

Intruder or Not?

Continued on Next Page >>


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