He Had It Coming: How archives keep giving, almost a century later

When Senior Visual Editor Marianne Mather made her weekly trek that day to the archives in the Chicago Tribune Tower — five levels below Michigan Avenue — she was looking for a few photos to illustrate Flashback, a Sunday feature on city history.

What she stumbled upon, instead, was an aging brown box holding fragile, 96-year-old glass plate negatives. “Malm” was written on the box in heavy, soft-lead pencil.

What she didn’t realize was that this box, deep in the little-visited, climate-controlled sub-basement, would lead her and a newsroom colleague on a four-year journey and eventually to author a book: “He Had It Coming: Four Murderous Women and the Reporter Who Immortalized Their Stories; The True Stories That Inspired The Musical ‘Chicago,’ ” by Kori Rumore and Marianne Mather, released in February by Agate Publishing, Evanston, Illinois.

It’s a book that would not have been possible without the irreplaceable archives of the Chicago Tribune, a deep and extensive trove of news and other materials going back more than a century into the past of one of America’s most fascinating cities. The archive itself is a national treasure. 

This book represents an impressive, fresh example of what’s possible if a news organization invests in the preservation of their first draft of history. And it readily illustrates why it is critically important to ensure that the modern versions of such racy news clips and flashbulb photos are equally well preserved in the surprisingly fragile digital news era.

The journey launched by that box in March 2015 led Mather and Rumore through a fascinating tangle of newspaper photo archives and clip files, court records, birth and death records, distant relatives and family histories. Then on to the Broadway and Hollywood intrigues that put the story on stage and into a silent film in the ‘20s, then back on stage with the rollicking Bob Fosse choreographed 1976 Broadway remake starring Gwen Verdon and Jerry Orr, and then to the highly popular 2002 movie starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere and Queen Latifah.

Looking back on the start of the journey recently, Mather recalled that the deeper they dug into these stories, the more fascinating it became.

“ ‘What’s this?’,” Mather recalls when she saw the box marked ‘Malm’. “The glass plate negatives, these were all of the same woman.”

That’s odd, she thought. At the time, photographers would usually shoot only one or two plates, since they’re big and heavy and costly. “So I knew she had to be somebody important.“

Carting them to the newsroom for an electronic search, Mather found that Katie Malm was the basis for one of the characters in the 2002 movie “Chicago,” itself based on a 1926 play. She was one of four real-life women who made up the infamous Murderess Row at the Cook County Jail and Illinois State Prison in the ‘20s. Together the defendants caught the attention of a rapt Chicago public, egged on by lurid details and racy headlines in the Tribune and other daily newspapers competing intensely for a daily scoop.

“I wondered if any of the other women from the musical were down there, too. I went and looked and there they were, all of them. So I scanned them all, and in all the boxes there were like 85 images.”

Mather eventually shared the find with Rumore, a trusted colleague and visual reporter who “got goosebumps” when she first heard about it and began digging into the archived clip files, the courthouse and other records.

Who were these women? What was the connection between these real-life dramas and the play and musical? How is it that two of them, the two most likely guilty, managed to win acquittals from their all-male juries? Why were the other two, unwitting accessories to murder at most, both found guilty, one leading to a tragic ending?

That’s when they realized there was something unusual behind it all, a forgotten detail lost decades ago: The woman who wrote the original play in 1927, Maurine Dallas Watkins, was actually a Chicago Tribune reporter who covered these trials at the time.

“That’s what got us,” Mather recalls of Rumore’s research. “Here was this woman reporter, not a very common thing at the time. And we said to ourselves, ‘Wait a minute, this was a Tribune reporter! This is our story. This is a Tribune story. We have all the material in our archives. This is our story to tell!’ ”

So they did, producing a stunning book that is lavishly illustrated with stark photos from courtroom and jailhouse, reproductions of court documents and fragile newspaper clips with headlines like: “Woman Plays Jazz Air While Victim Dies;” “I Loved Harry, He Fooled Me, I Killed Him;” and “No Sweetheart Worth Killing.” The book is packed with details on the life and death stories of the four defendants whose true tales were converted into stage and screen satire by an observant, if long-forgotten-until-now real-life reporter, Maurine Dallas Watkins.

It’s a great read about a colorful period of American history, the post-war boom times of the Roaring ‘20s that witnessed cultural upheavals in fashion and film, the jazz age, suffragettes and speakeasies. Chicago was an epicenter of the era, and Watkins was riding the wave.

“She was a unique person at that time in our country’s history,” Mather said. “Women at that point have the right to vote, Prohibition is in effect. Women are becoming a little more independent. Flexing their muscles.”

Many of these trends crystallize in the stories of Katie Malm, Beulah Annan, Belva Gaertner and Sabella Nitti, the real women in the life and death courtroom dramas Watkins covered during her stint at the Tribune in 1924. As the authors illustrate so vividly, the changing values in American life could cut both ways.

For Beulah and Belva, who could dress to impress, news clippings are filled with descriptions of attire and attitude designed to generate sympathy and respect.

In one clip, Watkins writes that Gaertner wore a “brown sports dress, a plain black coat with a fur collar and a brown sport hat. Seven diamond rings and a wristwatch.”

In another, she “wore a new dress — cafe au lait. Braided in black, with bell-shaped sleeves and deep cuffs – that clung in soft folds to her body.”

But for two other defendants, Kitty Malm and Sabella Nitti, less stylish dress and manner worked against them.

“Dressed in somber black and carrying a prayerbook kept well in sight, Katherine Baluk Malm, ‘the wolf woman,’ was placed on trial for murder yesterday…” the Herald and Examiner wrote of Malm, whom the newspapers dubbed “wolf woman” and “tiger girl.”

Writing of Nitti, Genevieve Forbes, another female Tribune reporter, described her in merciless terms during court testimony as “a seamy faced, weather-beaten peasant, the senora, at home in a truck garden, and but little used to the refinement of even the stiff wooden chair in which she hunches restlessly…”

The trial outcomes, perhaps predictable, were acquittal for the stylish Annan and Gaertner and guilty verdicts for the less sophisticated Malm and Nitti. Even after the acquittals, Watkins and other reporters twisted the knife.

“And the two who walked to freedom in the last two weeks, ‘pretty’ Beulah Annan and ‘stylish’ Belva Gaertner, robbed the women’s quarters of their claims to distinction and plunged murderess row into oblivion.”

The sexism and manipulation of the era were part of what made this story important to tell, the authors felt. The realities were illustrated starkly through the injustices dealt to Malm and Nitti.

“Both were found guilty because they didn’t know how to work the media like Beulah and Belva, Rumore said. “Back then the juries were composed of all white men. And how do you appeal to 12 white men back in the 1920s? Well…”

“There’s so much that has changed, and so much that hasn’t,” Rumore said. “That’s one thing that really struck us about doing this book. You would think that we would be in a much different place by now, 100 years later. But we’re not. The forms are different, with social media and so on, but so much hasn’t changed.”

The richness of Chicago’s cityscape is brought to life throughout the book, where the cases are deeply documented and beautifully illustrated. You can easily get lost reading the newspaper clippings, or wandering the crisply reproduced black & whites, candids and staged photos, court documents, news graphics, death certificates and original stage and screenplay scripts.

The documentation was initially sought to support the reporting work. But Rumore, who developed a strong appreciation for archives through her daily journalism work building background timelines for current news stories, thought it important to include in the book as well.

“We wanted people to understand the Belvah and Beulah characters are real, close to home,” Mather said. “You see that lines in the play are what the people really said in their trial. We wanted people to get the scrapbook feel where you really felt like you were close to the material. That was Kori’s idea to do this.”

The deep research evident in the book extends to the story of Watkins herself, an enigmatic character in her own way. A reporter for only eight months at the Tribune, research by Rumore shows this may have been solely for the purpose of learning about possible characters who could one day inhabit her stage plays.

“I got so I prayed for murders,” Watkins told an interviewer once. “Not that you ever have to pray long for murders in Chicago.”

Watkins had written before her stint as a reporter, but mostly afterwards. In fact, immediately after leaving the Tribune, she headed straight for the newly formed Yale School of Drama, a hothouse of literary icons.

Her first major work, written within a year and entitled “Chicago,” was contracted for Broadway, where it opened to acclaim in 1926 at the Music Box Theater and ran 22 weeks before touring the country. Pages from the original script, reproduced in the book, show plot details and dialogue very much like the news stories of courtroom scenes and testimony Watkins covered for the paper.

Both authors say they’re indebted to the many news archivists and librarians who built up the priceless Tribune archival collection over many decades, making the book possible. And to colleague Elaine Varvatos, a newsroom manager who watches over the archive and supervised its relocation when they moved out of the landmark Tribune Tower a few years ago.

It’s the question ahead that’s the troubling one: Will this kind of research still be possible 100 years from now, with all the pressures daily newsrooms face in their fight for survival? And especially with the added challenges of preservation in the digital era.

“Without these materials, we would never have been able to trace the story of Maurine Watkins and the real women of murderess row,” Mather said. “Without somebody putting key info on a glass plate negative, we would not have been able to do it.”

“I hope that we are doing that ourselves for the future.”

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