One can’t read Michael Lesy’s pungent crime ballad Murder City without hearing lines from the sweetly sarcastic musical Chicago, as they both cover much of the same fertile ground, namely, the shooting gallery that was the Prohibition-era Second City. It’s also difficult to read it without wondering whether Kander and Ebb’s tunes weren’t just a bit too celebratory of the whole period, whether they played too eagerly into the blood and thunder soap opera drama as played out in the city’s fiercely competing newspapers. Critics of contemporary life like to point to the celebration of the criminal in, say, hip-hop or action movies, as being emblematic of society’s overall decline. Eighty odd years ago, though, in one of America’s greatest cities, the ruling and criminal classes had become so cozy with one another, they would have been hard to tell apart.
For an illustration of this blurring of boundaries, read Lesy’s account of the 1924 funeral of one Dean O’Bannion — a flower shop proprietor and well-connected North Side operator (he introduced the Thompson submachine gun to the city’s criminals, who quickly made it the Chicago gangster’s signature weapon) who made all the wrong enemies and got himself rubbed out in his flower shop after saying he wanted out of the rackets. Thirty thousand people mobbed the funeral home where O’Bannion’s shattered body lay in state. The home itself was operated by an assistant state’s attorney who specialized in repairing well-violated gangster corpses. Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians played Ave Maria. There were five Municipal Court judges and an alderman on hand to give condolences to O’Bannion’s widow. Two hundred Chicago policemen were there to clear a path for the casket through the throng of onlookers. Even though the cardinal of Chicago refused to let O’Bannion be buried in consecrated ground, two priests were on hand at the gravesite (where an additional ten thousand onlookers had gathered) to pray over him.
This was a city with a special place in its heart for the gangster; at least those with the right friends. More than that, Chicago was a city that appeared to outright celebrate murder. The cases of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner make the point well. Beulah was a gorgeous gal with a sad sack of a husband. She had a lover on the side. Shot and killed him. Husband ended up taking the fall at first, than gave her up. Belva was blacked out drunk when she shot her married boyfriend. Both Beulah and Belva were acquitted by all-male juries at just about the same time that the Leopold and Loeb case (another Chicago crime classic) was making the papers. The blackly comic twists and turns of these cases, wet with crocodile tears and purple journalistic prose, made them a sure thing for fictional adaptation. The women’s names were changed to Roxie and Velma for the play A Brave Little Woman written about the case by a Tribune reporter; called Chicago when it transferred to Broadway in 1926, it was filmed the following year by Cecil B. DeMille, again in 1942 for a Ginger Rogers version called Roxie Hart, and finally turned into the Bob Fossee/Kander and Ebb musical and movie. They were the merry murderesses who just wouldn’t die.
If Chicago celebrated killing and killers, it also seemed to inculcate it to a disturbing degree. Belva and Beulah were indicative of two strange trends in the city, the first being the skyrocketing number of women committing murder (it jumped 420 percent between 1875 and 1920), and the second being that very, very few of them were ever convicted for it, especially if it was of a romantic partner. Lesy notes that “every white woman who killed her husband between August, 1905 and October, 1918, was exonerated or acquitted, totaling 35 consecutive cases.” Although at the time New York was doing just fine when it came to crime statistics, it was always beaten by the supposed Second City, that toddling town. This was, after all, a town where a circulation war between the two biggest newspapers, the Chicago American and the Chicago Tribune, was an actual war, featuring hijackings and gangs of armed mercenaries (including Dean O’Bannion), that claimed over two dozen lives between 1913 and 1917 alone.
This is all well-worn territory for Lesy, whose justly celebrated photography book Wisconsin Death Trip also explored a similar, geographically-contained mania for homicide and psychotic behavior in the early 20th century. It was a creepy, crepuscular work, resembling a more morbid Luc Sante. For all the facts and data contained here, he makes Murder City more of an impressionistic portrait of a time and place than a sociological study, dividing it into chapters (rich with stark and grotesque photos) focused on particularly resonant cases, and writing them in a manner that accentuates their capricious randomness and startling examples of bizarre individuality. There’s the case of Fred/Frances Thompson, a heroin-addicted prostitute of indeterminate gender who embarrassed the state’s attorney in a wildly popular 1923 trial by being (by the attorney’s count) the 30th woman in Cook County to get away with murder. Or the case of Carl Wanderer, a cold-blooded World War I vet who killed his wife and a stranger and then offered at least 18 different confessions before going to the scaffold, where he sang a song while the noose was tightened around his neck. Or Harvey Church, the simple-minded kid from Wisconsin who wanted a Packard car so bad he butchered two salesman for one; during his trial he slipped bit by bit into a comatose state so complete that when he was finally hung, he had to be carried up to the gallows in a chair.
It’s the small grace notes of each case’s details which sets Lesy’s book apart from most studies and celebrations of dramatic time periods such as these. Like any of us, he is drawn to the sensational and seemingly wanton matter of this decade’s spectacular crime wave, which spread across the city’s socioeconomic boundaries, seemingly without exception. But unlike most writers, he is not so interested in either just celebrating the more gruesome details of the stories he has dug out of the miles of crumbling microfilm, or in trying to mock up a definitive theoretical structure for the how and why it all happened. His writing is spiky and insistent, delivering the details of each case with the fervid flare of an aging city reporter who dreams of becoming a novelist one day. There is unique strangeness here, whether in the tabloid murder trials or the no-holds-barred insurgent warfare being waged by the city’s various criminal factions in broad daylight, and Lesy is a smart enough researcher and writer to not try and make too much sense of it all.