Maurine Dallas Watkins: Sob Sisters, Pretty Demons, and All That Jazz

Movie poster for “Chicago” (2002), courtesy of Miramax.com.

“Yes, it was me! I shot him and I’m damned glad I did! And I’d do it again-,” cried Roxie Hart, the achingly beautiful murderess conjured up by reporter-turned-playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins. Inspired by crimes she covered for the Chicago Tribune in the 1920s, Watkin’s 1926 play “Chicago” became an instant hit and has been continuously reinterpreted, from Bob Fosse’s 1970s production to the Oscar-winning 2002 Miramax film. The Crawfordsville, Indiana native’s take on women murderers, who employed charm and theatrics to convince sympathetic male jurors of their innocence, earned the praise of critics and theater-goers. The Los Angeles Times noted that year “critics claim that the play is without a counterpart in the history of the American stage.” In an era of instant, often fleeting social media-derived celebrity, Watkins’ fame-obsessed murderesses who kept the press enraptured seem more relevant than ever.

Maurine Dallas Watkins
Maurine Watkins, News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), December 14, 1928, accessed Newspapers.com.

Born July 27, 1896 in Louisville, Kentucky, Watkins moved with her family to Indiana and attended Crawfordsville High School. According to a 1928 Indianapolis Star article, she started writing dramas from a young age. At 11-years-old, the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Crawfordsville Christian Church presented her “Hearts of Gold,” which generated $45. The St. Louis Star and Times described Watkins in 1928 as “simply dressed, with big, innocent-looking blue eyes and an exceedingly shy manner.”

After studying at Butler University in Indianapolis and Hamilton College in Lexington, Kentucky, she sought experiences about which she could write and contacted the city editor of the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper, convinced by Watkin’s zeal, hired her to write about the city’s crimes from a “woman’s angle.” Her eight month stint as a “sob sister,” or women journalists who wrote about female criminals and were often sympathetic to their crimes (although not in Watkins’ case), inspired her to write “Chicago.” She described the piece as “‘a composite of many different happenings, while Roxy the heroine, was drawn from one of our leading ‘lady murderesses’-the loveliest thing in the world, who looked like a pre-Raphaelite angel, and who shot her lover because he was leaving her'” (Ind. Star).

Beulah Annan
Beulah Annan in a Chicago jail cell immediately following her arrest for the murder of her lover, courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, April 29, 1928. Watkins covered the 1924 trial for the Chicago Tribune and served as inspired for her play, accessed Newspapers.com.

This murderess was one Mrs. Beulah Annan of Chicago, who confessed to killing her lover Harry Kalstedt. She was pronounced not guilty by a jury, swayed by her innocent persona and “man-taming eyes.” While Annan served as the inspiration for “Chicago,” the name of the play’s protagonist Roxie Hart was likely borrowed from a 1913 murder in Crawfordsville involving the lover of the deceased Walter Runyan. Like Annan, this lover was also praised for her captivating eyes and delicate features.

The St. Louis Star and Times noted that Watkins enjoyed this work for a period of time “because the psychological reactions interested her.” With literary inspiration in hand, she moved to New York and worked as a movie critic for the American Yearbook. She attended Professor George Pierce Baker’s playwriting class “47” at Yale University, drafting “A Brave Little Woman.” According to The Best Plays of 1926-27, upon completing the play Watkins, “being a thorough feminist,” approached play broker Laura Wilck, who “promptly bought it for herself and announced an intention of producing it. But before she got around to this the men interfered.” Well-known producer Sam Harris soon bought and changed the play’s name to “Chicago.” Best Plays attributed the piece’s success to Watkin’s “freshness of viewpoint,” “natural gift for writing,” and “interview with a lady murderess.” The Roaring Twenties provided the perfect canvas for Watkin’s literary skills and, as the Abilene (Texas) Reporter-News noted in 1927, “No period ever left itself wider open to lampooning than this in which the absurd antics of bootlegging, publicitizing, exploitation, crime and all the rest are commonplaces.”

Clark Gable, Chicago, Maurine Watkins
Actor Clark Gable (far left) portraying a reporter in “Chicago,” courtesy of Gable Archives, accessed Clark Gable, in Pictures: Candid Images of the Actor’s Life.

The play achieved immediate stage success. According to a 1997 Chicago Tribune article, it ran for 172 Broadway performances. Its debut generated widespread anticipation and the Los Angeles Times reported in March 1927 that preparations were being made at the city’s Music Box Theater, “with stage and screen stars, literary prominents, civic officials and society leaders in attendance, the opening promises to develop into a social event.” The showing featured an undiscovered Clark Gable (who later married Hoosier actress Carole Lombard), portraying “Jake the reporter.”

Ad, Harrisburg Sunday Courier (Pennsylvania), April 29, 1928, accessed Newspapers.com.

A review published by the Pittsburgh Daily Post noted that “Chicago’s” text was “so packed with knowledge and seasoned irony that any one could picture for himself the kind of toughened old buzzard of a sob-sister who would have knocked about enough to know how to write it.” The Arizona Republic published one of the more colorful and insightful reviews of the play’s impact on the public, noting that Watkins filled her “drama with comedy of terrific realty and, with never a word of preachment . . . and sends the audiences home converted to a skepticism that can hardly fail to have important results when enough people have seen the play.” As the scintillating third act concluded, the “audience staggers home, laughed out, yet somehow sadder and wiser, and realizing with tragic wonder that tomorrow the headlines will brazen forth some new female criminal.”

The Republic suggested that Watkin’s drama could change the public’s perception about these “pretty demons.” It added that her work was a “tremendous denunciation of the sacrilege by which the juryman, who should be the wisest and sanest of our guardians, is easily turned into a blithering come-on.” And, “best of all,” the satire was written by a woman “on the folly of men in their false homage to woman, their silly efforts to protect her while she dupes them.”

Maurine Dallas Watkins, father George
Maurine with her father on a return visit to Indiana. She stayed with her parents at their farm in Clermont, Indianapolis Star, January 6, 1928, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Indianapolis Star reported that the reverend’s daughter still considered Indiana home, despite moving to New York following the success of her play. She recalled upon a return visit “‘I love it out in the country-life’s terribly complicated! You count the rings of the telephone to see if it is your number, and you have to go and meet the postman.'” The woman who wrote about a “flashy negligee of blue Georgette with imitation lace,” kept her hair “unbobbed” due to her father’s dislike of short hair.

Following the success of “Chicago,” Watkins continued to write, but never achieved the same level of literary acclaim. She was commissioned to dramatize Samuel Hopkins Adams’ novel Revelry, about the Harding administration’s Ohio Gang, for which she conducted research at the White House. In April 1927, the newspaper hired her to cover the trial of Ruth Snyder, who murdered her husband. The paper noted that Watkins, a sobless sister, would “deal with facts, without tears, in a notable author’s inimitable way, from her place at the trial table in Queens courtroom.” She reportedly moved to Hollywood, writing screenplays and articles for Cosmopolitan magazine. The author later settled in Florida, where she died of lung cancer in 1969. Watkin’s three act play cemented her legacy among the pantheon of accomplished Hoosier writers such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Booth Tarkington, I Love Lucy‘s Madelyn Pugh Davis, and Crawfordsville colleague Lew Wallace.

A Pioneer Murder Mystery

A version of this appeared in the Hamilton County Business Magazine – January 27, 2012.

When doing historical research, it’s easy to find yourself investigating unexpected paths. The murder of Benjamin Fisher is one such case. While examining the War of 1812 and its presence in Hamilton County, I came across Fisher’s story in the local histories. The more I looked at the case, which is considered the first known murder in the county, I began to wonder about many of the tales about it that have been passed down through the years.

The murder happened in Strawtown, which was a lively place at that time. It was the intersection of the Lafayette Trace – which ran from the Whitewater Valley to the Wabash River at Tippecanoe – and the trail that followed the White River from southern Indiana. The area was a convenient stopping point for travelers along the trails.  A distillery and horse racing track were among the first businesses. At this point in time, Hamilton County had not been established and the area was still part of the Delaware New Purchase.

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1908 Map of Hamilton County, Image Courtesy of My Genealogy Hound.

I was unable to locate contemporary accounts of the murder – the earliest version available is from 1874, some 53 years after the incident. Fisher himself was born in 1791 in Pennsylvania and moved to Indiana after serving in War of 1812. He was an early settler of the Fishersburg area, which would be named for him, in Madison County.

The cause of the incident was a man named Philip Shintaffer (1776-1840), who ran a tavern in Strawtown, (mostly known as a gin mill), and who made his money by selling liquor to American Indians. Later writers described him as a “notorious character.”

The standard version of the story begins in March of 1821 when Shintaffer got into an argument with one of the local Native Americans – supposedly about watering the liquor. Shintaffer knocked the Native American down and threw him into the fireplace, where he was severely burned and possibly died. The repercussions of the incident were felt in April, when Benjamin Fisher and other farmers traveled to Strawtown to get axes sharpened at Shintaffer’s (who had the only grindstone in the area). A group of American Indians, possibly Miami or Pottawatomie, came to revenge themselves on Shintaffer for his actions the month before. Armed with knives and tomahawks, they attacked the tavern. The farmers responded with axes and whatever was at hand. They held off the Native Americans until Shintaffer was wounded and Fisher brained by a tomahawk. One Native American was killed, at which point the group fled.

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Excerpt from The Good Old Times in McLean County, Illinois, Vol. 2, p. 638, image courtesy of Google Books.

This narrative has been repeated for many years. Versions exist from possibly Shintaffer himself (second- or third-hand), Benjamin’s daughter Mary Fisher Simmerman (1816-1884), and Benjamin’s son Charles Fisher (1819-1912). One might assume these are reliable sources, despite Fisher’s children being quite young when the incident occurred. However, oddities and discrepancies emerge when the story is analyzed by a historian. They include:

1) Different versions vary regarding the number of parties involved, but it generally comes out as 4 to 6 farmers holding off 8 to 12 American Indian warriors. When one farmer was down and another wounded, the Indians abandoned the attack without completing what they came to do. This is pretty impressive hand-to-hand fighting skills on the part of the farmers and seems somewhat unlikely.

2) No guns were used – the Indians allegedly wanted silence, but nothing prevented one of the farmers from stepping into the trading post and picking up a firearm.

3) For unknown reasons, Fisher was buried in Strawtown, where he died – not sent home to his family and his own property, which was only about eight miles away. There was no official burial ground at that time in Strawtown and no reason why that site would have been preferred. The grave was apparently left unmarked. Later historians would mention a “low mound” with no headstone near what would become the Strawtown Cemetery. It could possibly be located with modern archeological techniques.

4) The night after the killing, Shintaffer packed all of his goods and his family into a canoe and left the area. He followed White River to Greene County and settled there for a few years. The histories there refer to him a man of “considerable notoriety” having a “quick temper” and often being the defendant in court cases. He left there in 1832 and finally settled in Cass County, Michigan.

5) Finally, despite this being a sizable attack on an isolated settlement, no record of an official reaction has been found. There was apparently no attempt to capture the perpetrators, even though during the War of 1812, soldiers would chase Native American warriors from Franklin County all the way to the area of modern Hamilton County. In 1824, three years after the Strawtown fight, Governor Ray would call out the militia because of the fears of retaliation for the Massacre on Fall Creek. But in this case – a wholesale assault and battle involving possibly 20 people and two deaths – nothing was said or done that appeared in any official documents.

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Image courtesy of Hoosier History Live.

Some of the people who remained to tell the story were interesting characters. Shintaffer himself was probably the source of the account written down in 1874. One of the alleged participants was Jacob Hire, although he’s not named in the earliest versions. He has a shadowy background and was sometimes partner with Shintaffer in business. He was the person who built the distillery and horse racing track. Later, he became Overseer of the Poor for White River Township, (he had apparently built up a good client base). Another alleged participant was Jacob Colip, but he is also not mentioned in the earliest versions and there is no record of his being in Hamilton County until 1823. No other participants are named.

Charles Fisher, the son of Benjamin, was two years old at the time of the attack. While he was too young to have witnessed anything, he told this story often. He was known for his stories. For example, he said that he had the powder horn that his father carried in the War of 1812. He also said that he had the tomahawk that his father was killed with. And he also said that he had pieces of his father’s skull from the attack and would show these pieces to visitors. (As a side note, Charles was also one of first to say that Strawtown was named for the Delaware Chief Straw, a person that modern historians have found no evidence actually existed.)

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the final analysis, many of the stories don’t appear to hold up and it’s not clear what actually happened. Native Americans have been accused of this crime for over 190 years, even though they gained nothing from it – not even revenge. With the signing of the Treaty of St. Mary’s in 1818, the American Indians were already leaving the state, so the motives in all cases seem a little unclear.  No other possibilities seem to have been considered – including the short-tempered, violent man who fled the area immediately after the killing. No matter what else may have happened, Benjamin Fisher was in the wrong place at the wrong time and left a conundrum for future historians.