Belva Gaertner (September 14, 1884 – May 14, 1965), was a woman who was acquitted in a 1924 murder trial. She inspired the fictional character Velma Kelly/Velma Wall in the play Chicago created by Maurine Dallas Watkins; Watkins reported on the trial for the Chicago Tribune. The character also appears in the musical based on the play.
Belva Gaertner was born Belva Eleanora Boosinger on September 14, 1884, in Litchfield, Illinois to Mary Jane (née Clark) and Charles M. Boosinger. She was a three-time divorced cabaret singer who used the professional name Belle Brown. Her first marriage was to a Mr. Overbeck. In 1917, she married William Gaertner, who was 20 years her elder and a wealthy industrialist, in Crown Point, Indiana. Five months later, William Gaertner successfully sued to have the marriage annulled, claiming that Belva's divorce to Overbeck hadn't been finalized. They were married a second time, but by the time Belva was accused of murder, they were separated.
On March 11, 1924, Belva Gaertner allegedly shot and killed her lover Walter Law, a married man with one child. Law was found sprawled in the front seat of Gaertner's car with a bottle of gin and a gun lying beside him. Gaertner, found later at her apartment with blood-soaked clothes on the floor, confessed that she was drunk and was driving with Law, but couldn't remember what happened.
Gaertner was arrested for the murder of Law in Chicago on March 12, 1924, and admitted to drinking with Law at various bars and jazz houses, saying she carried a gun for fear of robbers.
One of Law's co-workers testified that Law had confided that Gaertner was a possessive lover who had threatened him with a knife when he tried to leave her, and that Law believed she would kill him one day.
Gaertner told Maurine Dallas Watkins: "No woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren't worth it, because there are always plenty more. Walter was just a kid—29 and I'm 38. Why should I have worried whether he loved me or whether he left me? Gin and guns—either one is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess, don't they?" Gaertner was defended by William Scott Stewart.
Gaertner's defense was that Law might have killed himself with the gun. She was acquitted in June 1924.
In 1925, following her acquittal, she remarried William Gaertner again. In 1926, Gaertner filed for divorce again, claiming she was abusive and an alcoholic. On July 5, Gaertner claimed his wife threatened to murder him after he found her with another man. She was convicted of drunk driving in November 1926.
By 1930, she and Gaertner had moved to Europe. Following William Gaertner's death on December 2, 1948, in Wilmette, Illinois, Belva moved to Pasadena, California and lived with her sister, Ethel Kraushaar. She died of natural causes on May 14, 1965, at the age of 80.
Stage and screen adaptations
Gaertner attended the 1927 opening of Watkins's play Chicago in Chicago, Illinois. The play has since been adapted into a 1927 silent film, 1975 stage musical, and 2002 movie musical (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture), all by that name, as well as the 1942 romantic comedy film Roxie Hart.
Velma Kelly, the 1975 musical character inspired by her, won Bebe Neuwirth the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for its acclaimed 1996 revival; it also won Catherine Zeta-Jones the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the 2002 film based on it. The character was known as simply "Velma" in the 1927 film and as "Velma Wall" in the 1942 film; both were lesser characters in comparison to Velma Kelly as well as Roxie Hart, the Beulah Annan-inspired character who appeared in all versions of Chicago.
- Thomas H. Pauly (Ed.): Chicago: With the Chicago Tribune Articles that Inspired It. Southern Illinois University 1997. ISBN 0-8093-2129-7