Belva Gaertner - The REAL Velma Kelly

Belva Gaetner, the REAL Velma Kelly told a flock of reporters.  “No sweetheart in the world is worth killing – especially when you’ve had a flock of them, and the world knows it.  Why, it’s silly to say that I murdered Walter.  I liked him and he loved me – but 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.” 

Belva was born Belva Eleanora Boosinger, September 14, 1884.  She was a cabaret singer and dancer that went by the stage name Belle Brown.  At some point she married a man named Overbrook.    June 4, 1917, she met William Gaertner while riding on the bridle paths of Washington and Jackson Parks.  They often rode and galloped together until at one-point Belva was riding one of William’s 15 horses.  There was one problem with this romance, Belva was married.  Her husband had deserted her but they were still married.

William and Belva's Rocky Marriage

Belva and William Marriage 2

William Gaertner was 20 years older than Belva and a manufacturer of scientific instruments, and also wealthy.   Guess where they eloped?  That’s right Crown Point, Indiana!  They then took a five-day honeymoon to West Baden.  He had the marriage annulled 5 months later after he found out that she had not been divorced from Overbrook for a year, they were only divorced on April 27, 1917.  If you recall from the May and Freddie story, at that time in Illinois you had to be divorced for a year or more to remarry. 

During the annulment petition from William, Belva filed her own petition, asking for alimony.  William’s attorneys argued that as their marriage was not legal there should be no alimony.   Belva was denied alimony.  As soon as her divorce was finalized they remarried.

In 1920, eight private detectives are living with William and Belva.  William filed for divorce and asked Belva to leave.  When she refused to leave, he called the police.  The police refused to get involved.  William then hired a private detective to watch the house.  Belva then hired one to watch the one William hired.  William then hired a second one, and so did Belva calling him an assistant.  William added two more and so did Belva.  She was consistently followed by eight detectives everywhere she went, to the theater, shopping and even to the mailbox.

In the divorce trial, William reported that Belva had been gone for three days and told William that she was staying with a woman friend.  On the night of March 30, 1920 William and one of the detectives trailed her to the home of Edward Lusk.  Belva did not contest the divorce and was awarded $3,000 which is about $40,000 today, her car, and some furniture which included a billiard table.

Belva driving taxi

So, in July, 1920 Belva Gaertner got all the licenses she needed, installed a meter, bought a uniform, and became in her words a “chauffeurette”.  

“You see, my divorce left me with $3,000, my car, my furniture and a billiard table.  Well, I just can’t take orders from anyone.  Therefore, I can’t hold down a job.  I must be my own boss.  So, I decided that as a taxi driver I’d be my own boss, make enough to live on, and still have the pleasure of my car.  But I shall not drive at night and I won’t make trips into the suburbs.  There are too many holdup men. “

Did Belva Gaertner kill Walter Law?

Belva William and Walter

Belva and Walter Law had been partying for more than 3 months, his wife Freda knew nothing about it.  The newspapers at the time described it as “wild gin parties” and “jazz”.  But, in the early morning of March 12, 1924 Walter Law’s dead body was found in Belva’s car.  Shot in the head by the right temple with a gin bottle on the floor.  

When the police got to Belva’s apartment she was in a robe with bloody clothes dumped on the floor.  The police traced the license plate on the car and went to Belva’s apartment where they found her drunk and hysterical with bloody clothes dropped on the floor.  She said she was too drunk to remember what happened.  So, the police take her to the police station hoping to sober her up and get the details of what happened.

As Belva Gaertner describes the evening, “On our way to my home we began talking about stickup men.  I told Law we were taking an awful risk going home so late.  Think of it, I said, What if some bandit stopped and robbed us and maybe tried to get rough with me?  What would we do?  Our conversations drifted along these lines for some time.”

Then I said,” I’ll bet I’m a better shooter than you are.  I suggested jokingly that we toss up a coin and that the winner shoot the loser.  I said if the winner missed the loser the latter would get a chance to shoot, and vice versa until one of us was shot.  There were nine bullets in the pistol.  

“And then — oh, I just don’t know what happened.  I was too drunk.  I remember seeing him collapse over the wheel, but I had no idea what was the matter. 

“Walter! Walter! I called, but he did not answer me or move.  Then I tried to pull him out of the driver’s seat so that I could drive the car home, but I couldn’t budge him, he was so limp.  His head fell on my arms and that’s how my clothing came to be spattered with blood.  I became frightened and ran into the house. ” 

Walter Laws family

The Inquest

An inquest was held, where Belva Gaertner and Walter’s widow finally meet each other.    Freda Law was called into the police station to give a statement.  Freda, Belva and Walter’s father sat around a table with the police.  Freda claimed that Walter was a good husband, Belva a courteous escort. 

Walter’s father put part of the blame on Walter, “No daughter, it’s not that woman’s fault entirely.  Walter ought not to have gone out with anyone.  He had a lovely wife and a fine baby.  No, he did wrong and we know it.” 

Belva is plainly gowned even though she is wearing seven diamond rings.  She complains that her best coat, her white hat, and green dress are ruined with blood, so she is just wearing a brown dress, black coat with a fur collar and a brown hat. 

Freda too is dressed plainly, she had spent the night before in her home sewing curtains, alone.  “I sat up waiting for Walter.  He had phoned at dinner time and asked me if I wanted to go out, but I said I had to sew.  So he told me he was going to work.  I waited up for him.  About 2 in the morning I saw a taxicab stop next door.  I thought Walter was drunk and going to the wrong house.  But, the next minute, the man came to my door and told me my husband had been killed. 

“At first, I felt sorry for that other woman,” she says pointing at Belva, “because she was guilty of killing and everything.

Belva Gaertner

“But did you see her come in?  She was almost giggling.  Oh, I never knew I could hate anyone so much.  My friends told me they hope she hangs.  No, I don’t want her to hang.  But I don’t want her to go to jail for a month or two and then step out.” 

Belva sitting a few seats away explains, “Walter never did get along with his wife.  He often told me that if it weren’t for his little boy he would never live with her. ” 

Freda responds, “He was so good and he was so fond of the boy, Walter Jr.  the very image of his father.  What will I tell the baby when he begins to ask questions?  What will I tell him?” 

Freda then starts insisting that she had no suspicion that Walter was seeing someone else.  She also stated that he was rarely not at home in the evenings.   

Belva responds, “Why, sometimes he’d take me out three evenings a month.  And at least once a month since we met in December.” 

In response to the auto salesman Paul Goodwin’s statement that Walter had bought more life insurance because he was afraid of Belva Gaertner, her response was, “I’ll tell you the truth about that insurance.  A few weeks ago, Wallie told me his wife had had her fortune told and the woman warned her that her husband would die inside of seven weeks.  But Wallie told her that he would tie up the insurance so that his wife couldn’t get a penny from it.   He said that he would have it all made out to his son.” 

Belva and Beulah and attorneys

William comes back to save Belva

Belva is indicted in Walter Law’s death.  No bail was set.  Before the guards could take Belva back to jail, William shows up and promises her whatever she needs.  He tells her that he has hired three attorneys.

Beulah, Belva and Sabella appear before Judge William Lindsay to set trial dates.  Belva, “The most stylish”, went first and had her trial postponed.  Beulah, “The most beautiful”, too had her trial postponed.  Sabella is very happy as she is to have a new trial, the first one she was found guilty and sentenced to hang, more on Sabella later.

Belva’s attorneys have a hearing before Judge William J. Lindsay and future US Attorney General Andy Wysznski, to argue motions.  Judge Lindsay overruled both of the defense’s motions, the first to prevent the use of Belva’s car as evidence, and the second to prevent the use of fingerprint evidence from the car to be used.  The trial was then continued.

The first day of the trial and jury selection begins.  Comments from the people in the courtroom to watch were,

“Say she’s got the Annan girl skinned by a mile!” to which the response was,

“Not so pretty, but more class.” 

Classy is how the newspapers, Maurine Watkins in particular described Belva Gaertner.  Referring to Belva as “The most Stylish” on Murderess Row and describing her outfit as classy, a blue twill suit with black braid and a lacy frill down the front, patent leather slippers with shimmering French heals, chiffon gun metal hose, and a helmet shaped hat with a silver buckle and a cockade of ribbon with one streamer tied jauntily under her chin.  Obviously, the hat made quite the impression as  Samuel Hamilton, the assistant state attorney asked one of the prospective jurors “Would you let a stylish hat make you find her ‘Not Guilty’?”

The trial

Belva confers with Attorneys

Belva wore a new dress to the trial.  Café-au-lait braded in black with bell shaped sleeves and deep cuffs that clung to the curves of her body, the cloche hat was a deeper brown that matched both her eyes and the mink choker she wore.  Only her gloveless hands with painted nails, showed her nervousness.  The state tried to prove that she was not too drunk to remember. 

The trial begins.  Opening statement was made by the prosecution but waived by the defense. 

The first witness was the coroner, Joseph Springer.  He testified to examining the body at 4:55 am on March 12, 1924 and stated that there were no powder burns where the bullet had entered the right temple.  “A gun has to be within 15 inches to leave a powder burn.” he stated. 

Hamilton then asked if the absence of powder burns ruled out suicide and Dr. Springer agreed. 

In the cross-examination Michael Ahern tried to get the doctor to place the pistol at the presumed angle and distance, while he said that Law could have committed suicide.  Dr. Springer vehemently disagreed. 

Dr. Springer also identified the empty gin bottle that had been lying on the floor of the car. 

Belva and Lawyers

Next up were the policemen that found the body.  Sergeant Quinn and Patrolman Fitzgerald testified as to finding the dead body and of locating the owner of the car by the license plate.  Detective William Sullivan went to the address from the vehicle registration and found Belva Gaertner in a robe with bloody clothes on the floor. 

Belva sat passively as he described all of this but did become annoyed when he tried to describe her clothes.  Apparently, the bloody clothing consisted of a mashed hat, rumpled coat, dress, and flimsy slippers. 

Next came Bert Brown the floorman of the Gingham Inn.  He said that Belva and Walter had come to the Inn five or six times prior to the night of the murder.  According to Brown, the Gingham neither sells, serves, or allows patrons to bring their own alcohol in to the cabaret, so that anyone that entered sober would have left sober.  The defense attorney accused him of saying that to protect his place of employment.  Their next witness was Alfred Quodbach, the proprietor of the Gingham Inn. 

Quodbach stated that they were “Perfectly sober.” 

The next witness was William Leathers  the head waiter at the Gingham Inn.  Leathers testified that “I wish that I had always been as sober as they were that night.”

Belva in court day 1

The final witness was Freda Lay, William’s widow.   The defense waived their opening statement, called no witnesses, and waived their closing statement.    The defense attorneys asked to have the charges dropped as the state had not proved their case.  

Judge Lindsay ruled, “I haven’t the power to tell the state’s attorney what to do, and therefore deny the motion.  But if the jury should bring a verdict of guilty, I am confident that the Supreme Court of Illinois would reverse the decision, as the evidence is only circumstantial: strong enough to arouse suspicion of guilt but not to convict.”

Why are they taking so long Belva asked herself as she paced around smoking cigarettes waiting for the jury to return.   

Finally, after 7 hours and 8 ballots the jury returns with a not guilty verdict. Belva hugs her attorneys and shakes hands with the jury thanking them.  Belva packs up her extensive wardrobe and leaves the jail intending to spend a few days of quite with her sister.

Belva and husband divorce

Belva Gaertner Life after Murder

About a year later, on May 2, 1925, Belva and William are remarried.  They honeymoon in Europe.

Belva Gaertner charges Billie Ryan with stealing her jewelry.  Detective WJ Riley and Police Officer Marion Arbuckle accompanied Belva to Walley Farm to arrest Billie.  Billie was visiting Belva in April and took Belva’s jewelry leaving her own which was much less valuable.  The jewelry was not found at the farm and Billie denies having taken it.  Billie and two other women from Chicago had just rented the Walley farm and moved in that morning.

About a month later, Billie Ryan returns to her farm because the cows and pigs need her attention.  Fay Seifer and Jean Ross her roommates are being held on $1,000 bail a piece instead.  Judge Immenhausen said he couldn’t bear the thought of the cows and pigs going hungry.   The three women pleaded guilty at their arraignment.  Fay Seifer was a former maid for Belva.  It was Fay who decided to take some of Belva’s rings and leave cheap ones in their place.  The police say that Belva’s rings have been pawned at least twice since they were stolen by the “Farmerettes”.  They have promised to make restitution to Belva.

William files for divorce #3.  Belva, who’s defense was “I was too drunk to remember.” began leading a wild life.  He claims that she was drunk almost every night and had engaged in numerous love affairs.  Belva also became abusive.  Once when William reproached her for her drinking, she hit him over the head with a mirror.  William then claims that on July 5, 1926 he arrived home to find another man in his apartment.  He asked what was going on and Belva began screaming and threatening murder.  William was so scared he locked himself in his room until they left, and he hadn’t returned to his house. 

Apparently, this divorce was never finalized, because in 1948 when William passed away, Belva was still noted in his will as his wife.  William Gaertner dies on December 3, 1948.  He had $25, 000, $250,000 in today’s money that he left to Belva.  

The main portion of his estate, the Gaertner Corporation was placed in a living trust.  Under the trust Belva got the income from the corporation for life.  After she passed the income would go to the University of Chicago for scholarships and other uses in physics and astronomy.  For 21 years after Belva’s death the University must keep the Corporation running as a business, after 21 years they can sell it or do whatever they want with it.  His attorney said that the main reason he did this was to guarantee jobs for his current staff, a lot of whom were veterans.

After William’s death, Belva moved to Pasadena, California to live with her sister.  She died in 1965 from natural causes.  She was 80 years old.

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