Historical research can be an intimate undertaking for a writer. Reading someone’s diary and personal letters, or even paging through smudged, hand-written police logs, bring home with real power how you’re dealing not just with your imagination, but with actual human beings.
The Girls of Murder City is about a series of murders by Chicago women in 1924, an epidemic celebrated and driven by the city’s daily papers. I work at a newspaper, but the “hot type” era was long gone before I joined the biz. Needless to say, we work in bits and bytes now, with words flying through the ether to reach their destination. No longer do the windows vibrate at 6 p.m. when the printing press starts up for the early edition. The press no longer needs to be in the same building as the newsroom, so it was removed from the basement years ago in favor of an upgraded facility out in the ’burbs. The newsroom is much like any other office environment, with cubicles and computers and David Brent types wearing khaki.
Back in 1924, it was a very different scene. As a 1960 industrial film about the news business put it, “A newspaper is 10 percent editorial, 90 percent light engineering.” The centerpiece of that 90 percent was the Linotype, which revolutionized the industry in the late-1800s. Basically a typewriter suitable for Godzilla, this machine allowed small teams of men to quickly and accurately set page after page of metal type. Before the Linotype, newspapers were little more than pamphlets, for each page had to be set by hand. The Linotype meant a newspaper now could be as large, and with as many editions each day, as advertising and circulation could make economically feasible.
I got to see one up close – this particular one was manufactured in 1947 – and have it demonstrated for me. It’s an ingenious machine, classic industrial-age innovation, with gears spinning and mechanical arms swinging back and forth. Oh, and a pot of 550-degree molten metal strapped onto the back! Thanks to the Linotype and other 19th century mechanical marvels, a newsroom in 1924 wasn’t an office at all but a factory – a news factory. Linotype machines clicked away constantly, steam tables hissed, pneumatic tubes popped. It all produced a pounding, inescapable noise that lasted throughout the day and deep into the night.
No wonder reporters stayed away from the newsroom as much as possible, instead spending their days – and even writing up their stories – at the courthouse, the local police station or, of course, the speakeasy.