What would I tell the people who just let themselves in the garden apartment a few doors down from mine? What would I say if they asked why I was standing in the cold on an unshoveled sidewalk, staring at their house?
“A killer lived here,” is what I would say, the only thing I could. “Her name was Wanda. And I want to know everything about her.”
It means “Mother, dear mother” in Polish. It was found written on a piece of paper in the Detroit hotel room where Wanda Stopa killed herself in 1924.
At some point, Yen Kenley shipped his mistress Wanda to New York. His little “Polka,” the lovestruck Polish girl of 24 who climbed into the 37-year-old Y. Kenley Smith’s open marriage, was too much to handle. She wanted Yen to leave his wife Doodles. Yen didn’t want to do that, just keep sleeping with both of them.
So, New York. Then on April 24, 1924, back to Chicago in secret came Wanda Stopa. Then to a cab. Then to the Smiths’ Palos Park home with a gun.
Monday’s readers know what happened. Doodles lived. The gardener died. Wanda ran.
It was a scandal. Sex, drugs, “bohemia” and a brilliant female lawyer turned to crime by the inopportune application of the first three. “Live your own life” was Wanda’s cry to the artistic world. But where had it taken her?
Where was Wanda, the little girl from Little Poland who had so much potential and was so very pretty? Where was her husband, who married her and skipped town, who said he was a Russian count but may have been a bootlegger? And what of Doodles and Yen and their Tower Town community of artists and hangers-on and gin and dope? What a mess! What a story!
The story ended for Wanda Stopa in a Detroit hotel room she checked into using her married name. She left some of Yen’s letters to his sweet Polka. She left $100 to $150 in cash, a 1000-mark Polish government bond, a $200 life insurance policy made out to her mother, a piece of paper where she wrote “Matka, droga matka” and a dead body. That’s what she left behind in that room.
“Yes, it’s better to be dead than to be added to that list of women held for murder over at the county jail,” her brother Henry would tell a reporter back on Augusta Street (now boulevard) a few days later.
He was talking about Belva Gaertner, Beulah Annan, Sabella Nitti and Kitty Malm in Cook County’s “Murderess Row.” A man named Douglas Perry would later write an excellent book about all of them.
Wanda Stopa’s visitation became an event. Gawker crowds of 10,000 swarmed her street, the street where I now live, to see the pretty killer the papers made them think they knew. The police had to be called. I wrote about that on Monday.
The gardener’s name was Henry Manning. The crowds didn’t love him, just his killer.
A reporter named Maurine Watkins talked with Wanda’s mother as the crowds raged outside. Watkins would later write this, as recorded in Perry’s excellent book:
And Wanda came home at last.
“Bohemian freedom,” morphine and love, murder, suicide, and then—back in the Little Poland she had deserted for Chicago’s Bohemia; back with the mother and brothers she had left for a glamorous “count” who married her, and for a business man who didn’t; back with the friends “a thousand years behind the times” she had forsaken for others “who speak my language and understand.”
The woman who wanted to live her own life ended it in a hotel room in Detroit. Matka, droga matka.
Hi. It’s Paul from down the block. A lot’s changed since you died. There’s a Mexican restaurant on the corner now and drinking and fucking are just what you’re supposed to do. Drugs are what you did in college. Your rebellion is our norm.
I mean, still stay clear of married men and don’t pull that crap when you’re married yourself, but “living your own life” is just now how it’s done.
It’s nicer now. No one will freak out seeing a lady lawyer. You sort of helped get us there. Thanks?
The reporter who talked with your mother as the mob of thousands tried to force their way in your house wrote a play. Did you know that? She called it “Chicago.” They made a musical of it after she died.
Belva Gaertner became “Velma Kelly.” Beulah Annan, the reporter named “Roxie Hart.” The other murder ladies are there too. Sabella Nitti became “Moonshine Maggie.” Kitty Malm became “Go-to-Hell Kitty.”
You’re not there, though. This historian guy Douglas Perry thinks it’s because your story’s too sad.
The play was a comedy. I should have mentioned that.
I’m glad you’re not in the play. Even in death, you never joined Murderess Row. Your brother Henry would be happy.
That old lodger Yen probably used to bitch about – that Hemingway guy? He went on to do some stuff too.
I guess I should get to why I’m writing. I’m writing because you’re pretty. That hasn’t changed. There’s killer after killer in this blood-soaked town. And they all have stories, amazing or sad or, like yours, both. But I’m not writing about them decades after the fact. I’m writing about you, Yen’s pretty Polka.
Henry Manning, the guy you killed when trying to gun Doodles, he died trying to save a woman’s life. I should be writing about him.
But like the 10,000 on our street, like the newspapermen and the rapt readers and the sob sister Maurine (who called herself “Mary Sunshine” in that play I mentioned), I’m just stuck on a pretty face. Ninety years later.
I’m glad we were neighbors, Wanda from down the block. I’m glad we shared this place, if not time. You’re part of my city. Part of my neighborhood. Part of the scent and flavor of this particular community.
Your story’s sad, Wanda Stopa. But I’m glad I know it.
Your neighbor Paul
More lost Chicago history:
- 1920s jazzmen in a hardware store back office
- The Black Belt’s king in an old restaurant review
- The dean of Chicago truckmen on the side of a garage
- The father of modern dentistry in a field in Lincoln Park