Ragtime was new and exciting in 1913, so when a real-life ragtime murder punctuated the rhythm people flocked to read newspaper accounts of the “Ragtime Murder Trial,” as it was headlined.

The lady with the smoking gun was Annie Gross, 29, a strikingly beautiful black actress. Her black husband, Harry Gross, was one of the cast of the American musical called The Ragtime Dancers, and Annie was accused of murdering his white mistress.

The mistress, Jessie Tricks, was a prostitute, but one who made such big money that naive, poorly paid Harry Gross was completely dazzled by her. So much so, in fact, that Harry told his wife he didn’t want to live with her any more. The easy way of life with Jessie, he affirmed, was much more rewarding.

On NOVEMBER 30th, 1913, Harry Gross and Jessie Tricks threw a party at their home in Coram Street, Bloomsbury. According to the prosecution at her trial, Annie Gross gatecrashed the party, stole upstairs and hid under Jessie Tricks’s bed.

At 2.15 Jessie left the party and went upstairs to her room. Almost at once shots rang out and the last remaining guests came out of the kitchen to see Annie running down the stairs, revolver in hand, and shouting, “Stand clear!” She aimed the gun at her husband and pulled the trigger. But the chamber was empty. She had pumped all five shots into Jessie Tricks.

The story told at Annie’s trial on her behalf was, however, somewhat different. She claimed she went to the house to see her husband about some letters and was set upon by him and some of his guests. They were intent on murdering her, she said, and she fired the gun in self-defence. Jessie Tricks was hit accidentally.

It was argued that if a woman shot at her husband in self-defence and mistakenly killed a third person, then the charge should be manslaughter.

After Annie told of how her husband continually ill-treated her, the jury were won over. They found her not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter.

The judge’s comments were almost pure ragtime. “It isn’t for me to reconcile the verdict with the evidence,” he said slowly. “I accept the verdict of the jury, though I could not attempt to agree with it.” And he sentenced Annie, the lady with the smoking gun, to five years in jail.