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Lt. Charles S. Becker
The shocking story of a corrupt New York City police lieutenant who was sent to the electric chair by a politically ambitious prosecuting attorney. The story of Lt. Charles S. Becker is a compelling story of corruption and betrayal, ambition and final dignity.
by Mark S. Gado
In the history of the United States, there has been relatively few police officers convicted and executed for a crime. One such officer was Charles Becker, a high-profile lieutenant for the New York City Police Department during the heydays of Tammany Hall, who was convicted of murder. His execution didn’t end that storied era of corruption, but it sharply punctuated it by giving it flesh and bones. His trial and re-trial were the biggest to ever hit New York. Before this case would close, it would leave the New York City Police Department in a shambles and create a worldwide sensation. For three years it would dominate the headlines of a frenzied press.
Caught in the whirlwind of reform that was decades in the making, Becker was a victim of his time as much as anything else. Whether or not he was actually guilty remains an open question. Yet his sinister ties with The Tenderloin underworld cannot be denied. If he had tried to defend himself on the stand, perhaps the outcome would have been different, but it is doubtful. Becker had much against him: a blindly ambitious District Attorney who astutely saw a death sentence for Becker as a free pass to the Governor’s Mansion, a hostile press dedicated to the ruin of a corrupt police lieutenant, and a devil’s pact hatched in New York vilest prison, The Tombs, by three desperate killers eager to trade Becker’s life to save themselves from the electric chair.
In 1912 when Becker went on trial, New York City was engulfed by the great tide of immigrants that had swept over the eastern shores of America. From distant, oppressed lands they poured into this dream of a country where it was boasted that men could live free and the streets were paved with gold. Hundreds of thousands of refugees crammed into Manhattan tenements, bringing their own language, customs and traditions. In the process they changed forever the very society they longed to join.
But not even a city as big as New York could absorb this tidal wave of people in its work force. Many immigrants were forced to take the most menial jobs for the lowest pay. In doing so, they gave birth to two new socioeconomic classes: the working poor and the unemployed. Street gangs began to appear among the vast tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. They were made up of local thugs and street toughs who came to exert their influence far beyond their own neighborhoods. They were the forerunners of organized crime families that would dominate the city in the decades to come.
Crime in the streets was only one side of the coin. The notorious Tammany Hall era was the other, and it was in full swing. Political corruption was not only tolerated, it had become a part of the fabric of New York life, especially in The Tenderloin District. Like the cut of beef, The Tenderloin was supposed to be the best part of Manhattan. It had glittering lights, theaters, saloons, dance halls, famous restaurants, hotels, newly erected skyscrapers and gambling casinos. Its narrow streets were clogged with a strange mixture of horse-drawn carts and smoky, motor-driven carriages.
The Tenderloin, the area now known as Times Square, which is centered at 42nd Street and Broadway, had hundreds of gambling casinos and was under siege by a virtual army of prostitutes. Some estimates put the number of streetwalkers as high as 30,000. Since prostitution and gambling were illegal, it was common practice for pimps and casino owners to seek protection from prosecution by paying off the Police Department. The police, in turn, colluded openly with politicians at City Hall. The casino owners who refused to pay were promptly raided and put out of business.
Public corruption was nothing new to New York. It had been going on for decades, interrupted now and then when an outraged citizenry called for reform. Under Tammany Hall, though, corruption reached its apex. From the lowly cop on the street to the highest echelons of City Hall itself, money talked. No city permit could be secured, no building could start and no business could open unless the right person received his payoff. Graft permeated every level of the bureaucratic structure. At its foundation was the New York City Police Department, rotten to its core.
Into this jungle of graft, Charles Becker would maneuver himself to center stage. Originally from Sullivan County in upstate New York, he grew tired of country life and moved to the big city in 1888. Tall and handsome, Becker was a powerfully built man with huge shoulders. He got his first job as a bartender on the Bowery, but soon graduated to bouncer, earning a reputation as a fearsome fighter. There Becker made his first contact with the underworld when he met Monk Eastman, a deranged killer who ruled a vicious gang of murderers and outlaws.
Monk’s trademark was a sawed-off baseball bat that he used on the skulls of his adversaries. Through this friendship, Becker met other criminals, including several politicians. One of these was Big Tim Sullivan, a state senator, who was regarded as the King of the Tenderloin and the overseer of all graft and bribery in Manhattan. Sullivan took a liking to Becker, and in 1893, arranged for Becker’s entry into the Police Department.
As a police officer, Becker had a checkered career; several times he was investigated and brought to departmental trials on charges of brutality and false arrest. In 1896 he mistakenly shot and killed an innocent bystander while chasing a burglar. To make matters worse, Becker attempted to cover up the blunder by trying to pass off the dead man as a known burglar. He was suspended for 30 days. In 1898, Becker jumped into the Hudson River to rescue a drowning man. The newspapers declared him a hero and for a week he basked in glory. But then the man suddenly came forward and said that Becker had promised to pay him $15 to jump in the river just so Becker could play the hero. Again he was the subject of controversy. The Police Department transferred him to the 16th Precinct, The Tenderloin, plunging him into the depths of the corruption cesspool.
At the 16th in January 1907, Commissioner Theodore Bingham promoted Becker to sergeant, a reward for assisting the commissioner in an earlier investigation. Becker welcomed the opportunity. It led shortly to his becoming the bagman for the precinct captain. Becker’s cut was 10 percent of the take. In the first year he made $8,000. While at the 16th he also met Helen Lynch, a Manhattan school teacher he would soon marry.
Then in 1910, Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo, a 35-year-old ex-Army man, formed special squads to break up the street gangs that ruled Lower Manhattan. Becker was made commander of one of those teams. Satisfied with their performance, Waldo expanded their duties to include crackdowns of the West Side gambling dens. Instead, Becker used his squad as a rough-and-tumble strike force to shake down the casino owners. Becker’s power quickly grew; casino owners cringed at the mere mention of his name. For those who defied him, revenge was swift, and often final.
Soon the operation became too big for Becker to handle alone. He hired Big Jack Zelig, a known murderer who took over part of the Monk Eastman gang after Eastman was gunned down outside a Manhattan bar by unknown killers. Zelig used his boys to make the collection rounds. One of them was Harry "Gyp the Blood" Horowitz. His specialty was to place the recalcitrant in his lap and break the man’s back, a lesson he often put on display in East Side saloons. Gyp the Blood frequented these clubs with his sidekicks, Lefty Louie, Dago Frank and Whitey Lewis. Together they had little trouble enforcing Becker’s rules over the Broadway gambling dens.
Becker’s undoing was set in motion in the summer of 1912 when a low-level gambler named Hertman "Beansie" Rosenthal was given permission by State Sen. Big Tim Sullivan to open a new casino at 104 W. 45th St named the Hesper Club. On opening night, Becker called on Rosenthal to lay down the groundwork for future payoffs. Rosenthal balked, telling Becker that this was Big Tim Sullivan’s territory and no payments would be made to Zelig’s men. Becker relented for a while. But when Sullivan became gravely ill and unable to run the show any longer, Becker swiftly reasserted himself. Rosenthal still refused to pay. Becker then sent Bald Jack Rose, a well-known gangster who had already killed several men, to station himself inside the club and skim off 20 percent of the casino’s take. Instead of cowering to Bald Jack Rose, as Becker had assumed, Rosenthal began to complain loudly to Tammany Hall politicians, saying he would not stand for such shoddy treatment at the hands of a renegade cop.
Meanwhile, Becker was receiving pressure from Police Commissioner Waldo to raid The Hesper. Waldo had received many complaints about the club and wondered how it stayed in business without Becker being aware of it. Finally, Becker struck. He raided the club and shut it down. To add insult to injury, he assigned a uniform cop inside the Hesper day and night to see that it remained closed. Rosenthal was insane with rage. He paid a visit to District Attorney Charles Whitman, an ambitious lawyer who had political aspirations beyond his current office. Of Whitman, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter would later write: "He was a politically minded district attorney, one of the great curses of America."
On the night of July 15, 1912, Rosenthal went to the District Attorney’s office to meet with Whitman. Whitman was elated that an underworld figure had at last come forward. He knew what Rosenthal was telling him about Becker was political dynamite. Whitman told Rosenthal he would convene a Grand Jury to hear the case. After meeting with Whitman, Rosenthal left the Criminal Courts building at 11 p.m. and headed to the Cafe Metropole on W. 43rd St, a local hangout for gamblers. News of Rosenthal’s meeting with the D.A. had already spread throughout the Tenderloin. Newspaper in hand, Rosenthal walked into the Metropole, took a seat alone in the back of the room and began to read. There was an eerie silence; no one would talk to Rosenthal. A few minutes before 2 a.m., a waiter approached him.
"There’s someone in front to see you, Beansie" he said. Rosenthal folded his paper, arose from his seat and walked to the front door. In the dimly lit street, he saw several men lurking in the shadows to his left.
"Over here Beansie!" one of them said. As he moved closer, four quick shots rang out. Rosenthal collapsed to the sidewalk. One of the killers strolled over to the body, aimed a pistol at Rosenthal’s head and fired one shot into it. The gunmen then raced across the street to the getaway car, jumped in and roared off down 43rd Street.
Several police walking a beat nearby heard the shots and began running toward the scene from Broadway. The Metropole emptied out and a large crowd began to form around the body. Within minutes, news of the shooting swept through The Tenderloin. Thousands converged on the scene. Reporters from every newspaper were dispatched. Meanwhile, the killers escaped down 6th Avenue even though police had commandeered a passing auto and had given chase.
The next day Whitman complained that the police had made a "pretense" of pursuing the murderers, a charge the New York Times gave full play the following morning in bold-type headlines on its front page: "Whitman Points to the Police!" and "Insists It isn’t Gambler’s Work!" Two weeks later, The Nation said: "The police with all their detective resources were unable or unwilling to run down the criminals concerned in this astounding assassination."
Since it was common knowledge that Rosenthal was ratting on Lt. Becker to the D.A. just hours before he was murdered, it was generally and widely assumed that Becker was the killer. Conveniently for Becker, however, he was home in bed at the time of the shooting, and alibi that was later corroborated by a newspaperman who said he had telephoned Becker’s home shortly after the murder and had spoken with Becker about the murder.
During his own investigation, Whitman found that several witnesses had noticed the license number of the getaway car. It was traced to Boulevard Taxi Service at 2nd Avenue and 10th Street. Records there showed the car had been leased to Bald Jack Rose, Becker’s collection man. The actual driver was William Shapiro, a small-time hood with minor connections to The Tenderloin underworld. Whitman also discovered that Bridgey Webber and Harry Vallon, former opium dealers from Chinatown, were seen hanging around the Metropole a few minutes before the shooting and that it was Vallon who sent the message inside the bar for Rosenthal. Based on this information, Webber and Vallon were arrested.
Two days after being implicated in the killing, Bald Jack Rose surrendered to the D.A. Through Rose, Whitman found out where Shapiro was hiding. When he was jailed, Shapiro denied any complicity in the killing. Whitman had to act fast. He knew the Police Department would sabotage the investigation to protect one of its own, particularly a powerful lieutenant such as Becker. In exchange for information, he gave Rose, Webber, Vallon and Shapiro immunity. Shapiro then confessed. He admitted that he drove the Packard that carried the killers to the Metropole. He identified the men in the car with him as Louis "Lefty" Rosenberg, Frank "Dago Frank" Cirofici, Jacob "Whitey Lewis" Seidenschmer and Harry "Gyp the Blood" Horowitz. All were rounded up by the police and thrown into The Tombs, Manhattan’s most dreadful prison. Vallon, Webber and Rose were locked up together in a separate part of The Tombs, a circumstance that allowed the three to develop one, rock-solid story. Whatever hopes Whitman had, if indeed he had any, of uncovering the truth were destroyed by this one decision.
In the wake of these arrests, The Tenderloin shook to its foundation. Already some casino owners were closing up shop. Even the politicians, long under the protective umbrella of Tammany Hall, were trembling with fear. The entire police/gambling/graft complex was threatened. The men involved in the Becker case knew plenty. Faced with the death penalty, then a very real possibility, who could say how far they would go to save their own skins? One thing had now become crystal clear: The case was out of control and there would be hell to pay.
The Grand Jury Whitman impaneled in the Rosenthal murder wasted no time doing its business. On July 29, 1912, based largely on a written statement by Bald Jack Rose, Lt. Charles Becker was indicted. Later that day Becker was picked up at the Bathgate Avenue Station in the Bronx where he was on duty. Brought into court for arraignment, he uttered two words: "Not Guilty!", and whisked away before hoards of reporters could question him.
The next day, the New York Times headlines read: "Rosenthal Murder Secrets Are Out!; Becker Indicted, Arrested, Jailed!" Fueled by an hysterical press, the case became an international sensation. In its Aug. 1, 1912 issue, The Nation said: "Lt. Becker’s indictment for the murder of Rosenthal at once lets in a flood of light upon the crime and is a terrible blow to the Mayor, the Police Commissioner and the whole police administration of New York City."
Whitman was not alone in his dedication to nail Becker. Virtually every newspaper in New York allied itself with the crusading D.A., who was taking on the status of a mythical hero. The power of the press at that time was formidable. Barely 15 years before, William Randolph Hearst, who ran the New York Journal, and Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World, practically forced the United States into the Spanish American War by using impassioned editorials and sensationalized reporting to whip up public fervor for the war. Outside of the government itself, no institution could claim such power. Throughout the entire Becker affair, the press would play a pivotal role in the evolution of the case.
With the New York press clamoring for action, Becker’s case was put on the fastest of tracks. Slightly over two months after his arraignment, Becker’s trial began. On the bench sat Judge John W. Goff, an avowed enemy of the underworld and veteran of the 1894 investigation into New York City corruption. Becker’s attorney was John F. McIntyre, a prominent criminal attorney and a former D.A. himself. As experienced as McIntyre was, he could not penetrate the brick wall Judge Goff erected against Becker. With Goff ruling almost exclusively in the prosecution’s favor, the trial would make a mockery of justice.
On Oct. 12, 1912, Bald Jack Rose sat in the witness chair. Impeccably dressed, and with his head shaved to ceramic smoothness, Rose mesmerized the courtroom with a detailed account of Becker’s sinful ties with the West Side underworld. He testified that Becker had said to him: "He (Rosenthal) ought to be put off this earth. There is a fellow I would like to have croaked! Have him murdered! Cut his throat, dynamite him or anything!" and later: "There is no danger to anybody that has any hand in the murder of Rosenthal. There can’t be anything happen to anyone...and you know the feeling over at Police headquarters is so strong that the man or men that croak him would have a medal pinned on them!"
Rose testified that he initially recruited Big Jack Zelig, Becker’s collection man, who happened to be incarcerated at the Tombs at the time. Rose testified that Becker would see to his release if Zelig would arrange the murder of Rosenthal. Unexpectedly, Zelig refused and Rose had to look elsewhere. Unfortunately, Zelig was unable to corroborate Rose’s testimony because on the day the Becker trial began, he was shot in the head and killed on a 13th St. trolley. His killer, Red Phil Davidson, was nabbed at the scene and told police he did it because of an old gambling debt. After Zelig refused the job, Rose said he called on Gyp the Blood and Whitey Lewis. Rose said they, in turn, recruited Lefty Louie and Dago Frank. Rose testified they all accepted the contract for $1,000. With Shapiro at the wheel of the Packard, Rose said the five of them went to the Metropole on the night of July 15 and killed Rosenthal.
Rose, calm, deliberate, always in control, made a strong impression on the jury. His matter-of-fact style was mindful of a Wall Street broker rattling off the latest stock market quotations.
In the following days, dozens of implicated people took the stand. A sea of contradictory testimony overwhelmed the court, for each witness wanted to save himself. It was impossible to get at the truth. Only Becker knew. But his side of the story would never be told. McIntyre advised Becker against taking the stand in his own defense to avoid his being cross-examined by Whitman. McIntyre didn’t want Whitman to put on display to the jury a brutal, wealthy police officer hopelessly entangled in a maze of graft and corruption.
McIntyre based his defense on destroying the credibility of the prosecution’s three main witnesses: Bald Jack Rose, Webber and Vallon, urging the jury not to believe three criminals who had spent their lives hustling on Tenderloin streets. "You can recognize what self-confessed murderers and perjurers will do when they realize their necks are about to go to the halters," McIntyre argued, making much of the fact that these three were locked up together in The Tombs prior to trial. There, he said, they held several meetings to coordinate their story. McIntyre said the real murderers were Webber and Vallon, both of whom had been granted immunity by Whitman on condition they make Becker the fall guy. McIntyre said that all Webber and Vallon had to do to save their own necks was to stick to their story, for Whitman had no evidence against Becker except the statements of these men.
Whitman’s assistant, Frank Moss, gave the prosecutor’s summation: "Do not shirk that duty to render a verdict as you find it, but take the manly stand. If you think that it is proper to hold him accountable for this awful crime, in God’s name, in the country’s name, do your duty!"
After nearly four days of instruction by Judge Goff, the case was given to the jury. Becker told nearby reporters: "I have no fear of the outcome." By midnight the jury reached a verdict. The courtroom was packed. Becker was brought to the bench. Goff turned to the jury.
"And how do you find the defendant?" he said.
"Guilty, your honor!" the jury foreman replied. The reporters jostled each other to get to the exit doors. The courtroom erupted in confusion. The headline in the New York Times the next morning was: "Blow crushes him and his wife!"
Five days later, Becker appeared before Goff for sentencing. "...you are hereby sentenced to the punishment of death..." the judge read. Becker didn’t flinch.
"The condemned man never lost his nerve for an instant throughout the day" wrote the Times. Becker was sent to Sing Sing prison on the banks of the Hudson to await execution on Dec. 12, 1912, just six weeks after the sentencing. But the case was far from over, for if Becker was anything, he was a fighter.
Following Becker’s trial, the prosecution put Gyp the Blood, Lefty Rosenberg, Dago Frank and Whitey Lewis on trial for Rosenthal’s death. The trial lasted seven days and was presided over by Judge Goff, who displayed the same bias and iron-fisted rule as he did at Becker’s trial. All four were sentenced to die. The press responded in a chorus of approval. They said it was the beginning of the end for The Tenderloin empire. The press hailed Whitman as a champion of justice, giving him a prominence that left little doubt that he would be the next governor of New York.
Becker’s case was brought before the State Court of Appeals. On February 24, 1914, the conviction was overturned and a new trial was ordered. Citing Judge Goff’s shocking bias, the court launched a blistering attack on the judge’s behavior in the original trial. The Court of Appeals said that Goff was not only guilty of misconduct but made mistakes in Criminal Procedure Law as well. The next trial would begin on May 6, 1914.
Becker and his wife were elated. A new trial meant new hope. But there was a cloud on the horizon. The same Court of Appeals rejected another trial for the four gunmen. Their conviction would stand. It was a serious problem for the defense. Thanks to the shameful reporting of the press, Becker and the other convicted four killers had become part of the same inseparable mold.
On the early morning of April 13, 1914, Dago Frank, Whitey Lewis, Lefty Louie and Gyp the Blood had a last meeting with their loved ones. the New York Times described it: "Hysterical Scenes At Visit of Relatives--Young Wives Bid Condemned Farewell." From his cell, Dago Frank issued a final disturbing statement: "So far as I know, Becker had nothing to do with the case. It was a gambler’s fight. I told some lies on the stand to prove an alibi for the rest of the boys." Then one by one, in a grim procession of death, the four young men were taken to the execution chamber. Despite a last minute sabotage of the electric chair by person unknown, the sentence was carried out.
Becker’s new trial began on schedule. Bald Jack Rose, now a born-again Christian and heavily in demand on the lecture circuit, was resurrected to repeat his damning testimony. Bourke Cockran, a famous criminal, handled the defense. The prosecuting attorney was once again Whitman, whose future hinged even more on the outcome of this trial than the first. On the bench sat Judge Samuel Seabury, who had a reputation of being fair to both defense and prosecution.
The importance of the case had not diminished in the public’s eye. The trial attracted even larger crowds than the first. Every day the courthouse was surrounded by thousands of onlookers hoping they could get a seat inside the courtroom.
On May 22, 1914, in the very first re-conviction in the city’s history, Becker again was found guilty of murder. As before, he accepted the verdict without reaction. The next day the New York Times said of Becker: "Hears Verdict of Guilty For the Second Time With Iron Composure!" He was sentenced to die on July 16, 1914, and was taken back to Sing Sing. But again death would have to wait. More appeals were filed and the execution was postponed. In November of that same year, Whitman was elected governor of the state of New York. By the time the New Year rolled around, the case was limping along to its bitter end.
Bald Jack Rose was barnstorming around the country playing the criminal lecturer. Shapiro was in New Jersey and had started a farm. Gyp the Blood and the others were all dead. Zelig had been murdered. Whitman sat in the Governor’s chair and Becker, marooned in the dungeons of Sing Sing, awaited his fate. The stage was now set for the cruelest blow of all.
Becker had exhausted all the appeals that were possible and his death seemed imminent. But there was still one way out. Under state law, a death sentence may be commuted to life by a stroke of the Governor’s pen. Ironically, the Governor in this case was also the former prosecutor. Never before in American history had such a bizarre turn of events taken place. How could Whitman decide on the issue when it was he who put Becker on death row in the first place? Some of the press echoed this sentiment. The New Republic on July 24, 1915 wrote: "...it seems a tragic fate that his last hope of mercy should be considered by a man who has the deepest personal grounds for showing him none… We don’t want to take a life on the kind of evidence produced against Becker. We don’t like to think that Whitman’s future depends upon Becker’s death." It was suggested that the appeal for clemency be turned over to the lieutenant governor for review. But Whitman wouldn’t hear of it.
The execution had been reset for July 30, 1915. With only a few days left, Becker’s supporters grew frantic. There were several organizations now afoot to persuade the Governor to commute the sentence. Becker’s defense attorney, Cockran, tried a last-ditch effort to bring the case before the State Supreme Court. It too failed. Thousands of letters and telegrams poured into Whitman’s chambers urging clemency. In a final declaration of innocence, Becker wrote a letter to Whitman. In it he said: "I am innocent as you of having murdered Herman Rosenthal or having counseled, procured or aided his murder or having any knowledge of that dreadful crime."
At last, the day before Becker’s scheduled execution, Helen Becker herself visited the Governor’s office to plead for her husband’s life. The New York Times headline on July 30 read: "Begs Governor in Vain for Life, Embraces Doomed Man At Midnight!" Still Whitman would not change his mind.
At 5:30 a.m. on July 30, 1915, Becker, dressed in black, his trousers slit up the sides, walked down death row. While dozens of reporters watched, he was hastily strapped into the electric chair. His last words were: "Into thy hands O Lord, I commend my spirit!" At the signal, the switch was thrown and almost 2,000 volts were sent into his body. But Becker was strong, so much so that the voltage needed to kill him had been misjudged. He was still alive. Another jolt ripped into him. Again it was not enough. Workmen were called to adjust the straps. Witnesses were in a near panic. Some fainted. The execution was becoming a nightmare. The voltage was increased and mercifully, the third jolt finally killed him. It had taken eight minutes, each one faithfully recorded by the newsmen assigned to witness the execution. Lt. Charles Becker of the New York City Police Department was dead.
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