(July 26, 1870 - July 30, 1915) was a New York police officer
executed for allegedly ordering the murder of a Manhattan gambler,
Becker was the
first American policeman executed for murder and the scandal that
surrounded his arrest, conviction, and execution was one of the most
important in Progressive Era New York.
Charles Becker was
born in the village of Callicoon Center, Sullivan County, New York.
He arrived in New York in 1890 and joined the Police Department
(NYPD) in November 1893.
Becker first came
to public notice in the fall of 1896 when he arrested a prostitute
named Ruby Young on Broadway. Young was in the company of the
novelist Stephen Crane, who appeared in court next day to refute
Becker's allegations against her.
In 1902 and 1903
Becker was one of the leaders of a patrolman's reform movement
agitating for the introduction of the Three Platoon System, which
would have significantly reduced the number of hours the beat
policeman was expected to work.
In 1906 he was
seconded to a special unit working out of police headquarters to
probe the alleged corruption of Police Inspector Max Schmittberger,
who had been widely hated within the NYPD since giving detailed
testimony to the 1894 Lexow Committee investigating police
corruption in New York.
Partly as a result
of Becker's work, Schmittberger subsequently stood trial, and Deputy
Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo was so satisfied with his work
that when Waldo became Police Commissioner in 1911 he had Becker, by
then a lieutenant, appointed as head of one of the city's three
anti-vice Strong Arm Squads.
Becker used his
position to extort substantial sums, later shown to total in excess
of $100,000, from Manhattan brothels and gambling houses in exchange
for immunity from police action.
In July 1912 he
was named in the New York World as one of three corrupt policemen
involved in the case of Herman Rosenthal, a failed gambler who
alleged his illegal businesses had been badly damaged by the
rapacity of the city's corrupt police.
murdered two days after his story appeared in the press and the
District Attorney, Charles S. Whitman, made no secret of his belief
that the gangsters who killed him had committed the murder at
arrested on 29 July 1912, and tried and found guilty of murder that
fall. The verdict was reversed on appeal on the grounds that the
trial judge, John Goff, had been biased against the defendant, but a
retrial in 1914 reaffirmed the original conviction.
contemporary newspapers were unanimous in asserting his guilt,
Becker went to the electric chair in Sing Sing protesting his
innocence, and several later authors, including Henry Klein, writing
in 1927, and Andy Logan, writing in 1970, have suggested he was
wrongly convicted. Charles Becker was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery,
The Bronx, on 2 August 1915.
undeniably a brutal and extremely corrupt man, contemporaries
testified that Charles Becker was also markedly intelligent,
particularly by the standards prevalent within the NYPD at that
time. He showed little interest in the after-hours drinking
activities of his police colleagues, preferring to return home to
help his wife, a special needs schoolteacher, mark her pupils'
On Death Row, he
gained the respect of his fellow prisoners by reading aloud to them
for hours at a time from newspapers and cowboy books.
Becker's only son,
Howard P. Becker, later became Professor of Sociology at the
University of Wisconsin. A daughter, Charlotte Becker, conceived
shortly before his arrest, died in 1913 less than a day after her
birth and is buried alongside him at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Becker-Rosenthal murder is the subject of Michael Bookman's God's
Rat: Jewish Mafia on the Lower East Side.
(1927). Sacrificed: The Story of Police Lieut. Charles Becker.
New York: Privately published.
(1970). Against The Evidence: The Becker-Rosenthal Affair.
London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
(2003) Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal
Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series. New York: Carroll &
Graf. (contains a detailed chapter on the Becker-Rosenthal case)
Charles Becker (July 26, 1870 – July 30, 1915) was a New York City police
officer in the 1890s and 1910's and who was tried, convicted and executed for
ordering the murder of a Manhattan gambler, Herman Rosenthal. Becker was the
first American police officer to receive the death penalty for murder. The
scandal that surrounded his arrest, conviction, and execution was one of the
most important in Progressive Era New York in the 1890s and 1910s.
Charles Becker was born to a German-American family in the village of Calicoon
Center, Sullivan County, New York. He arrived in New York City in 1890 and went
to work as a bouncer in a German beer hall just off the Bowery before joining
the New York City Police Department in November 1893. Becker first came to
public notice in the fall of 1896 when he arrested a prostitute named Ruby Young
(alias Dora Clark) on Broadway. Young was in the company of two chorus girls and
the writer Stephen Crane, who appeared in court the next day to refute Becker's
allegations against her. The incident led to a rather odd situation; Becker was
supported in his performance of duty by the New York City Police Commissioner,
Theodore Roosevelt, and the latter felt that Crane (already well known for
The Red Badge of Courage) behaved in a despicable manner in defending a
prostitute. Crane maintained Young was not acting in her professional manner
when Becker accosted her. Becker was not hurt by the case, due to Roosevelt's
support of him.
In 1902 and 1903 Becker was one of the leaders of a patrolman's reform movement
agitating for the introduction of the Three Platoon System, which would have
significantly reduced the number of hours the beat police officer was expected
to work. In 1906 he was seconded to a special unit working out of police
headquarters to probe the alleged corruption of Police Inspector Max
Schmittberger, who had been widely hated within the NYPD since giving detailed
testimony to the 1894 Lexow Committee investigating police corruption in New
York. Partly as a result of Becker's work, Schmittberger subsequently stood
trial, and Deputy Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo was so satisfied with
his work that when Waldo became New York City Police Commissioner in 1911, he
had Becker, by then a lieutenant, appointed as head of one of the city's three
Becker used his position to extort substantial sums, later
shown to total in excess of $100,000, from Manhattan brothels and illegal
gambling casinos in exchange for immunity from police interference. Percentages
of the take were regularly delivered to politicians and other policemen.
In July 1912, he was named in the New York World as
one of three senior police officials involved in the case of Herman Rosenthal.
Rosenthal, a small time bookmaker, had complained to the press that his illegal
casinos had been badly damaged by the greed of Becker and his associates.
Two days after the story appeared, Rosenthal walked out of
the Hotel Metropole at 147 West 43rd Street, just off Times Square. He was
gunned down by a crew of Jewish gangsters from the Lower East Side, Manhattan.
In the aftermath, Manhattan District Attorney Charles S. Whitman, who had made
an appointment with Rosenthal before his death, made no secret of his belief
that the gangsters had committed the murder at Becker's behest. In the midst of
a major public outcry, Lt. Becker was transferred to The Bronx and assigned to
On July 29, 1912, Becker was approached at the precinct's closing hour by
special detectives from the District Attorney's Office and placed under arrest.
He was tried and convicted of first degree murder that fall. The verdict was
overturned on appeal on the grounds that the presiding judge, John Goff, had
been biased against the defendant. However, a retrial in 1914 affirmed his
conviction. Although contemporary newspapers were unanimous in asserting his
guilt, Becker went to the electric chair in Sing Sing on July 30, 1915,
professing his innocence. After a Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, Charles Becker
was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, on August 2, 1915.
Although undeniably corrupt, contemporaries testified that
Charles Becker was also markedly intelligent, particularly by the standards
prevalent within the NYPD at that time. He showed little interest in the after-hours
drinking activities of his police colleagues, preferring to return home to help
his wife, a special needs schoolteacher, mark her pupils' homework. On Death Row,
he gained the respect of his fellow prisoners by reading aloud to them for hours
at a time from newspapers and Western dime novels.
Becker's only son, Howard P. Becker later became Professor of
Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. A daughter, Charlotte Becker,
conceived shortly before his arrest, died in 1913, less than a day after her
birth, and is buried alongside him at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Several later authors, beginning with Henry Klein in 1927,
have suggested that Becker was wrongly convicted. According to this theory,
Becker and his fellow officers had simply stood back and allowed "the street" to
"take care of" Rosenthal, knowing that his cooperation would put a huge target
on his back. Allegedly, District Attorney Whitman then manipulated the evidence
to implicate the corrupt Lieutenant, knowing that a guilty verdict for Becker
would help his own political aspirations.
The Becker-Rosenthal murder is the subject of Michael
Bookman's God's Rat: Jewish Mafia on the Lower East Side. A thinly
fictionalized version of the murder is also described by mob boss Meyer
Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Cohen, Stanley, (2006) "The Execution of Officer Becker;
The Murder of a Gambler, the Trial of a Cop, and the Birth of Organized Crime."
Dash, Mike (2007). "Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police
Corruption and New York's Trial of the Century"
Klein, Henry (1927). Sacrificed: The Story of Police
Lieut. Charles Becker. New York: Privately published.
Logan, Andy (1970). Against The Evidence: The Becker-Rosenthal
Affair. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Pietrusza, David (2003) Rothstein: The Life, Times and
Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series. New York:
Carroll & Graf. (contains a detailed chapter on the Becker-Rosenthal case)
"Entire force of patrolmen in revolt." April 6, 1902.
New York Times.
"Three Platoon system urged by policemen." August 21, 1902.
New York Times.
"The Strong Arm Squad a terror to the gangs." August 13,
1911. New York Times.
"My Story, by Mrs Charles Becker." December, 1914.
"The Becker case: view of 'The System.'" November 11, 1951.
New York Times Magazine.
by Mark S.
In the history of the United
States, very rarely has a police officer ever been tried, convicted and executed
for murder. One such officer was Charles Becker, a high-profile lieutenant for
the New York City Police Department during the hay days of Tammany Hall. 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's vilest
prison 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 whispered 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 into 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 socio-economic 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, theatres, 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
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. And at its foundation was the New York City Police
Department, rotten to its core.
Into this jungle of graft,
Charles Becker entered 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
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 schoolteacher he would soon
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
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 unknown killers gunned down
Eastman outside a Manhattan bar. 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
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.
Drawing of The
In the wake of these arrests,
The Tenderloin shook to its foundation. Already some casino owners closed 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
empanelled 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!" Fuelled 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
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 with 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
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,
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 cruellest
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 Lt. 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 (I assume) 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
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
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.