Killer Cop: Charles Becker
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 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. 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 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 schoolteacher 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 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 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 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.