Killer Cop: Charles Becker
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 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 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 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 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 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.