Murder Incorporated

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Beansie Rosenthal and Charles Becker

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 trial and re-trial were the biggest to ever hit New York. . . . For three years it would dominate the headlines of a frenzied press.

Whether or not he was actually guilty remains an open question. Yet his sinister ties with The Tenderloin underworld cannot be denied. . . . 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. . .
The original building that earned the name "The Tombs" for itself and succeeding jails on the same site in Lower Manhattan (Centre, Elm, Franklin and Leonard streets) was inspired by an ancient Egyptian mausoleum a travel writer described and drew in a book. 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. . . . It was common practice for pimps and casino owners to seek protection from prosecution by paying off the Police Department.

Originally from Sullivan County, Charles Becker . . . 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 . . . . There Becker met Monk Eastman, a deranged killer who ruled a vicious gang of murderers and outlaws. . . .
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. Becker attempted to cover up by trying to pass off the dead man as a known burglar. He was suspended for 30 days. . . . In 1898, 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 for assisting in an earlier investigation. . . . 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.
Mark S. Gado is a detective with the City of New Rochelle Police Department, where he has been employed for 22 years. He recently was assigned to the Westchester County D.E.A. Task Force in White Plains, N.Y. Mark Gado has been a freelance writer for 20 years. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Strange Days magazine and The Law Enforcement Journal.
Then in 1910, Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo formed special squads to break up the street gangs that ruled Lower Manhattan. Becker was made commander of one team. . . . Waldo expanded their duties to include crackdowns of the West Side gambling dens. Instead, Becker used his squad to shake down the casino owners. . . .

Becker 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.

In the summer of 1912 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. . . .When Sullivan became gravely ill and unable to run the show any longer, Becker swiftly reasserted himself. . . . Instead of cowering, 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. Finally, Becker raided the club and shut it down. . . . Rosenthal was insane with rage. . . .On the night of July 15, 1912, Rosenthal went to the District Attorney’s office . . . . After meeting with District Attorney Charles 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 DA 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. . . . A few minutes before 2 a.m., a waiter approached him.

"There’s someone in front to see you, Beansie" he said. Rosenthal walked to the front door. 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. . . . The killers escaped down 6th Avenue even though police had commandeered a passing auto and had given chase . . . .

Since it was common knowledge that Rosenthal was ratting on Lt. Becker to the D.A. just hours before he was murdered, it was widely assumed that Becker was the killer. Conveniently for Becker, however, he was home in bed at the time of the shooting, an alibi that was later corroborated by a newspaperman. . . .

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 . . . . 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, in exchange for information, 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. . . .

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.

Virtually every newspaper in New York allied itself with the crusading D.A., who was taking on the status of a mythical hero. . . .

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. . . . 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 . . . 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!"

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.

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. . . .
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.

After nearly four days of instruction by Judge Goff, the case was given to the jury. . . . By midnight the jury reached a verdict. Goff turned to the jury: "And how do you find the defendant?" he said.

"Guilty, your honor!"

Five days later, Becker appeared before Goff for sentencing. . . . 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.

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. . . .

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 . . . . The next trial would begin on May 6, 1914.

Becker and his wife were elated. . . . But there was a cloud on the horizon. The same Court of Appeals rejected another trial for the four gunmen. . . .

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. 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." . . . 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 . . . . On the bench sat Judge Samuel Seabury, who had a reputation of being fair to both defense and prosecution.
On May 22, 1914, in the very first re-conviction in the city’s history, Becker again was found guilty of murder. . . . 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. . . .
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. . . . Whitman sat in the Governor’s chair and Becker, marooned in the dungeons of Sing Sing, awaited his fate.
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. . . . 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. . . . In a final declaration of innocence, Becker wrote a letter to Whitman: "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. . . . 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!" . . . . Becker was strong, so much so that the voltage needed to kill him had been misjudged. . . 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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