December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
On a stifling July night in 1912, Herman Rosenthal bounced into the Metropole Cafe on West Forty-third Street in Manhattan. Rosenthal, a gambler, had recently fallen on hard times and had begun complaining about the long-standing system of pay-offs between gamblers and police that kept New York’s riotous Tenderloin district running profitably. But tonight he seemed in high spirits and was brandishing a copy of the New York World in which he had gotten a young reporter named Herbert Bayard Swope to publish Rosenthal’s claim that a police lieutenant named Charles Becker was his partner in a gambling house. Now, however, Becker had shut it down because Rosenthal wasn’t turning over enough of the take. “What do you boys think of the papers lately?” he shouted jovially to a group of fellow gamblers at a nearby table. “You’re a damned fool, Herman,” one replied. Toward two A.M. a man entered the cafe and asked Rosenthal to step outside. The gambler walked out the door and paused on the steps as four gunmen closed in on him. He took three bullets in the face and one in the neck. The killers piled into a gray Packard and roared off, giving the nation a preview of how gangland’s shock troops would operate in the mechanized twentieth century.
The Rosenthal case was more than a murder: the furor it set in motion made one man governor, established Swope as one of the leading newspapermen of his generation, and sent Charles Becker to his death, the only American policeman ever to go to the electric chair.
By any standards, Becker was a hard man. He stood over six feet tall, weighed two hundred and fifteen pounds, and according to one contemporary, “could kill a man with a punch.” Born in 1870 in upstate New York, he came to Manhattan in his teens and worked as a beergarden bouncer until he had saved up the $250 fee levied by Tammany Hall on all would-be policemen. He joined the force in 1893, and immediately established himself as a ruthless believer in the efficacy of the nightstick. Scornful and arrogant, he once clapped a woman in jail for asking him directions to the subway. He had a bizarre brush with literary fame in 1896 when he roughed up a prostitute who was walking with Stephen Crane, the novelist. Crane, who found Becker “picturesque as a wolf,” attacked the policeman in the New York Journal . Becker survived the bad press but made little headway in the department for years afterward, even though he got a medal for heroism by paying someone to feign drowning in the Hudson so that Becker could pull him out. But at last, in 1911, he was put on a strong-arm squad operating against the city’s gambling houses. He held the job only nine months before the Rosenthal murder, but piled up enough graft to buy his wife an expensive home in the country.
As soon as Swope got word of the murder, he called the district attorney, Charles Whitman, and urged him to get out of bed and take over. Whitman saw his chance. An ambitious man, he knew that police corruption was a sure-fire reform issue. He had Becker arrested for engineering the murder.
The prosecution never suggested that Becker even knew the four men who had pulled the triggers on Rosenthal—intermediaries supposedly had arranged the crime. The trial and execution of the gunmen—Gyp the Blood, Whitey Lewis, Lefty Louie, and Dago Frank—was only a sidelight of the real event, the trial of Charles Becker.
In the weeks before it came to court, Whitman leaked to Swope increasingly gaudy stories of Becker’s wickedness. By the time the trial began, national interest was fierce enough for the testimony of one Bald Jack Rose to command more newsprint than the sinking of the Titanic had a few months before. Rose, one of the gamblers through whom Becker was said to have hired the murderers, claimed the lieutenant had told him, “It was a pleasing sight to me to see that squealing Jew lying there and … I would [like to] have cut out his tongue and hung it on the Times Building as a warning to future squealers.” Becker never got out from under the cloud of that brutal statement, even though the man who quoted it had been a rival of Rosenthal’s and had been given immunity by Whitman to testify against the policeman. In fact, as Andy Logan points out in Against the Evidence , her meticulous and absorbing account of the scandal, the major prosecution witnesses, all carefully shielded by Whitman, had at least as much stake as Becker in getting Rosenthal out of the way.
The judge presiding, John Goff, was a sweet-faced man said to look like a figure in a stained-glass window. According to defense attorney Lloyd Stryker, however, he “had a cold heart and a sadistic joy in suffering.” A longtime cop hater, he threw every possible obstacle in the way of the defense. On one of the hottest days of the year, he told a member of the prosecution to “Have the shades drawn low. There is not enough gloom in the courtroom.” At the end of the trial, he virtually instructed the members of the jury to find Becker guilty. They did.
In the death house at Sing Sing, the policeman seemed a different man from the one who had beaten up whores in the Tenderloin. He helped the prison chaplain conduct Bible classes and began to read Shakespeare. “I liked Measure for Measure best,” he said. ”… There is so much in it that fitted my case. There are some terrific passages on death in it, too, that I pondered over....”
In 1913 the court of appeals overturned the verdict, calling it “shockingly against the weight of evidence.” Becker said, “This proves that no frame-up can go to a finish.” But a second trial, fiercely prosecuted by Whitman, upheld the first verdict.
Becker spent his time reading aloud to his fellow prisoners and writing awkward, grandiloquent letters to his wife, whom he called “Queen of my heart” and whose belief in his innocence never wavered. As the execution day drew close, his only hope lay in an appeal to the governor—Charles Whitman, newly elected largely on the strength of his prosecution of Becker. Whitman refused the plea.
Becker devoted his last day on earth to refuting a final charee of Whitman’s. The governor—who had his eye on the Presidency now—announced that the condemned man also had murdered his first wife. Enrasred. Becker insisted that it was a matter of record that she had died of tuberculosis and called the governor’s sally “cruelty almost inconceivable.” While he fretted over his reply, guards shaved part of his head and outfitted him in a black cotton suit with no metal buttons.
He went into the death chamber at five the next morning, saying, “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” His powerful body burst one of the straps, and he thrashed in the chair for nine ghastly minutes before the doctors could pronounce him dead.
He had wanted to make a short speech to the witnesses; that had been forbidden, but copies of his statement were later handed out to the press. “I proclaim my absolute innocence of the foul crime,” it read, and went on to “declare to the world that I am proud to have been the husband of the purest, noblest woman that ever lived, Helen Becker. This acknowledgment is the only legacy I can leave her.”
She had the last word. On the coffin, she affixed a handsomely engraved silver plate:
Murdered July 30,1915
By Governor Whitman