The Wrong Man
The Story of an NYPD Officer Sentenced to Death—100 Years Ago Today
A century ago today, the world cheered when a crooked cop was executed in Sing Sing. But was he framed for a gangland murder?
When it came to scandal, the Tammany leader Big Tim Sullivan said, New York was a nine-day town. But in the case of the murder of his friend Herman “Beansie” Rosenthal, a gangster and gambling house proprietor, Sullivan’s adage proved spectacularly untrue. Charles Becker, an NYPD lieutenant, was one of five men convicted of the murder, all of whom were sent to the electric chair. Though the case was sensational and the conviction a travesty, Becker is little remembered today, and defended less. Both failures are all the more disgraceful because the prosecution was undertaken for a noble cause, that of political reform in general and police reform in particular.
As with any criminal trial that is transformed into social allegory, the cause trumped the case; facts that contradicted it were held not as false but as heretical, demanding suppression instead of debate. Later generations seeking lessons from the past are likelier to dwell on episodes of clear-cut triumph or transgression. Who wants to commemorate a battle without heroes?
In most tellings of the city’s political history, the struggle between Tammany Hall and Reform is recounted in nearly Manichean terms. The gangsterism and graft of Tammany sometimes reached a stupendous scale, but the machine also represented the largest part of New York City, with all its immigrant energy, and its legacy includes the New Deal. For what it was worth, its lack of affectation was commensurate with its lack of principle, as when Alexander “Clubber” Williams, a police inspector, replied when asked why he failed to close the brothels in his district: “Because they were kind of fashionable at the time.” In Tammany’s case, a sense of humor was a not-quite-saving grace, but it pointed to the pragmatism that accounted for its durability and many decencies. By contrast, Jacob Riis lamented that every reform movement—a term broad enough to encompass opponents of 80-hour workweeks and naughty postcards—ought to be assigned an official humorist, to save them from conceit and worse.
The late 19th-century New York Times index shows more coverage of the topic of “Police Abuses” than “Politics” as a whole. In a sense, crime in the city has always been covered more like sports than news, as an intensely personal and symbolic contest. And if it seems like the rival teams of cops and crooks have gotten together to fix the game, the reaction of the fans can be truly fanatic. As Andy Logan, who wrote the definitive history of the Becker case, observed, “Sweat shops, child labor, yellow dog contracts, the political and industrial exploitation of the vast new immigration…the open purchase of political office, gross corruption involving municipal contracts…All these civic evils were properly deplored from time to time, but there were intervals when it seemed that the most hideous sin of all in the minds of Americans…was the greasing of the palms of city policemen by prostitutes, gamblers, and small-time local criminals.”
In the Republican campaigns against Tammany, charges of police grafting were both pretextual and true, guaranteed to command headlines and periodically occasion a Republican or Fusion win at the polls. Reformers tended to be middle- to upper-middle class, Protestant and Republican, and the subjects of reform were those who were not. Around the turn of the century, there were a series of investigations by the legislature and eminent citizens—the Lexow Committee, the Mazet Committee, the Committee of Nine. John D. Rockefeller led a grand jury on the “white slave trade” in 1909. The press followed mostly because the copy could be wonderful—as when Reverend Parkhurst went undercover to play leapfrog with naked can-can dancers—and the more destructive graft of Tammany, in the awarding of municipal contracts, was too dull to sustain public interest.
Becker wasn’t just a bad cop; he was every kind of bad cop—a liar, a thug, a thief. He was the protégé of Clubber Williams, and modeled himself after his mentor in his physicality—both in his courage and the free use of his nightstick—and the vigor with which he fattened his assets and his arrest record. Once, he saved a man from drowning; another time, he locked up a woman for asking him for directions. A fellow cop remarked that Becker would lock up his own grandmother if it would make him look good downtown. When he was one of three lieutenants who ran gambling squads, it was known that only one of them would make captain, and so Becker stepped up both his raids and his payoffs.
At the time, raids were sometimes carried out to settle a personal or political score, but for the most part, they were conducted as an elaborate dance between the police, the politicians, and the gambling establishment. Enforcement occurred more or less by appointment, so that the criminal justice system could show that it was taking action with the minimum inconvenience to criminals: “Stiffs” were provided for arrest, in cases designed to fall apart long before trial. Becker pushed things, however, seeking to make a name for himself with heavy hands and grasping ones. A Hearst reporter warned him of a plot to frame him, not long after his appointment to the squad. Becker had even employed a press agent to keep his name in the papers. It would soon be unnecessary.
Herman Rosenthal’s pursuit of the media also led to his undoing. As Big Tim was fond of saying, “God and the people hate a chesty man,” and Rosenthal redefined chestiness. He had been prosperous and well-connected until 1909, when the Legislature forbade racetrack betting, then his chief source of income. As his operations suffered, he decided to make the new reforms work for him by refusing to pay off a $5,000 bet, welshing all the way up to the Court of Appeals, which held in his favor. When his fellow gamblers tried to prevail on him to honor the debt, loaning him money themselves, he stiffed them as well. At that point, anonymous letters began to find their way to the desks of Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo and District Attorney Charles Whitman, who ordered raids on his gambling houses until only one remained.
Rosenthal then began to publicly denounce police corruption, which lost him whatever chance remained to regain a business-like footing with colleagues on both sides of the law. He waged war against the NYPD, under the table and over it, boasting that his connections were such that he would have any cop who interfered with him transferred, and, for a time, his relationship with the declining Big Tim meant that the threat wasn’t an idle one. He attempted to swear out warrants against a captain and inspector who raided his establishments. Overall, the fight had a small-time and vaguely farcical quality—when a policeman was posted to his last premise, Rosenthal locked the poor man inside—though the joke was wearing dangerously thin.
Rosenthal was steadily losing money, friends, and political cover, even after his claim that Becker was his silent partner received sensational treatment by a reporter named Herbert Bayard Swope at the World, one of the two papers in New York which inspired the phrase “yellow journalism.” The day after the story appeared, DA Whitman agreed to meet with Rosenthal, but the gambler’s charges failed to impress him. Later that night, Rosenthal went to the Hotel Metropole, an establishment thick with hoodlums, including men who had tried to kill him before and whom he had tried to kill as well. He seemed to revel in the attention, until an associate asked him to step outside, where he was gunned down in what may have been the first drive-by shooting in gangland history. The killers were a picturesque lot: The gunmen were Whitey Lewis, Lefty Louis, Dago Frank, and Gyp the Blood, who preferred bombs to guns “because I likes to hear da noise,” and they were hired by a number of Rosenthal’s former associates, led by the utterly hairless Bald Jack Rose. The murder was a predictable and routine matter of internal underworld discipline. No one was particularly surprised, though Commissioner Waldo exclaimed, “Ye Gods!” when he heard, realizing that the timing was awkward. Mayor Gaynor’s reaction was more typical, remarking, “Got him, did they?” The previously underwhelmed Whitman now broadcast through Swope that the death was “a challenge to our very civilization.”
The reactions of the three officials were wholly in character. Waldo was a clueless but amiable gentleman amateur, whom the patrolmen thought well of because he’d redesigned their greatcoats so the pockets were larger. Once, when he received an anonymous complaint about Becker’s grafting, he forwarded it to him for investigation. (Becker returned the letter, stating that it was inappropriate for him to pursue the matter.) Gaynor, who was known as “the most cantankerous man ever to sit in City Hall,” had a temper that worsened when a deranged city employee shot him in the neck. Gaynor was the kind of figure that made Tammany difficult to pigeonhole; he was the candidate the machine put forward during a period of scandal, to show its best face, but his presence in the organization showed that there were men of probity among their ranks, who could rise and sometimes rule. His performance as mayor was widely admired, and reformers warmed to him, as did the press, which loved his habit of quoting Epictetus and Homer, when Tammany epigrams were more in the vein of Sullivan on chesty men. Gaynor and Whitman detested each other, though both liked Commissioner Waldo.
Theodore Roosevelt once said of Charles Whitman, “The truth is not in him.” Socially and politically ambitious, Whitman was a low-level Republican functionary whose first career break was winning the presidency of the Board of Magistrates after other factions deadlocked over their preferred candidates. After his election as district attorney, he stopped at a bar one night and noticed, upon finishing his drink, that the time was 23 minutes after the legal 1 a.m. closing. When he brought up his concern with the bartender, he was told not to worry, that the police wouldn’t bother them. Whitman then proceeded on a sort of investigative pub crawl, visiting several more saloons before going to a precinct to demand the arrest of all who had provided him hospitality. His sobriety and sense were both questioned, but his wishes were carried out, and subsequent outings were conducted with the press in tow so that the exploits of the “crusading D.A.” received suitable fanfare.
From that time, Whitman developed a relationship with Swope, whose career in journalism, in the early years, bore a closer resemblance to that of P.T. Barnum than Edward R. Murrow: He was a political ringmaster and an impresario of public spectacle. In exchange for exclusives, Swope made Whitman exactly the kind of hero he wanted to be—not only a fearless crimefighter, but one who would cut short a Newport vacation with the Vanderbilts to get the job done. Swope claimed, credibly, to dictate the D.A.’s press releases. His love of gambling led to his own underworld intimacies, particularly with Arnold Rothstein, who was later immortalized in The Great Gatsby as Meyer Wolfsheim, “the man who fixed the 1919 World Series.” Swope was the best man at Rothstein’s wedding, and frequently borrowed money from him. As it happened, Becker raided one of Rothstein’s establishments in the months before the killing. With his Rosenthal story, Swope had a production that languished during rehearsals—even Whitman had to be bullied into a tepid expression of interest—until the murder gave him a Broadway smash.
Becker himself was well-acquainted with controversy, after a conflict with the novelist Stephen Crane in 1896. Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage had been published the year before, and the now-famous author had begun work on sketches of low life in the Tenderloin, in the vein of his earlier Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. It was also reported that Crane was writing about the police, not sympathetically, and his encounter with Becker would not improve his view. At 2 in the morning, Crane was walking with two women he had picked up when he met a third, named Dora Clark, before being suddenly set upon by Becker, then a young patrolman, who announced that all three women were under arrest for prostitution. Crane saved one woman by insisting that she was his wife; in the end, Becker took only Clark in. Crane appeared in court with Clark to testify on her behalf. That he had written a favorable profile of the magistrate in the days before the hearing doubtless assisted in the swift dismissal of the charges. The reaction from police inspired Crane to leave the city to cover the Spanish American War. In reality, the incident wasn’t simply ugly but complicatedly so: Dora Clark was a prostitute, and she’d been feuding with the local precinct since she’d spurned the advances of a somewhat dark-skinned patrolman named Rosenberg because she believed he was black, telling him, “How dare you speak to a decent white woman!”
If nothing else, the incident lends a measure of irony to the ethnic politics of the Rosenthal murder. Jewish leaders took issue with Mayor Gaynor’s denunciation of the “lawless foreigners” who were the principals in the case (all were Jewish, excepting Dago Frank, of course) and Swope flatly manufactured anti-Semitic statements which he attributed to Becker, a Protestant of German descent, in order to fan the flames. The cultural casting of the scandal, in which Jewish gangsters and Irish cops and ward-heelers were turning a great city into a cesspool of corruption, were essential to its fascination in the hinterlands and abroad.
The story was national and international news, to a degree that is difficult to imagine today. For the foreign press, New York City was America, and it was often the only city that other regional papers covered on a regular basis. Laws were passed in Washington, but life, in its most vivid and meaningful form, took place in New York. (New Yorkers didn’t disagree—at the turn of the century, a Tammany leader denied a young associate appointment to the position of county clerk in Manhattan, saying, “He’s a good boy, but that job requires brains and experience. He’ll have to be satisfied with going to Congress.”) Even so, the reaction from otherwise sober parties was decidedly unhinged. One Western paper editorialized that, in spite of its opposition to the death penalty, “In this case we would not raise the slightest protest if Becker and his gunmen were sent heavenward… New York State has our permission to assemble the entire police force of New York and, in the presence of officers and men, blow Becker and his band of cutthroats to Jericho.” Locally, the coverage was no less relentless or ridiculous—in Swope’s paper, the Rosenthal murder was a crisis “infinitely worse than the one that confronted the nation at Gettysburg,” and it made the front page 136 days out of 186.
Becker’s connection to Rosenthal was indeed tantalizing. While he was preparing a libel suit in response to Rosenthal’s claim that they were business partners, he had a longstanding relationship with Bald Jack Rose, as fellow players in the vice game. Becker was driving through midtown at the time of the murder, and when he arrived home, reporters called to tell him about it. He then drove back downtown to the crime scene, an act that was portrayed as the gloating of a shameless killer. But the case against him simply wasn’t there: It was a “murder by proxy, twice removed,” as Logan puts it, in which Becker’s interests and the overwhelming weight of the evidence showed him to be innocent of the charges against him, perhaps for the first time in his career. Becker came to believe that Rose may well have told Rosenthal that he was a silent partner in his business. Because Rosenthal had made so many complaints about so many cops over the years, Becker would have been among the few who might have considered offering protection. When Becker raided his house, wrecking it and arresting his nephew, Rosenthal’s last story ignored all the other officers and officials with whom he’d been warring. Why Becker would wreck an establishment that he owned, and why he’d invest with a man who’d been losing money and fighting cops for years, were questions that were barely asked, let alone answered.
Whitman was untroubled by the gaps in his story. Bald Jack Rose and several other conspirators were jailed in the Tombs until their testimony jibed with his theory. The lower floors of the Tombs were ankle-deep in water, and the cells measured 7 by 3½ feet; they were without plumbing and virtually without ventilation, during a summer when the temperature was regularly in the 90s. These immediate discomforts paled before the prospect of the electric chair at Sing Sing, however, and when Whitman offered Rose and two other admitted killers outright freedom in exchange for testimony against Becker, there was little hesitation on their part. Other witnesses for the prosecution were paid generously, while witnesses for the defense were intimidated and worse; one reporter who provided an alibi for Becker was fired by his paper soon after.
Whitman requested that the governor call an extraordinary session of the State Supreme Court to hear the cases, and he was further obliged when Judge John Goff was assigned. Goff had been chief counsel for the Lexow Committee, which had elicited Clubber Williams’s memorable statement regarding the fashionability of brothels. For Williams to attend the trial every day was a gesture more impressive for its loyalty than its strategy. Becker’s pregnant wife, Helen, was not permitted to sit in view of the jury. Goff granted virtually all of the prosecution’s motions and denied those of the defense, seating a close friend of the prosecutor’s as a juror. He ordered the trial to begin one week after the arraignment. In record-breaking heat, he ordered the fans shut off, the windows closed, the shades drawn, and permitted 15 minutes for lunch. He charged the jury as a prosecutor, repeating Whitman’s allegations as facts. The trial lasted just over two weeks, deliberations only a few hours.
When Becker was convicted, public acclaim for Whitman was vast; he was discussed as a candidate for mayor, governor, even president. Becker underwent a less public transformation: On Death Row at Sing Sing, he became a quiet leader and counselor of other inmates, and won the respect of the warden. He converted to Catholicism. He maintained his innocence of the murder, but made little pretense about the other aspects of his career, and refused any overtures to implicate others in exchange for leniency. His wife lost her baby in childbirth, but the moment of public sympathy was brief when it was reported that the doctor had told her during delivery that he could save either her or the child, and she chose to live. In one paper, she was likened to Lady Macbeth.
Helen Becker was, in fact, a figure of almost implausible decency and forbearance, a schoolteacher devoted to “backward pupils,” who bore her embarrassment of misfortunes with great grace: “My husband was under sentence of death. I had lost my baby, our money was gone, my housekeeper had killed herself, my mother had died, my dog Bum had bitten a man and been shot, my pet canary bird had died. Then I thought: ‘Well, anyway, I’m not blind.’ The very next morning I woke up with a sore eye. That struck me as funny, and I wrote it to Charley in my next letter. I am glad I have a sense of humor. I think it has often saved me from suffering and it has made me see amusing things to put in my letters to my husband.”
When the Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, in a scathing and lengthy decision, there was widespread outrage, and muttered warnings to Whitman that his political viability was contingent on a conviction. Many of his own prosecutors were disgusted with him, and it was joked around the office that Whitman was lucky that he didn’t have to submit the case to a jury of his own staff. At the new trial, Judge Samuel Seabury was more decorous than Goff had been, but no less biased in his rulings. Becker was again found guilty. By the time the appeals were filed, Seabury had been appointed to the Court of Appeals, and though he recused himself from the case, his new colleagues did not reverse him. A Democratic bill to ban capital punishment was not introduced for fear it might save Becker. Becker’s last hope was for the commutation of his death sentence, but Whitman had realized his ambition to become governor then, and he would have sole discretion on any plea for clemency. On the eve of the execution, Whitman lashed out again, proclaiming Becker’s guilt and strongly suggesting that he’d killed his first wife, though she’d died of tuberculosis. When Helen Becker went to the governor to plead for her husband’s life, she found him too drunk to stand, unable to comprehend her.
As he was led to the chamber, Becker said, rather cryptically, “I am sacrificed for my friends.” All reports related that he faced death unflinchingly, aside from those of Swope, who portrayed him in a state of panic. Becker did receive a stay of execution of a momentary and grisly sort, when he survived his first two rides in the electric chair. His body spasmed wildly, and a jet of flame leapt from his temple, but when the current was shut off, the examining doctor found that his heart was beating. His funeral at the church of St. Nicholas of Tolentine in the Bronx was well-attended, mostly by police, and it was described by the Times as a “scandalous spectacle.” Indignation surged when Helen Becker put a plaque on her husband’s grave, in Woodlawn Cemetery, that read:
CHARLES BECKER MURDERED JULY 30, 1915
BY GOVERNOR WHITMAN
There were calls for her to be fired from her job as a schoolteacher, but the moment passed. The police removed the plaque several weeks later.
Helen Becker never married again, and lived quietly until the 1960s. Clubber Williams died in 1917, and he was buried near Becker in Woodlawn. In Whitman’s campaign for reelection in 1918, he would become as ardent a Prohibitionist as he had been a drinker, but he was defeated by Tammany’s man, Al Smith, who served four terms of lasting distinction and went on to become the first Catholic to run for president as the candidate of a major party. Herbert Bayard Swope would go on to win three Pulitzer Prizes for reporting. In the city, a new system was organized so that the police role as conduit between the politicians and the gangsters was much reduced. Cops like Becker were replaced by one man, Swope’s great friend, Arnold Rothstein, who became organized crime’s first great modernizer.
Proponents of reform saw the Becker execution as a great act of purification. Opponents might not have minded it so much, either, seeing it as an opportunity to get back to business for another generation. Big Tim Sullivan might have been wrong in his nine-day estimate for the shelf life of a scandal, but it’s hard to argue with his larger point about the fickle and fleeting nature of public concern, whether we forget from ordinary distraction or willful amnesia. He was committed to a sanatorium in 1912, the year Rosenthal was killed, suffering delusions as a result of tertiary syphilis. He wandered away the next year, and was hit by a train.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Becker was the only NYPD cop to be sentenced to death. The Daily Beast regrets this error.