Charles Becker Trials: 1912-14
Charles Becker Trials: 1912-14
Defendant: Charles Becker
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: John F. Mcintyre, Lloyd B. Stryker, and George W. Whiteside; Second trial: W. Bourke Cockran, John Johnstone, and Martin Manton
Chief Prosecutors: First trial: Frank Moss and Charles S. Whitman; Second trial: Charles S. Whitman
Judges: First trial: John W. Goff; Second trial: Samuel Seabury
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trials: October 7-30, 1912, May 2-22, 1914
Verdicts: Guilty, both trials
Sentence: Death by electrocution
SIGNIFICANCE: The sordid career of New York police Lieutenant Charles Becker included graft, extortion, and ultimately the murder of his former gambling hall partner. Becker's brazen operation of a personal crime syndicate from within the police department provided novelist Stephen Crane with Vie inspiration for his work Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Becker's trial also inspired the public and the press to give more attention to big-city corruption.
Charles Becker was born in 1869 into a family of German immigrants who had taken up residence in New York City. When Becker grew into manhood in the early 1890s, New York was teeming with immigrants and a new industrial prosperity. It was also a city rife with corruption. The Tammany Hall political machine and the crime bosses openly ran New York together and had a long tradition of sharing the wealth from prostitution, gambling, extortion, and other flourishing vices. Although there were many honest policemen, plenty of officers were willing to fatten their wallets by cooperating with the crooked politicians and the bosses. Unlike the lowly cop on the beat who looks the other way every now and then, however, Becker became actively involved in the New York crime world.
Becker was a tall man weighing well over 200 pounds, all of it muscle. He was violent but also intelligent. While the thugs that he controlled took in more and more protection money from pimps and gambling houses, Becker also obtained promotion after promotion in the police department. In 1911, police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo promoted Becker again, not only making him a lieutenant and Waldo's aide, but also the officer in charge of a special squad charged with cracking down on crime.
Becker Runs Crime Ring from within Police Department
Putting Becker in charge of such a squad was the height of irony, and Becker lost no time in turning the squad into his personal mobile hit squad. Soon, every pimp and gambler on Broadway and in Manhattan knew that failure to pay Becker the cut he demanded meant swift and sure retaliation in the form of a raid by Becker's squad. From outside the police department, Becker also recruited the cream of New York's thugs to work for him, such as "Gyp the Blood," "Dago Frank," "Whitey" Lewis, "Lefty Louie," bald "Billiard Ball" Jack Rose, Sam Schepps, Harry Vallon, "Bridgey" Webber, and "Big Jack" Zelig.
Becker's criminal enterprises included dealings with Herman Rosenthal, nicknamed "Beansie," a well-known gambler. For a while, Becker and Rosenthal jointly ran and shared the profits from a gambling house, but a dispute arose between them over who was entitled to what percentage. Becker's squad raided and shut down Rosenthal's operation. In retaliation, Rosenthal went to New York's new and squeaky-clean district attorney, Charles S. Whitman, and told him everything he knew about Becker's criminal operations. Whitman surprised all of New York by attacking the powerful Becker head-on, summoning a grand jury for the purpose of bringing criminal charges against Becker.
Furious, Becker ordered his thugs to kill Rosenthal, brazenly promising them police protection. On July 21, 1911, several of Becker's men, led by Jack Rose, approached Rosenthal outside the Cafe Metropole and shot him to death. Undaunted by the murder of his star witness, Whitman was able to trace the getaway car to Rose and promptly arrested him. At first, Rose refused to talk, but when Becker failed to come to his rescue, Rose cracked and told Whitman everything about Becker ordering Rosenthal's murder. Whitman mobilized his forces and smashed Becker's ring, arresting Becker and his associates for Rosenthal's murder.
Tried Before New York's Hanging Judge
On October 7, 1912, Becker's trial opened, with Judge John W. Goff presiding. Like Whitman, Judge Goff had no tolerance for corruption and had earned a reputation for being one of the toughest judges to sit on the New York bench. Whitman and his assistant prosecutor, Frank Moss, therefore had the advantage over Becker's defense attorneys, John F. McIntyre, Lloyd B. Stryker, and George W. Whiteside. The prosecution lost no time in bringing Rose to the stand and asking him what Becker had said with respect to Rosenthal. Rose replied:
Becker said to me: "There is only one thing to do with a fellow like Rosenthal—just stop him so that he will not bother anybody any more for all time." I said: "What do you mean?" He said: "Well, there is a fellow that ought to be put off the earth." "Why," I says, "I agree with you. He is no account." He said: "Well, no use saying he is no account, and all of that, but the idea is now to do something to him." I says: "What do you mean?" and he said: "There is a fellow I would like to have croaked."
Rose went on to relate how Becker gave the order to murder Rosenthal:
And Becker said: "I don't want him beat up. I could do that myself. I could have a warrant for any gambling house that he frequents and make a raid on that place and beat him up for resisting arrest or anything else. No beating up will fix that fellow, a dog in the eyes of myself, you, and everybody else. Nothing for that man but taken off this earth. Have him murdered, cut his throat, dynamited, or anything."
McIntyre, Becker's lead counsel, was frustrated in his efforts to crossexamine Rose and the other prosecution witnesses by Judge Goff. Goff repeatedly cut McIntyre's questioning short and denied his motions for more time. In their private conferences during breaks in the trial, Becker railed at McIntyre for his seeming ineffectiveness, but McIntyre's strategy was to lay the groundwork for a successful appeal. Goff obliged him, giving final instructions to the jury that went overboard in their bias against Becker:
If it be true that Becker instructed Rose to kill Rosenthal, I instruct you that Becker constituted Rose his agent and instrument in the carrying out of the design; whatever Rose did, Becker in the eyes of the law did.…
It is apparent from this testimony that the main witnesses against the defendant Becker are what are called accomplices. There is no doubt that Rose, Webber, and Vallon are accomplices.
The jury found Becker guilty on October 30, 1912. As McIntyre predicted, the Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial, ruling that Goff committed "gross misconduct" and that Whitman's witnesses were "dangerous and degenerate."
Becker's second trial began May 2, 1914. This time, the judge was Samuel Seabury. McIntyre was tired of representing Becker, and Becker had a new defense team: W. Bourke Cockran, John Johnstone, and Martin Manton. Whitman continued as prosecutor, but without Frank Moss' assistance.
Whitman changed his strategy in the second trial, relying less on Rose and Becker's other thugs and more on James Marshall, a young black man who had been on Becker's payroll as an informant and who had been present when Becker ordered Rose and the others to kill Rosenthal. Unlike the other witnesses, Marshall had not participated in the actual murder and thus Whitman reasoned that if Becker was convicted again, the Court of Appeals would be less likely to criticize the prosecution. Further, Judge Seabury was more scrupulous than Goff in his instructions to the jury. In his closing argument for the defense, Manton tried to convince the jury that Marshall couldn't be trusted because he used to be an informer and because he was black:
Remember this, gentlemen of the jury, the men who accuse Lieutenant Becker would be on trial for murder had they not accused Lieutenant Becker. And the only corroboration of their desperate testimony comes from a little coloured boy whose only motive is that he was paid, fed, clothed and housed by the district attorney; a little coloured boy who was once a police informer, a man who betrays others for pay.
The jury was not swayed, however, and on May 22, 1914, found Charles Becker guilty again. Seabury sentenced Becker to die in the electric chair. This time the conviction was upheld, although Becker's appeals postponed his execution for over a year. During that time, Whitman became a celebrity for his muchpublicized victory. He capitalized on his popularity by running for governor and winning the election on November 3, 1914. Ironically, when Becker's appeals ended, he begged for a pardon from the one man who could give it, now-Governor Whitman. Becker's wife Helen even went to Whitman personally, but to no avail. On July 30, 1915, Becker was executed in the Sing Sing prison electric chair.
Becker's long criminal career included an incident when he beat a young prostitute who had been reluctant to pay protection money he demanded. Stephen Crane witnessed Becker's assault on the defenseless woman and was inspired to write his famous novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Becker's trial and execution would also live on due to its publicity and the attention it focused on urban corruption and the efforts of people such as Whitman to combat it.
—Stephen G. Christianson
Suggestions for Further Reading
Crane, Stephen. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. London: Cassell, 1966.
Delmar, Vina. The Becker Scandal: A Time Remembered. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
Logan, Andy. Against the Evidence: the Becker-Rosenthal Affair. New York: McCall, 1970.
Root, Jonathan. One Night in July: the True Story of the Rosenthal-Becker Murder Case. New York: Coward-McCann, 1961.
. The Life and Bad Times of Charlie Becker: The True Story of a Famous American Murder Trial. London: Secker & Warburg, 1962.