|Born||July 26, 1870
Calicoon Center, Sullivan County, New York
|Died||July 30, 1915
Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York
Howard P. Becker and Charlotte Becker
|Department||New York City Police Department (NYPD)|
|Years of service||1893–1912|
|Other work||convicted of first degree murder|
Charles Becker (July 26, 1870 – July 30, 1915) was a Lieutenant in the New York City Police Department between the 1890s and 1910s. He is best known for being tried, convicted and executed for the murder of a Manhattan gambler, Herman Rosenthal. After the Becker-Rosenthal trial, Charles Becker became the first American police officer to receive the death penalty for murder. The scandal that surrounded his arrest, conviction, and execution was one of the most important in Progressive Era New York City.
Charles Becker was born to a German-American family from Bavaria in the village of Calicoon Center, Sullivan County, New York. He arrived in New York City in 1890 and went to work as a bouncer in a German beer hall just off the Bowery before joining the New York City Police Department in November 1893. Becker received national attention in the fall of 1896 when he arrested a known prostitute named Ruby Young (alias Dora Clark) on Broadway. The notoriety of the case was due to one of Young's companions, the writer Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage. The next day at Ruby Young's hearing Stephen Crane stepped forward and defended Ruby Young. The word of the then highly popular Stephen Crane weighed heavily on the sentencing of Young, resulting in the Magistrate Robert C. Cornell dismissing the case. Afterwards Stephen Crane told reporters, "If the girl will have the officer prosecuted for perjury, I will gladly support her." Three weeks following the trial Ruby pressed formal charges against Becker. Becker knew he was in a precarious situation and prepared in three ways. Becker gathered evidence, hired the experienced lawyer Louis Grant, and rallied the support of his colleagues. This allowed Becker to make a powerful entrance to his trial on October 15, 1896 when he entered surrounded by a phalanx of policemen. Commissioner Frederick Grant, son of Ulysses S. Grant, headed the proceeding and after almost five hours of examination Becker was acquitted. The trial taught Becker the power of the badge and how he could call on his colleagues for help.
In 1902 and 1903 Becker was one of the leaders of a patrolman's reform movement agitating for the introduction of the Three Platoon System, which would have significantly reduced the number of hours the beat police officer was expected to work. In 1906 he was seconded to a special unit working out of police headquarters to probe the alleged corruption of Police Inspector Max Schmittberger, who had been widely hated within the NYPD since giving detailed testimony to the 1894 Lexow Committee investigating police corruption in New York. Partly as a result of Becker's work, Schmittberger subsequently stood trial, and Deputy Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo was so satisfied with his work that when Waldo became New York City Police Commissioner in 1911, he had Becker, by then a lieutenant, appointed as head of one of the city's three anti-vice squads.
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Becker allegedly used his position to extort substantial sums, later shown to total in excess of $100,000, from Manhattan brothels and illegal gambling casinos in exchange for immunity from police interference. Percentages of the take were regularly delivered to politicians and other policemen. In July 1912, he was named in the New York World as one of three senior police officials involved in the case of Herman Rosenthal, a small time bookmaker who had complained to the press that his illegal casinos had been badly damaged by the greed of Becker and his associates. Two days after the story appeared, Rosenthal walked out of the Hotel Metropole at 147 West 43rd Street, just off Times Square. Rosenthal was gunned down by a crew of Jewish gangsters from the Lower East Side, Manhattan. In the aftermath, Manhattan District Attorney Charles S. Whitman, who had made an appointment with Rosenthal before his death, made no secret of his belief that the gangsters had committed the murder at Becker's behest. Amid a major public outcry, Becker was transferred to the Bronx and assigned to desk duty.
Arrest, trial and execution
On July 29, 1912, Becker was approached at the precinct's closing hour by special detectives from the District Attorney's Office and placed under arrest. He was tried and convicted of first degree murder that fall. The verdict was overturned on appeal on the grounds that the presiding judge, John Goff, had been biased against the defendant. However, a retrial in 1914 affirmed his conviction. Although contemporary newspapers were unanimous in asserting his guilt, Becker went to the electric chair in Sing Sing on July 30, 1915, professing his innocence. Becker was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx, on August 2, 1915.
The day before he died on July 30, 1915, Becker told the warden,
"Sure, I told them to put Rosenthal out of the way, but I didn't mean they should kill him. I wanted them to get him out of town so he wouldn't blab. Killing him was Rose's idea and the others. They wanted to save their own skins."
Jack Rose was one of the prosecution witnesses along with Harry Vallon, Sam Schepps and Bridgey Webber. Underworld figures who were involved in the crime and promised immunity if they would testify against Becker.
Becker's electrocution took nine minutes, causing him intense agony, and was described for years afterward as "the clumsiest execution in the history of Sing Sing."
Becker's only son, Howard P. Becker, later became Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. A daughter, Charlotte Becker, conceived shortly before his arrest, died in 1913, less than a day after her birth, and is buried alongside him at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Several later authors, beginning with Henry Klein in 1927, have suggested that Becker was wrongly convicted. According to this theory, Becker and his fellow officers had simply stood back and allowed "the street" to "take care of" Rosenthal, knowing that his cooperation would put a huge target on his back. Allegedly, District Attorney Whitman then manipulated the evidence to implicate the corrupt Lieutenant, knowing that a guilty verdict for Becker would help his own political aspirations.
The Becker-Rosenthal murder is the subject of Michael Bookman's God's Rat: Jewish Mafia on the Lower East Side and Mike Dash's Satan's Circus. It also figures prominently in the 1999 novel Dreamland by Kevin Baker. A thinly fictionalized version of the murder is also described by mob boss Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- Mike Dash, Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century (Reprint, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008), 329.
- Cohen, Stanley, (2006) "The Execution of Officer Becker; The Murder of a Gambler, the Trial of a Cop, and the Birth of Organized Crime."
- Dash, Mike (2007). "Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption and New York's Trial of the Century"
- Klein, Henry (1927). Sacrificed: The Story of Police Lieut. Charles Becker. New York: Privately published.
- Logan, Andy (1970). Against The Evidence: The Becker-Rosenthal Affair. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
- Pietrusza, David (2003) Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series. New York: Carroll & Graf. (contains a detailed chapter on the Becker-Rosenthal case)
- "Three Platoon system urged by policemen." August 21, 1902. New York Times.
- Entire Force Of Patrolmen In Revolt April 6, 1902. New York Times
- The Strong Arm Squad a terror to the gangs. August 13, 1911. New York Times
- "My Story, by Mrs Charles Becker." December, 1914. McClure's Magazine.
- "The Becker case: view of 'The System.'" November 11, 1951. New York Times Magazine.
- Killer Cop: Charles Becker by Mark Gado at the Crime Library
- Key Figures in Jefferson Market History - Charles Becker by Patty Slezak
- People v. Seidenshner 210 NY 341
- People v. Becker 210 NY 274
- People v. Becker 215 NY 126
- Charles Becker at Find a Grave