Charles Becker

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Big Bear and Pepe Millard
Mon 18 Jul 2011 22:49
Charles Becker







Charles Becker (born on the 26th of July 1870) was a New York City police officer, who was tried, convicted and executed for ordering the murder of a Manhattan gambler, Herman Rosenthal in the Becker-Rosenthal trial. Becker was 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 in the 1890's to the 1910's.


Early life: Charles Becker was born to a German-American family 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, 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, the man ruling on the preceding, dismissal of the case. Afterword 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 the 15th of October 1896 when he entered surrounded by a phalanx of policemen. Commissioner Frederick Grant, son of Ulysses S. Grant, headed the preceding 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.





Reform movement: 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; this 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.


Criminal Activities: Becker 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. Rosenthal, a small time bookmaker, 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. He 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. In the midst of a major public outcry, Lt. Becker was transferred to the Bronx and assigned to desk duty.





Becker (centre) being escorted to Sing Sing



Arrest, trial and execution: On the 29th of July 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 the 30th of July 1915, professing his innocence. After a Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, Charles Becker was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx, on the 2nd of August 1915.





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." (The last time the electric chair was used in Sing Sing was in 1963 after being used on 614 men and women, it was moved in working condition to Greenhaven Prison but was never used again). Sing Sing Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison of the New York State Department of Correctional Services in the town of Ossining, New York. It is located approximately thirty miles north of New York City along the banks of the Hudson River. Ossining's original name, "Sing Sing", came from the Native American Sinck Sinck tribe from whom the land was purchased in 1685. 


Personality: Although undeniably corrupt, Charles Becker's contemporaries testified that he was also markedly intelligent, particularly by the standards prevalent within the NYPD at that time. He showed little interest in the after-hours drinking activities of his police colleagues, preferring to return home to help his wife, a special needs schoolteacher, mark her pupils' homework. On Death Row, he gained the respect of his fellow prisoners by reading aloud to them for hours at a time from newspapers and Western dime novels. 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.


Controversy: 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. A thinly fictionalized version of the murder is also described by mob boss Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.