100 Years After a Murder, Questions About a Police Officer’s Guilt

Today, the only sign that cash once flowed bountifully is the sleek bank branch on the ground floor of the black glass skyscraper. A century ago, the nondescript high-stooped brownstone that stood at 104 West 45th Street in Midtown masked a more pretentious interior. The lavish red-carpeted second floor was dominated by a cabinet of Japanese curios, bogus copies of masterpiece paintings, and expensive faro and custom-built roulette gaming tables.

This particular illegal gambling den was one of several owned by Herman Rosenthal, known as Beansy, a flamboyantly indiscreet Estonian immigrant from the Lower East Side. Rosenthal had high hopes that his establishment would thrive in Manhattan’s competitive tenderloin district under the patronage of Big Tim Sullivan, the local Democratic political boss, and the protection of a silent partner, Lt. Charles Becker, a member of the Police Department’s vice squad and a towering former beer hall bouncer.

Rosenthal’s casino opened on March 20, 1912. Barely a month later, Becker raided it to appease his nominal boss, the reformist Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.

Rosenthal was so furious at Becker’s betrayal and the damage the strong arm squad inflicted that his bitterness got the best of him: He publicly claimed that Becker not only held a mortgage on the place, but that he also collected 20 percent of the take. Three months later, at 2 a.m. on July 16, 1912, only hours before Rosenthal was to testify before a Manhattan grand jury, he was murdered outside a Midtown hotel. Becker was accused of the crime.

After two trials and countless appeals, Becker died in the electric chair at Sing Sing — becoming perhaps the only police officer executed for crimes connected to his official performance. The Becker-Rosenthal affair became the police corruption case of the century — a crime that was recounted in “The Great Gatsby.” The case popularized a cocktail named the Jack Rose, cost Waldo his job, catapulted District Attorney Charles S. Whitman into the governorship and still reverberates three generations later in the Becker family.

Regardless of whether Becker was corrupt — his assets wildly exceeded his police salary — questions lingered about his guilt of first degree murder. His conviction at his first trial was overturned for lack of corroboration by independent witnesses. In 1970, Andy Logan marshaled a convincing argument in her book “Against the Evidence” that Becker was framed.

“She makes a good case, but I say, yes, he was guilty,” said Thomas A. Reppetto, a police historian. “He had all the motive in the world, all the guys involved said it was him, and all his life he was a terribly reckless guy” (Becker had been accused of arresting people on false charges and of accepting bribes.)

In another book, “Satan’s Circus,’’ published in 2007, Mike Dash, a British journalist, also made a case that Becker was wrongfully convicted. He, too, argued that Whitman was initially disinclined to give credence to Rosenthal’s charges until he was hounded by Herbert Bayard Swope, a reporter for The World. The book also claimed that arrangements had already been made by fellow mobsters not to kill Rosenthal, but to silence him by buying him off and spiriting him out of town.

Instead, the 38-year-old Rosenthal, who lived in the same brownstone as his gambling den, was gunned down outside the Metropole Hotel on West 43rd Street by four gangsters who evaded the gambler’s hapless bodyguard, a convicted pickpocket named Boob Walker. They pulled up in a Packard touring car armed with weapons and explicative nicknames: Gyp the Blood, Lefty Louie, Dago Frank and Whitey Lewis.

A young reporter, Alexander Woollcott, rushed over from The New York Times to cover the violence.

At Becker’s trial in the Jefferson Market Court House in Greenwich Village, the prosecution’s chief witness was Jack Rose, a gambler whose namesake cocktail was a mixture of applejack, grenadine and lemon or lime juice. He testified that Becker engineered the murder and, through a mobster, enlisted the hitmen (they were tried separately from Rosenthal, convicted and executed).

The driver of the Packard and three accomplices, including Rose, were granted immunity from prosecution.

The judge in Becker’s first trial was a fanatical foe of police corruption. In the second, conducted before a more sober judge named Samuel Seabury, the only independent corroborating eyewitness, as called for by the appeals court, was a waiter who said he overheard the conspirators.

Becker was a big man. His electrocution on July 30, 1915, took nine minutes. From the grave, he sought to have the last word in the form of a silver plate affixed to his coffin and engraved with the epitaph: “Charles Becker. Murdered July 13, 1915. By Governor Whitman.” Before he was buried, authorities alert to libel ordered the plate removed.

Becker was defended to the very end, and even after, by his indefatigable third wife, Helen, a schoolteacher and later an assistant elementary school principal, who died in 1962. “He was not an angel; he never made a pretense of being one,” she once said. “He was just an ordinary human being, and that is why I loved him so.”

Their son Henry grew up to become a prominent sociologist. Henry’s son, Christopher, taught history at Yale and Quinnipiac in Connecticut. Christopher’s son, Andrew (Charlie Becker’s great-grandson), is a doctoral student in environmental science at Stanford. He recalled that his father learned of his relation to the convicted murderer only in adulthood.

“There was a strong denial of the incident, which only was revealed when my father happened upon a cousin who lived in Canada,” Andrew Becker, 40, said. “The cousin mentioned to my father ‘the black sheep in the family.’ He quickly realized that his own father had deeply hidden this story from the children.”

“I think our family is in agreement that Charlie was framed and used as a scapegoat,” he said. “If nothing else, the Charlie Becker story has turned our family firmly against capital punishment,” he continued, adding that a cousin is a lawyer who does anti-death-penalty work.

“Perhaps if he had been given life in prison, things would have turned out differently once the political tide had turned. Perhaps he would have been exonerated in later years or new evidence would have come to light,” Mr. Becker said. “While Charlie may have been guilty of other crimes, he was put finally to death for a crime he did not commit.”

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Fire Causes Smoke and Panic at the South Street Seaport

7:28 p.m. | Updated A fire at the South Street Seaport sent plumes of black smoke billowing over Lower Manhattan on Saturday afternoon, obscuring the Brooklyn Bridge and causing hundreds of people to flee the crowded shopping pavilion at Pier 17.

The three-alarm fire began shortly before 4 p.m. and was concentrated around the pier, according to the police and fire officials. It seemed to be under control by 5 p.m. and there were no immediate reports of injuries, the officials said.

Pier 17 was converted into a vast shopping pavilion in 1985 and was largely constructed out of wood. The pier was crowded with shoppers when the fire began.

Jillian Miller, 24, from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said she was working at Claire’s, an accessories store, when the fire broke out.

“All of a sudden people were coming into the store yelling, ‘Fire! Fire!’”

“We just ran,” she said. “It was very dramatic.”

She was joined by hundreds of other workers and shoppers, who knew only that the black smoke was growing thicker by the minute.

Jenitza Rodriguez, 29, from Baldwin on Long Island, was on the second floor of the pavilion when people around her began to panic, she said.

“Black smoke was coming through the door,” she said. “It smelled like an electrical fire.”

Dozens of police officers and firefighters quickly arrived at the scene, both by land and water.

James Long, a Fire Department spokesman, said in a telephone call with reporters that 33 units and 140 firefighters responded to a call at 3:52 p.m. reporting a fire at Pier 17. It took about two hours to bring the fire fully under control, he said.

The department used water hoses stretched from trucks, and department vessels streaming water from the East River to fight the flames.

“There were heavy smoke conditions,” Mr. Long said, and added that “visibility was a question.”

Using power saws, firefighters cut half a dozen or more holes in the wooden decking of the pier — some about four feet by eight feet, some larger — to reach the flames underneath. The fire might have been building slowly for some time before it became evident, Mr. Long said.

Firefighters descended beneath the decking, which is not generally accessible, to reach the fire, which was fueled by wooden pilings and supports.

“It was a challenge to get down to it,” Mr. Long said. “The only way to access it was to cut through and cut away the decking area.”

Because of the holes and the fire damage, “there are questions about the stability off the pier,” Mr. Long said, adding that the eastern half of the pier would remain closed for a time.

But businesses on the half of the pier closest to South Street would stay open, he said.

Fire marshals were investigating the cause of the fire, Mr. Long said, and the New York City Buildings Department would assess the pier’s structure and stability. As of 9 p.m., the department had determined that the pier was structurally sound, a spokeswoman for the agency said.

The fire prompted many people to post excited comments and photographs on Twitter and other social media sites.

But the excitement faded quickly and by 5 p.m., a music festival taking place at the Seaport had resumed.

The pavilion was described as “an instant urban landmark” in the fourth edition of the “A.I.A. Guide to New York City” in 2000.

It has, however, had a hard time generating revenue since it opened. The Howard Hughes Corporation, which owns and runs the South Street Seaport retailing network, is seeking to turn Pier 17 into a glass-clad shed dominated by two 60,000-square-foot sales floors on the upper level.

Since it is part of the South Street Seaport Historic Landmark District, any changes have to be approved by the city. There has been much discussion in recent months about what might take its place if it is allowed to be demolished.

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