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.”