||New York| Charles Becker
Birth: July 26, 1870
Death: July 30, 1915
Charles Becker was a New York police officer executed for allegedly ordering the murder of a Manhattan gambler, Herman Rosenthal. Becker was the first American police officer executed for murder and the scandal that surrounded his arrest, conviction, and execution was one of the most important in Progressive Era New York.
Charles Becker was born to a German-American family in the village of Callicoon 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 Police Department (NYPD) in November 1893. Becker first came to public notice in the fall of 1896 when he arrested a prostitute named Ruby Young on Broadway. Young was in the company of the novelist Stephen Crane, who appeared in court next day to refute Becker's allegations against her.
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 Police Commissioner in 1911 he had Becker, by then a lieutenant, appointed as head of one of the city's three anti-vice Strong Arm Squads.
Al Capone with a Badge
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 cops. In July 1912 he was named in the New York World as one of three corrupt police officers involved in the case of Herman Rosenthal. Rosenthal, a small time Jewish bookmaker, had complained to the press that his illegal businesses had been badly damaged by the greed of the city's corrupt police officers. Rosenthal was gunned down on West 46th Street two days after his story appeared in the newspapers. In the aftermath, the District Attorney, Charles S. Whitman, made no secret of his belief that the gangsters who killed him had committed the murder at Becker's behest.
Arrest, Trial and Execution
Becker was arrested on July 29, 1912, and tried and convicted of first degree murder that fall. The verdict was overturned on appeal on the grounds that the trial judge, John Goff, had been biased against the defendant. However, a retrial in 1914 reaffirmed his conviction. Although contemporary newspapers were unanimous in asserting his guilt, Becker went to the electric chair in Sing Sing on July 30, 1915, protesting his innocence. After a Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, Charles Becker was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, on 2 August 1915.
Although undeniably a brutal and extremely corrupt officer, contemporaries testified that Charles Becker 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. 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. According to this theory, District Attorney Whitman manipulated the evidence to implicate the corrupt Lieutenant, knowing that a guilty verdict for Becker would help his own political career.
The Becker-Rosenthal murder is the subject of Michael Bookman's God's Rat: Jewish Mafia on the Lower East Side. A thinly fictionalized version of the murder is also described by mob boss Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
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