SATAN’S CIRCUS: MURDER, VICE, POLICE CORRUPTION AND NEW YORK’S TRIAL OF THE CENTURY by Mike Dash (Crown), 449 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NNN
Grimy early-20th-century New York City is the setting for this colourful, well-crafted historical tale of a bad cop and the corrupt system he served to death – literally. It shows that the U.S. has been executing innocent people for a long time.
Lieutenant Charley Becker was the unluckiest corrupt cop in U.S. history. Many police officers have been on the take, but Becker was the only one ever executed. And he just happened to be innocent of the crime that sent him to the chair in 1915.
Becker’s beat during the early years of the last century was a seedy yet vibrant crime-ridden neighbourhood known as Satan’s Circus.
Corruption in New York in Becker’s time was a top-down enterprise controlled by an omnipotent political machine called Tammany Hall. Mayors and other powerful bosses with their hands on the machine’s levers grew rich on graft, protected by an equally corrupt legal system.
Becker’s take came from shaking down gambling operations, offering protection from police raids in exchange for cash. One of the gamblers he targeted was a failed pimp named Herman Rosenthal.
When Becker couldn’t prevent a raid on his gambling joint, Rosenthal ratted out the policeman to a politically ambitious district attorney and New York’s yellow press. But the night before he was supposed to meet the DA, Rosenthal was whacked outside a late-night restaurant. Naturally, crooked cop Becker was suspect number one.
Social reformers pounced on Rosenthal’s murder and used Becker’s arrest as a hammer to try to smash the Tammany machine.
And when the district attorney who convicted him was elected governor of New York on the strength of the case, you didn’t need to be a gambler to know it was a good bet Becker was a goner.