Rothstein_ The Life, Times, And Murder Of The Criminal Genius

David Pietrusza

Part 4

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In the summer of 1904, Becker rescued a man named James Butler who had fallen off a Hudson River pier, earning the highest departmental award for heroism. Two years later, Butler alleged that Becker had promised to pay him for falling into the water and reneged on the promise. Butler hinted that he ended up saving Becker.

Becker was the quintessential bad cop, the type of officer who, if retained at all, should never be presented with even the mildest temptations. So, of course, he was transferred to Captain Max Schmittberger's Tenderloin.

Becker saw the immense sums Schmittberger raked in. Three hundred dollars a month was the going rate for protection, and hundreds of saloons, poolrooms, brothels, and red-light hotels needed protection-protection from people like Lieutenant Becker. One day Becker entered Dollar John Langer's West 38th Street saloon and gambling hall and informed Dollar John that in addition to the usual $300 monthly fee paid to Schmittberger, he would remit an extra $20 to him. Langer paid. Impressed by the ease of that shakedown, Becker made the rounds of the district, collecting at each stop.

The next morning, Schmittberger ordered Becker to see him. He knew all about his subordinate's actions-whom he had visited, how much he had collected. He ordered Becker to hand over the $150 he had acc.u.mulated. He threw $15 back at Becker.

"That's your share, ten percent," Schmittberger snapped. "From now on you're my collector. You'll get ten percent. Some of the joints can stand to pay more than they are and if you can get it so much the better for you. But remember, I'll always know exactly how much they paid." Thus, Charles Becker became Max Schmittberger's bagman. His bankroll grew, and so did his ego.

By 1909 reform was in the air. Tammany, eager to retain power and flexible enough to realize it once again needed a respectable and pliant front man, dumped Mayor George McClellan and turned to irascible, but clean Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice William J. Gaynor. Gaynor was more upright than Tammany would have liked. Almost immediately he broke with the machine, but his reforming was not always easily fathomable. Rather then shut down the city's widespread vice industry, he advocated merely the preservation of "outward order and decency." That didn't mean shutting everything down, but it didn't mean a wide-open town. It meant something in between.

Such a policy needed a sophisticated, intelligent pract.i.tioner-a first-rate, tough, politically savvy police commissioner. Gaynor's first Commissioner, Brooklyn lawyer James C. Cropsey, might have been that man. However, Cropsey quickly resented Gaynor's constant interference and quit.

Gaynor transferred Fire Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo, an energetic but naive socialite, to the job. For reasons not yet understandable (though some say at Tammany's request), Waldo engaged Lieutenant Charles Becker to cleanse the city. Rightfully suspicious of the local precinct houses, Gaynor had created two centralized vice squads-"strong arm squads" to maintain his "outward order and decency." Waldo created a third and named Lieutenant Charles Becker to head it.

Soon Becker basically ran all three squads, collecting graft he never dreamt of. To foster the illusion of activity and integrity (and also to warn those reluctant to pay him bribes), he raided numerous gambling houses. He staged raids on phony houses to further impress Waldo and other gullible observers. He even engaged a press agent, Broadway's Charlie Plitt, to herald his accomplishments.

Charles Becker now required his own bagmen and enforcers. He didn't trust other cops, so he chose as his prime collector a gambler, prizefight promoter, and onetime minor-league baseball manager named Bald Jack Rose (a.k.a. Billiard Ball Jack Rose), so nicknamed because he had not a single hair on his entire body. To help enforce discipline, when a mere raid wouldn't do, Becker relied on the services of one of Manhattan's up-and-coming young hoodlums, Big Jack Zelig, to beat recalcitrants into submission.

Life was good for Becker, but not without problems. Particularly vexatious was veteran East Side gambler Herman "Beansy" Rosenthal, who, in February 1912, opened a gambling house at 104 West 45th Street. Big Tim Sullivan had a soft spot for Beansy Rosenthal. Although they didn't know why, no one could deny that the big Irishman loved the pudgy little Jew. Herman Rosenthal certainly knew it, and thought Big Tim's patronage gave him license to operate anywhere and without paying off anyone.

Becker didn't like the arrangement but lived with it, at least as long as he had to. In early 1912, however, Big Tim's mind began to slip: he was suffering from syphilitic paresis. As Sullivan's faculties went, so did his power.

Becker would now collect from Rosenthal-and, for good measure, collect more from Rosenthal's colleagues. Becker press agent Charlie Plitt had killed a man when Becker raided what the Times called "a Harlem negro gambling resort." Becker raised a Plitt defense fund, a.s.sessing a donation from each gambler in his territory: in Beansy's case, $500. Rosenthal recognized this as a pure shakedown and refused to pay. Bad things started happening to Herman Rosenthal. One night Jack Zelig's crew beat him to a pulp. When Rosenthal still wouldn't pay, Becker took 20 percent of his gambling house. But when Commissioner Waldo demanded to know why certain gambling rooms at 104 West 45th Street remained open, Becker ended up raiding what was now his own place. Feeling doubly betrayed, Rosenthal publicly spouted off against Becker, who retaliated by posting an around-the-clock police guard to shutter Rosenthal's house.

Rosenthal tried telling his story to Mayor Gaynor. Gaynor refused to listen, but Herbert Bayard Swope, now editor of the New York World, would. Swope had Rosenthal narrate his tale in affidavit form, then published an edited version (omitting Becker's name). Becker traveled downtown to the World's office to read the original version, including this pa.s.sage: The first time I met Charles Becker, now a Lieutenant of Police in New York City, and who was holding the same office at the time of our first meeting, was at a ball given by the Order of Elks in Forty-third Street, near Sixth Avenue, and we had a very good evening, drank very freely and we became very good friends. Our next meeting was by appointment on New Year's Eve, 1912, at the Elks Club....

We drank a lot of champagne that night, and later in the morning we were all pretty well under the weather. He put his arms around me and kissed me. He said, "Anything in the world for you, Herman. I'll get up at three o'clock in the morning to do you a favor. You can have anything I've got. " And then he called over his three men, James White, Charles Foy and Charles Steinhart, and he introduced me to the three of them, saying, "This is my best pal and do anything he wants you to do."

Rosenthal also scheduled a meeting with Manhattan's Republican District Attorney Charles Seymour Whitman, a ruthlessly ambitious reformer. The combination of Beansy Rosenthal's allegations and Charles Whitman's power and drive could prove dangerous. Becker now faced numerous unpleasant scenarios, up to and including prison. But even if no indictment resulted, the situation was simply bad for business.

Arnold Rothstein knew everything that transpired on Broadway, including what his old acquaintance Beansy was up to. So did Tammany Boss Tom Foley (one of Big Tim Sullivan's closest allies), who approached Rothstein about silencing Rosenthal. "Get that stupid son of a b.i.t.c.h out of town," Foley ordered.

A. R. dispatched John Shaughnessy, a pitman at his gambling house, to bring Herman to the Rothstein brownstone. Rothstein had little patience for fools, and absolutely none for Rosenthal and his dangerous, stupid game that could sink everyone. Beansy argued that Becker had overstepped his bounds, that Big Tim Sullivan protected him, and no cop had any right to violate that protection.

"The Big Feller isn't here," Rothstein shot back. "And if he was, he'd tell you to keep your trap shut. All you can do is make trouble for a lot of people."

"I don't want to make trouble for anyone, only Becker," Herman protested. "They ask me about anybody else, I won't tell them. Only about Becker." Rothstein didn't believe him.

"They're smarter than you are," A. R. responded. "They're not interested in doing you any favors. Whitman is only interested in Whitman and the Republicans. He'll crucify the Big Feller."

"They can't make me say what I don't want to say," Beansy snapped.

Rothstein got down to business. "Beansy, you've got to get out of town," he said, handing him $500. "Lay away until this thing blows over. Here's enough money to get you out. If you need more, let me know."

But Rosenthal was too stubborn-and stupid-to listen. "I'm not leaving town," he responded. "That's what Becker wants me to do. I'm staying right here."

Herman remained in town, kept shooting off his mouth, but occasionally enjoyed spasms of good judgment. One day he visited Arnold's home. "I've changed my mind," he said. "Give me the money and I'll get out of town."

Rothstein replied icily: "You waited too long."

Beansy didn't realize how desperate his situation had become: "Let me have the five hundred. I'll go 'way someplace and hide."

But the decision had already been made. No one has to pay dead men for silence. "You're not worth five hundred to anyone any more, Beansy," Rothstein responded.

Rosenthal couldn't believe what he heard. "Then you can go to h.e.l.l," he sputtered as he fled Rothstein's home.

On the following night, Monday July 15, 1912, Herman Rosenthal visited Charles Whitman's office, laying out his whole story. Returning from downtown, Rosenthal again visited A. R. and still vacillated, still wanting Rothstein's help. He told Arnold where he'd been and asked if Arnold could help with his rent money.

Rothstein remained uninterested. Beansy wouldn't live long enough to spend the cash. "In that case," said A. R., "if you want money you go and get it from the District Attorney."

Rosenthal walked from A. R.'s 46th Street home down to West 43rd Street, to his favorite haunt, the Metropole Hotel, owned by the Considine Brothers and by none other than Big Tim Sullivan him self-and where Arnold Rothstein had only recently operated the gambling concession. At the Metropole Rosenthal pawed through a pile of newspapers. Each carried stories of his big expose. The publicity pleased him: "Gambler Charges Police Lieutenant Was His Partner," blared Swope's World headline. Beansy liked being a big man, such a big man that n.o.body could touch him. Not Rothstein. Not Becker. Maybe not even Big Tim.

Beansy downed a few drinks (horse's tails-ginger ale with a twist of lemon) and ate his big steak "as if he could take it with him." Usually, a five-man Hungarian orchestra performed at the Metropole, but Monday nights were slow and the Considines hired a ragtime piano player to bang out the "Bunny Hug" and the "Ocean Roll," but there was nothing festive about the atmosphere. Everyone knew something was about to happen. They avoided Herman Rosenthal like the plague. Outside, West 43rd Street was strangely silent. Police shooed pa.s.sersby off the sidewalks. They, too, expected something ...

At 1:40 A.M., someone-witnesses never agreed who-asked Rosenthal: "Can you come outside for a minute, Herman?"

Beansy didn't hesitate. He left a dollar tip (for his eighty-cent bill), put on his hat, and walked outside. A car drove by. Four-maybe five-men got out, firing pistols point-blank at Rosenthal. Five shots. Four hit their target. Three in the head. One in the neck.

Charles Whitman got the news. He had ordered Beansy to stay home, but Beansy clearly had trouble following advice. Whitman realized he should have provided protection to his star witnessalthough obviously there was a problem in providing police protection. Within an hour Whitman arrived at the precinct house nearest the Metropole, the seedy West 47th Street Station, just west of Eighth Avenue. Two things caught his interest. One was Lieutenant Charles Becker's arrival. His presence at the station seemed to confirm Whitman's already-great suspicions. Equally suspicious was the state of the police investigation. Several police officers were patrolling 43rd Street as Rosenthal met his fate. An off-duty police detective was dining at the Metropole. Yet no one apprehended the a.s.sailants. No one in uniform correctly noted the license number of the murder vehicle. Save for the alert eyes of Charles Gallagher, that license number might never have been revealed.

Gallagher, an unemployed cabaret singer walking to the Metropole to inquire about a job, first tried alerting an officer on the murder scene to the correct number: "New York 41313." He was ignored. Gallagher tried again, with Lieutenant Edward Frye. "I got the license number of that car," he repeated.

"We already have it," Frey snarled, shoving him away.

Gallagher went to the precinct house to restate his story. "We got the number," the desk sergeant responded, without grat.i.tude or interest.

In fact, police possessed four different numbers: none Gallagher's, none correct.

"The car went past me-this far away. I know I got it right," Gallagher elaborated.

"Are you a witness?" the sergeant screamed.

Gallagher got the message. The police didn't want the right number. "No sir," he stammered. "I just got the license number. I thought-"

Gallagher never finished. Police threw him into a cell.

Reporters witnessed the scene at the station and told Whitman. He ordered Gallagher brought to him. Police apologized profusely. They had, they said, clearly misunderstood the value of Gallagher's information.

They hadn't. It was extremely valuable and broke the case wide open. Whitman quickly traced "41313" to a 1909 gray Packard touring car owned by one Louis Libby, who rented it out for hire. Libby hadn't chauffeured the car that night, but his partner, William Shapiro, had. Shapiro readily admitted his pa.s.sengers had Beansy Rosenthal. He claimed that Bald Jack Rose-Becker's bagman-had hired the car.

Even before Whitman had interrogated Libby or Shapiro, he knew who the ultimate villain was. The next afternoon, Thursday, July 16, he told reporters: I accuse the police department of New York, through certain members of it, with having murdered Herman Rosenthal.

Either directly or indirectly it was because of them that he was slain in cold blood with never a chance for his life. And the time and place selected were such as to inspire terror in the hearts of those the system had most to fear. It was intended to be a lesson to anyone who might have thought of exposing the alliance between the police and crime.

Just as he was about to give important additional evidence and to give the names of eight or ten men who could and would support his charges; just as the situation shapes up most dangerously for the police involved, he is killed and with him his evidence.

But the case against Lieutenant Becker will be pushed through with all possible vigor, even though it is apparent no conviction can result.

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Whitman spoke too soon. Tammany knew when to cut its losses. Republican investigations had a pattern of failing to deliver the knockout punch. Usually, a cop could be thrown overboard: a Big Bill Devery, a Clubber Williams. There was no need for Charles Whitman to poke around Tammany if a high-profile cop could be sacrificed to protect it, particularly one everyone agreed was crooked to the core. Charles Becker was highly expendable.

It was as if someone in power wanted "The Big Feller" to disappear, and had tried to arrange for it to happen. After all, some said his mental acuity was returning and that he felt like talking about his old friend Beansy Rosenthal.

Meanwhile, Mayor Gaynor had broken completely with Tammany and in September 1913 announced his campaign for reelection as an independent. The next day, badly needing rest, he sailed for Europe aboard the liner Baltic. Back in 1910 Gaynor had narrowly missed, shot in the neck at point-blank range by a deranged former city dockworker. His health never fully recovered. On September 10, His Honor died in his sleep as the Baltic approached the Irish coast.

On the afternoon of October 5, 1913, two days before Charles Becker's trial began, an inebriated Big Jack Zelig exited Siegel's Coffeehouse on Second Avenue and boarded a northbound streetcar. A block later, a tall man jumped on, worked his way toward Zelig, aimed his .38 caliber revolver and shot Big Jack behind the left ear. Thirty-year-old all-around hoodlum Red Phil Davidson said he murdered Zelig because Big Jack had robbed him of $400 (or $1,800, depending on which story he told). n.o.body believed him.

Zelig had said publicly that he wouldn't testify against Becker. The defense had scheduled him as one of their witnesses. District Attorney Whitman had claimed he would actually end up testifying for the prosecution. n.o.body ever really knew what Big Jack Zelig had to say. We do know that someone didn't want him to say it.

In this miasma of disgrace and death, Charles Becker finally stood trial in October 1913. Bald Jack Rose's story had already been leaked to the papers. He told of his approaching Zelig to kill Rosenthal. Zelig, then jailed on cooked-up concealed weapon charges, had refused. Rose then traveled to the Bronx to convince Lefty Louie and Whitey Lewis to Rosenthal on Becker's behalf. When Lefty and Whitey protested that they no longer carried guns ("We don't carry them anymore since this trouble of Zelig's"), Rose warned them that if they didn't off Rosenthal, Becker would have them arrested anyway. "Well, it don't make any difference. Zelig didn't have one [a gun] either. Now if you go downtown at all, you are gone [framed]," he said. They came onboard.

Rose claimed that Rosenthal was to have been killed on an evening in early July while dining at West 50th Street's Garden Restaurant. But when his spotted private detectives (whom they believed to be in Whitman's employ), they retreated. This incensed Becker, who told Rose: "All that's necessary is to walk right up to where [Rosenthal] is and blaze away at him and leave the rest to me. Nothing will happen to anybody that does it. I will take care of that ... Walk up and shoot him before a policeman if you want to. There ain't nothing to fear."

Rose also revealed to the press that he phoned Becker from a public phone booth in the Times Building, at 3:00 A.M., one hour after Rosenthal's murder. "h.e.l.lo there, did you hear the news?" he asked. "Yes," Becker responded, "and I congratulate you."

Rose told of meeting Becker after the police lieutenant witnessed Beansy Rosenthal lying lifeless at the West 47th Street station house. Said Becker: It was a pleasing sight to me to see that squealing Jew lying there and if it had not been for the presence of Whitman I would have cut out his tongue and hung it on the Times Building as a warning to future squealers.

During the actual trial, Rose held the room spellbound, revealing such other details as when Becker ordered: I don't want [Rosenthal] beat up. I could do that myself. I could have a warrant for any gambling house that he frequents and make a raid on that place and beat him up for resisting arrest or anything else. No beating up will fix that fellow, a dog in the eyes of myself, you, and everybody else. Nothing for that man but taken off this earth. Have him murdered, cut his throat, dynamited, or anything.

Bald Jack Rose proved as effective a witness as a prosecutor could desire-the right mixture of the straightforward and the dramatic. Bridgey Webber and Harry Vallon provided reasonably credible accounts, but other prosecution witnesses were virtually worthless. Sam Schepps' tale, a narrative of wide-eyed innocence told by a smirking con man, proved completely unbelievable, as did most of Whitman's shady supporting cast. Charles Becker refused to take the stand. Presiding judge John W. Goff (appointed to the case by Tammany-backed Governor John Dix) ran roughshod over Becker's counsel John F. McIntyre and in his charge to jurors reported every prosecution allegation as fact. The jury had no trouble sending a corrupt cop like Becker to the chair. If justice and the law collided, justice would triumph.

The New York State Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, had other ideas. In a blistering decision, it ripped Rose, Webber, Vallon, and especially Schepps as "dangerous and degenerate" and unworthy of belief. It condemned judge Goff's handling of the case: ... the defendant certainly was ent.i.tled to a scrupulously fair and impartial trial where nothing should be done to prejudice his case or to obscure the minds of the jurors ... We do not think that the defendant had such a trial. We think that he suffered grievously from the erroneous disposition both of questions of law and discretion.

In May 1914 Charles Becker received a new trial. His first conviction resulted largely from Sam Schepps's corroborating testimony. Now Schepps's word was less than worthless. District Attorney Whitman (seriously thinking of running for governor in that year, with the Democrats now at each other's throats) badly needed another conviction and, to obtain one, another corroborating witness. He got one in James Marshall, a black professional buck-and-wing dancer, and former stoolie for Lieutenant Becker.

In Becker's first trial, Rose, Webber, and Vallon claimed they met Becker at West 124th Street and Seventh Avenue. There, Becker impatiently ordered Webber to stop dallying and move ahead with murder. "Before Bridgie arrived Becker was telling us he was going to raid a c.r.a.p game," Harry Vallon noted, adding what seemed to be irrelevant detail to his account. "There was a little colored boy on the other side of the street and [Becker] called him over and spoke to him."

In April 1914 Whitman located the "little colored boy"-Mar- shall; put him on his payroll; and convinced him to testify that he had seen Becker, Rose, and company on that Harlem street corner. That same month, Gyp the Blood, Lefty Louis, Whitey Lewis, and Dago Frank went to the chair at Sing Sing, each protesting his innocence to the end.

When Becker stood trial again in May 1914, it was a less acrimonious replay of his first trial, with a significantly altered cast of characters. The patrician, and more even-tempered, judge Samuel W. Seabury replaced Goff. James Marshall subst.i.tuted for Sam Schepps as chief corroborating witness, and Becker had two new attorneys, W. Bourke c.o.c.kran and Martin T. Manton.

Manton was an unknown, but the Irish-born c.o.c.kran had served in Congress, as a judge, and, more importantly, as Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall. He was a brilliant orator-Winston Churchill modeled his speaking style upon c.o.c.kran's. Decades later Churchill could rattle off long pa.s.sages of c.o.c.kran's oratory. c.o.c.kran didn't want to defend Becker, but old friends in Tammany convinced him otherwise. When Seabury rejected c.o.c.kran's very first motion, that a prejudicial atmosphere existed and the trial be postponed, c.o.c.kran walked off the case.

Becker and Manton still thought they couldn't lose. Whitman's case was too flimsy, his witnesses too untrustworthy. Judge Seabury instructed the jury on May 22, 1913. They came back in one hour and fifty minutes. The verdict: guilty.

Becker's team couldn't believe that a jury unhectored by the likes of a judge Goff could convict him. That his fate hung upon James Marshall's testimony particularly rankled Becker. From Sing Sing, he wrote: "You must know that the testimony of the little c.r.a.pshooting c.o.o.n was pure and unalloyed perjury of the ranking kind ..."

His accusation was soon substantiated. In February 1915 Philadelphia police arrested Marshall for wife-beating. At the station house Mrs. Marshall charged her husband with telling "all them lies about that policeman in New York." Two reporters witnessed her outburst and printed her charges. Marshall admitted his wife's claim-then retracted his retraction.

The controversy surrounding James Marshall's testimony provided Becker and Manton with hope, and Manton filed a 540-page brief with the Court of Appeals. For good measure, Manton charged Seabury with "extreme partiality." This time-even with Marshall's flip-flopping-the court had no trouble affirming Becker's conviction.

In November 1914 New Yorkers had elected a new governor. While Becker's team had counted on a second trial, and now lost it, the governor they would have to appeal to for mercy-mercy, not justice-was their nemesis, Charles Seymour Whitman.

Whitman would not extend it.

Becker had one card left to play: the King of Spades himself, Big Tim Sullivan. On July 21, 1915-less than a fortnight before his scheduled execution-Becker released a 10,000-word apologia for not only his dealings with Herman Rosenthal and Bald Jack Rose, but for his entire soiled career. Becker finally introduced Sullivan into the drama, contending that the kindly old "Big Fellow" had innocently loaned $12,500 to Rosenthal for what turned out to be Beansy's gambling house, and Big Tim, fearing his name might be dragged into controversy if Beansy kept talking, wanted the gambler silenced. As Becker told it, he-Becker-merely wanted Rosenthal left alone: My private telephone rang, and a man describing himself as Mr. [Harry] Applebaum, Senator Sullivan 's private secretary, said the Senator wanted to see me. He said the matter was urgent and the Senator must see me tonight and added, "I will call for you in about thirty minutes in an automobile and take you down to meet him." Mr. Applebaum appeared, accompanied by Jack Rose, and said the Senator was waiting at the Circle Theater. All three of us went to Sixtieth Street, where Sullivan stepped out of a limousine and invited me to his private office. We went up two flights of stairs, and on entering his room, he asked me. "What about this Rosenthal affair?" I said. "There's nothing of it," he said. "It must not be allowed to go any further. Rosenthal has gone so far now, he can't be stopped. He must be got away. "

"That, " I said at once, "would be the very worst thing could happen to us. Everybody would say that either you or I had caused his disappearance, and naturally it would seem that, if we induced him to leave, it must be because he had something discreditable to reveal."

The Senator answered. "Where a fire of this kind is started, there is no knowing where it will reach. Rosenthal has always been very close to me politically and personally, and once inquiry starts they reach into election matters. And secret investigations of elections by grand juries have always been sources of great trouble. Whatever happens in this row between you two, I want you to promise me that you will never mention the fact that I spoke to you about letting Rosenthal open." This promise I gave. He expressed very warm appreciation of my att.i.tude, and coming downstairs, just as we emerged from the building, he said: "I would give $5,000-yes, $5,000-to have prevented this thing or to stop it now if I could. "

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