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The Cop and The Corpse
ABOUT two hours after midnight on the morning of July 16, 1912, a gambler sauntered from the dining room of New York's Hotel Metropole on Forty-third Street and stepped out to the street. Except for four young men and one or two passers-by it was deserted. The four men walked up to about nine feet from where the gambler stood under the entrance lights. They were Louis Rosenburg, called Lefty Louie, Jacob Seidensheimer, known as Whitey Lewis, Dago Frank (Frank Cirofici), and Gyp the Blood (Harry Horowitz).
Lefty Louie cursed sharply and savagely and all of them drew pistols. Lefty fired first and three more shots followed within seconds. The man was dead when Lefty Louie fired a final shot for good measure. The four killers ran across the street and piled into a gray touring car that lost no time in speeding away.
From the back of the Metropole dining room a policeman who was off duty heard shots, ran to the entrance (where he tripped over the body), and saw the car pull away. He dared not shoot for fear of hitting a pedestrian. With two more policemen who had come running he grabbed a taxi and gave chase, but the escape car disappeared. Standing on the corner of Sixth Avenue were a clerk and an actor who caught the car's license plate number and later reported it to the police.
A crowd gathered in the night and jammed the street, where the body lay under a tablecloth till a doctor arrived and pronounced the man dead. The body was taken in a patrol wagon to the West Forty-seventh Street police station.
"Sudden death . . . Herman Rosenthal . . . 38, white, U.S. gambler," wrote the lieutenant in charge on the entry blotter. Herman Rosenthal's was no ordinary gangland slaying. Herman Rosenthal was no ordinary gambler.
His career had begun as a bookie at local tracks. Next he opened third-rate gamblina traps at 123 Second Avenue and 39 East Seventh Street, which were closed down early in 1909 by District Attorney William Travers Jerome.
When Rosenthal decided to give Kuhloff's gambling house in Far Rockaway a little competition, Kuhloff used his influence to have Rosenthal's place raided and shut. Police intervention finished a series of his other gambling establishments after that the Mauretania, the Roselle, the Hesper Club, and three others. Undaunted, Rosenthal abandoned the Second Avenue district for Broadway. His pretentious house at 104 West Fortyfifth Street opened brilliantly. One Baldy Jack Rose had apparently seen to the police protection, but according to Police Lieutenant Charles Becker, who seemed to know, Rosenthal and Rose had a falling out on the first night. As soon as prize client John Freeman dropped $6000, Rosenthal grabbed half of it to pay his personal debts. He then "brought in two gambler friends to whom he ostensibly lost the balance, but had in reality paid each of his friends One Hundred Dollars each for their part as dummies, and kept Two Thousand Eight Hundred Dollars." Rose, enraged, seems to have withdrawn the protective influence, because the house was later invaded by the police twice and nearly ruined by bombs.
Police raids ceased when Rosenthal took Police Lieutenant Becker on as a 20 per cent partner.
Charles Becker had spent his adult life on the police force, climbing in seventeen years to lieutenant. In 1911, because of his intelligence and courage, he was picked to head Special Squad No. 1 (the strong-arm squad) to suppress gambling and quell roughnecks. He was directly responsible to Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.
After a lush period in the partnership Becker began needling Rosenthal to allow a false raid, claiming that "Waldo wanted to `get' Rosenthal." Rosenthal refused to go along with this. On April 13 Becker telephoned him that "a certain party" wanted to see Rosenthal that evening at Pabst's, a place on Fifty-ninth Street and Broadway.
Rosenthal kept the rendezvous but grew uneasy when nobody turned up to meet him. Rushing back to his house on Forty-fifth Street, he found the door smashed, windows broken, a patrol wagon outside, and several cops on guard. He said later that one of them who knew him told him to get away, adding, "It's all right. Everything is all right. It's Charlie making the raid and it's all right."
After waiting across the street until the coast was clear, Rosenthal found, to his fury, that his gambling tables and equipment had been wrecked and his seventeen-year-old nephew and a friend hauled off, charged with being common gamblers. Mrs. Rosenthal reported that Becker told her that he made the raid to "save himself" with Waldo. He would stand $1500 worth of the damage (Becker held a note of Rosenthal's for $1500) and told her, "You tell Herman he and I are even."
The next day in court Becker told Rosenthal to waive examination so the raid would look real. Rosenthal followed this advice and several days later had a talk with Becker and they parted on bad terms. In a week the grand jury returned an indictment against Rosenthal's nephew and friend. Rosenthal later claimed that he called up to ask Becker why he had not kept his word and the police lieutenant said that he had a big mouth and that he, Becker,did not want to talk to him. Uniformed policemen had been standing eight-hour shifts, twenty-four hours a day in an upstairs bedroom of Rosenthal's place (which was also his home) since the raid and Beeker said that they were there to stay and that Rosenthal "would be driven out of New York." The conversation ended with Becker telling Rosenthal to go to hell and slamming down the receiver.
Four days before he was killed, Herman Rosenthal went to police court and complained to the magistrate that the police of the district were exercising their authority cruelly and unjustly by keeping men posted at his gambling house, which was also his home. A copper on the premises not only violated the tenet that a man's home is his castle, but frightened away business. When the magistrate refused to clear his house of flatfeet, Rosenthal talked freely to the reporters who had followed him to court. On July 13 the World carried a long interview in which the gambler made accusations against several police officers, and on July 14, two days before he was killed, a sworn affidavit in which Rosenthal charged Lieutenant Becker with being his partner in an illegal enterprise. Becker, he said further, was averaging $10,000 a month in tribute money from gaming houses, and intimated that men "higher up" were riding the same gravy train.
Leery of Rosenthal's reputation, no paper printed the significant statement that Becker was "the whole damned system." When Becker's attorney demanded the affidavit and said that his client planned to sue Rosenthal for criminal libel, the World promised to give them the original affidavit after it appeared in the paper. Later it came out, according to the press, that Becker's bank balance was $100,000. Mrs. Becker claimed that it was never more than $40,000, still a fat bundle for a man on a $2250 yearly salary.
Rose.nthal made two appointments for the morning of July 16. One was with the grand jury to expatiate on the affidavit in the World. The other was at the home of District Attorney Charles Whitman, where he planned to complain again about the policemen stationed in his home. "Rosenthal said he wanted to come by my house instead of to my office," said the district attorney later, "because he feared for his life. 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."
Before he could keep his appointments, Rosenthal was shot. An hour and a half later Lieutenant Becker walked into the Forty-seventh Street police station. "Everybody knows I wanted Rosenthal to live," he said. He told reporters and the police at the station that he had been collecting information that was a cinch to show up Rosenthal as a liar before the grand jury and had an affidavit that would "put it all over" him. At breakfast that morning a reporter for the New York Sun asked him who he thought had killed the gambler and the lieutenant answered that it was either Spanish Louis's or Jake Zelig's gang.
The police had no trouble getting track of the car with plate number NY 41313, in which the four men who shot Rosenthal got away. It was from a garage that rented out chauffeured cars. Driver Willie Shapiro was soon picked up. Close-lipped at first, Shapiro only admitted that he and the car had been hired for the night of July 15 by gambler Baldy Jack Rose.
Baldy Jack, whose real name was Jacob Rosenzweig, was a crafty character and a handy man with cards. It later evolved that he was a stool pigeon as well as collector of graft for Lieutenant Becker, receiving 25 per cent as part of "The System." Baldy Jack testified in time that he had helped Becker grab $600,000 in under a year. He was also affiliated with Rosenthal and owned a part interest in the house at 104 West Forty-fifth.
The two men who started out in the car with Baldy Jack turned out to be Sam Schepps and Harry Vallon. Schepps, an opium smuggler and gambler, was described in a police circular as "intelligent, smooth talker, dresses neatly, wears considerable jewelry, constant frequenter of theatres, associate of sporting men, vaudeville actors, etc., accustomed to good living, spends much time in Turkish baths, incessant cigarette smoker." In gambling circles he was looked on as Baldy Jack's shadow and flunky.
Harry Vallon was Man Friday to Bridgie Webber, who owned a poker room at the northwest corner of Forty-second Street and Sixth Avenue, a notorious and crooked trap frequented by Becker and never raided. He was also Webber's partner in various stuss houses (stuss was a simplified version of faro, known on New York's East Side as Jewish faro).
These three men told Shapiro to take them to Seventh Avenue and 145th Street, where they picked up Frank Cirofici, known as Dago Frank, small, hard, and poisonous in a deceptively quiet way, who was a stick-up man and gunman. He was often seen in company of Kid Benson, a big-time Harlem gambler he frequently protected, and his gun was also at the disposal of Big Jake Zelig's East Side gang.
With Dago Frank making a fourth, the men were driven by Shapiro to Bridgie Webber's poker room at Forty-second and Sixth. Shapiro waited outside while the others went in. Twenty minutes afterward Shapiro saw Bridgie walk into his place.Webber was an all-around low mucker, called Bridgie because he lived with a woman named Bridget. He was involved in a network of illegal enterprises, including an opium den on Pell Street. In 1911 Rosenthal had hired two vicious gangsters to give Bridgie the beating of his life and henceforth no love was lost between the two men. When Rosenthal tried to take customers away from Bridgie's Sans Souci Music. Hall, Bridgie retaliated, it was believed, by having Rosenthal's Hesper Club raided by the police.
On July 17 a detective picked up Bridgie, who accounted for his doings on the night of July 15 as follows: "I went to the Garden and saw the fights, returning to my clubhouse about eleven forty-five P.M. I remained there until about twelve-fifty A.M., then walked to Broadway and to the Metropole, looking for William A. Pinkerton. I saw Rosenthal sitting with Boob Walker, Hicky, Butch and Moe Brown . . . . I returned to the club and sat in front of the door until about two-thirty, when I heard Herman was shot. I don't know who told me." And "I didn't see Rose on July 15 and he was not at my clubhouse between eleven and eleven forty-five that night. I don't know anything about the murder." Released and picked up again four days later, Bridgie admitted that he and Rosenthal had been rivals and that he knew Becker, but he denied paying him graft. The police held him as an accomplice in the murder.
On July 18 Baldy Jack Rose walked jauntily into Commissioner Dougherty's office and gave himself up. He did not deny falling out with Rosenthal a couple of days after Becker raided 104 West Forty-fifth Street. On the fatal night he explained that Shapiro drove him to his brother-in-law's house on West 143rd Street, then to Bridgie Webber's, where he played poker a couple of hours, after which he went into Jack's for a drink. It was there he learned of Rosenthal's violent end. "I wasn't terribly surprised for it was in the air that Rosenthal was running a big risk acting the way he did." Rose then went home and kept out of sight for a couple of days until, being innocent, he decided that he had nothing to lose by giving himself up as he had not the faintest idea "of why or by whom" Rosenthal was killed. Like Bridgie, he was held, charged with complicity in the murder.
Sam Paul, Lower East Side politico, was taken into custody next and held on the same charge. At a Sunday excursion of the Sam Paul Association to Northport, Long Island, two days before the killing Paul had made threats against Rosenthal's life and he was in Bridgie's just before Rosenthal was shot. Also in Bridgie's at the time was Jack Sullivan (Jacob A. Reich), "King of the Newsboys," who, when the police hauled him in, had a pat account of the evening, involving the fights at the Garden, a drink with Becker and a New York American reporter and a visit to Bridgie Webber's only to pay Sam Paul $150 he had borrowed. Paul had left, so he wandered to the Cohan Theatre building, where he was "drinking a soda" when he heard the sound of shots. He ran to the Metropole, saw Rosenthal's body sprawled grotesquely on the street, telephoned the news to the American, then went to the Hotel Lincoln, woke Paul, told him, and paid back the $150.
Harry Vallon showed up at headquarters on the twenty-third and corroborated Shapiro's story but denied riding with the gunmen to the scene of the crime.
According to the most accepted later version of events, on the night of the murder four slight men in dark suits came out of Bridgie Webber's poker trap and headed across the street where they all climbed into the rear of the gray touring car. One of them ordered Shapiro to drive around to Forty-third Street and park across the street and about a hundred feet east of the hotel's entrance. These four were the killers; Dago Frank, Lefty Louie, Whitey Lewis, and Gyp the Blood.
Lefty Louie was twenty-three years old, five feet, eight inches tall, weighed about 145 and was known as a pickpocket and gunman. Whitey Lewis, twenty-seven, five feet, six inches, 160 pounds, was a confirmed opium addict and ex-convict. Gyp the Blood, twenty-five, five feet, three inches and 135 pounds, was, like the other two, a gunman for Big Jake Zelig's gang.
Shapiro mixed the story up in his first statements apparently, by claiming that Vallon and Schepps got into the car again after the visit to Bridgie Webber's and that Baldy Jack Rose whispered instructions to Dago Frank on the sidewalk, patted him on the shoulder and said, "Now make good," at which point Dago Frank got in and Shapiro drove off. Later he denied on the witness stand that Vallon and Schepps were the two guys who jumped in the automobile and told him to "go fast" or they would "blow my roof off," or that he had ever told anybody that "Vallon swiped me over the head with a gun and told me to drive on" after the shooting. Instead Shapiro put the finger on the four gunmen.
For a long time no charge of complicity was made against Becker. He was transferred to desk duty in the Bathgate Avenue police station until just before midnight on July 29, when he was served with a warrant accusing him of causing Herman Rosenthal's murder.
The indictment was based on testimony by Baldy Jack Rose, Bridgie Webber, and Harry Vallon that Becker had been pertinacious about having Herman Rosenthal put out of the way and that he threatened to "frame up" on them and have them sent to jail for a long stretch, which he was in a position to do. In return for their mutual confession, which placed the real responsibility on BecKer, whom they had not previously mentioned, they were granted immunity from prosecution for complicity in the murder. The attorneys for Rose and Webber who wangled this confession from the district attorney provided it was proved that their clients had not fired the actual shots were James M. Sullivan and Max D. Steuer. The entrance of famous criminal lawyer Steuer into the case had already upped the odds that Bridgie would go free.
When Becker was arrested, the three confessors begged to be put in a different jail, claiming that Becker's presence in the Tombs could only mean grave physical danger to their persons. The D.A. accordingly transferred them to the West Fifty-fourth Street prison, leaving Becker in the Tombs, while the press had a field day and a horrified public read about "The System."
The papers reported that Baldy Jack Rose told the grand jury that the tribute New York gamblers paid to the police and "men higher up" amounted to $1,400,000 a year and that Rosenthal was marked for death after his affidavit because he might have broken "The System" wide open. Rosenthal, said Rose, was first "made a corpse" eight days before the morning he was shot. Becker, he continued, offered to pay $1500 for the job and to get Big Jake Zelig out of the Tombs, where he was incarcerated for violating the Sullivan law, on $10,000 bail. He gave Rose $100 as a binder for the deal, saying, "Nothing can happen to anybody who croaks Rosenthal."
Baldy Jack visited Jake Zelig, who referred him to the four murderers as the best candidates for the work in hand. About June 21 he told them that they were to kill Rosenthal. There were several delays, with Becker pressing for action, and on July 10 Becker is supposed to have asked Bridgie to manage the affair. After the affidavit appeared and before Rosenthal could get to the grand jury, Becker felt, was the perfect time to kill him. "It will look as if the gamblers did it." Becker gave Bridgie $1000 on July 16 to cover expenses and Bridgie passed the money on to Baldy Jack, who gave it to killer Lefty Louie to split with his associates.
While Baldy Jack, Vallon, and Bridgie Webber languished in jail, Schepps enjoyed himself in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The police and district attorney hassled about who should bring him back to. New York. Whitman himself met the train 150 miles out of town and questioned him till they arrived at the station.
In his subsequent examination Schepps corroborated the testimony of Rose, Vallon, and Webber but insisted that he had no idea a murder was to take place and was "drinking a soda" in the Times Square building when he heard shots. In the course of testimony he said that on June 27 he saw the plotters, Becker, Rose, Vallon, and Bridgie Webber, hold a conference at 124th Street and Seventh Avenue, though he had been a half block away and had heard nothing that was said. Becker was supposed to be on official business, waiting to get some information from a Negro buck-and-wing dancer, James Marshall, whom he used as a stool pigeon. This "Harlem Conference" was, it transpired during Becker's second trial, the only time, that the men all met together to plan Rosenthal's death.
Dago Frank was the first of the killers apprehended. The police found him in a Harlem apartment enjoying an opium jag. In the best underworld tradition he refused to answer questions. Whitey Lewis was found in a fashionable Catskills resort. Gyp the Blood and Lefty Louie eluded the police till mid-September. They knew nothing at all about the murder when they were arrested in a Queens apartment.
On October 12 the last juryman was selected for the murder trial of Lieutenant Charles Becker. For days the prosecution and the D.A. hammered away at the jury: Becker was the brains behind the Rosenthal killing and the "real murderer"; Becker's men had framed Big Jake Zelig's release to lend credence to his supposed responsibilty for the killing; Becker was a grafter, blackmailer, and a partner of the late Herman Rosenthal. Becker's counsel submitted that he had no part in the death plot, that the four gamblers were trying to frame him because, as head of the strong-arm squad, he was a threat to gambling in the city. Becker did not take the stand.
Big Jake Zelig, who was to have been called as a witness for the defense, was shot to death by a gangster on October 5. On October 24 Judge John W. Goff charged the jury for over three hours. It retired and at midnight brought in a verdict of first-degree murder. Mrs. Becker fainted. On October 30 the court heard Judge Goff condemn Becker to death: "The judgment of this Court is that you, Charles Becker, for the murder in the first degree of Herman Rosenthal whereof you are convicted ... are hereby sentenced to the punishment of death...
Becker's counsel moved for a new trial on the grounds of newly discovered evidence. The second trial was ordered for April or May and the D.A. began looking for new witnesses. Becker, speaking from jail, said that he felt "like a free man already," and that "the man who actually committed the murder is Harry Vallon."
The four gunmen were indicted for murder on August 21, 1912, and tried two months later. After sixteen minutes' deliberation the jury brought in a verdict of guilty, and they were electrocuted on April 13, 1914, in Sing Sing.
Becker's second trial began in May, 1913, with judge Samuel Seabury presiding. There were few new faces but two of them were important.
Charles B. Plitt, Jr. was an irresponsible self-styled reporter who peddled what information he could get to newspapers. Becker and other strong-arm-squad members often tipped him off on gambling-house forays and Plitt played up Becker in his reports. He also occasionally acted as stool pigeon for that gentleman. Plitt was in jail on a perjury charge when he tried to sell information that, the New York Times stated on July 18, 1913, "if true would have aided Becker in his fight for liberty." Getting no takers for his story, he switched camps and offered District Attorney Frederick J. Groehl a story that would incriminate Becker in graft dealings. On the witness stand he testified that Becker had advised him the night before the murder to keep out of the area of the Metropole.
If Plitt's testimony injured Becker's case, James Marshall's was his death warrant. In the first trial Harry Vallon's testimony about the Harlem conference had not been completely trusted. He had said, "Lieutenant Becker told us he was going to raid a crap game that night, and there was a little colored boy on the other side of the street and he called him over and spoke to him." James Marshall, the young singer and dancer who worked as a stool pigeon for Becker, was the "little colored boy." He identified Baldy Jack Rose as the man he saw talking to Becker. This was legal basis for convicting Becker. The jury now believed that the Harlem conference had occurred and that it was here the plotters planned Rosenthal's death. The jury returned a verdict of guilty. For a second time Mrs. Becker fainted.
The lawyers had not done. They launched on involved legal battles, first to stay execution, then to have sentence lightened, and Becker made a long statement involving Big Tim Sullivan, who had been a congressman and state senator and was a power in Tammany politics. Becker had been advised by his Tammany lawyer not to involve Big Tim, though Becker claimed that Sullivan had summoned him the night before Rosenthal was murdered to say that he did not want Rosenthal to testify before the grand jury. The unhappy Sullivan had a complete breakdown and, after months in and out of asylums, escaped his guards one night and was found dead on the New Haven tracks in the Bronx. The engineer claimed that his body was cold enough to indicate that he had been dead for some time before he was hit by the train, but no one will ever know how he died. His body lay in the morgue two weeks before it was identified. Then he was given a grand funeral. He left between two and three million dollars.
All appeals to save Becker failed and he went to the chair, protesting his innocence. To his coffin Mrs. Becker had a silver plaque affixed that read:
CHARLES BECKER AIURDERED JULY 30, 1915 by GOVERNOR WHITMAN
But this was removed when the police told her that it would make her guilty of malicious libel.