Against the Evidence: The Becker-Rosenthal Affair
The President, standing beside the Attorney General, calls Charles Manson a murderer while the jury is barely settled in its chairs. Mr. Nixon’s carelessness brings down upon him the wounded outcries of the newspapers, nearly all of which earlier made it unlikely that Manson could get a fair trial anywhere between here and the gate of St. Peter, having flooded their columns with allegations against him from a supposed accomplice throughout the spring, before the jury was even impaneled. Hypocrisy—I beg La Rochefoucauld’s pardon—is much more often the outrage of vice at the sight of vice.
Miss Logan’s chronicle of the unworthy life and unjust death of Police Lieutenant Charles Becker is a work of so lively and scrupulous an intelligence that it seems unfair to confine celebration of its virtues to its significance as revelatory anecdote. But that is inescapable. Mr. Nixon is only the latest and the most elevated of those official spokesmen of our system of law who seem to remind us every week or so that Becker’s case belongs not to the history but to the description of American justice.
Lieutenant Becker, whose assignment was enforcement of the gambling laws, was electrocuted in July of 1915 for having procured, in July of 1912, the murder of “the squealer” Herman Rosenthal, a gambling house proprietor who had told the New York World that Becker had been a partner in his enterprises. The Becker case has been a staple of genre history ever since. The nicknames of the assassins hired to kill Rosenthal—Gyp the Blood, Dago Frank, and Lefty Louie—exercised such a claim on the public imagination as to displace the James Brothers and Billy the Kid. Most of the parties were Jews born abroad; an exception was Becker himself, the son of Sullivan County Germans. He seems to have been something of an anti-Semite, which gave respectable persons a double cause to be outraged by his image: he was both a Jew baiter and the consort of foreign Jew criminals. The Becker case established the persistent notion of crime as a taint of the city and not of the frontier, of the alien and not of the native, as an un-American import.
And it set styles for careers as much as it did for social myth. Charles Whitman, the district attorney who convicted Becker, went on to be governor of New York on no other visible credential and can thus be thought of as the progenitor of Thomas E. Dewey and Mr. Nixon, among other prosecutors who owe their elevation to one notorious kill or other.
We owe to the Becker case as well that standard for romance which afflicted American journalism for quite a while afterward in the person of Herbert Bayard Swope, the World reporter who brought Becker down. Swope’s exploit is still taught in the schools; one of his stories (“How Police Lieutenant Becker Plotted the Death of Gambler Rosenthal to Stop His Expose”) is …