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 published in A Treasury of Great Reporting.1
“Throughout,” that textbook’s editors say, “the District Attorney was steered by Swope, who even wrote his statements for him. It was a classic story of newspaper enterprise.” This model for professional conduct is offered to the apprentice by a professor of history at the City University and by the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History at Columbia.
Still whatever feeble notions of propriety might have been stirred up by this image of the intimate collaboration of Whitman and Swope have never extended to any doubt that they pursued and punished a guilty man. What has until now been history’s verdict on the Becker case was summarized by The New York Times even before his execution:
“Becker had two trials, and the absolute fairness of both has never been impugned or questioned by anyone except Becker himself and his counsel.” (The Times, as Miss Logan reminds us, had forgotten that, only eighteen months before, the New York State Court of Appeals had reversed Becker’s first conviction with the finding that the defendant “had never had a fair chance to defend himself.”)
That Becker’s ghost has never before gotten a proper hearing may be explained by the perfect fit of his casting as the villain in a morality play so well suited to liberal and reformist prejudices. Becker was brutal when he was enforcing the law and seems to have been at least ordinarily rapacious when he was overlooking it. Miss Logan remorselessly catalogues sins which, if distributed through the police force, would be enough by themselves to support a Black Panther Party denunciation of the entire department.
When he was a patrolman, Becker had momentary celebrity as a hero after he and a colleague shot a thief escaping the scene; two days later the victim, first identified as a “notorious fanlight operator,” turned out to be a nineteen-year-old plumber’s apprentice who had been only a bystander. Becker was exonerated for this carelessness, as he had earlier been acquitted at a departmental trial for falsely arresting and maltreating a prostitute named Dora Clark.
The Clark matter had given Becker some notice as a footnote in the long quarrel between the tough-minded and the tender-minded, because, though the oppressor and his victim were obscure, each had a supporter eminent among representatives of those contending impulses: Stephen Crane appeared as a witness for Miss Clark at Becker’s trial and, after the patrolman’s excesses had been dismissed as “an honest mistake,” Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt “turned up at the stationhouse [and] commended Becker on his generally efficient record.”
As commander of a police strongarm squad, Becker managed to assemble both an impressive record for raiding gambling houses and a substantial bank account founded on payoffs from their proprietors. His squad would raid and close a house, after which Becker would take a bribe from the afflicted gambler for encouraging the raiding party to lose its memory on the witness stand. Whitman, Becker’s prosecutor, once hinted that Becker was earning a million dollars a year at this trade; actually he seems to have banked about $30,000 in the eight months before Rosenthal’s murder, an amount that, while considerably shrinking the myth, was embarrassing enough for a $2,000-a-year police lieutenant to explain.
Most gamblers accepted Becker’s business practices, hardly new then and far from extinct even now among policemen, as an inconvenience preferable to worse punishment. But one who didn’t was Arnold Rothstein. One of Becker’s weaknesses was a lack of smell for the consequential stranger who is best left alone. The same lack of historical imagination as he had shown in mistreating a prostitute while Stephen Crane was watching led him to raid and then shake down Arnold Rothstein.
Rothstein was not yet what he would become, the beau ideal of the Jewish-gangster-gentleman-sportsman of the Twenties, which carried over into the Thirties with the figure of Louis Lepke (a former model once remembered Lepke as the only well-brought-up man she had ever met in the garment district) and which survives curiously enough now only in Frank Costello, who is supposed to have modeled his style and manner on Rothstein’s.
Rothstein would rise, in Miss Logan’s words, to be
…chairman of the Board of the New York underworld, trafficking not only in all forms of gambling, but also in whiskey, stolen securities, drugs, labor rackets, and the performance of the players in the 1919 World Series. In Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby he appears as Wolfsheim, the ruthless padrone of gangsters.2
In 1912, Rothstein was in the salad days of a great career but he was just as arrogant as Becker, and he never forgave the affront. Herbert Bayard Swope had been one of the two attendants at Rothstein’s wedding and they remained close companions. Swope was otherwise a passionate crusader against evildoers—as an instinctive climber he would choose Rothstein as his private exception. Still when Rosenthal came to the World with his allegations against Becker, Swope’s avidity of belief was certainly increased by knowing that the policeman accused happened to be the enemy of his friend.
Rosenthal had been peddling charges against policemen whose rank was substantially higher than Becker’s with little attention from the press except for sportive comments; it was not until he mentioned Becker that Rosenthal found a journalist who would take him seriously. Miss Logan seems most persuasively to surmise that, if Becker hadn’t bothered Rothstein, he would have died as peacefully as he would have lived wickedly for many years more.
To his insensitivity to nuance in his choice of victims, Becker added the misfortune of living in an age when policemen, effective as they have always been at taking each other’s word, were not persons whose word most respectable people chose to take. Miss Logan fishes up language from reformers about the Police Department that would hardly be used nowadays about any institution except the Mafia. The Police Department—in damaging repute at least—was indeed the Mafia of its time; and, whenever a Citizens’ Crime Commission was formed in those days, the criminals under scrutiny were invariably the cops.
A month after Rosenthal’s murder, Miss Logan tells us, there was a trial of a Harlem gambling house proprietor who had been arrested by Becker’s squad:
…the judge polled the jury ahead of time over whether they could bring themselves to believe the testimony of any member of the squad. They said no and rapidly acquitted the defendant.
No one who has endured the solemnity with which any jury listens to the implausibilities of policemen these days could escape some nostalgia for a time. when skepticism was so unanimous. Still, Becker was very unlucky to be tried for his life in a period when jurors were as indisposed to believe a policeman as they are now to believe a party quarreling with a policeman.
In death Rosenthal was laundered and, as is the custom, served forth as rather a gallant fellow moved, in Swope’s words, primarily by “a fierce hatred he felt for the powers that had preyed upon him.” Time has taught us to think of gangland victims as persons whose characters and impulses are somewhat more complicated, although prosecutors need still to hold them out as sinners redeemed and struck down. Rosenthal seems, in fact, to have been a lance so free that he had regularly informed on his gambler competitors to the police and had only lately taken to informing on the police to the press. At least three of the four gamblers who were arrested for ordering his murder had both older and more tangible reasons to fear his malice than Becker could have had; the evidence of direct complicity against all of them was far stronger than any against Becker; and Rosenthal had given them grievances enough to make it entirely plausible that they had acted without inspiration from anyone else.
But careers, whether consciously willed or not, are not made by punishing one set of obscure malefactors for the murder of another. Miss Logan tells us that there had been six gangland murders the same month as Rosenthal’s and that the failure of the law agencies to solve any of the others had passed unregarded. No great case is possible without its “higher-up.” It would be unfair to say that Whitman and Swope invented Becker; but their histories would clearly have been less glamorous if he had not been at hand.
Whitman persuaded the five admitted managers of Rosenthal’s murder to testify that they had acted at Becker’s direction. They would otherwise of course be tried for murder themselves; but they all went free after convincing two juries that, after lives of habitual violence, they could only have been forced into crime by the hypnotic malevolence of Becker, unto whom, as Swope profitably imagined, “like Caesar all things were rendered in the underworld.” Miss Logan gives us very good grounds for suspicion that Becker himself was offered similar mercies and future compliments from the district attorney if he would inform on either a deputy police commissioner or an inspector.
One Bald Jack Rose claimed to have been Becker’s chief confidant in the plot; Swope managed to get Rose’s “confession” and print it in the World well before trial. Rose had either a splendid memory or considerable capacity for inventing the luridities of language with which Becker had bent him to his will. His account, thus proclaimed to the citizenry, as Miss Logan says, “described a villain so bizarre and evil that no defense attorney was afterwards able to counter its stunning effect.” Whitman’s appreciation of the educational value of such material was displayed during jury selection:
[One] candidate had been accepted by both sides and was about to take his seat when he mentioned that he had been out of the country…and hadn’t read a single account of the case. Instantly Whitman stepped forward, used one of his peremptory challenges, and got the uninformed fellow out fast.
Becker was convicted with scant evidence that was circumstantial and none at all that was direct except in the testimony of admitted accomplices. It is curious that no respectable layman seems to have entertained a scrap of doubt about his guilt. Indeed, when the Court of Appeals reversed his first conviction with a roster of unfairnesses whose mere recital ought to have embarrassed every decent man, every decent man was outraged instead at the Court. “The one indisputable fact,” the Times raged, “is that the reversal in the Becker case is a scandal, that it brings our administration of criminal justice into deep and deserved contempt.”
Whitman put his package together again—he had had the foresight to grant his accomplice witnesses immunity from the charge of murder only if they continued to testify against Becker until “the indictment shall be disposed of.” He selected Judge Samuel Seabury, who could be trusted to mingle solicitude for the delicacies with his certified distaste for corrupt policemen, and won a new conviction in a trial where the judge was better mannered but the evidence hardly more persuasive. The case came back to a Court of Appeals which had been reviled in language more elaborate but just as vigorous as that Mr. Nixon inflicted upon Federal Judge Samuel Kaufman for his concern for the defendant’s rights in the first trial of Alger Hiss. The Court, moreover, sat in a state which had just rewarded Becker’s prosecutor with election as governor and Becker’s judge with elevation to the Court of Appeals. Becker’s conviction was sustained.
The final resort left him was an appeal for commutation to the Governor, who had been the district attorney who prosecuted him. This aroused some qualms in William Randolph Hearst’s daily American: “Whitman’s complete identification with the prosecution…makes appeal to him at the last resort a ghastly jest.”
“On the other hand,” Miss Logan writes, “the World argued that Whitman should make the decision for that very reason: he had been with the case longest and knew more about it than anyone else.” Whitman rejected the appeal, and Becker was executed; this result, the Times said, “except for persons of too easy lachrymal ducts…should give a sense of satisfaction to all of us who still believe in justice and honesty.”
Only part of the despair produced by Miss Logan’s final redress of the account due the ghost of Charles Becker is owing to the relevance it has to the atmosphere of official American law, whose endurance we are reminded of every day. There is also the despair, even more painful, aroused by her citations of those institutions which, being unofficial, ought to be our hope for resistance and which joined the cry against Becker—the Times, relied upon in the present, the World, revered from the past. The history Miss Logan has so surprisingly overthrown is their history; it has come down to us preserved by the most respected guardians. Becker had, until now, been a lesson from that extensive branch of history whose function it is to protect us from the truth about ourselves. The lesson, of course, had not been in Becker’s fall but in the rise of Whitman and Swope.
History is not often enough an engagement with truth-telling; in point of fact, as it is generally compiled, we would far more accurately have said that those who neglect history are condemned to ignore many useful examples of how to get ahead. Miss Logan has done something magnificent and done it superbly. But she has also told us that all gods are dead and that we are alone, with no one to trust. Her Becker will hardly be taught in the schools; she has performed an act of grace and honor but she is of no use for vocational education.
Edited by Louis L. Snyder and Richard Morris (Simon & Schuster, Essandess Paperback, $2.95).↩
This citation seems to be Miss Logan's only misapprehension, although it is one which a lot of people have shared, myself included. Gatsby does say that Wolfsheim is "the man who fixed the World Series in 1919." That coup was, of course, the crown of Rothstein's legend, which accounts for the assumption that he was the model for Wolfsheim. But there are features of Wolfsheim's style—the cufflinks studded with human teeth, the boasts of association with the tawdry Herman Rosenthal—which locate him in a social milieu well below Rothstein's. It is both a mark of Rothstein's mythic station and a consummate instance of Fitzgerald's art that Gatsby would feel a need to suggest to Nick that his curious friend Wolfsheim was not the vulgar street enterpriser he seemed but actually the fabulous Rothstein.↩
Edited by Louis L. Snyder and Richard Morris (Simon & Schuster, Essandess Paperback, $2.95).↩
This citation seems to be Miss Logan’s only misapprehension, although it is one which a lot of people have shared, myself included. Gatsby does say that Wolfsheim is “the man who fixed the World Series in 1919.” That coup was, of course, the crown of Rothstein’s legend, which accounts for the assumption that he was the model for Wolfsheim. But there are features of Wolfsheim’s style—the cufflinks studded with human teeth, the boasts of association with the tawdry Herman Rosenthal—which locate him in a social milieu well below Rothstein’s. It is both a mark of Rothstein’s mythic station and a consummate instance of Fitzgerald’s art that Gatsby would feel a need to suggest to Nick that his curious friend Wolfsheim was not the vulgar street enterpriser he seemed but actually the fabulous Rothstein.↩