Charles Becker was born to a German/American family in 1870, in the tiny town of Calicoon Center, in the Catskill region of upstate New York. Becker’s father died when he was seven and he was raised by his widowed mother. In 1890, when Becker was just 20 years old, he hopped on a train and headed for New York City, where he hoped to gain fame and more than his fair share of fortune.
After working at several meaningless jobs, the tall and broad-shouldered Becker took a gig as a bouncer in a German “Biergarten” (beer garden) just off the Bowery. German Biergartens were jovial joints where sometimes an unruly customer, who had one too many brews, needed to get pitched out on his ear. Becker was especially good at this sort of thing, and he got the reputation of someone who could “punch with the kick of a horse.” Becker’s status as a ruffian grew and soon he caught the eye of several customers who were politically connected and were in the position to get someone like Becker an appointment in the New York City police department; after he paid them handsomely, of course.
Becker’s rabbi was the Republican Police Commissioner John McClave, who had been appointed by Mayor Franklin Edson in 1884 and re-appointed in 1890 by Mayor Hugh Grant. McClave, as was the practice in those days, took the whopping sum of $300 off Becker (nearly a half a year of a New York City policeman’s pay) and in early 1894, Becker became a full-fledged New York City policeman. Soon after he secured Becker his “appointment,” McClave was summoned before the Lexow Committee, which was investigating police corruption in New York City. The charge against McClave was “banking the proceeds of bribery,” and with his son-in-law Gideon Granger testifying against him, McClave was forced to resign.
There is no record of McClave ever having returned Becker’s $300.
After making his bones in several precincts, Becker was given a most enviable post as a vice-stomping unformed policeman in the Tenderloin, sometimes known as “Satan’s Circus.” Becker soon learned he could expand his policeman’s pay considerably by sticking out his hand when he encountered someone breaking the gambling, or prostitution laws; both of which abounded in the Tenderloin. Of course, because he was not arresting people who came across with the cash, Becker sometimes had to make a legitimate arrest, just to show he was doing his job.
On Sept. 16, 1896, 24-year-old novelist/journalist Stephen Crane was hobnobbing in the Tenderloin, doing research for an article on which he was working. Crane had just received worldwide acclaim for his Civil War novel Red Badge of Courage and was looking to add to his reputation by writing a piece about the Tenderloin.
Around 10 p.m., Crane ambled into the Broadway Garden, which was located in the southern tip of the Tenderloin, at the corner of Broadway and Thirty-First Street. There Crane made the acquaintance of three young ladies who called themselves “dancers,” which they may have been, but they were more often prostitutes. Crane had finished interviewing these women for his proposed story and escorted the three lovelies outside where they intended to go their separate ways.
After Crane had escorted one lady to a cable car, he turned back to the other two, just in time to see Patrolman Becker, in his sparkling blue uniform with its shining brass buttons, came out of nowhere and grab both ladies by the wrists. Becker announced he was arresting them for prostitution.
Thinking quickly, one of the ladies pointed at Crane and told Becker, “I’m no prostitute. He’s my husband!”
Becker turned to Crane and asked him if the lady’s contention was true.
Crane said, “Yes, I am. I’m her husband.”
Becker let go of the young lady’s wrist, but still held tightly onto the other young lady’s wrist. “Well, what about this one?” Becker asked Crane.
Crane replied, “I know nothing about her.”
Becker smiled. “Well, she’s nothing but a common prostitute and I’m arresting her for soliciting prostitution.”
Becker took the girl, real name Ruby Young, but known on the streets as Dora Clark, to the 19th Precinct and locked her up for the night. Crane tagged along and found out that first thing in the morning Clark would be arraigned at the Jefferson Court Market, at Tenth Street and Sixth Avenue. Crane decided to show up at her arraignment.
Magistrate Cornell was in charge of the proceedings and after listening to Becker’s charges, Magistrate Cornell turned to Clark and asked what she had to say for herself.
Clark responded with a conspiracy theory she said had started three weeks earlier. She stated that her arrest was unwarranted and she was being persecuted by the police of the 19th Precinct, because she had inadvertently insulted one of them.
Clark told the Magistrate, “I was accosted by a man on Broadway, who because of the poor lighting on the street, I perceived to be a Negro. I told him to go about his business and that I wanted nothing to do with a Negro.”
The only problem was, this man was not a Negro, but a policeman with a swarthy complexion named Rosenberg. Patrolman Rosenberg arrested Clark on the spot, and when she gave her explanation the next day in court, Patrolman Rosenberg was insulted and quite upset. Patrolman Rosenberg got word to Clark that she would be arrested by a 19th Precinct cop every time she set foot in the Tenderloin, whether she had committed a crime or not. Clark told Magistrate Cornell, that since then she has been unjustly arrested several times in the Tenderloin, and the incident last night was just one of her many bogus arrests.
Magistrate Cornell turned to Becker and asked if there was any doubt in his mind that Clark was engaged in the solicitation of prostitution on the previous night.
Becker stuck out his chin and puffed out his chest.
“None whatsoever, “Becker said. “She is an old hand at this and she always lies about it.”
Magistrate Cornell asked Clark if it were true that she frequented the streets of the Tenderloin.
Clark, knowing that denying something so provable would do her no good, told the judge that yes, she indeed frequented the Tenderloin, adding, “Why not? This is America. It’s a free country.”
This cemented in Magistrate Cornell’s mind that Clark was indeed a prostitute, since no respectable woman would travel alone in the Tenderloin, especially at midnight. But before he could proclaim his decision, Stephen Crane jumped to his feet near the back of the courtroom.
As was reported in the New York Sun, Crane said, “Just a word, Your Honor. I know this girl to be innocent. I only know that while with me she acted respectably and that the policeman’s charge was false.”
Crane went on to delineate the reasons why Becker had made an improper arrest of Clark. Then he added, “If the girl will have the officer prosecuted for perjury, I will gladly support her.”
Since Magistrate Cornell was aware of Crane’s fame and could not imagine such an illustrious writer lying in court, he dismissed the charges against Clark. This did not please Becker too much. He was even more irritated, when Clark, three weeks later, marched into Police Headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street, and pressed charges against Becker and against Patrolman Rosenberg, for “continued harassment.”
Clark’s chief witness was Stephen Crane, which caused Becker more than a few bouts of agita. So much so, a few days after Clark brought charges against Becker, he accosted her on the street at three in the morning and beat her unmercifully in front of witnesses; none of whom would come to her aid because of their fear of Becker and his methods. When Becker was finished pummeling Clark, a husky hooker named “Chicago May,” who was alleged to be one of Becker’s paramours, landed a few kicks and punches of her own on the fallen Clark.
Because of Crane’s fame, for the next several weeks the Becker/Crane/Clark case made national news. It was spread across the front page of newspapers in big cities like Philadelphia and Boston. It even made headlines as far west as Chicago, where the Chicago Dispatch made the snide observation that “Stephen Crane is respectfully informed that association with women in scarlet is not necessarily a ‘Red Badge of Courage.’ ”
While Becker was waiting for his police trial to take place, he ordered his pals in the department to do everything possible to make Crane’s life miserable. First, they raided Crane’s apartment, looking for anything that might discredit Crane. Then they interviewed Crane’s friends and acquaintances, digging for more dirt. By pounding the pavement and knocking on doors, Becker’s pals discovered that Crane frequented brothels and that he had more than a causal relationship with opium dens. Future United States President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the New York City Police Commissioner at the time and casually acquainted with Crane, advised Crane not to testify at Becker’s trial, or suffer ruin to his reputation. Crane decided to testify anyway.
At Becker’s Oct. 16 trial, every police officer in the 19th Precinct who was not on duty at the time showed up in court to support Becker. Before the four judges, who were comprised of the city’s four deputy police commissioners, Becker’s lawyer, Louis Grant, was relentless in trying to discredit Crane’s testimony.
Grant painted Crane as a man who not only frequently smoked in opium dens and took solace in the company of prostitutes, but also as a man who lived off the ill-gotten gains of those poor girl’s debaucheries.
On the witness stand, with Grant in Crane’s face, Crane meekly denied Grant’s accusations, saying his presence in opium dens and brothels were solely for the purpose of doing research for his writings. At one point, Grant was so venomous is his conduct toward Crane that one newspaperman wrote, “Crane appeared to not know where he was at. At one time the questions were so severe as to cause the young author to place his hands to his face with the apparent desire to shut out the questions from his mind.”
Things got so sticky for Crane on the witness stand, he refused to answer several of Grant’s questions on the grounds that “they would tend to degrade and incriminate him.”
After the humiliation of Crane was complete, the four deputy police commissioners, led by Fredrick Grant – the son of United States President Ulysses Grant – found Charles Becker innocent of all charges. Stephen Crane skulked from New York City, his reputation in ruins
Crane would never again garner acclaim as a writer; either of fiction, or of non-fiction. Disgraced in the Northeast, Crane absconded to Key West; then to Jacksonville, Florida, where he met his true love, Cora Taylor, the owner of a house of ill-repute named Hotel De Dream. Unable to make a decent living off his writings, Crane took a war assignment from Blackwood’s Magazine, which sent Crane to Cuba to report on the Spanish-American War. In Cuba, Crane contracted yellow fever and malaria, further worsening his already tenuous health. In late 1899, his work in Cuba complete, Crane journeyed to England where he continued his love affair Cora Taylor, whom he finally married.
In England, Crane’s health continued to deteriorate and after he suffered a severe hemorrhage of his lungs, he decided to enter a health resort in Badenweiler, Germany. Crane lingered in ill health for several months before he passed away on June 5, 1900, at the age of 28.
Charles Becker didn’t kill Stephen Crane, but he was certainly instrumental in quickening the young writer’s demise.
With the Crane/Clark matter behind him, Becker became more resolute in working the Tenderloin for his personal profit. Becker made a career out of shaking down prostitutes and gambling houses, making the occasional sensational arrest, so that his name would be firmly entrenched on the front page of the New York City daily newspapers.
After his first wife, Mary, died from tuberculosis, he married a second time to a Canadian lass named Letitia Stensen, with whom he had a son, Howard Paul. This marriage lasted less than a year, mostly because Becker had been unfaithful to his wife; fooling with a string of Tenderloin hookers, from whom he accepted sexual favors, in addition to the shakedown money they paid Becker to keep operating without fear of arrest. Letitia sued for divorce on the grounds of infidelity, won her divorce, then scurried off to Reno, Nev., where she married Becker’s older brother Paul. Go figure.
In 1902 Becker met his third and final wife – Helen Lynch, a teacher in the New York City Public School System. This marriage lasted as long as Becker did, and Helen would play a major part in the melodrama that followed the death of Herman Rosenthal.