Joe Bruno on the Mob — The Murder of Herman Rosenthal

It was common knowledge, the policeman of the early 20th Century was “on the take” more often than not. Yet no cop was more ostensibly crooked than Police Lieutenant Charles Becker, head of the “Strong Arm Squad” in New York City in the early 1900’s. While Becker and his crew were supposed to be ridding the city of vices, such as gambling and prostitution, he was, in fact, making deals with the proprietors of such illegal establishments, where he’d receive substantial amounts of cash from them, and in return, he would turn a blind eye to their activities. It was reported, that even though Becker ‘s annual salary was only $2,250, he had amassed a fortune of over $100,000.

Herman “Beansy” Rosenthal was a small-time crook of very little distinction, and even less pull on the streets. Every time Rosenthal opened a gambling house, it was closed down in a matter of weeks. Finally, Rosenthal found the place of his dreams on West 45th Street near Broadway. But this time, Rosenthal finally saw the light, and he took in as a partner, none other than Police Lieutenant Charles Becker. This arrangement went quite well for awhile, but New York Mayor William Jay Gaynor began hearing rumors that maybe Becker was not quite doing his job in a proper manner. Mayor Gaynor started putting the screws to Becker, so Becker decided he had to make a big splash, therefore displaying his proper allegiance to the law. Becker knew no one would care less what happened to the un-connected Rosenthal, so he raided Rosenthal’s gambling den, which was part Becker’s, and even arrested Rosenthal’s nephew to boot.

Rosenthal told Becker this was not the correct way for a “partner” to be acting. Becker said not to worry; that it was all a show for the Mayor. Becker promised that Rosenthal’s nephew would soon be released, and that the joint would be back in working order in no time. Yet District Attorney Charles Whitman felt different. He immediately indicted Rosenthal, Rosenthal’s nephew and several employees of Rosenthal’s gambling den. Rosenthal saw right through the double-cross. He ran straight to Whitman and spilled the beans about his connections to Becker. At first, Whitman turned a deaf ear to Rosenthal, so Rosenthal repeated his story to Herbert Bayard Swope, a crime reporter for “The New York World.” Swope wrote several articles parroting what Rosenthal had said about the actions of the New York City police department, which forced Whitman to finally take strong action.

On July 16, 1912, Rosenthal was scheduled to testify before a grand jury. Becker knew he was in dire danger of going to jail for a long time, so he contacted Big Jack Zelig, whom the police considered “The Most Dangerous Man in New York City,” to take care of the Rosenthal situation. The price was $1000, and Zelig sub-contracted out the work to four of his best men; Harry “Gyp the Blood” Horowitz, Frank “Whitey Lewis” Muller, Lewis “Lefty” Rosenberg and Frank “Dago Frank” Ciroficci.

At 2 am on the morning he was set to testify, Rosenthal had just finished eating in the dining room of the Hotel Metropole on West 43rd Street. As he stepped outside into the warm night air, the four gunmen shot Rosenthal dead with lead, then escaped in a getaway car. Within an hour, Swopes woke Becker from a deep sleep, and Becker immediately launched an investigation into Rosenthal’s murder. The first one arrested was Zelig, and he spilled the beans immediately, implicating Becker. The four gunmen went into hiding, but were captured a few weeks later.

On July 29, 1912, based on Zelig’s testimony, Becker was arrested for murder of Herman  Rosenthal. But even from jail, Becker had long tentacles. His next move was to make sure Zelig didn’t testify against him in court. On October 5, 1912, the day before he was set to tattle on Becker officially, Zelig, now to Becker, “The Most Dangerous Rat in New York City,” was shot dead on a street car by “Red Phil” Davidson.

Even without Zelig, the case against Becker and the four killers was just too strong. All five were tried, convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison. The four gunmen were put to death on April 13, 1914, but Becker would not give up without a fight. His last chance at saving his life was an appeal of clemency to the new Governor, who just happened to be the same Charles Whitman, who had arrested Becker and prosecuted his case. Whitman refused to commute his sentence and Becker was electrocuted in July of 1915.

Becker tried to have the last word from his grave, when he ordered his wife to attach a silver plate to his coffin that said: “Charles Becker. Murdered July 13, 1915. By Governor Whitman.”

Before Becker’s body was lowered into the ground, the silver plate was removed by the state police.


2 Responses to “Joe Bruno on the Mob — The Murder of Herman Rosenthal”

  1. Having read Satin’s Circus by Mike Dash, I wanted to go further in research of the history of the period and its ppl. It’s disappointing that there are no or only a very few photos available in the book by Dash or here. All quite interesting nevertheless. Thank You.

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