The Wrong Man: Who Ordered the Murder of Gambler Herman Rosenthal and Why.



2012 is the 100year anniversary of the murder of small-time gambler Herman Rosenthal – the most celebrated murder of its time. Make no mistake, there are no good guys here, no innocent victims. The fact is an offensive and offensive-looking well-known criminal framed a crooked New York City police lieutenant for the killing of an odious stool pigeon. People in the underworld cheered the death of Herman Rosenthal; he was that much disliked. But that doesn’t negate the fact that the wrong man sat in Sing Sing’s electric chair for ordering Rosenthal’s murder, while the man who framed him – and actually ordered the murder of Herman Rosenthal – walked away scot free, content in the knowledge that he was able to fool so many prominent law enforcement officials so easily.

This is how it all happened.







He was thoroughly unlikeable; mean and snarky, and he would swindle his own mother if it would earn him a few bucks. Yet the murder of small-time gambler Herman Rosenthal ignited a firestorm in the New York City press, which resulted in New York City Police Lieut. Charles Becker being unjustly fried in Sing Sing’s electric chair.

            Herman Rosenthal was a runt of a man who was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was 5 years old. They settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which, in the late 1800s, was a conglomeration of hard-working immigrants, featuring the lowest common denominator of thieves, crooks, cheats, gamblers, and murderers. Rosenthal’s parents were Jewish, but there is no evidence that Rosenthal ever set foot in a Jewish temple after his tumultuous teenage years began. At the age of 14, Rosenthal eschewed school, and began running with one of the many local street gangs. He stole from pushcarts and picked the pockets of drunks, and performed whatever schemes corruptible kids from that era did to amuse themselves.

Despite his size (he was 5-foot-3-inches), Rosenthal was a competent street fighter, and gained a reputation as someone who could handle himself in a pinch. (A friend once said of Rosenthal, “He was mighty fast on his feet and he could hit hard.”)

To earn a meager living, Rosenthal sold newspapers on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. However, the money he earned selling newspapers was peanuts compared to what Rosenthal envisioned as proper remuneration for a man of his guile, and what he considered to be – his superior intellect. Invariably, Rosenthal gravitated to the money and in the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the century that usually led to a poolroom. That’s where Rosenthal met Big Tim Sullivan – the Political Prince of the Lower East Side, who had as many scruples as a bald-headed eagle has hair.

Because of his spunk and willingness to mix it up when necessary – and also because Sullivan knew that “smart Jew boys” like Rosenthal represented a huge voting block on the Lower East Side -Big Tim got Little Herman Rosenthal a job of sorts as a numbers runner for a downtown poolroom. Rosenthal soon graduated to working from a back room in the poolroom – taking bets, both in person, and by code over the phone.

In 1897, Rosenthal married the lovely Dora Gilbert and they became partners in the profession of Dora’s choice: the business of prostitution. Quite simply, Dora did her best work on her back in their West 40th Street apartment bedroom, while Rosenthal stood guard outside the bedroom door to make sure the visitors behaved themselves and didn’t quibble over the price, or the performance. In time, Dora, to give her customers a choice, employed two other girls and Rosenthal became their pimp, too.

Things were going quite well for Rosenthal in the early 1900s when Dora decided to give Rosenthal the gate. Dora divorced Herman, and she used the money she had saved from her sex business to open up a legitimate boardinghouse: no johns need apply. This, in effect, left Rosenthal without a job, and since unemployment insurance had not yet been invented, Rosenthal went back to Big Tim Sullivan with his hat in his hand.

Big Tim, still fond of Little Herman, got Rosenthal a job as the proprietor of a small Lower East Side craps game. Rosenthal did so well for Sullivan in the endeavor, Big Tim procured Rosenthal a prestigious gig as a bookmaker in a storefront in Far Rockaway, Queens, which was the last stop on the New York City subway transit system. Riding the subway daily gave Rosenthal plenty of time to think, and he thought about the day when he would become a big shot himself.

As a result of Rosenthal’s guile and Big Tim’s connections, Rosenthal moved up the underworld gambling ladder one step at a time. He eventually became the manager of the prestigious Hesper Club, located on 111 Second Avenue and owned by Big Tim Sullivan’s brother, Patrick. The private Hesper Club was famous for its full casino: roulette wheel and craps tables and also a back-room poker game which attracted some of the most illustrious gamblers in town. The gamblers included respected judges, assistant district attorneys and a few mid-to-high-level government employees. The Hesper Club was a club where you obtained membership only by the recommendation of other members. Big Tim was so intent on his brother Patrick’s private club thriving, Big Tim even penned a flowery letter, which was framed and placed inside the club next to the front door.

The letter, dated April 30, 1903, and addressed to then-Hesper president Sam Harris, read:


“Dear Sir: Regarding my election as a life member of the Hesper Club, I keenly appreciate the compliment you pay me, and should it be possible for me at any time to serve you, or any of the members, I would be glad to do so. A simple word from you will command me – Yours truly, TIMOTHY D. SULLIVAN.”


This framed letter said reams about the strong connection between the elected politicians of the time and the illegal gambling crowd. Everyone knew Big Tim Sullivan ran the Lower East Side with an iron fist, fitted with a velvet glove. They also knew that Big Tim could provide well-paying jobs, some of them “no-show” jobs, to anyone he desired. But the implication of the Hesper Club letter was even more sinister than that. Big Tim basically said in the letter that a simple word from the president of the Hesper Club, and Sullivan would pull whatever strings necessary to keep illegal gambling thriving in the Hesper Club; not to mention giving jobs to whomever the bigwigs at the Hesper Club said needed jobs; a classic case of one dirty hand washing the other.

Being the manager of the Hesper club catapulted Rosenthal into the big time. He was raking in so much cash, he was able to rent of suite of rooms at the illustrious Broadway Hotel, which set Rosenthal back more than $1,200 a month; a tidy sum in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. With his newfound celebrity, Rosenthal decided to take himself a second wife – a chubby bleach-bottled redhead named Lillian, who did not, like Rosenthal’s first wife, do business on her back. In fact, Herman was so flush with cash, Lillian had no need, nor any desire, to work at all.

The problem with Rosenthal was that he was not very good at making friends, but quite competent at making enemies; especially those in the New York City police department. While he was manager of the Hesper Club, Rosenthal opened his own gambling operation, with the blessing of Big Tim Sullivan, of course, at 123 Second Avenue, called The Red Raven Club. The Red Raven Club had formerly been a poolroom run by Rosenthal.

It was common knowledge at the time, if you wanted to run an illegal gambling establishment in New York City, you had to pay off the police and pay them off good. But giving graft to cops was adverse to Rosenthal’s nature. Instead of making his weekly contributions to the “Police Benevolent Association,” Rosenthal used that money instead to fortify his gambling houses from unwanted invasion. He installed extra-sturdy doors and employed the most competent doormen, who were experts at sniffing out an undercover cop, or someone from the city who might want to serve the club with a warrant. This made the New York City police department all the more eager to shut Rosenthal down.

In 1903, New York City Police Capt. Charles Kemp spent considerable time devising a way to put Rosenthal out of business. According to Rose Keefe’s book, The Starker, Kemp used a dubious “letter of instruction” to gain admittance for one of his operatives to 123 Second Avenue, when it was a tightly run Rosenthal poolroom/illegal gambling house. The letter read:


                Herman Rosenthal Esq.

               This is to introduce my friend, Mr. Ketcham. He is all right.

                                    H. Morgan


The undercover cop gave the letter to the doorman, who in turn, gave the letter to Rosenthal. For some unknown reason, Rosenthal gave the thumbs-up for the visitor to enter. The undercover did so and in the course of an hour, he was able to place bets on several horse races.

This allowed Capt. Kemp to get a warrant and on August 15, 1903, Capt. Kemp, five detectives, and 20 policemen broke down the front door of 123 Second Avenue with axes. When they busted inside, they found Rosenthal frantically trying to destroy the day’s racing receipts inside a raging fireplace. Rosenthal was cuffed, and along with three of his employees, taken to the police station and charged with “keeping and maintaining a poolroom.” Why he was not charged in connection with taking illegal race bets is a testament to Rosenthal’s adroitness in pitching papers into the fire.

Rosenthal’s rabbi with the law, and his ace-in-the-hole, was always Big Tim Sullivan. However, by the elections of 1908 Sullivan’s stronghold on the German and Irish votes had been weakened by the huge influx of Italians below 14th Street and west of Broadway, and Jews east of Broadway. With Sullivan’s power waning, Rosenthal, who had an abrasive and defying attitude when dealing with the legal authorities, had a large target on his back as far as the New York City police department was concerned.

In 1909, New York City District Attorney William Travers Jerome, who had prosecuted Harry Thaw for the murder of famed architect Stanford White, set his sights on police corruption, illegal gambling in general, and on Herman Rosenthal in particular. Jerome had Rosenthal arrested and charged with “running a string of gambling houses.” However, as soon as Jerome closed down one of Rosenthal’s joints, little Herman just moved his equipment to a like-area nearby and opened again with impunity.

By 1910, the Hesper Club had lost its luster. Due to the decrease in his political power, Big Tim Sullivan and his brother Patrick resigned from the club, and left its future in the slippery hands of Herman Rosenthal. With Rosenthal now running the show, instead of the usual politicians and judges spinning the Hesper Club’s roulette wheel, shooting craps, and playing poker in the back, they were replaced by neighborhood hooligans, who didn’t gamble as much as the previous members and were inclined to cheat a bit on cards, which decreased the Hesper Club’s membership even more.

The first blow came on October 28, 1910, when, according to the New York Times:


“The Hesper Social and Political Club at 111 Second Avenue was invaded by the police yesterday under orders from Commissioner Cropsey and Police Commissioner Driscoll. The club, which is in Senator Christy Sullivan’s district, has long been regarded as one of the most influential East Side organizations, and the police raid caused considerable consternation in the neighborhood.”


Inside the Hesper Club, 250 men were rounded up and the police found “evidence of gambling” in the form of stuss tables, faro layouts, and blackboards, on which the partially erased words “Track Good” were still visible. The police let all but two of the men go, but as they were doing so, about 100, or so disappointed gamblers decided to bum-rush past the police officers standing guard at the front door and force their way inside. These men claimed they were members of the private Hesper Club and should not be denied admittance. Seven of those men were also arrested and the Hesper Club was temporarily closed down.

Rosenthal, who was not on the premises at the time of the raid, was furious. He immediately sent Matthias Radin, who introduced himself at Police Headquarters as “the lawyer for the Hesper Club,” to set the record straight. Radin yelled at Detective Cody, one of the officers involved in the raid, that “Tammany Hall would remember what the police had done and would remember those instrumental in it.”

Then Radin tried to push his way into the office of the Police Commissioner. When he was stopped by a phalanx of cops, Radin yelled at them, “You don’t know who you’re talking to! You’re talking in a swell way to a good Tammany man and you’ll pay for it, and don’t you forget it!”

            Newspaper reporters surrounded Rosenthal’s mouthpiece and this was the stage Radin relished. He told the reporters, “It was an outrage to invade the quarters of the club. It is one of the oldest and respectable clubs on the East Side and had never been interfered with before in history. Those blackboards meant nothing. The police might have written those words ‘Track Good’ themselves. We hold lectures in the clubhouse regularly and the blackboards were used for illustrating points in these educational lectures. They were for the education and benefit of the members. So far as the stuss tables were concerned, any home might have such tables in it.”

            The Oct. 27 raid showed how much pull Tammany Hall still had concerning the New York City police department. Due to pressure applied by the aforementioned Matthias Radin, Police Commissioner Driscoll, who had ordered the raid, was relieved of his job and transferred to a local Precinct where his powers were greatly diminished. Also, Detectives Cody and Murphy, who led the raid, were no longer detectives. They were assigned to plain patrol duty, in uniform, in the boondocks of the Bronx.

Through his considerable pull at Tammany Hall, Radin was able to get the Hesper Club reopened. So the police set their sights on another one of Rosenthal’s establishments: the Red Raven Club at 123 Second Ave, right down the street from the Hesper Club. This club was Rosenthal’s alone, and it didn’t have the protection Big Tim Sullivan had afforded the Hesper Club.  

On Dec. 23, 1910, the Red Raven Club was raided by Capt. Kemp’s men. It was closed for a while as Rosenthal ordered his man Radin to get a court injunction to reopen the club. That Radin did, but on March 19, 1911, led by District Attorney Jerome himself, the police raided the Red Raven Club in a rousing midnight invasion. Seven men were arrested, but the big fish – Rosenthal – was not on the premises at the time. So Jerome sent his men to the Hesper Club, where there they found Rosenthal and arrested him on the spot. Rosenthal spent the night in Night Court, where his bail was set at $10,000; a tidy sum usually reserved for elite criminals. When the sun rose and the bail bond offices opened, Rosenthal posted bail and was none too happy about it.

            He was even unhappier, when the police raided the Hesper Club for the final time on April 19, 1911.

            The New York Times headlines and subsequent article read:



            Deputy Commissioner Takes the Sullivan Stronghold

            By Storm as a Gambling Resort


            Gamblers Thought This Club Immune From Police

            Interference on Account of Political Influence.


             “The Hesper Club at 111 Second Avenue, generally believed to have the support of political interests allied to those of Big Tim and Christie Sullivan, and known as the gamblers’ own club, the principal citadel in the gambling fortifications throughout the city, was raided by Deputy Police Commissioner William J. Flynn. The raid, the gamblers themselves admitted when they heard of it, may prove to be the last blow necessary to suppress vice in this city.”


A known gambler who frequented the Hesper Club said, “It will be hard to keep on gambling when every time Flynn gets a man, he is put under a suspended sentence with orders to report to him. Flynn will have a regular roll book, and call roll every time he holds a meeting. It will be fine to hear the roll reading ‘Beansie Rosenfeld, Hymie Rosenthal, Bob Kennedy’ and so forth. And hear those fellows answer ‘Present and voting.’ That’s what it will come to at this rate, with everyone facing a two-year sentence and a $1,000 fine if he breaks parole.”

            With both of his money-making gambling joints shut down by the law, Rosenthal was so broke he had to move out of the Broadway Hotel and abscond to a flea-bag tenement with his wife, Lillian. Desperate for a way to make a living, Rosenthal again turned to Big Tim Sullivan for help. Sullivan, whose political power had been seriously diminished and was in the early stages of syphilis dementia, fronted Rosenthal $35,000 to open a posh gambling house, not on the Lower East Side, but in the ritzy “Tenderloin District,” which ran from Thirtieth Street to Fiftieth Street, and from Sixth to Eight Avenues. Instead of dealing with Lower Manhattan mugs, the Tenderloin district was the gambling home of such elegant sporting characters as Richard Canfield, Lou Busteed, Charles Gates, Julius Fleischmann, Henry Sinclair, and Percival Hill.

            On Nov. 17, 1911, Rosenthal’s gambling den had its grand opening at 104 West Forty-Fifth Street. This made Bridgey Webber, a former member of the Hesper Club, not too happy. In early 1911, Webber, who had been Rosenthal’s archenemy since they were teenagers, had opened his own sporting club at 117 West Forty-Fifth Street, down the block from Rosenthal’s new joint, and he sure didn’t like the competition being so close to his lucrative operation.

            However, Rosenthal’s steadfast insistence not to pay off the local police came back to haunt him. After being open just a few days, Rosenthal was summoned to the offices of Police Inspector Cornelius Hayes, who demanded an immediate payment of $1,000; to be followed by payments of $1,000 a week. Rosenthal told Hayes to go spit in his hat, which was not such a smart thing do to, since a few days later, Hayes led a contingent of cops to Rosenthal’s new club. The police smashed down the doors, then took their axes to every piece of equipment in the joint.

Rosenthal borrowed money to purchase new equipment and took in a new partner in New York City Police Lieut. Charles Becker, who was reputed to have closed down more gambling joints in New York City than any other cop in town.

View this book at:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: