Chapter Five – The Wrong Man – Who Ordered the Murder of Gambler Herman Rosenthal and Why


            Feeling like he was the odd man out, and being persecuted by the police, especially Lieut. Becker, Rosenthal decided to take his case directly to Mayor William J. Gaynor. A man of Gaynor’s exalted stature wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room with a weasel like Rosenthal, so Gaynor’s secretary told Rosenthal’s to take a hike – or something similar.

Rosenthal then figured, “If the Mayor won’t see me, I’ll go straight to Police Commissioner Waldo.”

This was not a very bright idea, since it was Waldo who had ordered Becker to raid Rosenthal’s joint in the first place. It was no surprise that Waldo also refused to see Rosenthal.

Two strikes against him and tired of whiffing, Rosenthal took another swing and wound up in the office of New York City District Attorney Charles S. Whitman, a confirmed alcoholic, who was often drunk on the job, and sometimes even in court. Despite his frequently inebriated condition, Whitman had ambitions to become Governor of New York State, which he accomplished in 1914. Presumably sober at the time of their meeting, Whitman gave the pudgy gambler an extended audience, where Rosenthal laid out his terrible tale concerning the conduct of Lieut. Becker towards Rosenthal.

However, after hearing Rosenthal’s account, Whitman told Rosenthal there was nothing he could do on Rosenthal’s word alone. Whitman said he would need corroboration from someone else; someone who could verify Becker was indeed shaking down gambling halls.

“Find me another gambling-house owner who would squeal on Becker,” Whitman told Rosenthal. “Then I can pursue a case against him.”

Rosenthal knew getting corroborating evidence against Becker was impossible, since all the gambling-house owners, who were paying Becker and knew Rosenthal was paying Becker, hated Rosenthal more than they hated Becker. So Rosenthal played his final card,  his ace in the hole. He decided to bring his story to the New York City press.

Enter New York World columnist Herbert Bayard Swope.

Swope was a tall, red-headed whirlwind, whose ambition matched that of Whitman’s; a New York City District Attorney, who loved seeing his name in the newspapers, preferably on the front page. Swope and Whitman made a perfect team. The boozy Whitman made, and sometimes contrived headline news, and Swope reported Whitman’s achievements in his columns with a flourish. It was a win-win situation for both men.

After being shot down by Mayor Gaynor, Police Commissioner Waldo, and D.A. Whitman, Rosenthal asked around as to who might listen to his terrible tale of woe. With Big Tim Sullivan now in a mental institution and in no condition to help anyone, including himself, Rosenthal decided on Swope, who was known for throwing huge amounts of spit against the wall and hoping some of it stuck.

Knowing the ways of the Tenderloin, Swope bought Rosenthal’s story and he figured the best way to make Becker’s actions known publically was to have Rosenthal write up two lengthy affidavits (with Swope’s help of course), and run the affidavits verbatim in the Saturday and Sunday editions (July 14 and 15) of the New York World. And that’s what that two men did, which immediately thrust smoke out of Lieut. Charles Becker’s ears.

In the affidavits, Rosenthal said because Becker was his partner and had a piece of the joint, Becker had warned him about the impending the raid on the gambling house (Police Commissioner Waldo had insisted on the raid, Becker had told Rosenthal). In addition, since they were partners, Becker had the good grace to tip off Rosenthal in advance about the impending raid, so that Rosenthal could make himself scarce and not spend the night in the slammer. And, there was the also the little problem of the squad of policemen Rosenthal claimed were now basically living in Rosenthal’s house since the raid (the gambling house and Rosenthal’s home were in the same building).

Rosenthal whined to the New York Times, who picked up on the story after it had been released by the New York World, “I won’t stand for it! There are no other policemen living in other houses that I know of. My lawyer has advised me to throw them out. District Attorney Whitman has advised me to throw them out!”

According to Rose Keefe’s excellent book The Starker, Rosenthal went so far as to invite reporters to take a tour of his house. Unfortunately for Little Herman, when the press arrived, not a policeman was in sight.

Still, Herman persevered, and while Rosenthal gave the reporters the grand tour, his chubby wife Lillian whined to the press, “It’s very annoying, as I do want my home to myself. There they sit and read newspapers or books all day long, and night too. They smoke cigars and leave butts around. It’s very annoying. They’re better now, but we would like to lock them out, only we’re afraid they’d knock down the door.”

At this moment, on the afternoon of July 15, 1912, if Rosenthal had half-a-brain in his head, he would have known his life was in imminent danger. Rosenthal was an unlikable nobody; Becker was a big-shot police lieutenant. And most importantly, Rosenthal had several fellow gamblers who would like nothing better than seeing Rosenthal six-feet under. One was the aforementioned Bridgey Webber, and another was a contemptuous, toadyish, vile-looking individual named Bald Jack Rose.

We’ll get to Bald Jack Rose later.

With the New York City newspapers heavy on the case, Whitman heeded Swope’s advice and he decided to pursue a criminal indictment against Becker. But to do so, Whitman needed Rosenthal’s testimony on the official record, not in the newspapers. Whitman told Swope to tell Rosenthal to meet Whitman at Whitman’s uptown home on Sunday night.

After the Saturday (July 14) Rosenthal affidavit (No. 1) was published in the New York World, Becker and his lawyer, John W. Hart, stampeded into the offices of the newspaper and began throwing words around  like “libel” and “lawsuit,” and other words not printable in a family newspaper. Becker and Hart met with Isaac White, the legal counsel for the newspaper, and although White told them a second installment of Rosenthal’s affidavits was due to be published on Sunday, he would do them the courtesy of releasing the original affidavits to them after the second one was published (July 15).

Becker and Hart told White thanks for nothing and they immediately informed every newspaperman in town that they were going to sue Rosenthal and the New York World for libel, defamation of character, slander, or any possible combination of the three. Rosenthal must have laughed when he heard that, since he was now flat broke and totally bullet-proof from civil lawsuits.

Enter “The Brain” – Arnold Rothstein.

The son of a rabbi, Rothstein was the most famous gambler in New York City and the acknowledged “King of the Tenderloin.” Rothstein once said he’d bet on anything, except the weather – the reason being the weather was the only thing he couldn’t fix. Making strange bedfellows indeed, Rothstein and Swope were fast pals, and in fact, when Rothstein married actress Carolyn Greene in 1914, Swope served as his best man.

On Sunday morning July 15, after Rothstein got wind of what Rosenthal was doing, which threatened the very fabric of the Tenderloin, Rothstein called Swope, wanting to know exactly how far Rosenthal was willing to go with his insubordination. When Swope told Rothstein that Rosenthal was ready to go all the way to the United States Supreme Court if necessary, on the afternoon of July 15, Rothstein summoned Rosenthal to Rothstein’s palatial home in uptown Manhattan. At this meeting, Rothstein laid down the law to Rosenthal; even offering Rosenthal $500 to get out of town immediately and more money if Rosenthal needed it later. Rosenthal turned Rothstein’s offer down and by doing so he basically put a bullet in his own head.

On the same day, four known gamblers and all-around-bad-guys – Bridgey Webber, Bald Jack Rose, Harry Vallon, and Sam Schepps – got together to discuss the Rosenthal situation. On a boozed-up boat trip around Manhattan Island, they were overheard saying that if Rosenthal did not stop his yapping, “someone would get him and get him for keeps.”


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