Satan's Circus

'Who would the 12 men in the jury box believe? A brawny, brutal, utterly corrupt policeman? Or three self-confessed murderers and their oil slick of an accomplice?'

Charles Becker
Lieutenant Charles Becker, NYPD

In the baking, windless summer of 1912, Charley Becker was the most admired policeman in New York.

The handsome lieutenant led the city's ‘strong-arm squad’, a special unit formed to stamp out vice throughout Manhattan. For the best part of a year, the papers were filled with news of his raids on brothels and underworld gambling dens. Few cops had ever received such a favourable press.

Becker's greatest challenge, reporters said, would be to clean up the city's entertainment district - a twenty-eight-block strip of the West Side that scandalised public opinion. The neighbourhood was noted for its theatres, cafes, restaurants and bars. But at midnight, by the cold glare of a thousand arc lights, the sidewalks swarmed with touts hawking the other services the area was famous for: late-night drinking, gambling, and sex. Shocked clergymen called the place ‘Satan's Circus’, and denounced it from their pulpits. For everyone else it was the Tenderloin: the most glamorous, notorious square mile on earth.

At first, Becker's posting to the Tenderloin was a success. But shortly after midnight on 16 July, something happened that would change his life forever. A gambler named Herman Rosenthal - the not-very-successful proprietor of a shabby casino - was gunned down on the steps of one of New York's most renowned hotels. As Rosenthal lay dying with two bullets in his head, the police guessed the shooting was the upshot of a gamblers' dispute. But New York's ambitious young District Attorney thought differently. Exactly two weeks later, Becker himself was charged with ordering the murder.

The arrest of Charley Becker transformed the Rosenthal affair into the most sensational murder case New York had ever seen, for it soon emerged that the lieutenant had been leading a double life. In theory, Becker was a pillar of the law. In practice, he had been utterly corrupt, using his position to build up a protection racket that extorted tens of thousands of dollars a month from the gamblers, saloon-keepers and madams of the Tenderloin - all whilst drawing a police salary of just $2,250 a year.

As the prosecution and defence geared up for New York's ‘trial of the century’, the electric chair stood waiting. Was Charley Becker guilty of a brutal murder? Or was the policeman merely a fall-guy - a man so corrupt no-one would ever believe him, convicted on the word of as unsavoury a collection of witnesses as had ever given evidence in a court of law?

Satan's Circus tells the Becker story in full for the first time in more than three decades. Firmly based on extensive new research - including documents, never seen before, supplied by the Becker family itself - it is a tragedy in the true sense of that word: the tale of a fatally flawed anti-hero who was the product of a system he had not created, and of a man brought low by his weakness and his greed.