Reviews of Satan's Circus
Louis Sontag's ‘The Bowery at night’ (1895)
captures the feel of turn-of-the-century
New York better than almost any other painting.
‘Fascinating… tantalizing… richly researched… Satan's Circus outshadows any noir master's contrivance. Dash's depiction brings a fantastic backdrop and Becker's fall from grace and ironic career finale into ripping-yarn focus. A tour de force of scholarship and entertaining storytelling that lets the 21st century in on the lawless details of how the 20th began. This is what history writing should be.’
‘A thrilling, atmospheric story peopled with outlandish characters, but one that also conveys a profound understanding of how New York's criminals, policemen and politicians conspired on a systematic basic.’
‘A fascinating account of a miscarriage of justice. Through its pages, New York at the turn of the century comes alive: the rise and fall of Tammany Hall, the HQ of the Democratic Party through which city life was corruptly manipulated; the oppressive summer heat before aircon, the breakneck streetcars and the illegal gambling joints. Dash follows Charley Becker on his journey from rural poverty through a career as a corrupt cop on the teeming streets of New York, and ends with his ghastly death in the electric chair of Sing Sing prison in 1915. Often, such popular histories fail because they are poorly attributed. But, without ever interrupting the narrative flow, Dash sources his assertions in extraordinary detail at the back of the book, and some of these notes are mines of further information.’
‘Dash has powerfully recreated a morbidly degenerate milieu… Satan's Circus, the lawless grid of streets that Becker patrolled, is the real character in this book, larger than any one life and soaked in liquor and lust.’
‘Colourful narrative history… In the summer of 1912, the Big Apple was very rotten indeed. Dash handles with relish the sleazy circus of pimps and gangsters. His research is meticulous as he tracks Becker's path from harassing streetwalkers to the gruesome moment when flames burst from his head in the electric chair.’
‘High voltage stuff… Satan's Circus has been brilliantly researched and the reader is taken into the heart of a city which becomes bleaker with every turn of the page… The book allows you to enter a long-gone world, and while sympathy is hard to find for almost all the characters, the story itself is so gripping that this does not detract from the reading experience. A fascinating tale and one which would lend itself superbly to portrayal on the cinema screen.’
Scotland on Sunday
‘With an eye for crime-world factoids and period detail, Dash introduces us to prostitutes and underbelly dwellers with monikers like "Kid Twist." People looking for a walk on the grimy side of prewar New York are in for a treat.’
Time Out New York
‘In an era remarkable for corruption in every area of public life, Charley Becker set new standards, taking money from illegal gambling clubs at an astonishing rate… [Dash] marshals a mountain of documentary evidence and puts his finger on a number of unanswered questions surrounding the murder of gambler Herman Rosenthal, a one-time kingpin fallen on hard times.’
New York Times
‘A true-crime thriller - it gives you a murder, followed by a probably wrongful execution, with a large cast of gamblers, gangsters, crooked cops and often crookeder lawyers, politicians and journalists - but also a portrait of the end of an era. Specifically, it records the death throes of an astonishing system of formalised police corruption. Dash makes the scene accessible to those of us not already clear on what the Badger Game was (blackmail by a prostitute) or exactly what it was Tammany Hall did. And it's not as if he's short on local colour.’
‘A fascinating story, almost novel-like in its examination of a particular time — in this case turn-of-the-century Midtown Manhattan, which is filled with vice, corruption and murder. It’s the perfect cure for anyone who misses the good ol’ days.’
‘Dash paints an irresistible tableau that both fascinates and repels. This is a juicy but ultimately tragic tale that effectively captures a bygone era of a great city.’
‘A fresh, exhaustively documented and irresistibly readable account.’
New York Law Journal
‘Mike Dash performs an admirable feat in setting the scene; by that point you are almost willing Becker to receive his grisly comeuppance, even if there is a rogues' gallery of equally likely suspects.’
‘Grotesques emerge most strongly. Few are as vivid as fearsome Judge Goff, a vindictive cop-hater who unrepentantly slanted Becker's trial towards conviction. He refused the defence attorney a lavatory break during a seven-hour cross-examination and, despite the intense heat, ordered the windows sealed and blinds drawn, hissing: 'There is not enough gloom in this courtroom.'
Chief prosecution witness was a cadaverous dandy known as Bald Jack Rose, a chalk-white alopecia sufferer and card sharp who may have ordered the killing, but who swayed the jury with tales of nude meetings with Becker in the steam baths. There are many other salty nicknames in Satan's Circus.
One of the assassins was 'Gyp the Blood', who could snap a man's spine over his knee. And it all gets a bit Damon Runyon when we encounter Flat Nose Dinny, Dan the Dude, the Big Bankroll and Big Chicago May, a working girl whose ingenious speciality was burying her head in a gentleman's chest and using her teeth to extract the gem from his scarf pin.’
‘Peopled by mobsters and crooked cops and politicians, and chronicling the early years of the New York Police Department as well as Becker's ruin and comeuppance, this engrossing, well-researched history immerses readers in the corrupt hurly-burly that was old New York. ’
‘Dash proves that truth is often stranger than fiction… Drawing from legal documents, newspapers, detective reports, and private collections, he crisply traces the descent of a ‘crooked cop’ in the context of a corrupt and crime-ridden metropolis. He augments his tale with appearances by characters like Tammany politico ‘Big Tim’ Sullivan, writer Stephen Crane, and Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt… an intriguing story that will interest social historians and general readers alike. Highly recommended.’
‘A colourful tour of early 20th-century New York… The author has done a Herculean job of ferreting out the comings and goings of a menagerie of hookers and hoodlums, introducing us to folk with names like Gyp the Blood, Lefty Louie and Bald Jack Rose. He also provides some eye-opening evidence of the corruption that permeated the city.’
'Dash makes excellent use of court documents
and newspaper reports to directly quote Charley Becker and those
associated with him. The reader has an excellent idea of the character
of Becker directly from his own words. What more could you want, other
than to meet the man?'