Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century


They called it Satan’s Circus—a square mile of Midtown Manhattan where vice ruled, sin flourished, and depravity danced in every doorway. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was a place where everyone from the chorus girls to the beat cops was on the take and where bad boys became wicked men; a place where an upstanding young policeman such as Charley Becker could become the crookedest cop who ever stood behind a shield.

Murder was so common in the vice district that few ...

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Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century

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They called it Satan’s Circus—a square mile of Midtown Manhattan where vice ruled, sin flourished, and depravity danced in every doorway. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was a place where everyone from the chorus girls to the beat cops was on the take and where bad boys became wicked men; a place where an upstanding young policeman such as Charley Becker could become the crookedest cop who ever stood behind a shield.

Murder was so common in the vice district that few people were surprised when the loudmouthed owner of a shabby casino was gunned down on the steps of its best hotel. But when, two weeks later, an ambitious district attorney charged Becker with ordering the murder, even the denizens of Satan’s Circus were surprised. The handsome lieutenant was a decorated hero, the renowned leader of New York’s vice-busting Special Squad. Was he a bad cop leading a double life, or a pawn felled by the sinister rogues who ran Manhattan’s underworld?

With appearances by the legendary and the notorious—including Big Tim Sullivan, the election-rigging vice lord of Tammany Hall; future president Theodore Roosevelt; beloved gangster Jack Zelig; and the newly famous author Stephen Crane—Satan’s Circus brings to life an almost-forgotten Gotham. Chronicling Charley Becker’s rise and fall, the book tells of the raucous, gaudy, and utterly corrupt city that made him, and recounts not one but two sensational murder trials that landed him in the electric chair.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Satan's Circus is the intriguing, tragic story of New York's most notorious- and most misunderstood- crime scandals. Mike Dash has provided a terrific, lively narrative of one of the city's most colorful eras."
-Kevin Baker, bestselling author of Strivers Row

“High-level corruption, betrayals, political shenanigans, a spectacular murder case, a gruesome execution, and a voyage through one of New York's most exotic demimonde cycles. These are just some of the ingredients Dash injects into an engrossing tale that still reverberates today.”
-Selwyn Raab, New York Times bestselling author of Five Families

"Combining history and entertainment, Satan’s Circus is a fascinating read. Mike Dash artfully describes a grimy Gotham from a century ago with its swarming bars, corrupt pols, and one-of-a-kind underworld forces that sent police lieutenant Charley Becker to the electric chair. Be forewarned, once you pick up Satan's Circus you won't be able to put it down."
—Thomas Kelly, author of Empire Rising and The Rackets

From the Hardcover edition.

Vincent Patrick
The Becker-Rosenthal affair has been reported on over the years by several writers, most notably Andy Logan, whose book Against the Evidence (1970) exhibited the fine craftsmanship she developed in her years as a New Yorker journalist in William Shawn's heyday. Now we have Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century, by Mike Dash, the author of Tulipomania and Batavia's Graveyard. He has researched the case meticulously, and wisely incorporates into the story enough pertinent New York City history to provide context and atmosphere.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The sole police officer to be executed in U.S. history, NYPD lieutenant Charles Becker died in the electric chair in 1915 for the murder of a lowlife gambler who pimped his own wife. Set apart from other, mostly Irish, New York policemen by his German ancestry and "markedly intelligent," Becker bribed his way in 1894 onto a force infected by Tammany Hall and worked undercover patrolling the crime-riddled midtown Manhattan district called Satan's Circus, the city's center of entertainment and vice. Acquitted in 1896 of charges of falsely arresting a woman for prostitution, a charge testified to by novelist Stephen Crane, Becker went on to commit graft, perjury and theft, but by 1911 he headed his own vice squad and by 1912 he had built up a vast extortion racket. Gambler Herman Rosenthal, one of Becker's victims, exposed him to the media and the DA, and when Rosenthal was shot to death, Becker became the notorious prime suspect although some doubted his guilt. Peopled by mobsters and crooked cops and politicians, and chronicling the early years of the NYPD as well as Becker's ruin and comeuppance, this engrossing, well-researched history by the author of Batavia's Graveyard immerses readers in the corrupt hurly-burly that was old New York. Map. (June)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Journalist and historian Dash (Batavia's Graveyard) proves that truth is often stranger than fiction with this monograph on Charles Becker (1870-1915), the only New York City police officer to be executed for murder. A Republican of German descent who stood out in a predominantly Irish and Democratic police force, Becker presided over Satan's Circus (a.k.a. the Tenderloin), midtown Manhattan's entertainment, gambling, and prostitution zone. His indictment and conviction for conspiracy to murder gambler Herman Rosenthal resulted in what the contemporary press called the "trial of the century" in 1912, followed by a retrial in 1914 and Becker's subsequent electrocution. Drawing from legal documents, newspapers, magazines, detective reports found in the Municipal Archives, the private Becker family collections, and Sullivan County (NY) repositories, Dash 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. Using colloquialisms he freely explains--e.g., "sporting men" frequenting "blind tigers" (unlicensed drinking dens)--Dash serves up an intriguing story that will interest social historians and general readers alike. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/15/07.]
—Frederick J. Augustyn

Kirkus Reviews
Dash (Batavia's Graveyard, 2001, etc.) provides a colorful tour of early-20th-century New York in this Police Gazette-style tale of the only New York cop ever executed for murder. The killing of well-known gambler Herman Rosenthal took place in 1912 outside a midtown hotel in "Satan's Circus," the street name for midtown Manhattan's wide-open Tenderloin district. The author has done a herculean job of ferreting out the comings and goings of a menagerie of hookers and hoodlums, introducing us to folks with names like Gyp the Blood, Lefty Louie and Bald Jack Rose. He also provides some eye-opening evidence on the corruption that permeated the city, which served as the personal playground of Tammany Hall bosses, gambling czars like Arnold Rothstein and policemen who with impunity neatly carved up millions in bribes and graft money. Dash delivers their stories in a clear if rather wooden prose offset by anecdotes and nuggets of trivia. (For instance, the fact that assistant police commissioner Winfield Sheehan later went to Hollywood and discovered Rita Hayworth and John Wayne.) The author's chief problem lies in the character of his protagonist, corrupt police lieutenant Charley Becker. Early on in his career, Becker had a well-publicized run-in with young writer Stephen Crane over his false arrest of a prostitute. At the time of his trial, he admitted to massive bribe-taking during his years on the police force. Generating sympathy for this dour, stone-faced brute would have been a tall order in any case, but Dash fails to provide more than a grainy out-of-focus portrait. Nor, for that matter, does he offer a verdict on whether Becker was actually guilty of the celebrated murder or not.Copious notes and research buttress the text, but photographs of at least some of the colorful heroes and villains who roam its pages would have livened things up considerably. A worthwhile history lesson, less compelling as a personal crime drama. Agent: Patrick Walsh/Conville & Walsh
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400054725
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/26/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 532,818
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Mike Dash is the New York Times bestselling author of Tulipomania and Batavia’s Graveyard. He read history at the University of Cambridge and worked for some years as a magazine publisher before becoming a full-time writer. Dash lives with his wife and daughter in London, where he researches in the British Library and writes regularly for the English national press

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Preface     xi
Wide-Open     1
King of the Bowery     21
Graft     43
Stuss     73
Strong Arm Squad     102
Lefty, Whitey, Dago, Gyp     144
"Good-bye, Herman"     173
Red Queen     193
Tombs     219
Five Minutes to Midnight     249
Retrial     281
Death House     305
Epilogue     331
Notes     355
Bibliography     425
Acknowledgments     433
Index     435
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2013

    The only police officer in New York who went to the electric chair.

    This story has great movie potential. The corruption that was so prevalent at the time is so well documented. The gangs, con men, gamblers and politicians make the world go round. A fascinating story that proves the adage, "fact is stranger than fiction". Mike Dash does an awesome job.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 14, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Finely researched reading on a sleazy city

    This is an eye-opening book on a still-topical subject: big city corruption. Charley Becker was a corrupt New York policeman at the turn of the last century, but Mike Dash's brilliantly researched book makes the point that he was no more than a particularly efficient product of an all-pervasive system. In 1900 the city was rotten from top to bottom - graft started at the bottom, with the police taking payments from petty criminals in return for allowing them to operate - and was channelled upwards to the politicians who really ran the show. Becker, put in charge of an anti-vice squad in 1912, did no more than most officers in his position would have done in deciding it made more sense to take tens of thousands of dollars from the madams and gamblers he was supposed to be putting behind bars than it did to try to buck the system, and was shocked to discover himself abandoned by the superiors he had helped make rich. In a town where being incorruptible and upstanding was rare enough to earn a man a nickname (take a bow, Lieutenant 'Honest Dan' Costigan), the only unusual thing about the killing that did for Becker was that it was comprehensively investigated and actually resulted in a trial. The other 11 murders of minor crooks and criminals that took place in the same month were never solved.
    Mike Dash has done his research and puts Becker's story brilliantly in context. He also tells it well, even making the reader feel some sympathy for a brutal and corrupt cop who committed every crime but the one for which he was clumsily executed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2007


    Pulpit pounders called the area Satan's circus, scandalized ladies saw it as a locale of depravity, and turn-of-the-century policemen saw this square mile of New York City as money in the bank. It was a place where vice, gambling, and prostitution flourished, where corruption held sway with everyone from the highest official to the lowliest street cop was on the take. A good looking young German-American man, Charles Becker, who grew up with nothing went to New York City in 1890 to seek his fortune, and he found it. Unfortunately, it did not sustain him in his old age as of the many who have served as police officers in our country he is the only one to have been put to death for murder. Charley, as he was called soon became a police officer and reached the rank of Lieutenant. He enjoyed a bit of celebrity and was known as a crime busting cop, in charge of the City's special squad which fought to eradicate vice. However, Charley quickly discovered the money that was to be made by selling protection. Murder was not uncommon so it was not a great surprise when gambler Herman Rosenthal was gunned down. The shocker was that Charley was accused of the killing, brought to trial and found guilty. His was, indeed, the trial of the century. A prodigious researcher British writer Mike Dash enriches his story with authenticity, telling details and larger than life personalities of that time. Narrator David Ackroyd has a well modulated voice and distinct enunciation, which is the perfect way to present this true story of the rise and death of Charley Becker. - Gail Cooke

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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