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Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century Hardcover – June 12, 2007

4.2 out of 5 stars 37 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From 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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

In the New York City of 1912, the area called Satan's Circus was a slice of midtown Manhattan known for numerous saloons, dance halls, and vice. Into this toxic milieu stepped a young police officer, Charles Becker. Despite his inexperience, Becker stood out from the rank-and-file officers on the force. He was of German descent on an Irish-dominated force; he was tall, handsome, articulate, and intelligent. He seemed destined for larger things, and, indeed, he was. Becker quickly earned a reputation for extreme corruption and brutality. He was accused of orchestrating the murder of a local casino owner, and he was tried and executed for the crime. Becker's trial transfixed and divided the city, with many of Becker's sympathizers viewing him as a dupe of more powerful forces. In his chronicle of the crime, the trial, and the city, 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. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 449 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; First Edition edition (June 12, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400054710
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400054718
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.5 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,386,009 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Author Mike Dash has provided us with a thorough description of the corruption and vice in New York City, specifically the Times Square area (Satan's Circus) at the turn of the 20th century. Lieutenant Charley Becker's effort to cover up his graft by eliminating gambler Herman Rosenthal, who planned on blowing the whistle on Becker's crookedness, is covered in great detail. The characters in this book are many with the personality of each given in great detail. Prosecutor Charles Whitman went all out to convict Becker while hoping to advance his own political career. His goal to achieve the presidency of the United States was not achieved, but he did become the two time governor of New York. Ironically he was the one who Becker had to appeal to for a pardon from the then governor Whitman. Judge John Goff, all full of himself and drunk with the power of his position, went out of his way to favor the prosecution in Becker's trial. Becker's case was appealed and he received a new trial, but was convicted once again mainly on the basis of a conference a witness heard at a Harlem Conference regarding the case. Four shady characters with nicknames such as Lefty Louie, Whitey, Dago Frank, and Gyp the Blood, were Rosenthal's actual assassins while others such as gamblers Bald Jack Rose and Jack Zelig made the necessary arrangements. This is a story of the murder of Herman Rosenthal, the corruption of the New York police department, and the trial that sent a police lieutenant and the four hired hands to the electric chair in Sing Sing prison. A definite plus of the book is the inclusion of maps of Manhattan in the front to show the location of key events in the story. I am rating this book five stars, but it does have one definite drawback.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
The injustice that surrounded Lieutenant Charles Becker's fate remains as obvious today as it was in 1915, when he became the only police officer ever executed by the state of New York for murder. Although Becker was a corrupt policeman who used his position to fatten his bank account, all the signs point to the fact that he did not order the assassination of Herman Rosenthal. A politically ambitious District Attorney, Charles Whitman, gave the real killers the opportunity to save themselves by turning state's evidence. Any pangs of conscience that Whitman may have experienced were likely assuaged by his being elected Governor in the aftermath of Becker's conviction.

Mike Dash has produced a colorful yet sobering examination of the Becker-Rosenthal affair that surpasses anything that's been written about the case since Andy Logan released "Against the Evidence" back in the 1970s. In placing special emphasis on such primary resources as trial records, confidential detective reports, and personal interviews, Dash has done a brilliant investigative job that makes "Satan's Circus" an indispensible research tool for those who wish to study the case further.
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Format: Hardcover
Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century by Mike Dash is the story of Charley Becker, the only police officer in the history of New York to be executed for murder. I love books like this that take place around the turn of the 20th century featuring what newspapers called "the trial of the century". Crime seems less frightening when it's removed by 100 years or so. Dash builds his case well: he tells the story of Becker's life as well as many gangsters and politicians who will eventually effect the case. Satan's Circus was an area around Broadway in New York City that was filled with brothels and gambling dens. Police officers took graft (bribes) from these places so that they could continue to operate. The graft went all the way up to the district attorney and mayor on occasion and recipients ended up with amounts in the millions. Becker himself took in what would be $500,000 in today's money while he was working on a task force to stamp out graft. He crossed a small time gambler named Herman Rosenthal who determined to get revenge on Becker and the rest of Satan's Circus by spilling the beans on all the cozy arrangements to a new district attorney, Charles Whitman, who was trying to make a name for himself. Quickly Rosenthal ends up dead, Whitman decides that Becker did it and pushes the suspects in custody until they come up with a story that Whitman likes: Becker hired Bald Jack Rose to get some gunmen and take Rosenthal out. Becker's first trial was a farce that was thrown out by the appeals court. The second trial was better but despite the weak evidence, the jury found Becker guilty of first degree murder, and he was sentenced to death in the electric chair.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
I have read many turn of the century historical tomes by Erik Larson and others and have found that some suffer from less than interesting topics (in the context of the era), an expansive and disjointed narrative, or simply not enough detail.

Satan's Circus does a very good job of mitigating these pitfalls. The book covers much more than just Charles Becker. Exposing the birth and reign of New York's police corruption, the sinister power of Tamany Hall, and a cast of interesting characters the book delivers on nearly all fronts while answering the question of Charles Becker's guilt.

Overall, I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in police history, New York history, or Tammany Hall. It's a long but worthy read. Not as good as Devil in the White City but better than Sin in the Second City you won't be disappointed.
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