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Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century Paperback – August 26, 2008

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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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 449 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; Reprint edition (August 26, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400054729
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400054725
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #172,968 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mike Dash, the author of Tulipomania, Batavia's Graveyard, Thug, Satan's Circus and now The First Family, was born, in 1963, just outside London, and educated at Gatow School, Berlin, Wells Cathedral School, Somerset, and Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he read history and ran the Cambridge student magazine. From there he moved on to King's College, London, where in 1990 he completed an unusually obscure PhD thesis describing British submarine policy between the Crimean and the First World Wars.

Dash's first job, for which he was thoroughly unqualified, was compiling about a quarter of the entries for Harrap's Dictionary of Business and Finance (1988), a volume that he researched via clandestine meetings in a London Spud-U-Like with a college friend who had gone into banking. From there, he began a six-year career in journalism book-ended by stints as a gossip columnist for Fashion Weekly and a section editor at UK Press Gazette, the journalists' newspaper.

While still at UKPG, Dash took a phone call from John Brown, the maverick publisher of Viz, who asked him to suggest the names of some possible magazine publishers with an editorial background and some knowledge of the newstrade, Unsurprisingly nominating himself, Dash found himself hired to take over the eccentric portfolio of Viz Comic and Gardens Illustrated.

Dash's first book, The Limit (1995), was published by BBC Books and his second, Borderlands (1997) by Heinemann. He has since written five works of historical non fiction, all of them acclaimed for combining detailed original research with a compelling narrative style.

Having written his first three books while still with John Brown Publishing, Dash has been a full-time writer since 2001. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.

'History doesn't get much more readable.'
New York Daily News

'Dash writes with unabashedly cinematic flair, backed by meticulous research.'
New York Times

'Dash captures the reader with narrative based on dogged research, more richly evocative of character and place than any fiction, and so well written he is impossible to put down.'
The Australian

'An indefatigable researcher with a prodigious descriptive flair.'
Sunday Telegraph

'Dash writes the best kind of history: detailed, imaginative storytelling founded on vast knowledge.'
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Bill Emblom on August 21, 2007
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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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Rose Keefe VINE VOICE on August 16, 2007
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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Christina Lockstein on August 14, 2007
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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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By JinDenver on April 13, 2011
Format: Paperback
I don't argue that this is an incredible primer on the Rosenthal murder and the Becker trial(s) in Turn of the Century NYC. I don't argue that this is supersaturated with factual information and inside accounts of the city, circumstances leading up to the murder, and the most sensationalized murder trial to that point in the country. But what I do argue, is that this is an enjoyable read.

Don't get me wrong, it's not awful. I slogged through it, and learned a great deal about the city during the early 1900s. But it's not written very well as a story. There are other authors who have mastered this genre of historical non-fiction while combining an art for deft storytelling that keeps you reading. The trick is to have it read like fiction. That trick is unfortunately something of which Satan's Circus is completely devoid.

At times it reads like a high school textbook, at times it's long-winded with superfluous details about characters who barely enter the framework of the book. Dash somehow manages to take a decades worth of sensational trials and an execution and remove all of the sensation and emotion. Perhaps it's because Dash no doubt had to read a lifetimes worth of court transcripts to help research this book that his book ended up containing the exuberance of one.

I definitely learned a lot, but the process was more like a lecture than it was an enjoyable read, an escape from reality, and an entertaining journey -- three things I think all books need to be, in order to be successful. I've often argued that all high school textbooks (especially history) should be written this way in order to help kids stay interested in both reading and history. But I digress.

Satan's Circus is worth checking out. And if you're a fan of Dash, an afficianado of the Rosenthal murder, or well-versed in this genre you'll probably enjoy the book more than I did. But I can't say I thought all that much of it.
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