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on August 21, 2007
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. There are seven photos and one drawing at the front of the book of key players in the story. Photos of the actual murderers and other key individuals should have been included as well. Another book on this subject entitled "The Execution of Officer Becker" by Stanley Cohen included photos of the murderers, the Tombs jail in lower Manhattan, the Bridge of Sighs, and other photos showing New York City during this time period. Both of these books on this subject should find a permanent place in your library.
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VINE VOICEon August 16, 2007
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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on August 14, 2007
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. Dash makes a good case for Becker's innocence (at least of murder, his guilt for graft is unquestioned). Dash does a terrific job of creating scene, establishing characters and building a story out of history. It's a fascinating read on the way politics in old New York worked through Tammany Hall and the power that gangsters held.
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on December 4, 2008
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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on April 13, 2011
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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on December 18, 2012
As of late, I have been on a reading binge that focuses on New York City in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thai Jones' "More Powerful Than Dynamite" stands out as, indeed, the most powerful, but Mike Dash's "Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century" came in second by only a neck.

While I am used to reading about the courtroom shenanigans that go on these days (and while I am also tired of seeing books that have "[fill in the blank] of the Century" in the title), the Satanic circus presented in Dash's lively prose is jaw-dropping. If you don't know anything about the Rosenthal/Becker case, be prepared for a wild ride of police and judicial abuse that will stun you.

The book is wisely divided into two sections: the murder of the annoying big-shot-gambler-wannabe, Herman Rosenthal, and the trial of the bullying, "grafting" Lieutenant Charles Becker for the crime. Each section is populated by colorful characters with colorful names, each moving in their own orbits around Herman Rosenthal, Lt. Becker, Tammany Hall, the immigrant population, and the neighborhood known as Satan's Circus (a/k/a, "The Tenderloin"). A good deal of referenced material surrounds each of these. The footnotes and the notes section themselves contain anecdotes and histories that round out and polish up everything. This meticulous dedication to the background of people and events may be off-putting to some but I found it admirable and responsible, especially when the legal wrangling kicks in.

The overall effects are sadness and infuriating frustration for the defendant. No, Becker was not the nicest of guys and, perhaps, he really did have something to do with Rosenthal's assassination. And, yet, the evidence is just too shaky. The dubious criminals who implicated Becker, the ambitious and zealous D.A. Charles Whitman and the cop-hating judges (Goff, more than Seabury) bent the truth and the rules ever so much to guarantee Becker's conviction. More than that, however, it seemed everything conspired to send Becker to an early grave. Tammany's slow demise, the death of Big Tim Sullivan, the promotion of DA Whitman to Governor Whitman... all seemed to push Becker along to the hot seat. His long-suffering wife, Helen, is also victim to all this, although she is not as innocent as she wanted to seem. In fact, no one is innocent. ALMOST everyone deserves the fate dealt them. Some should have suffered but didn't. Others were dragged down in the whirlpool.

Enough. I don't want to give away more than I may have already. But, wow, there is so much more that I have hardly touched upon. If you want to read more about what truly earned the title of "Trial of the Century", Dash's book is the place.
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on May 31, 2014
As pertinent today as it was 100 years ago. Cops fixing cases, taking kickbacks, and even arranging murders. The only Policemen ever to receive Capitol Punishment. Great background on early Manhattan and the colorful, and dangerous, characters that roamed its streets.
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on September 7, 2007
I was not aware of the Charles Becker murder trial nor of this period of New York City history prior to reading this book. Mike Dash has recreated this period of NYC history and brings it grimly alive. The institutionalized corruption which flourished during that time was beyond belief. The political system of the day and the capacity to manipulate said system is unnerving. Reading about the Tombs and Sing Sing prison, I was reminded of the Middle Ages or the Tower of London. It really speaks of the evolution of the society in general and the various components contained therein.
Not a happy read but worthwhile certainly.
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on April 7, 2013
Mike Dash has done a formidable job of research to uncover all the nuances of Satan's Circus - the notorious nineteenth century district of vice in NYC - and how police/political corruption both enabled the Circus to thrive for decades and led to the scapegoat trial and execution of an NYPD cop whose only real crime was doing what most other cops did: take bribes. This is a fascinating cultural history: readable, absorbing, and grim.
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on October 1, 2007
Mike Dash has done his homework. He actually tracked down descendants of many of the principal figures in this famous case and prints letters and transcripts that bring the characters from 1912 New York to life--ACCURATELY.
He is a meticulous researcher, correcting errors (such as the real names of several of the gangsters) that mar some other books on this subject.
The one defect I could find in the book is: there are not enough photographs. Otherwise this would have had a perfect score.
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