Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption and New York’s Trial of the Century
Author Mike Dash, who weaves a rich history in the vein of Eric Larson’s great historicals, tackles the story of a New York City Police Lieutenant convicted of murder. I use “weave” because he puts together a million little threads of history to tell the tale.
The first lines of the book, in the preface, give a hint as to why this might be the Trial of the Century, a sobriquet laid on often in the case of once famous trials. Here we see, “Nearly five million men and women have served the United States as police officers. Only one has been executed for murder.” He dispels this statistic much later, in the extensive Notes section where he explains there were two officers on death row as of publication in 2007. It’s still an impressive and very telling statistic.
Dash’s account of the 1912 murder of petty New York City gambler Herman Rosenthal is a monster read. His million bits of information are gathered from as far away as an archive in Jerusalem, to the genealogical papers of a great niece, to the tombs of NYC’s District Attorney’s office, a linear mile of contemporary newsprint, and many, many books. The story begins in the late 19th century and is an exhaustive review of police corruption that fed on the seedy underworld of gambling, prostitution, and other vice-generated criminal activity. We’re introduced to the character who anchors the cloth Dash weaves, Charles Becker, who learned to navigate the political and economic quagmire that was the police department. One did not, for example, attend an academy but paid money to be hired. Once in, the only way to afford life in New York was by taking money from unofficial sources, and the only way to move up the ranks was by paying huge sums to the correct people.
I’ve always felt that to really understand a time and place, it’s important to know how they deal with crime, beginning with, what do they consider a crime? “It was New Nork’s tragedy that its police department had a lengthy history, extending back at least a century, of shameless exploitation of the police.” A reader might find herself wondering if the police of the time really were corrupt or were they working in a system that required behavior that a modern person considers corrupt.
Another reason to read books like this is to discover fascinating things about the culture and learn how we’ve changed over the years. The subject of prostitution begins with a great early footnote that ends with a prominent clergyman learning he was in a house of male prostitutes. The reader is introduced to the infamous May Sharpe, who worked in “the city’s ‘creep’ and ‘panel’ joints – brothels whose rooms were equipped with secret entrances through which skinny men would crawl, while a client was noisily occupied, to steal the contents of his wallet.”
Most of the book is not so intriguing, and can get downright dull, especially once the trial begins. But the fun parts are very fun and if you’re a history nerd like me you’ll enjoy quite a bit of the million little threads. Like the origin of the NY Yankees baseball team, which made me laugh out loud, or the short biography in the Notes section of a peripheral player that ended with him “discovering” John Wayne. If you consider the actual murder the crux of the book, the part everything leads up to, then you’ll be waiting 176 pages when the book suddenly reads for a few pages like a lurid and detailed gangster movie screenplay.
Immediately the reader can see, especially with the super lengthy set up, how coordinated Rosenthal’s murder was. For instance, there were six police officers on scene as it happened in front of the Metropole Hotel, one of them sitting at a café table near Rosenthal’s. The only reliable witness to the shooting was immediately arrested. Over a hundred people converged on the body, rolling it, groping for souvenirs, gloating. The trial of Officer Becker was a monument to judicial malfeasance, including the judge physically torturing the defense attorney and allowing the co-conspirators (the men who actually pulled the trigger) to be paraded past the jury while in prison garb and shackles. More than a couple of times.
Unlike the Austin axe murders of a few decades before, this murder and trial created a mountain of data. There was no radio or tv at the time buy a dozen newspapers fighting for readership created a mountain of printed material, along with several book length examinations and recollections. In a bit of overkill, the story gets tedious during the trial portion unless you’re fascinated by that sort of historical examination. Then the reader will learn a bit about the early twentieth century penal system and the horror of execution in the electric chair.
As in any epic historical journey, the best parts are the myriad small stories that help make up or enhance the main story of Rosenthal’s murder and Becker’s conviction. Some are fascinating glimpses of a world a modern person wouldn’t recognize, while others are humorous, and a few are downright heartbreaking, like the last line of the book and the corresponding last line of the epilogue. Dash was lukewarm on Becker’s innocence, despite the mountain of words, leaving it up to the reader to decide how they come down on the issue. Becker, being a typical policeman of the day, was no saint. But underneath the heavy hand of political machinations that convicted him of murder, should there have been enough doubt to change the verdict?
For the most part I found this a very readable book that I highly recommend if you’re interested in true crime history, New York City history, or a glimpse of where our modern police and notions of their duties and responsibilities come from. It’s long, and has an extensive section of Notes, Bibliography, and Index. The latter is not the best I’ve seen, but at least there is one, and a healthy dose of entertaining footnotes. Some of the Notes were good reading, so be sure to cruise through them. Dash’s language doesn’t quite match that of the characters born nearly two hundred years ago, but it’s definitely old school. I only caught one word I had to look up (conurbation), so I won’t jeer him as I did another author a few years ago. (I still can’t get over pullulated.) Check it out if you have a large amount of time to read this long and fascinating book.
CFR: In Addition: When I got the email that contained this review in the subject line were the words: “(a long ass title)”. I simply had to share that. 🙂 – CFR