This case of police corruption and gangland gunplay owned the Big Apple’s headlines in the early nineteen-teens — it even gets a callout in The Great Gatsby. Whether it was rightly decided has been hotly contested ever since.
Author Mike Dash, who maintains a dashing historical blog, delved into this Jabba’s Palace in Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Political Corruption and New York’s Trial of the Century. He was generous enough to grant Executed Today permission to excerpt Satan’s Circus for the narration of Becker’s last hours.
Sing Sing had already prepared for Becker’s death.
Invitations had been despatched in the middle of July to those chosen to witness the execution. There were three dozen in total, and they went to doctors and to a sanitary engineer, to representatives of the press, and to the operators of several wire services. One, scarcely surprisingly, was sent to Swope of the World, but the reporter — to his undoubted chagrin — was recuperating from a bout of rheumatic fever and his doctor had forbidden him to attend. Swope despatched another World reporter in his stead; the man arrived at Ossining bearing a large sheaf of handwritten instructions setting out in considerable detail exactly how the story should be covered. Preparations were also made to cater for the needs of the large body of newsmen expected to descend on Sing Sing without the benefit of invitations. Linemen spent several days installing additional telegraph wires and Morse code senders in a shack opposite the death–house.
Inside the condemned cells, white curtains were fitted across the bars of all the cells that Becker would have to pass on his way to the execution chamber, so that the other inmates would not be able to see him as he walked by. In the execution chamber, guards tested each piece of equipment. The lieutenant’s electrocution was scheduled to be the first at which a new system of signals would be used, as the New York Times reported:
Instead of the old method, by which the executioner signalled with his arm to the man in charge at the power plant, there is a little electric button behind the chair, and above it is tacked a placard bearing the following gruesomely suggestive instructions: “Five bells, get ready; one bell, turn on the current; two bells, turn on more current; three bells, turn on less current; one bell, shut off current; six bells, all through.”
New York’s newspapers remained predominantly hostile to the condemned man. The Times spoke for most of the Manhattan press when it observed that Becker’s death sentence was a punishment not just for Herman’ s death, but for the arrogance Rosenthal’s killer had displayed during his strong–arm days: ‘He paid for the times when “Big Tim” called him “Charlie”. He paid for his one–time power, that almost of a dictator, over the underworld of New York. And he paid for his pride in all this.’ Several dailies had issued their reporters with instructions to study Becker carefully for signs of weakness or incipient collapse; in the end, opinion seemed evenly divided between those who thought that the policeman continued to display an ‘iron nerve in the face of doom’ and those who discerned the onset of a nervous breakdown.
The lawyers were more generous. [Williiam] Bourke Cockran paid tribute to his client’s astounding self–control: ‘His hand is just as cool and his voice as steady as can be.’ John McIntyre said that he had never previously doubted the verdict of a jury in a murder trial. ‘But in this case I say that if Becker is executed tomorrow I will carry to my grave the conviction that at least one innocent man has suffered the death penalty.’ And Joseph Shay, another of the lieutenant’s old attorneys, released a statement of his own: ‘I believe that Becker is dying a martyr, and that his innocence will be established in time, perhaps by the deathbed confession of Vallon or Webber. Rose is too low to confess even on his deathbed.’
Becker himself was woken early on his last morning. At 8am his prison clothes were exchanged for special black cotton shirt and trousers, made without metal buttons or wire stitching; he was given black felt slippers instead of shoes. A guard shaved a spot on his temple, ready for the electrode. Another appeared carrying a pair of shears and neatly slit Becker’s trouser leg almost to the knee. When the time came this would allow the death–house guards to affix a second wire to the condemned man’s calf.
The next portion of the day was passed in writing: a love letter for his wife, a final statement for the press. At two in the afternoon the policeman saw his relatives for the last time. His brothers John, the detective, and Jackson, now a Wall Street broker, found him sitting in his cell, gazing at a small photograph of Helen that he kept on the wall. The meeting was so difficult that the two men were relieved when one of the other prisoners along death row broke the awkward silence by singing ‘Rock of Ages’. Becker joined in with the chorus.
Helen Becker reached Sing Sing, pale and breathless from her journey, soon after 11pm. Her husband had been waiting for her with increasing anxiety for most of the evening. Becker was so popular in the death–house that he had received special permission to spend more than an hour and a half with his wife in the warden’s room. The guards, who had been given strict instructions to keep their eyes on the prisoner at all times, turned their backs as the couple embraced for the final time. ‘No condemned man at the prison had ever had such sympathetic treatment,’ observed the World.
Helen left the prison at 1.30 in the morning, and Becker was returned to his cell. ‘I am tired of the world and its injustice to me,’ he told Father Curry, the New York priest. ‘My happy life has been ruined; I have not been given a chance a mere dog would get.’ Warden Osborne, coming to say good-bye at 2.30am, found his prisoner awake and sitting on the edge of his cot, ‘his chin sunk in his hands’. At four, Father Cashin heard Becker’ s last confession, which contained no admission of guilt and ended with the firm assertion: ‘I am sacrificed for my friends.’
The execution was set for 5.45am. Outside the walls, a double line of guards poked long sticks through the fence that marked the limit of the prison grounds to keep back the crowds assembling there. Inside, the executioner – a small, sharp-faced, balding electrician dressed in a baggy grey sack suit, a striped shirt, polka–dot tie and pointed patent leather shoes – checked his equipment for the final time.
Becker was the one hundred and sixteenth prisoner to die at Sing Sing since electrocution was first used to execute a man in August 1890. The victim on that occasion had been an axe-murderer named William Kemmler, who was accidentally subjected to ‘a far more powerful current than was necessary’ and died ‘in convulsive agony’, flames jetting from the base of his spine and purplish foam spewing from his lips. The technique for electrocuting a man had been refined somewhat since then, but it was still common for the death-house to fill with the odour of burning flesh and scorched hair as the moistened electrical conductors placed against the condemned man’s skin dried out. A lengthy electric shock could ‘turn blood into charcoal and boil a brain’. When a prisoner was ready to enter the chamber, he was issued with thick muslin underwear, and little wads of cotton would be forced into his ears and nostrils to prevent scalding brain fluids spurting forth uncontrollably when the current was applied.
Thomas Mott Osborne, who had vowed never to be present when a man in his charge was being executed, walked away from the death–house at 5am, leaving Deputy Warden Johnson to bring the policeman from his cell. Becker, who was still awake when Johnson came for him, went quietly to his death. A dozen steps took him from his cot to the door leading to the execution chamber. At 5.42 the witnesses clustering inside saw a narrow red door swing open, and the condemned man entered the room. He walked with a strange, hobbled gait, his knees locking involuntarily. His face was a mask. The chair, surprisingly insubstantial, stood on a thick rubber mat almost in the centre of the room. There was no glass and no partition to separate Becker from the witnesses who had come to watch him die, the nearest of whom sat only 10 feet away. The electric chair itself, the man from the American observed, ‘had had a double coat of varnish and its metal fixtures had been burnished for the occasion.’ Straps dangled loosely from its arms and legs, and a heavily–insulated wire hung from a goose-necked fixture above it. The policeman’s guards, anxious to spare the condemned man the agony of a lengthy wait, hurried so much with the buckles that they neglected to secure one of the restraints that stretched over his chest. Becker’s last words, uttered as another leather strap was fastened across his mouth, were a recitation of the Catholic litany: ‘Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’
Five bells rang, then one. The executioner took his hands out of his pockets and threw a long wooden lever on the wall. The raucous drone of electricity filled the room, a green flash shot from the equipment and Becker’s muscular body lurched forward against the straps, his head twisting sideways and upwards as though attempting to escape the shock.
Charley Becker was the largest man ever brought into the execution chamber at Sing Sing, and it may be for this reason that his electrocution was horribly botched. Too little current was applied at first, so that the death agonies became protracted. The temperature within the dying man’ s body rose to 140 F, the loose strap across his chest burst open, flames were seen to spurt from his temple, and despite the administration of 1,850 volts for a full 60 seconds, Charles Farr, the death–house doctor, found Becker’s heart ‘not only still beating, but pounding strongly.’ In the end it took nine minutes and three separate jolts to kill the prisoner, though the representative of the World observed that ‘to those who sat in the grey-walled room and listened to the rasping sound of the wooden switch lever being thrown backward and forward, and watched the greenish-blue blaze at the victim’s head and feet and the grayish smoke curling away from the scorched flesh, it seemed an hour.’ The whole affair was described in later years as ‘the clumsiest execution in the history of Sing Sing.’
As the reporters gathered to witness the execution filed out of the chamber, they were handed copies of Becker’s final letters. The first was addressed to Governor Whitman:
You have proved yourself able to destroy my life. But mark well, Sir, these words of mine. When your power passes, the truth about Rosenthal’s murder will become known. Not all the judges in this State, nor in this country, can destroy permanently the character of an innocent man.
The second letter was a final testament. Becker had spent much of the night memorising it, in the hope of being allowed to deliver it himself, but the guards had not permitted this.
‘I stand before you,’ this statement began,
in my full senses knowing that no power on earth can save me from the grave that is to receive me, and in the presence of my God and your God I proclaim my absolute innocence of the crime for which I must die. You are now about to witness my destruction by the State … And on the brink of my grave, I declare to the world that I am proud to have been the husband of the purest, noblest woman that ever lived, Helen Becker. This acknowledgement is the only legacy I can leave her. I bid you all goodbye. Father, I am ready to go.
When most of the reporters had left, Becker’s corpse was removed to the autopsy room for the usual examination, arms dangling, head hanging back, legs swinging. Dr Farr stripped the black cotton shirt from the lieutenant’s hulking body, and was startled to discover that it concealed the little photo of Helen that Becker had kept on the wall of his cell. The dead man had pinned it to his undershirt, with the face turned inward, over his heart.