Satan's Circus, By Mike Dash

A sleazy saga of pimps, gangsters and corrupt cops

In the summer of 1912, the Big Apple was very rotten indeed. Manhattan's entertainment district – "Satan's Circus" – teemed with "blind tigers" (illicit drinking dens), gambling "hells" and brothels. The area's other nickname was the "Tenderloin" because of the easy pickings there. In the last years of the 19th century, a system of protection extended down from Tammany Hall's power-brokers to the cops on the beat. One police chief grew so rich that he was able to found the New York Yankees.

It's no coincidence that the city where New York's finest chose between "honest" or "dishonest" graft was also the crucible of modern crime reporting. In his colourful narrative history, Mike Dash shows how the press helped to steer one bent police lieutenant to the electric chair.

Charles Becker, the only American policeman executed for murder, was the son of a German farmer. Tall and beefy, "Handsome Charley" didn't worry about breaking bones with his nightstick or grabbing a hooker by the throat after she'd bested him in court.

Becker was guilty of extortion but, Dash persuades us, innocent of murder. To convict him took two trials, and the determination of an unscrupulous, alcoholic district attorney and an ambitious reporter. The first judge – a former terrorist and cop-hater – showed staggering bias, while crooked gamblers perjured themselves in exchange for immunity.

Becker's career took off when he headed the Special Squad tackling illegal gaming. He was soon raking in $10,000 a month in bribes, stashed in 15 accounts. But his mistake was to become entangled with Herman Rosenthal. Becker not only bagged one-fifth of Rosenthal's takings in exchange for protection; he invested his own ill-gotten capital in this vengeful loudmouth's gambling business. When, on a superior's orders, Becker raided Rosenthal's premises, the two men fell out.

Rosenthal exposed Becker. Eight hours before he was to give further evidence, he was gunned down. Did Becker order the hit? Dash points the finger instead at creepy Bald Jack Rose, the Tenderloin's finest poker player. Rose was one of many bearing a grudge against the murdered man.

Dash handles with relish the sleazy circus of pimps and gangsters like Gyp the Blood, whose party trick was snapping a man's spine in three places. His research is meticulous as he tracks Becker's path from harassing streetwalkers to the gruesome moment when flames burst from his head.

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