It was very hot and sticky, even past midnight, on July 15, 1912. Windows were open
and people were sleeping on their fire escapes in hopes of catching a little of the
nightly breeze wafting across Manhattan . It had been terribly hot for a week. Although
it was Monday night the Tenderloin—an entertainment and low-life area off of Times
Square in New York City—was still lively with the after-show crowd coming and going
to the restaurants and gambling joints. Hotel Metropole, near 43rd and Broadway,
had a few loungers drinking and discussing the latest gossip. A major topic was the
imminent discloser in the newspapers of grafting cops connected to the gambling industry.
This was the favorite hangout of a Jewish gambler named Herman Rosenthal, nicknamed
"Beansie," as well. Most nights he could be found there, dressed in a dapper and
natty way. That is where he was on July 15 waiting for a reporter to whom he was
a confidant. He was growing nervous and impatient when someone he recognized came
in and summoned him outside. He got up, slapped down a dollar to cover an eighty
cent tab, and walked to the door still smoking his cigar.
Outside the brilliant arc lights momentarily blinded him and he did not see the four
men—some say five—walk up. Five shots rang out. One went wild, lodging in the door
frame of the hotel. Others hit the mark. One shot hit him in the neck, one in the
nose, and two on the side of the head. The shots were at such close range that there
were powder burns on the side of his face. He died almost immediately. It was 1 a.m.
The shooters quickly got into a 1909 slate-colored seven passenger Packard with the
license number "New York 41313" and sped off at the thundering speed of 35 mile per
hour. It was widely reported that this was the first killing in American history
in which an automobile figured prominently.
But it was not the first gangland killing in New York City. In fact, there had been
a flurry of such murders even in the past week. This was for several reasons. First,
the vice world was in turmoil due to the recent crusades by the police to close up
the joints. Second, the nature of gangs was changing along ethnic lines. In the past
most gangs like the Whyos and the Dead Rabbits were connected to Irish roughs, with
lots of fist fights. [See the movie Gangs of New York.] Now, however, the Jews had
emerged and there was no love lost between the two groups. As to add some spice there
was a sprinkling of Italians working their way into the underworld of New York .
Both the Jews and the Italians leaned toward knives and guns in their battles.
Herman Rosenthal had been born in one of the Baltic provinces of Russia but came
as a child of five, in 1879, to the East Side Jewish enclave of New York City . He
ran away from home at fourteen to sell newspapers and act as a runner for a pool
room. He began hanging around the machine's district headquarters and became a friend
of "Big" Tim Sullivan, one of the most popular and powerful bosses of the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. Ironically, it was "Big" Tim who as a state legislator
got passed the Sullivan Law, one of the first gun control laws in American history.
The boss took a liking to the boy and for the rest of his life Rosenthal's up and
down fortunes were connected to those of the big Tammany Irishman. In the wide-open-city-days
of the 1890s Rosenthal had some small time success. He opened and operated several
small time gambling joints, called stuss houses, but as the cops got more aggressive
all but one had been closed down by 1912. His remaining joint, just two blocks north
of the Metropole doubled as his residence as well. In fact, home alone his wife could
hear the barrage of shots that took her husband away forever. So could the police
who kept his house under surveillance, a matter of harassment that had enraged Herman.
Consequently, he had a hatred and running battle with the police especially those
connected with the raids on his places. In fact, lore has it that the person he was
waiting for on the night of his killing was a reporter to whom he was going to expose
the corrupt and grafting police. Such an exposure would rock the world of the police,
politicians and purveyors of vice.
The gunmen who shot Herman Rosenthal were eventually apprehended. They were local
thugs named: Jacob Seidenschneer (alias Whitey Lewis), Harry Horowitz (alias Gyp
the Blood), Louis Rosenberg (alias Lefty Louie) and Frank Cirofifi (alias Dago Frank).
All were quickly tried and found guilty of murder and sentenced to die in the electric
chair. By 1914 all four had been executed without much fanfare. But a larger question
remained to make this a worldwide criminal justice event: who ordered these thugs
to make the hit?
One of the chief suspects was the police, particularly one lieutenant by the name
of Charles Becker. Becker was head of one of the department's three special task
forces, popularly called "strong arm squads," who had been raiding Rosenthal's houses
bringing him to the brink of bankruptcy. Rumor had it that Becker was a corrupt cop
and that Rosenthal was going to expose him and the entire department to a news reporter.
In addition, supposedly, Becker and Rosenthal had been partners in one stuss house
but had a falling out.
Then there was the head of New York 's underworld, Arnold Rothstein, "The Big Bankroll"(q.v.)
and the man generally credited with establishing the nationwide organized crime syndicate
which became known as the Mafia. (Organized crime's top leadership has always been
heavily Jewish, not Italian as legend has it.) Rothstein's interests were at stake
and a big expose which resulted from Beansie spilling the beans would have cost him
money and legal exposure. If the Jewish street hoods like Gyp the Blood were the
puppets and Becker was the puppet master, Rothstein was the craftsman who made the
Bridgey Webber was a member of the gambling crowd running houses in both uptown and
downtown areas. Some of them provided opium as well. His relations with the police
was good and his fortunes went up as Herman's went down. When he had heard that Herman
was going to blab to the papers he was enraged. "Just because you are not making
it don't ruin it for the rest of us," he was reported to tell Rosenthal.
Webber and his crew ran interference for the gunmen. The night of the murder "Boob"
Walker was in the Metropole. Boob was a bodyguard for Bridgey. When he left around
11 p.m. all the taxis and most of the pedestrian traffic went to a trickle for the
next two hours. Mysteriously taxis were dispatched on "goose-chase" errands far off
of the Times Square area. The first police on the scene were given incorrect descriptions
of the car and the gunmen by amazingly observant "witnesses"; a newspaper boy who
got the correct license number had to take his information directly to the District
Attorney before anyone paid any attention.
Bald Jack Rose (his real name was Jacob Rosenzweig) was seen before, during, and
after the shooting standing in darkened doorways talking to a variety of men at the
crime scene. Later he admitted to being a stool pigeon for the police and that many
raids on Rosenthal had been instigated based upon his information. He was known to
Charles Whitman, the District Attorney, was an enormously ambitious man. the conviction
of the hit men was not enough. He wanted the brains behind the killing. He wanted
what all prosecutors want: a conviction. But more than that he wanted to become governor
of New York , which the Rosenthal case would get him shortly. He would serve two
terms as governor. He wanted to become president of the United States too but that
Whitman meticulously traced the murder of Rosenthal back to the corrupt cop, Charles
Becker, and after two trials Becker was executed in the electric chair on July 30,
1915, the only serving police officer in the history of the United States ever to
suffer the extreme penalty.
The Rosenthal murder case offers an clear insight into the nature of the American
underworld in the years just before Prohibition changed the rules forever—corrupt,
penny-ante, treacherous, and heavily Jewish.