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The Jewish History Series

Lesson #2: Croaking Beansie (1912)

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?

Suspects

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 puppets.

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 hate Rosenthal.

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 didn't happen.

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.