Satan's Circus was the nickname for an area of Manhattan just west of Broadway where gambling dens and brothels flourished in the years leading up to the First World War. Local politicians and the policemen they appointed ran protection rackets which grew fat on the ill-gotten gains of these businesses. Corruption was rife and to be a 'grafter' didn't mean you worked hard, it meant you took bribes.
Herman Rosenthal was a small time crook who ran remarkably unsuccessful illegal gambling dens. Convinced that his long run of bad luck came from his rivals tipping off the police, he decided to blow the whistle and contacted a journalist. His associates attempted to bribe him to leave town but when he refused they became convinced they would have to silence him more permanently. Despite realising he was being followed and being considerably frightened, he persisted and spilled the beans in two long newspaper articles. Shortly afterwards he was gunned down outside a hotel by four gunmen who escaped on the running board of their getaway taxi. The taxi was soon discovered and the men captured. It was then a matter of finding out who was Mr Big behind the plan by the time-honoured American way of offering immunity to some in order to persuade them to testify against their confederates. In this way the District Attorney constructed a case against a corrupt cop called Charley Becker. With the help of a remarkably biassed trial judge and despite a strong of unconvincing witnesses (including the memorable Bald Jack Rose who was completely hairless and had a face that was exactly like that of a vampire), and despite a successful appeal leading to a retrial, another conviction and a second, unsuccessful appeal, Becker died in the electric chair.
This is an exciting, if squalid story. The author does his best with a large cast of characters but it is not always easy to follow who did what (the murder was carried out by four gunmen, at least four other criminals were involved in organising it, there was also the taxi driver and the taxi owner, there were a strong of other related criminals and then there are the police and the lawyers and all the families of all the men). There are some wonderful nicknames (eg Gyp the Blood) and it certainly served as the inspiration for at least some of Damon Runyon's Guys and Dolls although this was the era just before prohibition and the rise of the famous New York gangsters such as Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and Dutch Schulz.
The epilogue traces the subsequent careers of the low lifes mentioned on these pages. Arnold Rothstein (who was celebrated in fiction as The Brain in Guys and Dolls and Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby) was the man who fixed the 1919 World Baseball Series; he was shot dead in 1928. Winfield Sheehan who may have been involved with a corrupt Gambling Commission for Tammany Hall became a movie producer and discovered Rita Hayworth and John Wayne. And Charlie Becker's son became a professor of Sociology.
This was a fascinating book, lifting the lid on an underworld whilst managing to remind us always of the precarious and seedy existences the criminals led. The conviction of the policeman was clearly a travesty of justice but on the other hand he had accumulated a remarkable amount of graft in a very short time so he wasn't a nice man. Nevertheless, the description of his electrocution is horrendous.
Great reading. October 2015; 354 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57