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Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century, by Mike Dash and David Ackroyd (Narrator)

Satan's Circus

Charles Becker, a handsome young German-American boy, grew up in poverty in the small village of Callicoon Center, New York in the late 1800s. In 1890 he, like so many others, left his rural home to seek his fortune in the "big city". But while he did achieve fame and fortune in New York City, this is no fairy tale, for two reasons. First, the author claims that everything he presents in this audio book is true, based on actual court records, written accounts or sworn testimony. Second, Charles Becker did not live happily ever after. In fact, of all the millions of men and women who have held the title of police officer, Charles Becker is the only police officer in history who was ever executed for murder. After working at assorted jobs, Charley became a New York City policeman. Although his salary was meager, he quickly learned that he could supplement his income handsomely by accepting graft. Corruption in the police department was so widespread that few men from the humblest street cop to the highest commissioner were untouched by it. Charley was especially successful in collecting protection money from prostitutes and gamblers, so it was ironic when he was put in charge of a special squad formed to clean up vice. When small time gambler Herman Rosenthal was assassinated in Satan's Circus, the crime and vice center of the city, an ambitious DA saw an opportunity for political advantage. Charles Becker, high-ranking police officer, was charged with ordering the murder, and his trial, conviction and execution made history.

New York City at the turn of the century is so vividly described in this audio book that the listener can almost hear the trolley bells and the rustling skirts of the prostitutes who climb aboard the screeching trains. When Charley is incarcerated in a windowless cell in The Tombs in summer, the listener can feel the suffocating heat and the claustrophobic conditions. The author has diligently researched life in New York City at the turn of the century. His coverage of Tammany Hall and the inner workings of the police department and their influence on the lives of ordinary citizens is fascinating. Dash's descriptions of the people who populate Charley's world are so Runyonesque that the audio book sounds more like a novel than a work of nonfiction. Surprisingly, this is also a love story, thanks to Dash's depiction of the unwavering devotion of Charley's wife, Helen.

Although Charley was pronounced guilty after two trials, the jury is still out on his guilt or innocence after almost 100 years. It's no secret that he was a corrupt policeman, but Dash's account of his trial and the evidence that was used to convict him make it hard to believe he was guilty of murder. I wish I could ask my Grandmother what she thought of him, since she grew up with him in tiny Callicoon Center and must have been befriended by him when she went to New York City in the 1890s. Even without that curious and intriguing connection, I'd recommend this book for its entertaining and informative look at the history of New York and one of her "finest?"

Ruth Mormon

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