Satan's Circus: Mike's view

Nearly five million men and women have served the United States as police officers.

Only one has been executed for murder.

This is the story of Charles Becker — a New York police lieutenant widely reviled in the first decades of the last century as ‘the crookedest cop who ever stood behind a shield’ — and of the raucous, gaudy, utterly corrupt city that made him. It is also the story of the precinct that Becker’s career so frequently returned him to: the infamous Tenderloin, also known as 'Satan's Circus', in midtown Manhattan, then both New York’s entertainment district and the heart of its flourishing vice trade.

The cast of characters is extraordinary. Aside from Becker himself — a man of marked intelligence and vast contradictions who somehow contrived to be a brutal, corrupt cop, a loving husband and a mentor to his fellow prisoners on Death Row — the book tells of Big Tim Sullivan, an election–rigging vice lord who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from ordinary New Yorkers, yet was borne to his funeral through a crowd of more than 20,000 weeping citizens; of Jack Zelig, the beloved gangster; and of John Goff, a one–time terrorist turned sadistic hanging judge. Elsewhere in its pages you will meet Gyp the Blood, a back–snapping thug and uselessly incompetent murderer; the sinister Bald Jack Rose, his completely hairless procurer; and Bill Devery, the hulking, charming, shrewd police chief who ran his city as one vast racket, and used the money he extorted from Manhattan’s brothels to found the New York Yankees.

Since even a novelist would hesitate to invent such characters, I want to make it clear that nothing of what follows is fiction. Satan's Circus is closely based on contemporary sources — principally legal documents, newspapers and an archive of detailed reports made by the most prolific private detective of the day — which make it possible to reconstruct the events of a century ago in remarkable detail. Nor are any of the conversations I have included in the book invented; each one was either recalled, word for word, by one of the participants, or noted down by a reporter. In the handful of places where I have speculated on the thoughts and motives of individuals, I have acknowledged that fact in the text or in the notes.

Mike Dash, London, February 2006