On August 2, 1915, Charles E. Becker was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, just two days after he had become the first police officer ever executed for murder in this country.
Charles E. Becker may well be the most notorious native of Sullivan County ever. Born on July 26, 1870 in Callicoon Center – he lived and worked on the family farm there until he was 21 – he became known as the most corrupt cop in New York City history, was tried and convicted twice of a high profile murder he quite likely did not commit, and was eventually executed in the Sing Sing electric chair – not without incident – on July 30. 1915.
But there’s a lot more to the Becker saga than that. Continue reading
In his new book Law & Disorder: The Chaotic Birth Of The NYPD (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) historian Bruce Chadwick argues that rampant violence led to the founding of the first professional police force in New York City.
Chadwick paints a picture of a bloody and violent city, where race relations and an influx of immigrants boiled over into riots, street gangs roved through town with abandon, and thousands of bars, prostitutes, and gambling emporiums clogged the streets.
Chadwick says that in the 19th century the crime rate was triple what it is today and the murder rate was five or six times as high. The drive to establish law and order involved some of New York’s biggest personalities, including mayor Fernando Wood and journalist Walt Whitman. Continue reading
Near the end of his twenty-two-year career, Gerald Chapman’s several reputations came together in headlines touting him as a Spectacular Mail Bandit, Jail Breaker, and Criminal Extraordinaire. But above all, he was most often referred to as a “super-crook,” placing him beyond the level of most American criminals, one whose exploits were followed closely by the public. A worldwide manhunt finally resulted in his capture in 1925, but a decade earlier, he had done hard time at Clinton Prison.
Chapman, whose real name was believed to be George Chartres, or Charters, first ran into trouble in New York in 1908 and served a three-year stint in Sing Sing. After release, he was again arrested for grand larceny, and in January 1912 returned to Sing Sing, this time for ten years. As a brilliant criminal, and a handful to keep track of in any prison, he was sent north to the state’s most secure facility, Clinton Prison at Dannemora, where he quickly assumed a gang leadership position. As the source of many problems for guards and administration, he was finally relegated to an isolation cell, which at Clinton offered a very stark existence. Continue reading
“Hear us, thou delver in unrighteousness.” This was part of a warning notice posted on a home’s front door in Neversink, Sullivan County, as published in the New York Herald on April 22, 1889.
It was from the village’s band of moral crusaders called White Caps who operated outside of the law to reform/punish “unrighteous” people in their communities. In this case, the White Caps were women, and they demanded that a family man stop his frequent visits to a tavern, and going home “as drunk as a lord.” If he disobeyed this admonition, the notice declared that “tortures will grapple you,” and this is exactly what happened.
According to the Herald, the women seized the man soon after he left the bar, and beat him so badly that “he was nearer dead than alive when he got home.” In addition, the victim was “soused,” or dunked,” in a nearby mill pond. This was one of only a few instances, though, when white capping was done by women. Continue reading
On a cold and snowy 21st of December in 1808, about two in the afternoon, there alighted at the door of the old tavern in Green Street, Albany, then kept by Whitmore, a dark complexioned but elegant stranger, evidently of southern origin. He stepped to the hall of that ancient house of entertainment, and while shaking from a richly furred mantle, the snow which had profusely fallen that day; he desired the ostler to dismantle his remarkably elegant horse of its riding caparisons and to convey the horse to the warmest stall the stables afforded; when himself hastened to the ample bar-room of that well ordered establishment.
Once inside, the stranger asked the keeper of the inn, whether it was agreeable to entertain him a few days. On further acquaintance, the genteel stranger proved a gentleman of the first order, prepossessing in his manners, agreeable and diffuse in conversation, as he was extremely well informed in the lore of literature, as well of any and all parts of the globe, the governments of the different nations, the workings of universal politics and the balance of power between the different nations of Christendom. Continue reading
Perhaps you have never heard of Katherine Lawes. Katherine was the wife of Lewis Lawes, warden at Sing Sing Prison from 1920-1941.
Sing Sing had the reputation of destroying wardens. The average warden’s tenure before Lewis Lawes was two years. “The easiest way to get out of Sing Sing,” he once quipped, “is to go in as warden.” In his 21 years he instituted numerous reforms – and an important part of his success was due to his wife Katherine. Continue reading
For a few hours on the night of October 7, 1862 in the village of Binghamton, N.Y., law and order vaporized when a mob of white men attacked black residents, their homes, and their churches. The trigger for this race riot was an interracial fight at the circus in town. According to the Broome Republican, the rioters’ expressed goal was to “clean the negroes out.”
Right after the circus performances ended, “all the colored persons present” were attacked. Many suffered bloody injuries at the hands – and stones and clubs – of 20 to 30 rioters. There was no organized resistance as the victims fled for safety. In addition, there were no arrests, or police presence or response. Continue reading
In 1899, William Osborne Dapping was a Harvard-bound nineteen-year-old when he began writing down exploits from his rough childhood in the immigrant slums of New York City.
Now published for the first time, The Muckers: A Narrative of the Crapshooters Club (Syracuse University Press, 2016) recovers a long-lost fictionalized account of Dapping’s life in a gang of rowdy boys. Simultaneously a polished work of social reform literature and a rejoinder to the era’s alarming exposés of the “dangerous classes,” The Muckers stands as an important reform era primary document. Continue reading
Daniel Czitrom’s new book New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era (Oxford University Press, 2016) offers a narrative history of the Lexow Committee, which the author considers the first major crusade to clean up Gotham.
Czitrom tells this story within the larger contexts of national politics, poverty, patronage, vote fraud and vote suppression, and police violence. The effort to root out corrupt cops and crooked politicians morphed into something much more profound: a public reckoning over what New York had become since the Civil War. Continue reading
As a result of their efforts and accomplishments with the Walk Forever Free campaign, five Arlington High School students and teachers in Arlington, Nebraska will receive the 2016 Frederick Douglass Human Rights Award from Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI).
Tierra Krivohlavek, Tamisha Krivohlavek, Austin Harms, Ambers Sims and Barry Jurgensen, the five award winners, were all instrumental in the Walk Forever Free campaign as were other students, teachers, administrators and citizens along the way. The award was presented by Robert J. Benz, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President and Co-Founder of FDFI and its President and Co-Founder, Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., on November 16th at an Arlington High School assembly. Continue reading