Sunday, April 11, 2010

Letters from Purgatory

Ninety –six years ago on the morning of April 13, 1914, Harry Horowitz, Louis Rosenberg, pictured in the illustration above, and Jacob Seidenschmer along with Italian co-hort Frank Cirofici, were led down the hallowed halls of Sing Sing prison to meet their fate in the electric chair.
All four men, none barely a quarter century old in age, were found guilty of murdering gambler Herman Rosenthal, who was killed in front of the Café Metropole on a hot summer evening in July of 1912.
The men were tried as a group in November of that same year, and the hearing had lasted only a week; their verdict and fate took only a mere thirty minutes before the jury reached a decision. The four were stunned but stood stoic as the death sentence was handed down.
The case against the gunmen was overshadowed in many ways by the highly publicized trial against Charles Becker, the former Police Lieutenant implicated and charged with ordering Rosenthal’s murder. The end result rang almost as a judicial afterthought in the wake of all the attention Becker’s case had gathered, and possibly at least two innocent lives were extinguished, that of Jacob ‘Whitey Lewis’ Seidenschmer and Dago Frank Cirofici’s, as its shadowy legacy.

Harry Horowitz, underworld moniker: Gyp The Blood, and Louis Rosenberg, aka Lefty Louie, were no angels, with arrest records and buoyed street reputations to prove it; but in the sixteen months spent in Sing Sing following their conviction they filed numerous appeals in an attempt to reverse their collective fate. Influential members of the Jewish Community tried to have the executions stopped and appealed for clemency. It was the first time such highly publicized criminals of Jewish descent were to be executed, and feared the effect it would have on a community that itself already felt like it had been put on trial in the aftermath of the Rosenthal / Becker affair. The scheduled executions marked a new heightened awareness and sense of shame of the serious criminal problem the Jewish community in New York, especially on the Lower East Side, had on their hands.

With the execution date finally set, Louis Rosenberg wrote one last statement, which was signed by all four men and delivered to the office of their attorneys, Wahle & Kringle, at 230 Broadway.
The tone is obviously somber, but it does take into question how much public scrutiny, press bias, and municipal political motivation (especially for District Attorney Charles Whitman) had influenced their fateful outcome.
While Rosenberg is at times hazy in his appeal (the New York Times printed it verbatim), it also points directly at what most writers and historians have since concluded; that gamblers Bald Jack Rose, Louis ‘BridgeyWebber, Sam Schepps and Harry Vallon were actually the men behind Rosenthal’s killing, not Charles Becker, with Vallon himself as the triggerman while Horowitz and Rosenberg possibly stood by. And that the gambler’s sworn testimonies were perjuriously a well-woven tale of conspiracy and frame up of all those convicted.

On March 29, the New York Times published Rosenberg’s statement in full. It read as follows:

Correspondence Department
Sing Sing Prison

Public Opinion:

I. We ask the public to answer to themselves these questions. Did public opinion convict us?
II. What created public opinion?
III. When Jack Zelig was arraigned for trial before Judge Malon in June 1912, charged with an offence for which the penalty is fourteen years in State prison, was there one person who read his case at the time who did not believe he was guilty and who not have voted for his conviction?
IV. What created belief that Jack Zelig was guilty of that crime?
V. What created that mental attitude in those from whom would have been drawn the jury to try him? Not even the public officials charged with the care of his trial believed him innocent. What do the officials and the public say now about the opinion and belief they had formed on the basis of rumor and misleading inferences gathered from wherever they did?

Zelig was innocent, public officials announced that he was innocent; a Grand Jury said so when they indicted those who falsely accused him. It was only an un-looked for event which enabled him to prove his innocence and escape fourteen years.
We have been accused by persons what of whom the Court of Appeals said is now well known by the public. Whatever we have said and what we now say we ask the public to please believe us that we in no way mean to criticize the court of judicial administration. As we have always said we are not lawyers. We have our records and briefs on appeals and opinions in our case and naturally in the quiet moments we have read and reread the testimony in our case and the opinions of the Court of Appeals.
We are still at a loss to understand why Rose, Schepps, Webber and Vallon are persons not to be believed under oath in the (Charles) Becker case and yet as persons whose testimony in our case should be taken as true and from whom should be accepted in our case the version as the true version of the whole Rosenthal affair and of the motive for this terrible crime.
Of (Morris) Luban the Court of Appeals states that in the Becker case that he is unbelievable and bases such conclusion on the fact that his story is improbable and that he had a motive in testifying for the prosecution, and that motive was his release from prison in Jersey; that he was placed in the company of Rose, Schepps, Webber, and Vallon so as to enable him to talk matters over with Rose, Schepps, Webber, and Vallon, so that his story would dovetail with theirs. Yet in one case, Luban is believed.
(Willie) Shapiro, another one, was the first one arrested and accused of the murder and afterward indicted on the same blanket indictment with us, and in City Prison (The Tombs) with us boys for a long while and could not identify any one of us until he was placed in that same Fifty-fourth Street jail (where Rose, Webber, and Schepps were held after being transferred from The Tombs upon Charles Becker’s arrest and arrival at the notorious holding facility), for the same opportunities for meeting and arranging their harmonious stories, which was condemned by the Court of Appeals in the Becker case?
The same reasons that made Luban unbelievable in the Becker case and more so, as his motive was to save his own life, Shapiro.
Harry Horowitz, Jacob Seidenshner and I swore on the stand we seen Vallon, Webber and a stranger shoot (Rosenthal). Bridgey Webber says he does not know this man, yet it is a fact that this man was in Bridgey Webber’s gambling room and left with them for the scene of the shooting.
We simply ask people who know of the real conditions in New York City if a man had spent his whole life in the gambling business and who was as shrewd and careful like Webber to allow a perfect stranger to enter his gambling room and take midnight trips with him?
Now in the records, on Page 452, Folio 1,354, Schepps states that “ he was told to go as far as he could and not to stop until he got there” He also states that he got $100 from Webber, and from a man he did not know by name $150. Why could it not be that Webber also wanted to get this stranger out of the way?
There is no attempt or intention on our part to create the idea that we are over-brave or any kind of heroes, for our lives and liberty are just as dear to us as anyone else, yet we do not believe we should be the victims to save men who on their own sworn testimony are concerned in the crime. We ask the public to please judge the facts for themselves.
Louis Rosenberg
Frank Cirofici
Jacob Seidenshner
Harry Horowitz

This last statement written a couple of weeks before their deaths contrasts sharply with the seemingly jovial tone of the letters they had sent to Big Jack Zelig in the early fall of 1912.
Jack Zelig had been shot and killed on October 5, 1912 while riding a Second Avenue street trolley. He was due in court the next morning to appear for the prosecution on the opening day of the Charles Becker trail, and quite possibly his statements may of been able to clear the accused gunmen’s names in the Rosenthal murder (though that wasn't Charles Whitman’s intention).

When Zelig’s body was searched at Bellevue, letters from all four alleged gunmen were found in his pockets. They are surprisingly light-hearted in nature, not something you’d expect coming from hardened street toughs; pleasantries exchanged between gentle chaps and not words that emanated from someone who broke people’s backs over his knee on a two-dollar dare in Gyp The Blood’s case:

Tombs Prison, October 3, 1912
Dear Friend Zel: A few lines letting you know I am feeling fine and in good health.
Also Louie and Whitey and Frank. I hope you and your wife are the same. Well, old boy, things look fine. They could not look better. I read your letter and Louie and myself were tickled to death to read it. We have a hell of a time here all by ourselves; do nothing but fool around and kick one another.
Gee, did you see that piece about Louie in to-day’s Journal. We laughed ourselves sick over it. You remember that fellow who said he was stuck up last week on Second Avenue? Well he is up here with us, and we kid the life out of him. Well Zel, take care of yourself and I know you are one who can do that. So I’ll close with regards and best wishes to yourself and your wife.

From your true friend,
Regards and best wishes from W and F, Answer as soon as possible if you have time.

Lefty Louis Rosenberg’s letter carried the same kind of optimism. It’s quite obvious that the men had faith in Zelig, a much heralded and respected gang leader, who would clear their names and get them out of prison, so kept up a positive front for Zelig’s sake who was reportedly quite depressed about the entire situation his men were in.

Tombs Prison, October 3, 1912
My Dear Pal: I received your letter and I was certainly glad to hear from you, and you certainly know how I more than appreciate what you are doing for me. Zel, old man, I ain’t worrying a bit; I eat good food and sleep good, and also having a little fun up here and will certainly be ready for that big Christmas dinner.
Zel, you tell me you are going to stick to me and to the boys to the end. I know that Zel, as I as know what you are made of, having full confidence in you, old boy, that you will stick to the end. I know that, Zel, as I know what you are made of, and Zel, to tell you the truth, I have got it better than a lot of them bum millionaires have got it outside, and was up last night until 3 A.M. in the morning playing cards and eating lamb chops, but who do think was in our party? But George Richman, that famous jeweler from Second Ave.
He came up here to identify Frosby, and he failed to identify him, he changed his mind and thought he could keep me company for awhile, and I can assure you he is SAFE. My father and his lawyer called me down to the counsel room yesterday and I had a cheerful chat with him. And after I got through with him he said he was convinced that I really have nothing in this case, and he went away feeling much better. Now old pal let me know you are, and how things are on the outside. I will also tell the boys to write to you. I will now close, trusting this will find you in the best of health, as I am present; also hoping this will cheer you up as your letter cheered me up.
I remain your sincere friend and pal,


Dago Frank Cirofici’s letter, undated, seemed slightly more desperate than those of his cellmates. Cirofici’s predicament was justified; guilty more by association it seemed and was apparently not even present the night of Rosenthal’s murder. But the Italian hood stood by his Jewish comrades with a gangland sense of loyalty though underneath his penned words one could almost sense a shuddering lamb being sent to the slaughter.

My dear friend Jack: I read your letter and Jack I tell you it made me feel kind of bad to think you are taking it so hard on our account, but I know what a true pal you are, so I know what about how you feel. I know the night I heard Gyp and Lefty were arrested I cried like a little baby. I had the blues for a week, before that – the day you turned your pockets inside out – was enough for me.
Do you remember it? Dear pal, I have more faith in you than in any living man in this whole country. I tell you the truth right from my heart. I don’t know you long Jack, and I think if it weren't for you I don’t know what would happen to me. Being a Dago, of course, you don’t know what I know. But time will tell, old pal. Even at that, I was always ready to take anything they handed me and say nothing.
Dear Jack, I ought not to be writing you my hard luck story. Don’t mind it. I am as happy as a lord otherwise. Well, old boy, don’t worry, we will have a grand time up at mother’s house as soon as we all get out.
Let us hope they rush things along. The sooner the better. Be cheerful, Jack. There is not a bit of worrying with the four of us. If I have so much faith in you, I am sure the rest of the boys have the same. I have thought many a time how you and your good little wife, God bless her, have worked making up food for us. Tell her I prayed to-day that I can meet her and shake her hand, with ever so much thanks for her great kindness. I think I write you a nice long letter, and hope to get one in return. I would of written long ago, but I did not know your address. Hoping this will find you and your wife happy, and with my best wishes, I remain your true friend.

Frank Cirofici Room 328

P.S. – Regards to you and Jack Wolf
Better days coming, dear. Good-night.

Big Jack Zelig's death, only two days after these letters were written, had dashed all possible hopes of the four men ever finding their freedom in the wake public outcry and pressure, resulting in the fervor of justice that was to come.

Despite all last minute appeals and reflective editorials in the Yiddish press, nothing could be done to change the minds of authorities in Albany leading up to April 13.
Rabbis were sent to their cells to pray with them in their last hours, and a priest was summoned for Cirofici.
It was determined that Dago Frank was psychologically the weakest of the quartet, and it would be even crueler punishment to have him sit through any of the executions and wait his turn. He blubbered like a baby on his way to the chair. Whitey Lewis and Rosenberg only said a few words, reiterating their innocence and the gross injustice befallen upon them.
Horowitz was the last to go, and kept mum until the end.


Dominic Bugatto said...

Nice double portrait.

Anonymous said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

Unknown said...

What's the source for the letters and is there a cite for the editorials that appeared in the Yiddish press on these cases?

Pat Hamou said...

Hello Nick
As noted, these letters were published in The New York Times in March of 1913.
I have yet to come across any digitized versions of the Yiddish press from that time and related to this case.