One day in early May, while we were in Paris, I got the following message:
Dear Mr. Becker:
I stumbled upon your website and, especially after seeing your picture, wonder if you are related to my late husband’s family. I know you were born in Chicago and wonder what your father’s name was and whether there is a connection. I ask a moment of your time to read the following:
My husband was descended from a Heinrich Becker (known as Henry in the US) who migrated from Bebra, Hesse, Germany to New York and then to Sullivan County, abt. 80 mi north of NY city. His son was Conrad Becker who married Mary Wirtz. They had many children and one of the eldest boys was Howard, another was Franklin. These are recorded as having gone out west in the 1880/90’s. No more known about them. Another of Conrad’s sons was Jackson Harvey Becker and his son Todson Harvey Becker, Sr. was my husband’s father. There were several other children of Conrad including sons Paul and John and daughters Catherine and Elizabeth, and the notorious Charles Becker, a New York policeman who was convicted of murder and executed at Sing Sing. (There are always skeletons!).
Charles’ wife Leticia then married Charles’ brother Paul and they went to Reno, Nevada to live, together with Charles’ son, another Howard, who later became a professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin. The fact that his father had been executed was kept so secret that his three children Elizabeth, Christopher and Anne did not know who their real grandfather was until my husband, Tod, dug up the info and told them.
Would you be kind enough to e mail me a reply as to whether any of the above rings a bell indicating a connection?
Many thanks. Mary Becker
Dear Mary Becker:
Thanks for writing to me. First of all, I’ll tell you that there’s no relation to your husband’s family. My grandparents were Jews who ﬂed Lithuania to avoid the pogroms and the Czar’s army. I did meet Howard [Paul] Becker once and we quickly established that there was no relation, when I told him about my grandparents and he said, deﬁnitively, “My people came from Hessia, we couldn’t be related.”
Actually, the story about him and me is interesting. I started graduate work in sociology in 1946, quite young, when he was already a famous professor at Wisconsin. He was a contemporary of Everett Hughes, my teacher—they were both students at the U. of Chicago in the 20s, when that was the world center of sociology.
Naturally, it was irritating for him to suddenly have someone in his profession who had essentially the same name. People sometimes confused us, and sent him letters meant for me. He had a reputation as a very difﬁcult person and I would get copies of letters he sent to people who made that mistake, heavily ironic letters saying that it was kind of them to ask if he was interested in being an assistant professor in their department but he was already a full professor at Wisconsin. Things like that.
A young colleague of mine who had did research in the archives at the University of Wisconsin said that he found a lot of letters from Howard P. complaining about the trouble my existence caused him.
The funny thing in all this is that I always used the middle initial “S,” even before I became a sociologist and these confusions started happening. And it’s funny because my middle name is Saul. Since his middle name was Paul, the stage was set for a joke and he ﬁnally found one. In one of his last books, he mentioned in the preface that there was a younger scholar named Howard S. Becker, who should not be confused with him, and he explained that he was Paul and I was Saul and that it went against Biblical tradition to change Paul into Saul, that the precedent ran the other way. Which I thought was a pretty good gag.
Everett Hughes didn’t like him much and once told me that he was sure that Howard P’s father was the notorious Charlie Becker, and told me the whole story (which I later read in a book someone did about the case). He told me that Howard’s mother had moved the family to Colorado where he had grown up.
I’m sorry to speak ill of him, but I have to tell you that he was widely hated by his colleagues at Wisconsin and by people who had been graduate students there. After he died, a number of people came up to me at the next big sociology convention to offer condolences and, when I told them we were not related, said some version of, “Oh, you weren’t? Well, he was a mean son of a bitch.”
So perhaps it’s just as well that he and I weren’t related. I remember that he died just as he assumed the presidency of the American Sociological Association, and that his son Christopher, who was an historian, read the presidential address Howard P. had prepared. What happened to Christopher? It surely must have been a shock for them to ﬁnd out who their grandfather was!
Best, Howie Becker
PS. How did you happen to ﬁnd my web page?
Hi Howard Saul!
Just a quickie. Thanks for putting me straight re the two Becker families. My husband’s family did come from Bebra, Hesse Cassel and I have a correspondence with the pastor at the Evangelical church there containing family records back to 1765.
Your reﬂections on Howard P. Becker were most interesting. A lot of that Becker family were “difﬁcult” people to get along with! Yes, his mother Notissa married his Uncle Paul after Charlie was out of the picture and they settled in Reno, Nevada, later going further west.
You ask about Christopher. He was born in 1931, a history professor at a College in or near Guilford, Conn. for some years. Married twice, had daughter Laura with ﬁrst wife, Anna; son Austin with 2nd wife Johanna. I believe they separated later. My husband got in touch with him in the late ‘80’s and he really was astounded about Charlie, then made quite a collection of stuff about the Beckers, and Charlie particularly. I have two books that tell the Charlie tale. Christopher died when his house burned down in the night of March 23/94. My husband and I joined Elizabeth and Christopher’s son Austin at the Callicoon Centre cemetery to inter Christopher’s ashes beside his great-grandfather Heinrich Becker’s grave. Howard P. also had daughters: Elizabeth (married 1st to a CIA man, divorced, later married a journalist, John Midgely) and lived in Washington, D.C.; and Anne (married name Kramer) who, when I last heard, lived in Maine. Elizabeth, who is over 6 ft.tall, worked as an assistant producer at CBS Evening News until her retirement a few years ago. I have lost contact with them now.
Where did I ﬁnd your web page? My daughter Susan in Toronto found it when she was tossing various Becker names at a search engine to see what they would come up with. I don’t know if it was Google or another one. Anyway it came up with you!
I think the Saul/Paul gag was pretty good! Thanks again and, as Mr. Spock would say “Live long, and prosper!”
“The books that tell about Charles Becker are:
One Night in July, by Jonathan Root. Coward-McCann, New York 1961. (whole book about Rosenthal-Becker murder case).
The Gangs of New York, by Herbert Asbury. Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1927, reissued later by Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York. Chapter and picture, The Last of the Gang Wars.
By the way, Charlie’s second wife’s name is Leticia—it appears variously on the different documents. She is the one who later married Paul Becker. And she was the mother of Charlie’s son Howard Paul Becker.”
And Larry Gross found this portrait of Lieutenant Charles Becker somewhere on the web. I’m happy not to be related to him!