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“well, What Are You Going To Do About It?”
Thus Boss Richard Croker breezily dismissed charges of corruption. But the fortune he made from “honest graft” was not enough to buy him what he most wanted
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
The most glamorous and the most powerful —of the Tammany bosses who ran New York City for much of the century between Boss Tweed and Carmine DeSapio was Richard Croker.
When he was an old man, an account of his life appeared, written in the public-relations tone of books for the very young or the very innocent about Important Public Figures. Ina deck chair on the ship that was carrying him abroad he read the opening passages (“Young Richard’s home was a scene of quiet and peace, the hall of order and religion … And the neighborhood to surround it had similar decorous atmosphere … There was no youth more moral in the city …”), flipped through a few more pages, then tossed the volume overboard.
Like so many rousing American success stories, his started in the slums. Those were the far-off days when political heroes were supposed to fight their way up from poverty, not be born the sons of millionaires. Croker’s problem was that it never meant anything to him that he was a self-made man. All his life he was obsessed with the desire to be accepted by aristocrats and English ones at that as one of them. Of course he never made it. Rich is one thing, but born rich is another. A kingmaker (at least a mayor-maker), an impressive figure who dined with robber barons in their glittering new Fifth Avenue mansions, he was never more than an Irish upstart to the people he really wanted to impress. Having achieved power, he didn’t know what to do with it his goals were personal, not public and he lost it. A mock-tragic hero, flawed by character, he was brought down at the end by the very thing that drove him upward to begin with.
Croker was three years old in 1846, when his parents booked passage on the Henry Clay from Cork harbor to New York. It was the year of the potato blight and the famine that was to provide this country with a generation of railroad workers and housemaids as well as millionaires and politicians.
The Crokers settled in a somewhat better than average squatter’s shack on the Bloomingdale Road in Shanty Town, near what is now Central Park West.
Dick’s father, like all the thousands of immigrants pouring into New York every week, needed help in finding a job and getting settled. That’s where Tammany came in, and as soon as he realized it, he registered with the organization. Tammany got him a job taking care of the horses that drew the cars of the New York and Harlem Railroad and a new place to live, on the East Side. There gangs of unsupervised children and youths, the responsibility of no one in particular, slept in basements and roamed the alleys.
The loyalty and muscle of the neighborhood gangs could be bought cheap by rival political factions interested in influencing the electorate. When Dick was thirteen, he dropped out of school, got a job in the railroad’s machine shop, and began to spend his nonworking hours as a member of the Fourth Avenue Tunnel Gang. It was the beginning of his political apprenticeship.
The Tammany alderman who was district leader of the Fourth Avenue neighborhood said, “Show me a boy that hustles for the organization on election day, and I’ll show you a comin’ statesman.” At nineteen Dick had become the gang’s leader and delivered it to Tammany. Two years later, in 1864, he rast his first ballot, and the following year he voted for a Brooklyn constable named Lyman—seventeen times, according to Lyman’s later recollection. An entrepreneur of the ballot box, Dick had his men voting in elections as far away as Albany and Philadelphia, and was clearly marked as a comin’ statesman.
The New York Tribune of October 13, 1868, contained the following account of his activities: New York City was fast emptied of many of her roughs yesterday. Their ugly countenances were seen congregating around the Oamde.n and Amhoy Railroad depot all hound for Philadelphia. These roughs and bullies are the repeaters who intend to swell the Democratic vote in Philadelphia to-day, providing they are not apprehended. … Among them were members of the “Pudding Gang from the Swamp” in the Fourth Ward, the “Dead Rabbits’ Crowd” from the Five Points and Mulberry street … and a large number of “Mackerelites,” “Hookites,” of r’ungustown and Bungtown Rangers. … Last, but not least, were 150 Metropolitan Bandits, under the notorious Dick Croker, all well armed and spoiling for fight.
The report of this exodus from the city was followed by the news on thenext day that “nobody was robbed or assaulted in New York, nobody had his pockets picked, the police had little or nothing to do, and the policecourts were idle.”
From his early successes in what William Allen White latercalled “the days of riot and murder at the polls,” Dick moved steadily ahead in politics: deputy district leader; then court attendant for a judge who was one of Boss Tweed’s close friends; alderman at twenty-five and city coroner five years later.