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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
One of the many ways through which he picked up a little extra pocket money while he was an alderman was to submit expense accounts for the cost of placing public notices in such fictitious newspapers as the Irish People , the New York Era , the Stockholder , and the Harlem Evening Times . But he worked hard at his job— among other things voting increases of salary for such municipal officials as the Messenger to the Librarian, the Eighth Assistant Clerk to the Board of Aldermen, and the Regulator of Public Clocks.
He was built like a bull, said a contemporary journalist, “possessed a strong frame, a deep chest, a short neck and a pair of hard fists” a born fighter, “passionately fond of rough and tumble brawls.” On September 8, 1871, the New York Times reported that “on last Tuesday evening … ex-Alderman Richard Croker of the Twenty-first Ward … assaulted a man named James Moore with a slung-shot, knocking him down and then kicking him, at the corner of Thirty-first Street and Third Avenue.”
In the early hours of Election Day, 1874, his men challenged another group of those eager voters whose enthusiasm for the ballot box led them back to the polls so many times. They were from the West Side, and they seemed to be invading Croker’s territory. Epithets flew. According to testimony he later gave a grand jury, someone called Croker a “damned cur,” “a damned loafer,” and other, less polite designations. Eist fights erupted into gunfire, and one of the West Siders was killed. Croker was indicted, thrown into the Tombs, tried for murder, and acquitted by a geographically and politically hungjury, 6 to 6, after seventeen hours of deliberation.
The trouble with city jobs was that elections and appointments involved a fairly high degree of visibility high enough, at any rate, to make it a bit awkward for a man who’d stood trial for murder, even if he’d been acquitted. So Croker turned to less publicly determined appointments, finally becoming top aide to Tammany boss “Honest John” Kelly, Tweed’s successor.
When Boss Kelly died, in 1886, his district leaders met to fight out the matter of succession. While they were talking Dick Croker quietly moved into Kelly’s old office at Tammany Hall, thus settling the question. It was who sat in that office that mattered. At City Hall, his mayors succeeded each other. He engineered the victory of Abram S. Hewitt over Theodore Roosevelt in 1886, and then, when Hewitt refused to play the patronage game his way, put his old friend Hugh J. Grant in the mayor’s office in 1888 and again in 1890, to be followed by another Croker man, Thomas F. Gilroy, in 1892. But whoever cut the ribbons at official functions, it was Croker who called the shots.
His official position, like Kelly’s before him, was chairman of the Tammany Hall Finance Committee, the post that carried with it the actual leadership of the organization. The committee, which handled all organization funds, including every campaign contribution, almost never met and kept no books. Its chairman was, as one contemporary political observer put it, “under no responsibility to anybody,”adding, “It is easy to appreciate the possibilities of this position.” It was a position from which Croker was able to capture first the county offices and finally City Hall. With his men in, patronage was his, and in those days the sky was the limit.
What no government agency then existed to do for the people Tammany did for them. It welcomed the immigrants to these shores, found them jobs and places to live, even arranged small loans to tide them over until their first payday. In exchange for its favors Tammany asked only for their votes and the immigrant poor were glad to oblige. Crokcr himself was quoted later in life as having said in a conversation with an English editor, who may have polished up Croker’s prose a bit, “There is no denying the service which Tammany has rendered to the Republic. There is no such organization for taking hold of the untrained, friendless man and converting him into a citi/cn. Who else would do it if we did not?” Tammany, said Croker, “looks after them for the sake of their vote, grafts them upon the Republic, makes citizens of them, in short; and although you may not like our motives or our methods, what other agency is there by which so long a row could have been hoed so quickly or so well?”
It was a feudal system of protection, support, and noblesse oblige, and it helped stave off any real reform of social institutions for a half century. By keeping the poor reasonably happy—or at least happy enough not to turn to the candidates of radical economic reform, like Henry George—Tammany leaders also endeared themselves to the new breed of post-Civil War multimillionaires of industry and transportation and to conservative old Knickerbocker money as well. Everyone got something.