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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
But without a doubt Croker got the most. A hero to the common man, he enjoyed the company of the rich—and their privileges as well. When he left for Europe every summer, thousands of New Yorkers came down to see him off at the pier. He had the foresight to marry a wife—née Elizabeth Frazer—who could make the transition from uptown to Fifth Avenue, and in 1891 he moved his ladylike consort and proper children from an unpretentious brownstone on Mt. Morris Avenue in Harlem to a town house on East Seventy-ninth Street that he bought for $80,000 and decorated at a cost of at least $100,000 more. He also managed to acquire an upstate farm, a string of thoroughbreds, and a southern stud farm. He spent his winter vacations on his estate in Palm Beach, and he travelled to the political conventions in a luxuriously appointed private Pullman car.
His goal in life, doggedly pursued each summer during the English racing season, was to be accepted by the best of English society. One by one he acquired a town house in London, a country place near his racing stables at Newmarket, and a palatial estate in the south of England, at Wantage, amid the church spires, ruined monasteries, and ancient castles of Berkshire.
He did it all without actually stealing a penny. He didn’t have to. In the words of Tammany Hall’s philosopher, State Senator George Washington Plunkitt [see “Plain Words from Truthful George,” June, 1963, AMERICAN HERITAGE], “He seen his opportunities, and he took ‘em.”
Plunkitt, who parlayed a long political career into a sizable fortune, is the Machiavelli of urban American politics, and his greatest theoretical achievement is the distinction between honest and dishonest graft: I’ve been readin’ a book by Lincoln Steffens on The Shame of the Cities . Steffens means well but, like all reformers, he don’t know how to make distinctions. He can’t see no difference between honest graft and dishonest graft and, consequent, he gets things all mixed up. There’s the biggest kind of a difference between political looters and politicians who make a fortune out of politics by keepin’ their eyes wide open. The looter goes in for himself alone without considerin’ his organization or his city. The politician looks after his own interests, the organization’s interests, and the city’s interests all at the same time.
Croker’s fortune was built on “honest graft,” for which the opportunities he found were grand indeed. He appointed the officials who gave out city contracts and did the city purchasing, and since they owed him their jobs, they took his advice. The heads of big companies knew this, and somewhere along the way a good deal of stock in companies that did business with the city got registered in Croker’s name, and a good many inside tips came his way from Wall Street. He set up a real-estate firm that did very well auctioning off city property, helped no doubt by the fact that the auctioneers owed their jobs to the receivers named by the judges who were appointed by Croker.
For a time he was also the city chamberlain, responsible for municipal investments; there were constant tangible efforts to point out to him the advantages of one business scheme or another—efforts that added up to considerably more than the $25,000 salary that went with the job.
For sixteen years, from 1886 to 1902, although he never once ran for public office during those years, Richard Croker was the virtual dictator of New York, controlling some ninety thousand workers under thirty-five unswervingly loyal district leaders. He never broke a promise, and he expected blind obedience from his men in return. His political credo was simplicity itself: reward the loyal and punish the unfaithful. His sharp little green eyes and stubby beard, his top hat and chunky build, made him a caricaturist’s dream; he was a favorite target of political cartoonists like Thomas Nast. He systematically collected all the caricatures of himself—even the bitterest attacks —and as if they were rave notices, he had them bound in leather volumes to give his friends.
His friends said he was a man of few words. His enemies said he was inarticulate—some even went so far as to say illiterate. There were those who claimed he had a vocabulary limited to three hundred words and useful only for discussing a horse race, a prize fight, or a political caucus. ” It is doubtful if he ever composed a letter,” said the author of one anti-Tammany broadside. “Few persons can boast of ever having seen him with pen in hand, actually engaged in writing.”
Yet one writer of the time described him as “a man of the most unquestionable executive political ability, and of infinite detail,” adding, “He follows the record of each district with the same attentiveness a stockbroker does market quotations. He knows the variations of votes from preceding years and the personnel of wards and even election districts.” And when he visited the House of Commons, he struck an Irish M.P. he dined with as a combination of Napoleon and’Mr. Dooley, “a natural genius in the governing of men.”