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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
William Allen White described him at various times as a troglodyte king over a race of cave men, a savage with a child’s mind, and as ignorant of civilization as a Hun. “Taciturn, grim, uninterested, furtively concealing his ignorance in stolidity,” White’s Croker “viewed the panorama of history like an Indian at the show.”
The most earnest and humorless of the muckrakers, White was impervious to Croker’s charms —and to Tammany’s too. He accused Croker of making Tammany Hall into a de luxe edition of the Fourth Avenue Tunnel Gang and Tammany of preaching contentment instead of helping the poor to help themselves. He claimed that Croker was tolerated by the rich and powerful because he was useful to them, “safer than the anarchist to control the mill that is turning the raw material of the steerage into American citizens.” Croker was “safer” because he “desires to be a gentleman.” The man who wants a slice of the pie is not likely to burn down the bakery.
In an age of unbridled economic expansion, Croker considered himself just another businessman. There didn’t seem to be much difference between his activities and those of his new cronies whom the New York Herald dubbed “the Wall Street boys” —men like William K. Vanderbilt and William C. Whitney, with whom he shared business interests as well as the pleasures of the table.
They met at the bar of the old WaIdorf at Thirty-fourth and Fifth, known as the Gentlemen’s Café. In this exclusively male atmosphere, where the “free lunch” began with blue points or cherrystones, when they tired of discussing their mutual passion for horses, they could always discuss Whitney’s desire to expand his public-service corporations by acquiring such new franchises as the proposed Metropolitan Street Railway.
In the space of the two years from 1890 to 1892 Richard Croker spent $750,000 on blooded racing stock and $200,000 more on his town house, where he began to live like a king and entertain like one.
Around this time Croker developed an interest in genealogy and invented a set of distinguished ancestors as well as a coat of arms that began to appear on his personal stationery and the doors of his carriages. He even emulated the typical robber baron of the Gilded Age by marrying one of his two daughters off to a count of Naples, at an undisclosed price.
It was all very discreet at the top, but on the local level the police had to be paid off by small businessmen as well as by petty criminals, prostitutes, gamblers, and saloonkeepers, and the district leader always got his share. He had a free hand in running his precinct as long as he delivered the vote on Election Day. But Croker told Lincoln Steffens when he was a fledgling reporter, “This I tell you, boy, and don’t you ever forget it: I never have touched a cent of the dirty police graft myself.” His response to muckrakers who confronted him with details of police corruption was “Well, and what are you going to do about it?” It was a question uttered more in curiosity than in anger.
There were three attempts to do something about it before they finally got him.
First was the 1890 Fassett investigation, one of those reviews of Democratic urban corruption undertaken periodically in New York by a Republican state legislature. Mrs. Croker’s sister’s husband, one Patrick H. McCann, testified that Richard Croker had come to his store six years before with a bag containing $180,000 he said Croker had told him was intended to pay for the aldermanic votes necessary to get Hugh Grant appointed commissioner of public works. Now, in 1890, Grant was mayor of New York. In addition to his revelations about what was referred to as “the boodle in a satchel,” McCann testified that Grant had made presents of cash said to total between $10,000 and $25,000 to little Florence Croker, the boss’s youngest daughter. Grant could explain. Flossie was his godchild, and he was merely discharging “the obligation that one accepts when they become a godfather. …” The sentiment was much appreciated, and Grant was reelected to another term as mayor.
Next came the Lexow investigation, sparked by the Reverend Charles Parkhurst’s revelations from the pulpit of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church one February morning in 1892.
Parkhurst’s congregation had an unusually interesting Sunday morning as their minister, elaborating on the text “Ye are the salt of the earth,” described in detail the vice that was raging, not in Sodom and Gomorrah, but right here in New York City and explicitly blamed Croker’s old friend Mayor Grant and “his whole gang of drunken and lecherous subordinates.” All during 1894 a committee chaired by upstate senator Clarence Lexow amassed evidence of police corruption and Tammany collusion. It became clear that police jobs were sold by Tammany leaders and bought with money extorted in a ubiquitous system of local payoffs. Everyone—shopkeeper or madam, newsboy or theatre owner—paid off.