- Historic Sites
“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
Under the Sixth Avenue El from Fourteenth Street up to Forty-second, and over to Seventh Avenue, the town was wide open. The area got a famous name when a police captain who had managed to raise enough capital—roughly $15,000—to buy a transfer there remarked to a reporter for the New York Sun that his days of eating chuck steak were over, “and now I’m going to get a little of the tenderloin.”
The Tenderloin was matched by the Bowery, a center of prostitution where apprentices to the trade included children of both sexes and where the customers included city detectives as well as well-known politicians. A clergyman who tried to make a complaint about the rampant prostitution in the district was thrown out of the Eldridge Street police station. The captain in charge, Big Bill Devery, had just as clear a view of his disciplinary role within the force as of the duty he owed the public. Presiding at the trial of a patrolman who had fired at a prisoner, he ordered, “Twenty days’ pay—for not hittin’ him.”
Reporters loved to interview Devery, a character always good for a memorable quote. His answers usually began, “Touchin’ on and appertainin’ to that matter, I disremember.” Eventually he was interviewed by the Lexow committee, and he was persuaded to touch on quite a few matters appertaining to how the force was run.
There was a fixed scale of prices for police jobs—it cost $300 to become a patrolman and $1,600 for a sergeant’s badge. Captaincies started in the $10,000 range, and a highly profitable precinct like the Nineteenth could be worth as much as $15,000. The next step, to inspector, could run as high as $20,000:
It was quite a scandal, enough to topple Croker and the machine. But only temporarily. Croker knew how unlikely it was that the reformers led by independent Mayor William L. Strong could overhaul the whole system in a couple of years, despite the efforts of young Theodore Roosevelt, the vigorous new commissioner Strong had appointed to clean up the New York Police Department. In the short time given to the reformers, Roosevelt succeeded in driving graft under cover; he had no more success than anyone before or since in doing awav with it. In the meantime Croker left for an extended vacation on his English estates.
His return from Elba occurred early in September, 1897. Back in New York, Croker found cleaner streets and sanitation men wearing white ducks; more parks, playgrounds, and public baths; a lower death rate due to a new program of tuberculin-testing the city’s cows; and the first three public high schools. He also found a law forbidding the sale of liquor in saloons on Sundays and an already discernible nostalgia for the good old days.
The public had found a way around the Raines law, which said that only hotels could serve liquor on the Lord’s day. Since the saloonkeepers had long considered it their day as well, they simply rented an upstairs room to some transient couple, served drinks at tables instead of at the bar, and provided a free cheese sandwich, thereby becoming—until Monday—hotelkeepers.
The “Raines sandwich” symbolized what reformers had managed to achieve. Although a little more ingenuity had to be called into play here and there to get around the zealous enforcement of vice laws, nothing had really changed. It was Asa Bird Gardiner, the Tammany candidate for district attorney, who put into words the feeling in the hearts of the voters: “To hell with reform!”
Croker set about picking his candidate for mayor and seems to have made the selection primarily on the basis of name; his man had few other qualifications for the position. He was an obscure judge named Van Wyck —a name that carried the prestige of the old New York Dutch families. It suggested honesty as well as class. Robert C. Van Wyck’s record was as irreproachable as it was nonexistent; nobody had anything against him because nobody had ever heard of him.
It didn’t take Squire Croker long to become Boss Croker again, and this time he took over leadership of a New York much larger than the one he had
left, the Greater New York City that on the first day of 1898 would join the outlying provinces of Kings, Queens, and Richmond to Manhattan and the Bronx, almost doubling the population of the city. The Greater New York bill was the child of independent reformers who hoped to balance Manhattan’s machine-controlled vote with the enlightened middleclass voice of residential Brooklyn, aided by Republicans who saw a good thing for themselves in adding the semirural votes, which were predominantly Republican, to the city’s mayoral contests. Meanwhile, Croker’s district leaders had one last chance to deliver the Manhattan vote they controlled so efficiently.
They delivered on schedule, and on election night, 1897, throngs of victory paraders snake-danced up Broadway from Madison Square, blowing horns and chanting, “Well, well, well! Reform has gone to hell!” The Tenderloin was wide open again, and street hawkers were selling miniature tigers and emblems that read “I told you so!”