- 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
Croker enshrined himself at a fashionable resort hotel in Lakewood, New Jersey, owned by philanthropist and Democratic politician Nathan Straus, and there he received the faithful, who made the pilgrimage across the Hudson in a steady stream in search of jobs and favors. The Times reported that “every train brought its load of Tammany leaders with long lists of applications for some of the plums that will fall when the municipal tree is shaken in a few days.”
In less than a month after Croker’s hand-picked candidate had taken the oath of office, it was clear to everybody who was really running New York. The editor of the influential American Review of Reviews wrote that “the recent elevation of Richard Croker to a position of acknowledged authority in politics is absolutely without parallel in the history of the United States. Thus far the new government of the huge metropolis of New York has been conducted personally by Mr. Croker quite as if he were a prince regent, with Mayor Van Wyck as titular occupant of the throne, but disqualified on the ground of infancy or mental incapacity.”
Upon returning to the city Croker moved his court to the Democratic Club, a formerly run-down, debt-ridden institution that was suddenly deluged with applications for membership and soon had both a waiting list and a magnificent new location on Fifth Avenue.
Croker had gradually become estranged from a wife who was interested in the Church but not in the vulgar world of politics. Mrs. Croker eventually moved to the south of France, where she spent most of her time until her death in 1914, and Croker moved into the club. It soon became the place for anybody with municipal political aspirations to be seen dining—in full evening dress, of course. No one ordered or even went into the dining room until the boss himself had taken his seat and ordered his dinner, and then his followers usually ordered “the same.” Croker is said to have amused himself by dining late and ordering little, which was hard on some of his hangers-on, hefty fellows with appetites that were matched only by their reluctance to overstep the bounds of etiquette as defined by the chief.
Croker divided his time between his English estates and New York, where he was always at the club. He had the four-story house decorated with thick velvet carpeting and leather furniture. The parlor, his “throne room,” was full of gilt-legged chairs and gold-framed paintings, and there was a library of de luxe editions. The ceiling of the dining room, like that of the Sistine Chapel, was painted. In this case the faces were those of Democratic Party fathers and the scenes were tableaux from American history. There was a tiger at each corner.
Naturally, Croker’s flamboyance attracted the press. Even the papers that were against Tammany gave plenty of space to Tammany’s boss, reporting faithfully on his comings and goings. The Herald of September 28, 1898, reported: Richard Croker flushed with pleasure at the tumultuous welcome accorded to him this afternoon by the delegates to the Democratic Convention and the citizens of Syracuse, as the first section of the Tammany train, with 1,500 braves on board, entered the city on its way to the station. Sidewalks were lined with men and women, who cheered heartily for Mr. Croker and his army of tigers.
He came like a conqueror. When he alighted from his parlor car Mayor James K. McGuire’s bluecoats cleared a path for him, and with uplifted clubs drove the curious away. … In response to a volley of cheers, Mr. Croker doffed his hat. …
When he sailed on the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in the autumn of 1899, the Times described in detail the police-boat patrol that escorted the liner through the Narrows. When it reached the lower bay, they fired a twenty-one-gun Presidential salute by way of farewell to the Boss. It was reported that he smiled.
In 1900 an English illustrated paper described “Mr. Richard Croker in his English Home,” the old Moat House at Letcombe, near Wantage, with its oak panelling, its electric piano, its sumptuous billiard room. Here Croker lived with his fast trotters and his two prize bulldogs, Rodney Stone and Bromley Crib, for whom he always booked first-class steamship passage. “He comes down to Letcombe,” said the article, “to escape from all worries, and there he sinks the politician in the sportsman, and the millionaire in the country gentleman.”
It was around this time that Croker’s step began to falter. Refusing to renominate a respected state supreme court judge who had failed to play ball with the Boss on matters of judicial business (Croker’s view of thé matter was that “Justice DaIy was elected by Tammany Hall after he was discovered by Tammany Hall, and Tammany Hall had a right to expect proper consideration at his hands”), he gave Theodore Roosevelt a sure-fire issue in his race for the governorship. With the State House, Croker lost his first serious bid for control of the Democratic Party beyond the city.