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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
Having failed in his attempt to grab the state machine, Croker decided to make a desperate gamble on the national level. If he could clinch the 1900 Democratic nomination for William Jennings Bryan by delivering the New York delegation to him, he could recoup his losses and put Tammany—and himself—on the map far beyond the Hudson. He did swing the delegation to Bryan, but although Bryan carried the city in the election, he lost the state; and just as Croker was reeling from this blow to his prestige the reform elements came at him with another investigation.
An assemblyman named Mazet headed the committee that in 1900 turned up such evidence of “honest graft” as Croker’s substantial shares in the ice company that held exclusive rights to use the city docks, and details of “dirty graft” that made the police corruption exposed by Lexow sound like child’s play. Tammany’s chief of police, it turned out, was one of the men who ran the city’s gambling syndicate. He was none other than Big Bill Devery, who had come out of retirement after the return of Tammany in 1897 to serve the public again. His partner in crime, quite literally, was Tammany’s Bowery district leader, Big Tim Sullivan.
When the head counsel for the Mazet committee put Croker on the witness stand and asked him, “Then you are working for your own pocket, are you not?” the Boss snapped back, with what the Times described as honest indignation, “All the time—the same as you!”
His back to the wall and the reformers closing in on him, Croker appointed a committee to make recommendations for cleaning things up and then, when the committee took its work seriously, refused to act on its report. Caught between the committee’s recommendation that the enterprising chief of police must go and the harsh fact that with him would go the campaign contributions of thousands of gamblers as well as the support of many of his own district leaders, Croker had no hesitation. The report was filed and forgotten.
But it was already too late. Croker was losing his grip on the grass roots, the ultimate base of his power. While he was building his own fortune and pursuing his dreams of glory on the other side of the ocean he had let district leaders like Big Tim Sullivan become too powerful and too independent.
Croker was all wrapped up in his horses and his travelling and his fancy parties, they said, and he was getting old or he wouldn’t have stood by, carefully neutral, and let Big Tim, who was involved in gambling and prostitution along with Devery, take over the Second Assembly District, in what had been the old Fourth Ward, from Croker’s old friend Paddy Divver. All sorts of new currents were blowing in the political wind. The gang that blackjacked Paddy Divver’s followers at the polls while the Tammany police stood by was led by a “comin’ statesman” called Paul Kelly but actually named Vaccarelli.
When it was over, Paddy Divver said it hadn’t just been his fight: “It was Croker’s.” Tim Sullivan offered his own postelection analysis: “Croker ain’t the whole thing.”
Still, the Citizens Union led a coalition of the reform groups and disgruntled Republicans and Democrats in the city, united behind the campaign slogan “Down with Croker!” Fusion campaign speeches stressed the Boss’s stranglehold on his organization, the extent of his own profits from Tammany leadership, and the fact that he had been able, in the words of reform candidate Seth Low, “as if to add insult to injury, to do this from abroad, as though the proud city of New York had been reduced once more to the condition of a crown colony.”
Low, the president of Columbia University, had lost to Van Wyck four years before, but this time he won, and, like a deposed colonial ruler, Croker embarked once more for the shores of Britain.
Croker never lived in New York again. He would stop over on his way to his winter place in West Palm Beach, but every year there were fewer old friends and toward the end hardly anyone who seemed to reember him.
He spent the next six years pursuing his dream, which had never been to change the world but only to change himself. Not only rich, he was famous. Now he wanted glory. To him that meant taking on the Derby at Epsom Downs, and he set out to breed himself a winner. When the race was over, Croker said the proudest moment of his life had been leading his thoroughbred Orby past the royal grandstand. It was as close as he got to royalty. Against odds of 100 to 9, his American horse ridden by an American jockey had won England’s race of the year, and he had the added satisfaction of beating a favorite owned by an official of the very jockey club which had refused his application for membership two years before. But the 1907 Derby went down in the annals of British racing as “the Tammany Derby,” and Edward vu, always correct, saluted Croker on the turf but refused to break bread with him. Croker did not receive the usual invitation to the king’s Derby dinner after the race his own horse had won. His private dream, like his political career, ended on a note of failure. The real blue bloods accepted his horse, whose breeding was impeccable, but not him.