February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
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
The most glamorous and the most powerful —of the Tammany bosses who ran New York City for much of the century between Boss Tweed and Carmine DeSapio was Richard Croker.
When he was an old man, an account of his life appeared, written in the public-relations tone of books for the very young or the very innocent about Important Public Figures. Ina deck chair on the ship that was carrying him abroad he read the opening passages (“Young Richard’s home was a scene of quiet and peace, the hall of order and religion … And the neighborhood to surround it had similar decorous atmosphere … There was no youth more moral in the city …”), flipped through a few more pages, then tossed the volume overboard.
Like so many rousing American success stories, his started in the slums. Those were the far-off days when political heroes were supposed to fight their way up from poverty, not be born the sons of millionaires. Croker’s problem was that it never meant anything to him that he was a self-made man. All his life he was obsessed with the desire to be accepted by aristocrats and English ones at that as one of them. Of course he never made it. Rich is one thing, but born rich is another. A kingmaker (at least a mayor-maker), an impressive figure who dined with robber barons in their glittering new Fifth Avenue mansions, he was never more than an Irish upstart to the people he really wanted to impress. Having achieved power, he didn’t know what to do with it his goals were personal, not public and he lost it. A mock-tragic hero, flawed by character, he was brought down at the end by the very thing that drove him upward to begin with.
Croker was three years old in 1846, when his parents booked passage on the Henry Clay from Cork harbor to New York. It was the year of the potato blight and the famine that was to provide this country with a generation of railroad workers and housemaids as well as millionaires and politicians.
The Crokers settled in a somewhat better than average squatter’s shack on the Bloomingdale Road in Shanty Town, near what is now Central Park West.
Dick’s father, like all the thousands of immigrants pouring into New York every week, needed help in finding a job and getting settled. That’s where Tammany came in, and as soon as he realized it, he registered with the organization. Tammany got him a job taking care of the horses that drew the cars of the New York and Harlem Railroad and a new place to live, on the East Side. There gangs of unsupervised children and youths, the responsibility of no one in particular, slept in basements and roamed the alleys.
The loyalty and muscle of the neighborhood gangs could be bought cheap by rival political factions interested in influencing the electorate. When Dick was thirteen, he dropped out of school, got a job in the railroad’s machine shop, and began to spend his nonworking hours as a member of the Fourth Avenue Tunnel Gang. It was the beginning of his political apprenticeship.
The Tammany alderman who was district leader of the Fourth Avenue neighborhood said, “Show me a boy that hustles for the organization on election day, and I’ll show you a comin’ statesman.” At nineteen Dick had become the gang’s leader and delivered it to Tammany. Two years later, in 1864, he rast his first ballot, and the following year he voted for a Brooklyn constable named Lyman—seventeen times, according to Lyman’s later recollection. An entrepreneur of the ballot box, Dick had his men voting in elections as far away as Albany and Philadelphia, and was clearly marked as a comin’ statesman.
The New York Tribune of October 13, 1868, contained the following account of his activities: New York City was fast emptied of many of her roughs yesterday. Their ugly countenances were seen congregating around the Oamde.n and Amhoy Railroad depot all hound for Philadelphia. These roughs and bullies are the repeaters who intend to swell the Democratic vote in Philadelphia to-day, providing they are not apprehended. … Among them were members of the “Pudding Gang from the Swamp” in the Fourth Ward, the “Dead Rabbits’ Crowd” from the Five Points and Mulberry street … and a large number of “Mackerelites,” “Hookites,” of r’ungustown and Bungtown Rangers. … Last, but not least, were 150 Metropolitan Bandits, under the notorious Dick Croker, all well armed and spoiling for fight.
The report of this exodus from the city was followed by the news on thenext day that “nobody was robbed or assaulted in New York, nobody had his pockets picked, the police had little or nothing to do, and the policecourts were idle.”
From his early successes in what William Allen White latercalled “the days of riot and murder at the polls,” Dick moved steadily ahead in politics: deputy district leader; then court attendant for a judge who was one of Boss Tweed’s close friends; alderman at twenty-five and city coroner five years later.
One of the many ways through which he picked up a little extra pocket money while he was an alderman was to submit expense accounts for the cost of placing public notices in such fictitious newspapers as the Irish People , the New York Era , the Stockholder , and the Harlem Evening Times . But he worked hard at his job— among other things voting increases of salary for such municipal officials as the Messenger to the Librarian, the Eighth Assistant Clerk to the Board of Aldermen, and the Regulator of Public Clocks.
He was built like a bull, said a contemporary journalist, “possessed a strong frame, a deep chest, a short neck and a pair of hard fists” a born fighter, “passionately fond of rough and tumble brawls.” On September 8, 1871, the New York Times reported that “on last Tuesday evening … ex-Alderman Richard Croker of the Twenty-first Ward … assaulted a man named James Moore with a slung-shot, knocking him down and then kicking him, at the corner of Thirty-first Street and Third Avenue.”
In the early hours of Election Day, 1874, his men challenged another group of those eager voters whose enthusiasm for the ballot box led them back to the polls so many times. They were from the West Side, and they seemed to be invading Croker’s territory. Epithets flew. According to testimony he later gave a grand jury, someone called Croker a “damned cur,” “a damned loafer,” and other, less polite designations. Eist fights erupted into gunfire, and one of the West Siders was killed. Croker was indicted, thrown into the Tombs, tried for murder, and acquitted by a geographically and politically hungjury, 6 to 6, after seventeen hours of deliberation.
The trouble with city jobs was that elections and appointments involved a fairly high degree of visibility high enough, at any rate, to make it a bit awkward for a man who’d stood trial for murder, even if he’d been acquitted. So Croker turned to less publicly determined appointments, finally becoming top aide to Tammany boss “Honest John” Kelly, Tweed’s successor.
When Boss Kelly died, in 1886, his district leaders met to fight out the matter of succession. While they were talking Dick Croker quietly moved into Kelly’s old office at Tammany Hall, thus settling the question. It was who sat in that office that mattered. At City Hall, his mayors succeeded each other. He engineered the victory of Abram S. Hewitt over Theodore Roosevelt in 1886, and then, when Hewitt refused to play the patronage game his way, put his old friend Hugh J. Grant in the mayor’s office in 1888 and again in 1890, to be followed by another Croker man, Thomas F. Gilroy, in 1892. But whoever cut the ribbons at official functions, it was Croker who called the shots.
His official position, like Kelly’s before him, was chairman of the Tammany Hall Finance Committee, the post that carried with it the actual leadership of the organization. The committee, which handled all organization funds, including every campaign contribution, almost never met and kept no books. Its chairman was, as one contemporary political observer put it, “under no responsibility to anybody,”adding, “It is easy to appreciate the possibilities of this position.” It was a position from which Croker was able to capture first the county offices and finally City Hall. With his men in, patronage was his, and in those days the sky was the limit.
What no government agency then existed to do for the people Tammany did for them. It welcomed the immigrants to these shores, found them jobs and places to live, even arranged small loans to tide them over until their first payday. In exchange for its favors Tammany asked only for their votes and the immigrant poor were glad to oblige. Crokcr himself was quoted later in life as having said in a conversation with an English editor, who may have polished up Croker’s prose a bit, “There is no denying the service which Tammany has rendered to the Republic. There is no such organization for taking hold of the untrained, friendless man and converting him into a citi/cn. Who else would do it if we did not?” Tammany, said Croker, “looks after them for the sake of their vote, grafts them upon the Republic, makes citizens of them, in short; and although you may not like our motives or our methods, what other agency is there by which so long a row could have been hoed so quickly or so well?”
It was a feudal system of protection, support, and noblesse oblige, and it helped stave off any real reform of social institutions for a half century. By keeping the poor reasonably happy—or at least happy enough not to turn to the candidates of radical economic reform, like Henry George—Tammany leaders also endeared themselves to the new breed of post-Civil War multimillionaires of industry and transportation and to conservative old Knickerbocker money as well. Everyone got something.
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.”
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.
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!”
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.
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.
In his great days Croker could have tried anything—building the City Beautiful, even cleaning up one slum. It never occurred to him that he should. For a long time it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the voters either. Daniel P. Moynihan has said that Tammany’s leaders didn’t know what to do with power once they got it. “They never thought of politics as an instrument of social change.”
The big-city machine had only one goal—the perpetuation of its own power. It developed a bureaucracy second only to that of the Catholic Church; it controlled the city for the better part of a century, winning elections and dispensing patronage, but in the end it left behind it no more than Ozymandias. Its leaders had no vision of the city; no works of theirs remain.
Croker retired to a castle in Ireland called Glencairn, and in his seventies, a few weeks after the death of his first wife, he married a young lady some forty years his junior who uniquely combined the distinctions of a degree from the University of Chicago and direct descent from a Cherokee chief. He returned to America again, an old man nearing eighty, almost blind, to face a lawsuit. The plaintiffs were three of his own children by his first marriage, anxious to save him from the mistake he would make by leaving his fortune of several million dollars to his new wife. Croker’s son Frank had been killed racing his car along the Florida shore, and young Bertie, ahead of his time, had died of an apparent overdose of narcotics. Richard, Jr., Howard, and Ethel remained, along with Florence —the recipient of Mayor Grant’s largesse a quarter of a century before and the only one of his children who did not join in the suit or in the bitter court battle over the estate that dragged on long after his death.
Croker won the suit, but he was worn out now, and he returned to Glencairn with pneumonia. He died on the last weekend of April, 1922. The next day Charles F. Murphy, Croker’s successor and the last of the big-time Tammany bosses, ordered the flag on top of the hall on Fourteenth Street and at every district clubhouse throughout the city to be flown at half mast. And the next day the secretary of the Society of Tammany got up a tribute that he gave to the press in the form of a resolution expressing sorrow at “the passing of the lion.” Now that he was dead, Croker was two things he hadn’t been in a long time —remembered and praised.
“Look at the bosses of Tammany Hall,” said Plunkitt. “What magnificent men!” And he added, with unconscious irony, “To them New York City owes pretty much all it is today.”