Croker, Richard Welsted (‘Boss’) (1841–1922), politician, was born 23 November 1841 at Clonakilty, Co. Cork, third son among three sons and two daughters of Eyre Coote Croker (d. 1883), army officer and veterinary surgeon, and Florence Croker, daughter of John Welsted of Ballywalter, Co. Cork. The Crokers were a well-to-do Church of Ireland family who sometimes claimed to have arrived in Ireland with Oliver Cromwell (qv), although their arrival was actually earlier. In 1846 Eyre Croker, having spent his inheritance, surrendered his commission in the army and sailed with his family to America.
After a brief period during which dire poverty loomed, Eyre Croker found work as a veterinary surgeon or, more accurately, a horse doctor. While not amounting to affluence, this allowed Richard to attend a junior school and Olney grammar school (1854–7). Not academically gifted, he left with a poor education to become an apprentice machinist in the workshops of the New York Central Railroad. He was also a competent boxer and probably fought in prize fights, although he always denied this subsequently. It was his boxing ability that first provided him (1865) with a role in the Tammany Hall organisation, which controlled the Democratic party in New York city, when he became a hired tough for Jimmy O'Brien, a ward boss. On joining Tammany he converted to catholicism and soon achieved promotion. He became an alderman of the city (1868) and a coroner (1873), an office through which he could accrue fees of up to $25,000 a year. He had become aligned with the Young Democracy faction led by the misleadingly named ‘Honest’ John Kelly and opposed to the notoriously corrupt Tammany boss, William H. Tweed. Tweed was eventually convicted (1873) and Kelly succeeded as boss. In 1874 he came into conflict with his former mentor O'Brien, who was running for congress in opposition to a Kelly nominee. A polling-station confrontation resulted in the fatal shooting of an O'Brien associate. Croker was arrested and charged with the crime on the word of witnesses, but was acquitted when the jury divided 6–6. After this episode he resumed the post of coroner and served a second three-year term (1876–9); became fire commissioner (1883); and, on the retirement of Kelly (1886), succeeded to the position of boss.
He held only one more public office, that of city chamberlain (1889–90), but he controlled the city's Democratic party and effectively manipulated the city offices for most of the next seventeen years. In 1886 the Tammany-supported candidate Abram S. Hewitt was elected mayor, but in office he revealed himself as a Know-Nothing anti-Irish nativist, who refused to review the St Patrick's Day parade; he failed to receive Croker's support for a second term. Croker opposed Grover Cleveland's campaign to be reelected president in 1888. Enticed by a financial sweetener, however, he helped Cleveland to his second successful bid for the presidency (1892). Malleable Croker nominees held the mayoralty 1888–94, during which time he took the graft and spoils systems to new limits. Corruption was endemic: property and planning scams, protection rackets, prostitution, and saloons putatively fell under his control and he allegedly amassed a fortune of up to $8 million. No illegality was ever proved despite the efforts of several legislative investigative committees. However, his career suffered a setback with the victory of a reform candidate in the mayoral contest of 1894.
At this juncture he nominally surrendered control of Tammany to John C. Sheahan and travelled to Europe. He visited various German spas and purchased an estate in England, where he reputedly liked to tend the pigs, each bearing the name of a New York politician. He returned (1897) to reassert authority and lend his weight to the victorious campaign of Robert Van Wyck for the new mayoralty of Greater New York. However, after Van Wyck's defeat by an anti-corruption campaign fronted by Seth Low (1901), Croker's standing went into terminal decline and he finally ceded command of Tammany in 1903 before returning to Wantage, England.
Horse-racing was among the expensive pastimes he had developed in America and now, in England and free of politics, it became a passion. After his insistence on racing imported American thoroughbreds proved less than successful and led to a split with his trainer, he determined to have his horses trained at Newmarket, a proposal that then required the imprimatur of the jockey club. Unenamoured with this brash individual of doubtful reputation, they refused. Livid, he immediately moved himself and his racing interests to Ireland, where he chose J. J. Parkinson (qv) to train his animals, and became leading owner in Ireland in 1905 and 1906. However, Croker's autocratic manner led to another parting, and he removed his horses to new stables on the Glencairn estate, Leopardstown, Co. Dublin (later the British ambassador's residence), and employed Col. F. F. MacCabe (qv) to train them. Success followed: in 1907 Orby became the first Irish-trained horse to win the Derby. Although this did not win him acceptance in England – Edward VII refused to greet him after the victory – he became a national hero in Ireland. His return to Dublin with Orby was greeted with bonfires, the 1907 Irish Derby became a lap of honour for horse and owner, and Croker was voted a freeman of Dublin (1908). In this year Orby's half-sister, Rhodora, captured the English 1,000 Guineas for Croker. He then insisted on incestuously mating his two champions; the result was a horribly deformed foal and the death of the mare. He won two Irish Oaks and was again leading owner in Ireland in 1911, but his interest in racing was tapering off. His life in Ireland was politically uneventful; however, he probably provided monetary support, if not arms, to republicans in the years leading up to independence. After his thrombosis-induced death at Glencairn (29 April 1922), his body was interred in the grounds. Among the honorary pall-bearers were Arthur Griffith (qv), Alfie Byrne (qv), and Oliver St John Gogarty (qv).
He left his fortune, an estimated $5 million, including estates in Ireland and England and at Palm Beach, Florida, to his second wife, Bula Benton Edmunson, a woman fifty years his junior with a show-business background who claimed to be a Cherokee Indian princess. He had married her (1914) shortly after the death of his first wife (m. 1873), Elizabeth Frazier of New York, from whom he had been estranged for a number of years. They had had two daughters and four sons, one of whom, Frank, was killed in a motor-racing accident (1905); another, Hubert, died of an opium overdose (1906). In 1920 three of his surviving children sought an injunction against their father, claiming that they were likely to be deprived of their due inheritance because he had fallen entirely under the influence of their stepmother. They lost the case.