“Boss” Tweed delivered to authorities

“Boss” Tweed delivered to authorities

William Magear “Boss” Tweed, leader of New York City’s corrupt Tammany Hall political organization during the 1860s and early 1870s, is delivered to authorities in New York City after his capture in Spain.

Tweed became a powerful figure in Tammany Hall—New York City’s Democratic political machine—in the late 1850s. By the mid 1860s, he had risen to the top position in the organization and formed the “Tweed Ring,” which openly bought votes, encouraged judicial corruption, extracted millions from city contracts, and dominated New York City politics. The Tweed Ring reached its peak of fraudulence in 1871 with the remodeling of the City Court House, a blatant embezzlement of city funds that was exposed by The New York Times. Tweed and his flunkies hoped the criticism would blow over, but thanks to the efforts of opponents such as Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who conducted a crusade against Tweed, virtually every Tammany Hall member was swept from power in the elections of November 1871.

All the Tweed Ring were subsequently tried and sentenced to prison. Boss Tweed served time for forgery and larceny and other charges but in 1875 escaped from prison and traveled to Cuba and Spain. In 1876, he was arrested by Spanish police, who reportedly recognized him from a famous Nash cartoon depiction. After Tweed’s extradition to the United States, he was returned to prison, where he died in 1878.

READ MORE: The Insane 1930s Graft Investigation That Took Down New York's Mayor—and Then Tammany Hall


Thomas Nast's Campaign Against Boss Tweed

In the years following the Civil War, a former street brawler and Lower East Side political fixer named William M. Tweed became notorious as "Boss Tweed" in New York City. Tweed never served as mayor. The public offices he held at times were always minor.

Yet Tweed, hovering on the fringe of government, was by far the most powerful politician in the city. His organization, known to insiders simply as "The Ring," collected millions of dollars in illegal graft.

Tweed was ultimately brought down by newspaper reporting, mainly in the pages of the New York Times. But a prominent political cartoonist, Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly, also played a vital role in keeping the public focused on the misdeeds of Tweed and The Ring.

The story of Boss Tweed and his stunning fall from power can't be told without appreciating how Thomas Nast depicted his rampant thievery in ways anyone could understand.


William “Boss” Tweed and Political Machines

Use this Narrative with the Were Urban Bosses Essential Service Providers or Corrupt Politicians? Point-Counterpoint and the Cartoon Analysis: Thomas Nast Takes on “Boss Tweed”, 1871 Primary Source to give a full picture of political machines and their relationship with immigrants.

New York was a teeming place after the Civil War. The city’s unpaved streets were strewn with trash thrown from windows and horse manure from animals pulling carriages. Black smoke clogged the air, wafted from the burning coal and wood that heated homes and powered factories. Diseases like cholera and tuberculosis thrived in the unhealthy environment. More than one million people were crowded into the city many in dilapidated tenements. Poverty, illiteracy, crime, and vice were rampant problems for the poor, and for the Irish and German immigrants who made up almost half the population. The city government offered a very few basic services to alleviate the suffering, and churches and private charities were often overwhelmed by the need. One politician discovered how to provide these services and get something in return.

William Magear “Boss” Tweed was the son of a furniture maker. From an early age, Tweed discovered he had a knack for politics, with his imposing figure and charisma. He soon began serving in local New York City political offices and was elected alderman for the Seventh Ward, joining the so-called 40 thieves who represented the city wards. He served a frustrating term in Congress during the sectional tensions of the 1850s and then happily returned to local politics, where he believed the action was. He quickly became one of the leading politicians in New York City, and one of the most corrupt.

William Tweed, the “boss” of Tammany Hall, played a major role in New York City politics during the mid-1800s.

By the late 1850s, Tweed had ascended through a variety of local offices, including volunteer firefighter, school commissioner, member of the county board of supervisors, and street commissioner. He learned to make political allies and friends and became a rising star. His friends selected him to head the city’s political machine, which was representative of others in major American cities in which a political party and a boss ran a major city. In New York City, Tammany Hall was the organization that controlled the Democratic Party and most of the votes.

One of Tweed’s first acts was to restore order after the New York City draft riots in 1863, when many Irishmen protested the draft while wealthier men paid $300 to hire substitutes to fight in the war. Tweed engineered a deal in which some family men (rather than just the rich) received exemptions and even a loan from Tammany Hall to pay a substitute. He had won a great deal of local autonomy and control, which the federal government had to accept. In 1870, the state legislature granted New York City a new charter that gave local officials, rather than those in the state capital in Albany, power over local political offices and appointments. It was called the “Tweed Charter” because Tweed so desperately wanted that control that he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes for it.

The corrupt “Tweed Ring” was raking in millions of dollars from graft and skimming off the top. Tweed doled out thousands of jobs and lucrative contracts as patronage, and he expected favors, bribes, and kickbacks in return. Some of that money was distributed to judges for favorable rulings. Massive building projects such as new hospitals, elaborate museums, marble courthouses, paved roads, and the Brooklyn Bridge had millions of dollars of padded costs added that went straight to Boss Tweed and his cronies. Indeed, the county courthouse was originally budgeted for $250,000 but eventually cost more than $13 million and was not even completed. The Tweed ring pocketed most of the money. The ring also gobbled up massive amounts of real estate, owned the printing company that contracted for official city business such as ballots, and received large payoffs from railroads. Soon, Tweed owned an extravagant Fifth Avenue mansion and an estate in Connecticut, was giving lavish parties and weddings, and owned diamond jewelry worth tens of thousands of dollars. In total, the Tweed Ring brought in an estimated $50 to $200 million in corrupt money. Boss Tweed’s avarice knew few boundaries.

The corruption in New York City’s government went far beyond greed, however it cheapened the rule of law and degraded a healthy civil society. Most people in local government received their jobs because of patronage rather than merit and talent. The Tweed Ring also manipulated elections in a variety of ways. It hired people to vote multiple times and had sheriffs and temporary deputies protect them while doing so. It stuffed ballot boxes with fake votes and bribed or arrested election inspectors who questioned its methods. As Tweed later said, The ballots made no result the counters made the result. Sometimes the ring simply ignored the ballots and falsified election results. Tammany candidates often received more votes than there were eligible voters in a district. In addition, the ring used intimidation and street violence by hiring thugs or crooked cops to sway voters’ minds and received payoffs from criminal activities it allowed to flourish.

Tweed’s election manipulations were well known, with intimidation tactics keeping the ballot counts under the Tweed Ring’s control.

Although Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall engaged in corrupt politics, they undoubtedly helped the immigrants and poor of the city in many ways. Thousands of recent immigrants in New York were naturalized as American citizens and adult men had the right to vote. Because New York City, like other major urban areas, often lacked basic services, the Tweed Ring provided these for the price of a vote, or several votes. Tweed made sure the immigrants had jobs, found a place to live, had enough food, received medical care, and even had enough coal money to warm their apartments during the cold of winter. In addition, he contributed millions of dollars to the institutions that benefited and cared for the immigrants, such as their neighborhood churches and synagogues, Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages, and charities. When dilapidated tenement buildings burned down, ring members followed the firetrucks to ensure that families had a place to stay and food to eat. Immigrants in New York were grateful for the much-needed services from the city and private charities. The Tweed Ring seemed to be creating a healthier society, and in overwhelming numbers, immigrants happily voted for the Democrats who ran the city.

In the end, however, Boss Tweed’s greed was too great and his exploitation was too brazen. The New York Times exposed the rampant corruption of his ring and ran stories of the various frauds. Meanwhile, the periodical Harper’s Weekly ran the editorial cartoons of Thomas Nast, which lampooned the Tweed Ring for its illegal activities. Tweed was actually more concerned about the cartoons than about the investigative stories, because many of his constituents were illiterate but understood the message of the drawings. He offered bribes to the editor of the New York Times and to Nast to stop their public criticisms, but neither accepted.

Boss Tweed was arrested in October 1871 and indicted shortly thereafter. He was tried in 1873, and after a hung jury in the first trial, he was found guilty in a second trial of more than 200 crimes including forgery and larceny. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

One of Thomas Nast’s cartoons, called The Brains, argued that Boss Tweed won his elections thanks to money, not brains.

While he was in jail, Tweed was allowed to visit his family at home and take meals with them while a few guards waited at his doorstep. He seized an opportunity at one of these meals to escape in disguise across the Hudson to New Jersey, and then by boat to Florida, from there to Cuba, and finally to Spain. Because Spain’s government wanted the United States to end its support for Cuban rebels, it agreed to cooperate with U.S. authorities and apprehend Tweed. Aided by Nast’s cartoons in obtaining at least a close approximation of Tweed’s appearance, Spanish law enforcement recognized and arrested him and returned him to the United States. With his health broken and few remaining supporters, Tweed died in jail in 1878.

Watch this BRI Homework Help video on Boss Tweed for a look at his rise and fall and how Tammany Hall affect Gilded Age New York City.

Tammany Hall and the Tweed Ring are infamous models of Gilded Age urban corruption. Political machines corruptly ran several major cities throughout the United States, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest where millions of immigrants had settled. The machines may have provided essential services for immigrants, but their corruption destroyed good government and civil society by undermining the rule of law. By the early twentieth century, Progressive reformers had begun to target the bosses and political machines to reform city government in the United States.

Review Questions

1. Before becoming known as “Boss” Tweed, William Tweed served briefly as

  1. mayor of New York City
  2. governor of New York
  3. a member of Congress
  4. chair of the Board of Elections in New York

2. Tammany Hall’s treatment of immigrants who lived in New York City can be best described as

  1. leading the fight for nativism
  2. aiding immigrants with basic services
  3. encouraging immigrants to live in ethnic enclaves in the city
  4. providing job training for skilled laborers

3. Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed were most closely associated with which political party?

4. The Tweed Ring made most of its money from graft. One major example was

  1. charging businesses money to protect them from crime bosses
  2. unfairly taxing immigrants
  3. inflating the cost of major city projects such as the courthouse
  4. inflating the tolls charged to cross the Brooklyn Bridge

5. During the late nineteenth century, Thomas Nast was best known as

  1. a political opponent of William Tweed’s who served as governor of New York
  2. a critic of the Tweed Ring who published exposés about Boss Tweed
  3. an immigrant who was helped by Tweed and went on to a successful political career
  4. a critic of Tweed who sketched political cartoons exposing his corruption

6. An event that propelled William Tweed to a position of respect and more power in New York City was his

  1. first successful election as mayor of New York in 1864
  2. success in restoring order after the draft riots in 1863
  3. ability to authorize public works to benefit large numbers of immigrants
  4. success at providing comfortable housing for lower-income families

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain the positive and negative effect of the Tweed Ring on New York City.
  2. Evaluate the impact of the political machine on U.S. cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

AP Practice Questions

Thomas Nast depicts Boss Tweed in Harper’s Weekly (October 21, 1871).

1. Thomas Nast’s intent in drawing the political cartoon was to

  1. demonstrate the generosity of the political boss in the late nineteenth century
  2. show how corrupt Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall were in New York politics
  3. illustrate the greed of industrialists during the late nineteenth century
  4. show how honest politicians were

2. Which of the following emerged to seek to correct the problems created by the situation lampooned in the cartoon?

  1. The Populist movement
  2. The Progressive Era
  3. The Know Nothings
  4. The Second Great Awakening

3. Which group probably benefited most from the situation portrayed in the cartoon?

  1. Immigrants to the United States
  2. Members of labor unions
  3. African Americans
  4. Supporters of women’s suffrage

Primary Sources

Suggested Resources

Ackerman, Kenneth D. Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2005.

Allswang, John M. Bosses, Machines, and Urban Votes . Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Brands, H.W. American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

Lynch, Dennis Tilden. Boss Tweed: The Story of a Grim Generation. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2002.

Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

White, Richard. The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017.


The House That Tweed Built

Today among the soaring buildings of lower Manhattan huddles a shabby, squat pile of Massachusetts marble. It is the old New York County courthouse, a forlorn little building just three stories high. Only a few offices within its dirty gray walls are still used. There is nothing about this grotesque relic to suggest a raucous past or a grand scandal. But in its old rooms and along its corridors there is, for the knowledgeable, a roar of history as loud as the sound of the sea in shells.

The courthouse was designed with great expectations. It was to be a heroic example of Renaissance architecture. But by the time the Tweed Ring finished with the building, it was heroic only in the amount of money spent on it, enough money, according to one reformer, to build sixteen courthouses. It cost more than the Erie Canal, said the New York Times . These and other complaints indicate the impact of one of the most brazen and grandiose feats of graft in American municipal history. The house that Tweed built was the Boss’s legacy to New York, an Acropolis of graft, a shrine to boodle.

William Marcy Tweed looked like something that God had hacked out with a dull axe. His craggy hulk weighed nearly three hundred pounds. Everything about him was big: his brood of eight children his fists his shoulders his head, with its reddish-brown hair carved into a mustache and beard his eyes, foxy or “gritty,” as the reformers called them his diamond, which glittered like a planet in his shirt front and, finally, his nose. “His nose is half-Brougham, half-Roman,” said one observer, “and a man with a nose of that sort is not a man to be trifled with.”

Born in New York in 1823, the son of a chairmaker, Tweed began his rise to ill fame in 1851 when he was elected an alderman and became the leader of a corrupt, predatory band of aldermen and assistant aldermen, aptly called the Forty Thieves. After two singularly undistinguished years as a congressman in the mid-fifties, Tweed began a ten-year struggle for power that resulted in making him the first man to bear the title of Boss of New York.

In these years he clawed his way upward until he became both the Grand Sachem of Tammany and the chairman of the powerful New York County Democratic central committee. His growing power was soon felt within the New York city government, and he collected sinecures—school commissioner, deputy street commissioner, supervisor—as a gunslinger would add notches to his gun.

By 1866 Boss Tweed was on the threshold of being the greatest political force in New York. In the same year he formed his notorious Ring by joining forces with three capital rogues: the district attorney, Abraham Oakey Hall, who was to serve as mayor from 1868 to 1872 Peter Barr Sweeny, a lobbyist and ex-district attorney whom Tweed made city chamberlain and a man later to be city comptroller, Richard Connolly. For the next five years the Tweed Ring smothered New York in its political embrace. Like an invading Attila, Tweed stormed the four fortresses of power in New York State: City Hall, Tammany Hall, the Hall of Justice, and the Capitol in Albany. There were soon 12,000 Tammany men placed in key city jobs. From Tweed’s Town—the lower part of New York, embracing Hell’s Kitchen, Satan’s Circus, the Bowery, Cat Alley, Cockroach Row, and the Five Points, with its spidery streets choked with garbage and the poor--came the votes of the floods of immigrants, in return for the Boss’s bounty of jobs and food. And on election day Tammany braves of the “shiny-hat brigade,” as they styled themselves, swooped down on election booths, early and often, their war whoops enlivened by firewater, to return to the wigwam that night with fresh political scalps. This political machine was run on strings of “wampum,” as the Ring picturesquely called hard cash, and one of the main sources of this much-needed wampum turned out to be the new county courthouse building.

The house that Tweed built was actually begun years before the Ring was formed. In 1858, the distinguished architect John Kellum, who had designed the New York Herald building, completed the plans for the new courthouse amidst a great burst of civic pride. Here was to be a Renaissance marvel proclaiming the greatness of New York and the sanctity of the law. Except for providing a site in City Hall Park, little was done until 1862, when, by no coincidence, William Tweed became president of the Board of Supervisors. There had been a wrangle over who should appropriate funds for the new building, the state’s Board of Commissioners or the city’s Board of Supervisors. Tweed tipped the scale in favor of making the city pay the bill, and suddenly appropriations became brisk.

The enactment law of 1858 stated specifically that the building, with all its furnishings, should not cost more than $250,000. But this was hardly enough, Tweed argued, to build a fitting tribute to the city and to the law. The Board of Supervisors agreed, and $1,000,000 more was authorized. In 1864 an additional $800,000 was granted. But even this was not enough. In 1865, $300,000 more was appropriated, yet the very next year still more money was needed, and Tweed lobbied successfully for an additional $300,000.

When a further half-million dollars was granted in 1866, a reform group sniffed the pungent odor of corruption. It seemed a bit odd that $3,150,000 of the taxpayers’ money had been spent but that the courthouse still was not finished, except for one corner occupied by the court of appeals. The reformers indignantly demanded an investigation. The officials of the city and county of New York were obliging, but their feelings were somewhat ruffled. They pointed out that the Board of Supervisors had already set up a committee to investigate the courthouse contracts. Nevertheless, to serve justice, they established another committee, christening it the Special Committee to Investigate the Courthouse. This committee was to investigate the investigating committee set up by the Board of Supervisors that was investigating the courthouse. The Special Committee took a remarkably short time to declare that the investigating committee, the contracts, and everything else about the courthouse were free from fraud.

The tempo of appropriations for the courthouse increased as the Tweed Ring expanded its power. Boss Tweed demonstrated his unchallenged authority over the state legislature by having it contribute a large amount of money to the courthouse, and he completed a one-two punch by persuading the city at the same time to donate $6,997,893.24 more. “Just imagine,” said a newspaper, “the untiring industry, the wear and tear of muscle, the anxiety of mind, the weary days and sleepless nights, that it must have cost the ‘Boss’ to procure all these sums of money.” Thus, from 1858 to 1871, more than thirteen million dollars had been spent on the new courthouse.

When, in 1871, New Yorkers finally realized that their courthouse had been a gold mine of graft, one of the first questions asked was how this incredible swindle had been perpetrated. Such a colossal steal, it seemed, could be engineered only by a complicated and subtle stratagem. What astonished, angered, and perhaps embarrassed New Yorkers was the revelation that the Ring, confident of its power and contemptuous of detection, had employed such brazen tactics.

The scheme hinged upon each member of the Ring playing a role tailored to his particular talents and office. Boss Tweed’s role was to operate exclusively in the area of top-level decision-making and to exercise his considerable charm—always enhanced by a bulging pocketbook—among his acquaintances in the New York City and State governments. To assist him in the gentle art of political persuasion, Tweed, like most successful executives, had a resourceful and imaginative aide. Peter Barr Sweeny, the city chamberlain. Dark, brooding, mysterious, Sweeny seemed to some to be more shadow than man. Heavy-set, with a jet-black walrus mustache and a large head covered with a mass of thick black hair, he always wore black clothes and a highcrowned black hat. Sweeny, a behind-the-scenes manipulator, was painfully shy in public. In 1857, as district attorney, he broke down in his first speech before a jury and was so humiliated that he resigned and fled to Europe. His forte was to operate as Tweed’s alter ego in party caucuses, private offices, and hotel corridors. This reputation for stealthy astuteness won him many nicknames—Brains Sweeny, Sly Sweeny, Spider Sweeny—but his friends called him Squire. It was Tweed and Sweeny who made all the initial arrangements between the Ring and the hand-picked courthouse contractors.

The third major figure in the operation was the city comptroller, Richard Connolly. His tall stovepipe hat, gold-rimmed spectacles, stately nose, clean-shaven face, and plump belly gave him a distinguished appearance, and he was called the Big Judge by his cronies. Connolly artfully feigned an innocence that led the uninitiated to think of him as a mere child in the game of politics. But the nickname given him by the reformers, Slippery Dick, was proved accurate when in 1871 he was shown to be worth six million dollars, although his salary had been only $3,600 in 1857. It was Connolly’s job as the Ring’s bookkeeper and financial expert to supervise the assault on the soft underbelly of the city treasury. After the contractors submitted the bills for their work, Connolly made certain that the Ring received sixty-five per cent of the amount due as its commission, with the remaining thirty-five per cent going to the contractors. He then drew up payments, or warrants, drawn from the city treasury, approved them as city comptroller, and turned them over to Boss Tweed, who in turn “persuaded” the Board of Supervisors to give its official approval to the warrants. The operation reached its final stage when the padded warrants were placed on the desk of the colorful “Elegant Oakey” Hall, the mayor of New York.

Abraham Oakey Hall, a nervous, sparkling little man who had a pool-shark’s touch with the electorate, delighted New York with his purple rhetoric and his gaudy elegance. He was a politician, playwright (the heart-toaster, Let Me Kiss Him for His Mother , was one of his plays enjoyed by New York theatregoers), journalist, lawyer, poet, clubman, lecturer, humorist, and humbug. Oakey Hall had only one defect as mayor, one newspaper commented, “a lack of ability.” But there was one talent Hall did not lack: he could write his name. When, as the highest city officer, he signed the inflated warrants, the deed was done.

In this fashion, so crude and yet so straightforward, the taxpayers of New York were fleeced of thirteen million dollars. What made the building of the county courthouse a classic in the annals of American graft was the way in which money was spent. As the reformer Robert Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt’s uncle) put it, the bills rendered by the Tweed contractors were not merely monstrous, “they [were] manifestly fabulous.” For just three tables and forty chairs, for example, the city paid $179,729.60. Roscoe Conkling, the Republican senator from New York, complained that the money spent for furnishings was nearly three times as much as it cost the Grant administration to run the entire United States diplomatic corps for two years—and if one recalls the Grant administration, this was quite a feat. Conkling was referring to the cost of furniture, carpets, and shades supplied by a firm headed by an old boyhood chum of Boss Tweed’s, James Ingersoll. The amount spent on these items was “the rather startling sum” of $5,691,144.26. Fascinated by the bill for $350,000 for carpets alone, the New York Times asked Ingersoll for an explanation. “There is one thing you people down in the Times don’t seem to take into account,” was the angry reply. “The carpets in these public buildings need to be changed a great deal oftener than in private houses.” Even after this explanation the Times concluded that the city had been overcharged $336,821.31.

John Keyser, the plumbing contractor for the building, set a record to be envied even by his highly paid colleagues of today. He received nearly a million and a half dollars for “plumbing and gas light fixtures.” It was estimated that in one year alone, Keyser made over a million dollars. Compared to Ingersoll and Keyser, Tweed’s carpenter, “Lucky” George Miller, submitted puny bills. Lumber estimated to be worth not more than $48,000 cost the city only $460,000. As for the building’s marble, it was supplied by a quarry owned by the Boss. The New York Times , always a pesky critic of Tweed, claimed it cost more to quarry the marble than it had cost to build the entire courthouse in Brooklyn.

The prices for safes and awnings suggested an obsession with security and shade. J. McBride Davidson, who maintained a private bar in his office for select politicians, charged over $400,000 for safes. James W. Smith charged $150 apiece for 160 awnings. Considering this, plus the charge for carpentry, a newspaper calculated that each courthouse window cost an astounding $8,000. Smith defended himself by saying that his bill for awnings included taking them down in the fall, putting them up again in the spring, and repairing them. Another manufacturer said that the awnings were worth not more than $12.50 apiece.

When a person is building a house he does not usually expect to receive a huge bill for repairs before the structure is completed. Yet the house that Tweed built cost the taxpayers of New York nearly two million dollars in repairs before it was finished. Here Andrew Garvey, a 240-pound ex-fireman, set a record which won for him the title “Prince of Plasterers.” In one year Garvey charged the city $500,000 for plastering, and $1,000,000 for repairing the same work. His bill for the three-year plastering job in a supposedly marble building was $2,870,464.06—the Times suggested the six cents be donated to charity—and of this, $1,294,684.13 went for repairs! If Garvey was a prince, Tweed’s carpenter rated at least an earldom. For “repairing and altering wood work,” Lucky George was paid nearly $800,000. Compared to his colleagues, however, John Keyser was only a knight in tarnished armor. He received merely $51,481.74 for repairing his plumbing and lighting fixtures.

For all the shocking display of gluttony, there was sprinkled throughout the Ring’s secret account books evidence of good humor, a certain dash, a feeling that here were men who really enjoyed their work. For example, a check was drawn to the order of Fillippo Donnoruma for $66,000. It was endorsed by “Phillip Dummy.” Another check, for $64,000, was made out to “T. C. Cash.” And wedged in among columns of massive figures was this tiny masterpiece of understatement: “Brooms, etc. … $41,190.95.”

Then there was the charge for thermometers, which must be described as flippant. Tweed bought eleven thermometers for the new courthouse, each five feet long and one foot wide and encased in a gaudily carved frame. The faces were made of inexpensive paper, highly varnished and badly painted. Everything about them was cheap. The cost of the eleven thermometers was exactly $7,500. A reporter asked a reputable thermometer manufacturer how many thermometers he could supply for this amount. “For $7,500,” he said, “I could line the courthouse.” The New York Printing Company’s charge of $186,495.61 for stationery was unique. It included the printing of all the reams of contractors’ bills as well as the repair bills.

When the Tweed Ring was exposed in 1871, it became a favorite pastime to calculate how far, placed end to end, the furnishings and materials charged to the city for the courthouse would reach. One newspaper reckoned that there was carpeting enough to reach from New York almost to New Haven, or halfway to Albany. Another wag estimated that since Ingersoll was paid $170,729.60 for chairs alone, if each cost $5, the city had bought 34,145 chairs. Now if they were placed in a straight line, they would reach 85,363 feet, or nearly eighteen miles. What would happen, asked the New York Times , if the sum spent for cabinet work and furniture were spent in furnishing private houses? Allowing $10,000 per house, the paper estimated, it would furnish nearly 3,000 houses.

The revelations of the cost of the building inspired several New Yorkers to visit their new courthouse. Although they realized that corruption had been at work, they expected to see some kind of magnificence for their thirteen million dollars. Instead they found an unfinished waste of masonry—gloomy rooms, dark halls, and ugly, fake marble walls—resembling more an ancient tenement than a new public building. In 1871, after thirteen years of construction work, not all of the floors were occupied. One of the largest rooms, the Bureau of Arrears of Taxes, had no roof. The county clerk’s office, sheriff’s office, and office of the surrogate were not carpeted but were covered with oilcloth and grimy matting. The walls were filthy, and in many places large chunks of plaster had peeled off, leaving ugly blotches—a fitting tribute to the Prince of Plasterer’s repair bills. One visitor counted 164 windows and shuddered at the cost of awnings and curtains, many of which had not yet been delivered. When the prominent reformer George C. Barrett made his pilgrimage, he came away shocked. His impression left no doubt that the city must long endure a reminder of the most audacious swindle in its history. “It might be considered,” he said, “that the cornerstone of the temple was conceived in sin, and its dome, if ever finished, will be glazed all over with iniquity. The whole atmosphere was corrupt. You look up at its ceilings and find gaudy decorations you wonder which is the greatest, the vulgarity or the corruptness of the place.” As a final irony, the grand dome which had been planned to crown the county’s temple of justice was never completed.

Boss Tweed and his friends reached the zenith of their power in July, 1871. On July 4, Tammany wildly celebrated the glories of Independence Day and the beneficent leadership of Grand Sachem William Marcy Tweed. Four days later came the beginning of the end. The New York Times , leading one of the greatest crusades against civic corruption in American history, began publishing the facts and figures on the Ring’s adventures in graft. The Times was aided by Harper’s Weekly with its acerbic cartoons by Thomas Nast, who drew the courthouse with “Thou Shalt Steal As Much As Thou Canst” over its portal. The evidence was turned over to the newspaper by an unhappy Tammany warrior, ex-Sheriff James O’Brien. Furious because Tweed had not paid a fraudulent claim he had made against the city, O’Brien had hired a spy in Connolly’s office to copy entries out of the Ring’s secret account books.

While it was estimated that the Ring in all its various operations had stolen anywhere from twenty million to two hundred million dollars from the city and state, it was the courthouse that captured New York’s attention and ignited its wrath. At first the Boss had magnificent poise. “Well,” he said, “what are you going to do about it?” And Mayor Hall—or “Mayor Haul,” as Nast labelled him—quipped, “Who’s going to sue?” But as the Times , day by day, week by week, revealed the enormity of the courthouse scandal—the plaster, the carpets, the repair bills, the thermometers —the Forty Thieves panicked and Oakey Hall became a prophet: “We are likely to have what befell Adam,” he said, “an early Fall.” Tweed tried to bribe the Times into silence and failed, while Nast refused an offer of $500,000 to study art abroad rather than corruption at home. The Boss said of Thomas Nast, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.” By the fall of 1871, the Ring was on the threshold of collapse. As new evidence of wrongdoing accumulated, a mass meeting of outraged New Yorkers was held at Cooper Union and a committee of seventy leading citizens was organized to bring about the fall of Tweed. Under the leadership of Samuel J. Tilden, who later became governor of New York and the Democratic nominee for President in 1876, a civil suit to recover the stolen money was brought against the Ring’s leaders. In the November, 1871, election, one of the most exciting in New York history, the Ring was smashed when Tammany was crushed at the polls. New York now awaited expectantly the trials of all the culprits who had so boldly picked the civic purse, but the city was to be denied that satisfaction.

When Tweed was arrested in December, Connolly, Sweeny, and most of the other leading members of the Ring fled to Europe or to Canada and were never punished. Connolly wandered about Europe and died there, a man without a country, while Sweeny returned to New York in the eighteen eighties and lived out his years there in quiet respectability. One who did not flee was Mayor Oakey Hall. At his trial it was asked how the Mayor could have signed hundreds of padded courthouse warrants and not been aware of it. His attorney explained that the Elegant Oakey had “an ineradicable aversion to details.” Hall was acquitted.

Only the Boss paid a price, a small price considering the crime. Tweed spent less than half his remaining years—from his downfall in 1871 until his death in 1878—in jail. In 1873 he was sentenced to twelve years in prison for fraud, but the court of appeals reduced the sentence to a year on a legal technicality. After his release in 1875 Tweed was arrested as the result of action brought by the state of New York to recover six million dollars he was accused of having stolen. While in prison awaiting trial the Boss was often allowed to visit his home under guard. During one such visit, in December of 1875, Tweed escaped to Cuba and then to Spain, only to be recognized from a Nast caricature. He was returned to New York in November, 1876, and was confined to the Ludlow Street Jail to await trial. He died there on April 12, 1878, at the age of fifty-five.

In the years after Tweed’s death the horrendous scandals of his Ring softened into just another memory of old New York, but one which Tweed had made certain would not be forgotten. The shabby little building in City Hall Park, the house that Tweed built, was as unforgettable a memorial as a statue in Times Square. And Tweed had provided his own epitaph. When he arrived at the Blackwell’s Island prison to begin his one-year sentence, the warden asked him what his profession was. The Boss, in a clear, strong voice, answered, “Statesman!”


13 Facts About Boss Tweed

Few men are as synonymous with political corruption as William Magear Tweed—“Boss Tweed” as most knew him. The “Grand Sachem” of New York City’s Democratic political machine, Tammany Hall, effectively ran Gotham during the late 1860s and early 1870s, treating its coffers as his personal bank account and its leaders as his errand boys. But his decadent ambitions earned him plenty of enemies, and eventually proved his undoing. Here are a few tidbits about the Boss and some of his more egregious activities.

1. HE LEARNED POLITICS WORKING AS A FIREMAN.

Tweed was initially groomed to go into his father’s business as a chair-maker, before going to school for accounting (learning skills that no doubt proved helpful when he was cooking the city budget). But he found his true calling upon joining the volunteer fire company, where he would help form Americus Engine Company No. 6. It was in this world that he learned how to develop alliances and work the system, developing strong-arm tactics to ensure that his engine was the first that made it to a fire. His competitiveness led him to come close to being expelled from the firefighters—but by bribing the right people, he reduced his life sentence to a three-month suspension. All of these skills, and the working class associates he made, helped stoke his interest in politics. It’s appropriate that Engine 6's snarling tiger logo would become the symbol of Tammany.

2. HE MAY HAVE SAVED A REPUBLICAN MAYOR'S LIFE.

One of Tweed's earliest political moves was to help protect the life of a mayor from a different party. During the draft riots of 1863, while Tweed was deputy street commissioner, many of the city’s poor and Irish (Tammany’s core constituency) took to the streets in violent protest against the conscription law that required they pay $300 or die on the battlefield for the Union. Tweed took on the role of peacemaker, urging calm, and was one of those who informed Republican mayor George Opdyke that City Hall was not safe, convincing him to go somewhere he could avoid the anti-draft violence. Never one to miss an opportunity, Tweed leveraged the goodwill he earned for tamping down the riots into a deal that allowed many of the poor to avoid fighting, and paid the $300 conscription exemption cost for others—earning him a major political victory over the Republicans.

3. HE STOLE BIG.

Tweed and his cronies stole somewhere between $30 million and $200 million from the city ($365 million to $2.4 billion today). During his glory days, Tweed was the third-largest landowner in New York City, with a mansion on Fifth Avenue and 43 rd Street (with a horse stable nearby), a Greenwich estate, and two yachts.

4. HE WORE MANY HATS.

While he is most famous for his position as Grand Sachem (or “Boss”) of Tammany Hall, Tweed used his influence and skill with handing out political favors to land a wide range of titles. He served terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and the New York State Senate, and had himself appointed deputy street commissioner of New York City. He served as director of the Erie Railroad, proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel, and director of the Tenth National Bank. He bought the New-York Printing Company and Manufacturing Stationers’ Company, then saw that they were made the city’s official printer and stationery printer, respectively (and that they overcharged for their services).

5. HE FAKED BEING A LAWYER.

Despite never studying as an attorney, Tweed was certified as a lawyer by his friend George Barnard. Opening a law office, he was then able to charge exorbitant fees to individuals and companies seeking his influence, under the catchall “legal services.”

6. HIS ALLIES TRIED TO ERECT A STATUE OF HIM—WHILE HE WAS STILL ALIVE.

In 1871, Tammany pushed to build a bronze statue in Manhattan in Tweed’s honor (although the project was originally suggested as a spoof by journalists). While this may have seemed perfectly reasonable to Tweed, the press was not so enthusiastic. “Has Tweed gone mad, that he thus challenges public attention to his life and acts?” the Evening Post wrote. Sensing that a statue might be a step too far, Tweed suggested to those behind the campaign: “Statues are not erected to living men … I claim to be a live man, and hope (Divine Providence permitting) to survive in all my vigor, politically and physically, for some years to come.” The plans were scrapped.

7. HE SHARED THE WEALTH.

One of Tweed’s greatest skills was getting the men he selected into positions of power. From running the Tammany Hall general committee (which controlled the Democratic Party’s nominations for all city positions) early in his political career, to seeing that former New York City mayor and Tweed protégé John T. Hoffman ascended to the state governorship, Tweed made sure that power and profits were distributed widely among his friends. But while his favors almost always served his own selfish purposes, they could also help the city’s people—if at the expense of the city itself. “Because of Tweed, New York got better, even for the poor,” author and journalist Pete Hamill grants.

8. HE WAS A MAN OF EXCESS—BUT DIDN’T SMOKE.

Tweed’s most famous accessory may be the huge 10.5-carat diamond stickpin he wore on his shirt front. The gifts one of his daughters received on her wedding day were reported to be worth $14 million in today’s dollars. He feasted on duck, oysters, tenderloin, and excessive amounts of food, as his significant waistline could attest. But he didn’t smoke and barely drank—though he kept plenty of cigars and whisky on hand for any visiting friends.

9. CARTOONS TOOK HIM DOWN.

Tweed made plenty of enemies, but perhaps his toughest was Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast. The German immigrant vividly conveyed the city’s corruption with images of a bloated Tweed, replacing his head with a bag of money in one famous depiction, and using the snarling visual of a tiger (from Tweed’s own Engine No. 6 mascot) to represent the predatory Tammany Hall.

Tweed recognized the power and danger that Nast’s widely seen illustrations presented: "My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!" As he did with so many others, Tweed attempted to pay for Nast’s acquiescence, sending a crony (pretending to a representative for a European benefactor interested in studying art) to the illustrator’s house with a promise of $500,000—if he would just move to Europe for the foreseeable future. But Nast refused to be bribed, and the attempt only fueled his unkind cartoons, which fueled public outrage about Tweed's acts.

10. AN ARREST COULDN’T STOP HIM FROM GETTING ELECTED.

In 1871, following a devastating series of articles in The New York Times about the corruption in city government, sheriff (and Tammany man) Matthew Brennan placed Tweed under arrest, just a week before voters went to the polls to decide the Boss’s State Senate seat. Brennan quietly accepted a $1 million bond for Tweed’s bail and moved on, and the Grand Sachem defeated his rival days later.

11. IT TOOK THREE MORE ARRESTS TO LOCK HIM UP FOR GOOD.

In 1873, reform lawyer Samuel J. Tilden convicted Tweed on charges of larceny and forgery, though he was released two years later. He was quickly re-arrested on civil charges, convicted and imprisoned again (since he could not pay the $6.3 million he was judged to owe for his crimes). But life in jail did not suit Tweed, and during one of the home visits he was granted by authorities, he escaped to Cuba, then Spain, working as a seaman for two years before he was spotted by an American who—adding insult to custody—recognized him from Nast's cartoons. He was captured and sent back to the U.S.

12. HE WAS DOUBLE-CROSSED IN JAIL.

Desperate to get out of prison after his third apprehension, Tweed struck a deal with the state attorney general to confess all he had done, if it would mean release. He revealed all of his crimes (or at least as many as he could remember) in 1877, only to have the lawman back out of his agreement (the attorney general did, after all, work for New York’s governor and Tweed’s old foe Samuel Tilden).

13. DESPITE OTHERS’ EFFORTS, HE HAD A BLOWOUT FUNERAL.

While in prison, Tweed contracted severe pneumonia and died in 1878, reportedly worth not much more than $2,500. It was an ignoble end, and New York City Mayor Smith Ely refused to fly the City Hall flag at half-staff. His daughter was determined to keep the funeral “private and unostentatious,” allowing only close friends and family—with much of his family not even able to make the funeral (his wife and another daughter lived in Paris as invalids and two sons were in Europe). His body was encased in an ice box for funeral services. But despite these efforts to keep Tweed’s passing quiet, large crowds turned out in front of his daughter’s house for the funeral. Even the Times, critical to Tweed’s downfall, reported that “Some were of the opinion that his punishment had been harder than he deserved.”

Bonus Fact: This "Bourbon Ballad" about him is the best:

There was Tweed
Under his rule the ballot-box was freed!
Six times as big a vote he could record
As there were people living in the ward!


Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York

For a decade or so in the 1860s and early 1870s, William Tweed - known colloquially as "Boss" Tweed - reigned supreme over patronage and power in New York City. His rapid, and to most people - not least of whom would be Tweed himself - shocking demise and subsequent imprisonment makes for an entertaining book. Along the way, the reader is introduced to many other flawed individuals, some famous and some not.

Tweed&aposs story is well-told by Kenneth Ackerman, but only once he has attained power. Des For a decade or so in the 1860s and early 1870s, William Tweed - known colloquially as "Boss" Tweed - reigned supreme over patronage and power in New York City. His rapid, and to most people - not least of whom would be Tweed himself - shocking demise and subsequent imprisonment makes for an entertaining book. Along the way, the reader is introduced to many other flawed individuals, some famous and some not.

Tweed's story is well-told by Kenneth Ackerman, but only once he has attained power. Despite "The Rise" being part of the title, it really seems to be missing from the narrative. Ackerman basically skims over Tweed's early years, so quickly that you hardly notice it. I did not think that he explained Tweed's ascent very well. He became involved in business, in a fire department, and began amassing power. How he did this was not made clear. I was not expecting something akin to Robert Caro's monumental work on Robert Moses, but it seems like a few key moments are missing here.

One moment that is not missing is the 1863 NYC draft riots. Ackerman shows Tweed steadying the situation when the local officials proved unable to do so. From there, the book catalogues how Tweed and his "Ring" managed to defraud the city of millions of dollars. How much Tweed, A. Oakey Hall, Peter Sweeny, and Richard Connolly actually did pilfer is and has been disputed, and at this point it probably is impossible to arrive at an accurate figure. There was graft everywhere, voter intimidation, and buying of offices.

Ackerman does well in introducing, at length, many other notable characters aside from Tweed: Thomas Nast the cartoonist, George Jones the owner of the New York Times, Samuel Tilden (Governor for ywo years and 1876 Democratic nominee for President), and several others. Even Ulysses S. Grant makes an appearance. Ackerman weaves these folks into the story line, showing how each of them influenced events. This is a strength of the book. It also makes me categorize the book as "history" instead of "biography" because Tweed is almost entirely absent in sections. Ackerman shows that, much like most things in life, pretty much nobody involved here has totally clean hands. Seemingly each person did something that personally benefited himself (there were few women in this story aside from occasional mention of Tweed's wife or daughters - definitely a reflection of the time period), while ostensibly trying to say that they were providing a service to society.

Tweed's imprisonment, and then his sudden escape from jail (well, he actually escaped from his own house as he did get special treatment from the wardens) makes for the stuff of fiction. How he got away, and then made it as far as Spain before being brought all the way back to New York, is almost hard to believe. Ackerman unfortunately does not explain why Tweed suddenly left the house he was hiding in over in New Jersey, going to Florida and then Cuba and then Spain. He does chronicle Tweed's deteriorating health during this time period (Tweed was a huge man, 300 pounds) and how the endless trials and the imprisonment, combined with the depletion of his ill-gotten fortune, caused him to age prematurely and die in middle age (later for that time period).

Ackerman is sympathetic, I think, to Tweed. No, he does not excuse anything untoward that Tweed did, and shows that even when he was helping poor immigrants it was more out of political calculation than actual concern for peoples' well-being. But he focuses on how the rest of the Ring really got away Scot-free, and how Tweed was at the short end of the stick of several people (such as Tilden) who had their own less-than-noble motives in trying to imprison him and then keep him in prison. Fair point, and I do think that Tweed bore the brunt of the punishment. Several others were almost as guilty as Tweed, if not just as guilty, and they served no prison time. So could one say that Tweed was treated unfairly? Yes, I think so. Yet I could not summon much sympathy for someone who so blatantly stole from the public trough and would have kept right on stealing had he not been caught.


ɻoss Tweed'

TWEED WAS DYING that morning, locked inside New York City's Ludlow Street Jail at Grand Street on the Lower East Side. At about 11:40 A.M., he began to whisper his lawyer William Edelstein had to lean close and place his ear near Tweed's lips to hear over the noise of horses on the street, women haggling at the nearby Essex Street Market. "Well, Tilden and Fairchild have killed me," he said. Tweed had saved his last words for his tormentors: Charles Fairchild, the New York State attorney general who had cheated him, broken his pledge to free him in exchange for a full confession, and Samuel Jones Tilden, the New York governor whoɽ built a national political career on Tweed's downfall and now demanded that he die behind bars.

"I hope they are satisfied now." He smiled faintly. A few minutes later, he lost consciousness.

For two weeks, Tweed had borne a cascade of ailments: fever, bronchitis, pneumonia. Months earlier, heɽ suffered a heart attack, aggravated by kidney failure brought on by Bright's disease. His huge body, once three hundred pounds and known for its swagger, now sagged on the narrow bed, struggling to breathe his sporadic coughs hung in the cool, dank air. Hollowed cheeks and a thin ghost-white beard dominated his long face. Blue eyes that had once twinkled for friends and glared at enemies seemed vacant, haunted by depression.

At noon, just as midday bells sounded from the Essex Street Market tower, Tweed died, prematurely old at fifty-five years, surrounded by strangers.

It had been almost five years since Tweed had walked the streets of New York City, his lifelong home, as a free man. A year before that, Tweed had stood at the height of power and could laugh at bureaucrats like Fairchild and Tilden whoɽ begged him for favors like everyone else. He, William Magear Tweed, had been the single most influential man in New York City and a rising force on the national stage. Physically imposing and mentally sharp, Tweed reigned supreme. He was more than simply boss of Tammany Hall, commissioner of Public Works, and state senator. He controlled judges, mayors, governors, and newspapers. He flaunted his wealth, conspicuous and garish beyond anything supportable by his government salaries or even traditional "honest graft" as practiced by generations of politicians before and since. Tweed was the third-largest landowner in the city, director of the Erie Railway, the Tenth National Bank, and the New-York Printing Company, proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel, and president of the Americus Club. He owned two steam-powered yachts, a Fifth Avenue mansion, an estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a shirtfront diamond pin valued at over $15,000 ($300,000 in today's money). Still, he gloried as friend to the poor, champion of immigrants, builder of a greater New York, and arbiter of influence and patronage. And he stole . on a massive scale.

Once the proof of Tweed's thefts from the city exploded in banner newspaper headlines, his house of cards collapsed. City investigators ultimately estimated that Tweed and his city "ring," during a three-year period, had made off with a staggering $45 million from the local treasury-an amount larger than the entire annual U.S. federal budget before the Civil War. Even then, political enemies and lawmen couldn't touch him it would take a popular uprising to topple Tweed, led by a newspaper, the New-York Times, and a magazine, Harper's Weekly. Only after newspapers had produced the evidence did prosecutors like Tilden and Fairchild dare to put Tweed behind bars.

In December 1873, a jury had convicted Tweed on 204 counts of criminal misdemeanor fraud growing from the famous "Tweed Ring" scandals, and Judge Noah Davis had sentenced him to twelve years' imprisonment on Blackwell's Island. Judge Davis had overstepped. Laws at the time actually capped penalties in multiple-count misdemeanor indictments to a single small fine and a single one-year jail term and an appeals court had freed Tweed a year later over the discrepancy, but Tilden had intervened again and ordered Tweed immediately rearrested and Judge Davis had set bail at an impossibly high $3 million.

Now, after four years in jail, Tweed alone remained behind bars. All his friends and fellow thieves, the other Ring fugitives, had fled the country or settled their charges with the government. Tweed alone had become the scapegoat, the face of corruption. Increasingly, reformers criticized the prosecutors for their clumsy handling of the case, running up huge legal costs while failing to recover more than a pittance of the stolen city funds.

Tweed hated prison it defied him-despite the fact that the jailers gave him every comfort money could buy: a private room, hot meals, a bathtub, a window to the street, and friends to visit. He grew impatient at the lawyers' wrangling. In December 1875, he escaped and fled. One night that month, he sneaked away from his jail guards and secretly crossed the Hudson River to New Jersey. He later admitted paying $60,000 in bribes to finance the dramatic breakout. Once loose, he traveled in disguise, wearing a wig, a clean-shaven face, and workman's clothes, and using a false name. He reached Cuba and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Spain, only to face arrest there. Spanish authorities had seized him on his arrival at Vigo and handed him back to a United States Navy frigate that returned him to New York City.

Then, back behind bars, exhausted, destitute, and sick, Tweed tried to surrender: "I am an old man, greatly broken in health, cast down in spirit, and can no longer bear my burden," heɽ written from jail, agreeing with Fairchild and Tilden and throwing himself on their mercy. After years of denials, he now offered them a full confession of his crimes, including names of accomplices, surrender of all his property, and help in any legal steps to recover stolen city funds-all in exchange for his freedom. He wanted to be with his wife and children, he said, to live out his last years.

He delivered his confession both in writing and through eleven days of riveting public testimony before a committee of city aldermen. Newspapers carried full transcripts of the startling disclosures as Tweed appeared day after day in a packed City Hall chamber and poured out his secrets, explaining how heɽ bribed the state legislature, fixed elections, skimmed money from city contractors, and systematically diverted public funds. Parts of his story had little or no corroboration, raising suspicions that heɽ exaggerated his own guilt simply to flatter his jailers and help win his release. He made no excuses, no alibis, and no complaints sitting in the stuffy room, he answered every question, rarely showing temper or impatience.

New Yorkers who earlier had despised Tweed for his arrogance and greed now grudgingly grew to respect "the old man"-for his terrible mistakes, his punishment, and his apparent atonement. The aldermen who took his testimony supported Tweed's plea for release from jail, as did old political rivals like "Honest John" Kelly, Tweed's replacement as leader of Tammany Hall.

But Tilden and Fairchild, sitting at the state capitol in Albany, were deaf to his pleas. Samuel Tilden had already run for president in 1876 heɽ received more popular votes than Rutherford B. Hayes and lost the presidency by a single electoral vote in a contested outcome. He was considering a second try in 1880. Fairchild too saw higher political office in his future, including a possible run for the New York governor's mansion. Why should either risk his reputation now over Tweed?

Tweed's last appearance outside the Ludlow Street Jail came on March 26, 1878, two weeks before his death. Sheriffs had taken him to the state Supreme Court to testify in one of the many lawsuits resulting from his scandals. As guards led him through the marble courthouse corridors, he eagerly greeted the two or three old-timers who weren't ashamed to shake his hand. Newsmen noticed how Tweed now walked with a limp and spoke in a rasping voice. When Tweed took the witness stand, he delivered a prepared statement: "Under promises made to me by the officials of the state and the city, I was induced to give evidence before the Common Council of this city . as to what are called 'Ring Frauds,'" he read. "I am advised by my counsel not to answer a single question put to me on this case . until the promises made to me . are fulfilled and I am liberated."

The judge accepted Tweed's response at face value and allowed him to leave the court without being cross-examined by any of the lawyers.

Six days later, Tweed got his answer. Attorney General Fairchild issued a public letter denying heɽ made any deals with Tweed-despite contrary statements heɽ given earlier to Tweed's own lawyer and to John Kelly. Fairchild declared the whole incident a sham and a trick he never bothered even to send Tweed a copy of the letter: Tweed read it in the newspapers. When he saw Fairchild's denial, he knew the game was up. A few days later came the fever, then the cough, then pneumonia.

John Murray Carnochan, Tweed's physician at the Ludlow Street Jail, didn't hesitate to pinpoint the cause of death. "Behind all these phases of disease," he told newspaper writers after the autopsy, "was [Tweed's] great nervous prostration, brought about by his prolonged confinement in an unhealthful locality"-the moldy jailhouse on Ludlow Street-"and by the unfavorable result of the efforts recently made to effect his release."

Tweed's family had largely abandoned him by the time he died: public shame had driven them away. Mary Jane, his wife of thirty-three years, had gone to Paris with their grown son William, Jr. she traveled under the false name "Weed" to avoid any connection with her disgraced husband. "My wife! . She is God's own workmanship," he confided to an interviewer. "The only thing against her is that she had such a worthless husband." Tweed's two youngest sons, ten-year-old George and fourteen-year-old Charles, had been kept in a New England boarding school for the past five years and forbidden to see their father. His two oldest daughters, Mary Amelia and Lizzie, both lived with husbands in New Orleans, over a thousand miles away, both taking the same married name, Maginnis.

Of all Tweed's children, only his daughter Josephine, twenty-four years old, still lived in New York City. She came frequently to the Ludlow Street Jail to visit her father and always tried to act cheerful around him. Sheɽ come quickly this morning on hearing from the doctors, but had stepped away from her father's bedside to fetch him his favorite treat of tea and ice cream. She hadn't come back yet when he died at noon.

News of Tweed's death spread quickly through the busy metropolis of nine hundred thousand souls. New Yorkers had known him for twenty-five years as hero, villain, and criminal. He once had counted his friends and colleagues in the thousands. "Nine men out of ten either know me or I know them," heɽ bragged back in the 1860s, when he still commanded the city's respect, "women and children you may include." Now crowds gathered at newspaper offices and government buildings with public bulletin boards-over a hundred people at City Hall alone. Boys selling extra editions of the New York Sun, the World, and the Herald made a fast business. The Boss dead? It couldn't be true! One rumor had it that Tweed had faked his own demise as just another gimmick to win release from jail.

Most New Yorkers sympathized at the news. "Poor old man, poor man, but perhaps it was best for him," Judge Van Vorst of the Court of Common Pleas told a reporter. "Tweed had a great many friends among the poor and friendless," added Bernard Reilly, sheriff of New York County. "Other people will regret his death because they think he has been rather harshly dealt with . he cannot be considered wholly as a bad man. He erred deplorably. And he has paid for his errors by dying in prison."

But self-styled reformers rejected any pity for Tweed. Theyɽ won a great victory by overthrowing his corrupt machine and refused to compromise now over misplaced sentiment for a sick old man. The New-York Times had dramatically unearthed and disclosed the Tweed Ring's secret accounts-the greatest journalistic scoop to that time, directly leading to Tweed's downfall now it led the assault: "Such talents as [Tweed] had were devoted to cheating the people and robbing the public Treasury," insisted its lead editorial the next day, adding that "his tastes were gross, his life impure, and his influence, both political and personal, more pernicious than that of any other public man of his generation."

Thomas Nast, the brilliant young illustrator whose cartoons in Harper's Weekly had made Tweed a laughingstock in New York City, still featured the ex-Boss in his weekly drawings. These days he portrayed Tweed as a tiny parakeet-no longer the fierce Tammany Tiger but instead a pathetic "jailbird" with prison stripes on his feathers and a ball and chain locked to his ankle. Nast's final drawing of Tweed before the Boss's death, published in January 1878, had mocked the appeals for Tweed's release by showing miniature jailbird Tweed gripped in a giant hand called "Prison," ready to crush him at a whim. "[I]f it be right that men should be punished for great offenses, there was nothing unkind, unjust, or unreasonable in the punishment of Tweed," echoed a Harper's Weekly editorial that week. It was right that Tweed should die in jail a broken man, others said. "Without his boldness and skill the gigantic Ring robberies would not have been committed," concluded James Gordon Bennett, Jr.'s New York Herald. The "finger of scorn," as Tom Nast had drawn it, must follow him to the grave.

William Tweed had left enormous footprints on his city he had built as grandly as heɽ stolen. His monuments dotted every corner of Manhattan-the new Brooklyn Bridge rising across the East River, the opulent new County Courthouse by City Hall, the widened, paved streets up Broadway and around Central Park. Just as striking were shadows of his crimes-the huge debt and ruined credit that would haunt city finances for a generation, the broken lives and shattered trust of former friends. Tweed had defined a grimy reality of American politics, perfecting forms of graft and voting-box abuse mimicked by political bosses for the next century, but never on so grand a scale. His fall had created a new role for a free, skeptical press in the public arena, and his legal persecution had set a tone for political scandals lasting generations.


Boss Tweed

Famously, Tweed is known for the construction of the New York Courthouse. It wasn't until the New York Times wrote an expose on Boss Tweed that his grafting became publicly known and finally consequences caught up with his actions. William M. Tweed was born the son of a chair maker in New York in 1823. He attended public school and then followed in his father's footsteps by learning the trade also. Tweed was born on April 3, 1823 in New York City, New York. He started as a street fighter in the Cherry Hill section of the Lower East Side where he was one of eight children. Because of this, he was sent to a boarding school in New Jersey for a year, where he focused on accounting.

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William ‘Boss’ Tweed and the bitter days of Tammany Hall

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You cannot understand New York without understanding its most corrupt politician — William ‘Boss’ Tweed, a larger than life personality with lofty ambitions to steal millions of dollars from the city.

With the help of his ‘Tweed Ring’, the former chair-maker had complete control over the city — what was being built, how much it would cost and who was being paid.

How do you bring down a corrupt government when it seems almost everyone’s in on it? We reveal the downfall of the Tweed Ring and the end to one of the biggest political scandals in New York history. It began with a sleigh ride.

ALSO: Find out how Tammany Hall, the dominant political machine of the 19th century, got its start — as a rather innocent social club that required men to dress up and pretend they’re Indians.

William M. Tweed, son of a chair maker, as photographed by Matthew Brady in 1865. The Lower East Side would not spawn a man as powerful as Tweed until the rise of Al Smith in the 20th Century. Tweed’s influence, however, came at great expense to the city.

The M. in his middle name is something of a controversy. Marcy or Magear? It’s commonly assumed to stand for Marcy however, there’s no real documentary evidence for this (according to biographer Kenneth Ackerman) while Magear is his mother’s maiden name.

Below: a younger-looking Tweed appears on a tobacco box

The powerful Democratic machine Tammany Hall (or, officially the Tammany Society) was actually in a hall, located at Frankfurt and Nassau streets, near City Hall. Built in 1811, the new headquarters saw the once benign social organization morph into an influential and often ruthless group with political objectives.

During Tweed’s reign, Tammany Hall was actually located at 14th Street between 3rd Avenue and Irving Place. Tammany moved here in 1867 and would remain until the late 20s, when they would move just around the corner to Union Square. This photo was taken in 1914. Today the Con Edison building, with its beautiful clock tower, stands in its place.

The Tweed Ring — on in this case ‘the Four Knaves’ — as interpreted by their harshest critic, illustrator Thomas Nast. The Ring was composed of Tweed, Mayor A. Oakey Hall, chamberlain Peter Sweeny and ‘Slippery Dick’ Connolly, the comptroller. Emanating from this core group would be other underlings and associates who would assist in the Ring’s graft and embezzlement

Nast’s charges of voting fraud below weren’t hyperbole. The elections of 1868, which installed Hall into the mayor’s seat and Tammany disciple John Hoffman into the governor’s chair, was one of the most manipulated in American history. Fraud was only too common in New York elections in the 19th century.

The New York County Courthouse, also known as the Tweed Courthouse for the vast amount money supposedly thrown at it during construction. Contractors would wildly overbill for their often shoddy work, with members of the Tweed Ring skimming from the totals. It would take over 20 years for the building to finally be completed — longer than it took to build the Brooklyn Bridge.

BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS: If you want to learn more about Boss Tweed, go immediately to Kenneth Ackerman’s excellent ‘Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York’. For a broader overview on Tammany Hall, seek out a copy of Oliver E. Allen’s ‘The Tiger: The Rise And Fall of Tammany Hall’ which I believe it out of print but worth looking for.

RELATED PODCASTS: Listen to our prior show on Greenwood Cemetery, where Tweed is buried. Re-visit our Union Square show to get a taste of Tammany’s wily Fernando Wood. Last year I wrote about the Ludlow Street Jail, where Tweed saw his final days.