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Boss Tweed

The Plundering Politician

Let’s stop them damn pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers write about—my constituents can’t read—but damn it, they can see pictures.

During the latter half of the 19th Century, William Marcy "Boss" Tweed was the poster boy for political corruption, and he is still considered one of the most notorious politicians in US history. He rose to power during a period when New York City was experiencing a huge influx of immigrants and needed to build many public works projects to cope with the increased demand for services. During the 1860s and early 1870s, Tweed and his cronies ran New York City and stole many millions of dollars of public money; by some estimates, as much as $200 million. Tweed was the richest, the most powerful and the most corrupt politician of his day. 

Boss Tweed -- The Plundering Politician

Tweed was a member of an organization called The Society of Saint Tammany, that was founded in 1789; taking it’s name from the chief of the Delaware Indians. It began as a patriotic and charitable organization created by tradesmen who were not allowed to join the more exclusive clubs of the wealthy. As wave after wave of new immigrants arrived in New York City during the 1800s, Tammany gave many of them a helping hand with food, shelter and jobs. 

Over time, Tammany politicians built an enormous base of support by organizing immigrants into a voting bloc that could be counted upon to remain loyal. By the time Tweed came along, Tammany had already evolved into a well-oiled political machine that was known as Tammany Hall after the headquarters building that was located on East 14th Street. Tweed used the machine to facilitate graft and corruption on a scale that has never been equaled in the US.

William Tweed was born in 1823, on the Lower East Side of New York City; a neighborhood that was established by immigrants and was the traditional starting point for all new arrivals. Tweed never revealed his ethnic background, probably because it served his political interests to keep it ambiguous.

After attending public school, Tweed became an apprentice chair maker and later a bookkeeper. He became a volunteer fireman, because they were respected by the public for their bravery and the fire department was a traditional gateway into politics.

Tweed rose to become captain of his local fire company and was very active in charity work. He began to build a power base in Tammany and then in the Democratic Party that in 1851, got him elected a city alderman. Tweed established himself as a shrewd politician and an expert at public relations. He held a succession of public offices and also managed to work his way to the top of Tammany, becoming it’s leader, the "Grand Sachem."

Young William Tweed
Young William Tweed

Tweed bribed officials and openly bought votes to put his cronies into nearly every elected and appointed office in the city and state. New York City was controlled by the "Tweed Ring" consisting of Peter Sweeny, city chamberlain; Richard B. Connolly, city comptroller; A. Oakey Hall, mayor and of course Boss Tweed himself; the man behind the curtain pulling all the levers of power.

Boss Tweed used his influence with state politicians to pass legislation that shifted power away from the state and towards New York City. He obtained passage of the New York City charter in 1870, that gave him and his cronies the final say over all city expenditures.

Many upgrades to the city’s infrastructure were required. New buildings, parks, sewers, docks, street improvements, and other construction projects provided ample opportunity for graft. Kickbacks were demanded from all contractors doing business with the city. Tweed and his pals used inside information on city construction projects to purchase land that they could later sell at great profit. Tweed started his own companies and then forced the city to do business with them.

Thomas Nast Cartoon of Tweed Collecting Votes
Thomas Nast Cartoon of Tweed Collecting Votes

Tweed shrewdly exploited the turf wars between Irish, Scottish and Dutch gangs and used the gangs at election time to intimidate voters. He used an elaborate system of bribes to control judges, the police and other officials, and he also bought lots of favorable coverage in the press.

Businessmen were eager to buy influence with him and he put a price on everything. He became a director of the Erie railroad by providing "political services" to moguls Jay Gould and James Fisk. He refused to allow construction on the Brooklyn Bridge to continue until he was given a seat on the board of the bridge company.

Tweed seemed unstoppable, till one lowly county bookkeeper, unhappy with his cut of the graft, provided some incriminating documents to the New York Times. The Times published a series of articles about huge cost overruns in the construction of the Tweed Courthouse. The courthouse was supposed to cost only a half-million but ultimately cost the city $13 million.

Thomas Nast cartoon of Tweed sitting atop piles of money

Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, created scathing cartoons depicting Tweed as thief, a convict or an enormous glutton. Tweed tried to bribe Nast and the publisher of the New York Times to leave him alone but they rejected his advances. Many disaffected members of the Democratic party and several reform groups demanded that he be held accountable.

Prosecutor Samuel J. Tilden was able to trace money directly from contractors to Tweed’s bank account. Tweed was finally arrested and brought to trial, but the trial resulted in a hung jury. Tilden believed that Tweed had bribed the jurors, so when he retried the case, he assigned one police officer to guard each member of the jury, another police officer to watch the first one, and a private detective to watch over all three. Tweed was found guilty of failing to audit claims against the city and convicted on charges of forgery and larceny.

He was sentenced to 12 years in jail, but that was later reduced to only one year, which he served and was released. The city then sued him for $6 million. Tweed was jailed again, but he was allowed to visit his family every day accompanied by a guard. During one of those visits he managed to escape.

Thomas Nast cartoon of Tweed the convict

Tweed fled to Cuba and then to Spain, where he was working as a common seaman on a ship when he was recognized from his picture in a Thomas Nast cartoon and arrested by local police. Tweed was sent back to his jail cell in New York.

He was very ill in his final months and wanted to die at home instead of in jail. Tweed offered to reveal everything he knew about Tammany Hall in exchange for a parole, but his offer was rejected and he died in jail in 1878.

Samuel J. Tilden’s reputation as a reformer launched his political career. He was elected governor of New York and nearly won the presidency in 1876. In fact, Tilden won the popular vote that year, but lost the presidency in the Electoral College to Rutherford B. Hayes. Tammany Hall continued to control much of New York City politics till the 1920s and it was still influential in local politics into the 1960s.
 

 

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