“Had he gone more slowly and carried on his operations on a smaller scale, and been simpler in his habits and less ostentatious in his pleasures, he could have retained his power until now, and might have strengthened it and made his overthrow far more difficult. A villain of more brains would have had a modest dwelling and would have guzzled in secret. He found, however, the seizure of the government and the malversation of its funds so easy at the outset that he was thrown off his guard.”
– The Nation Magazine on Tweed’s death in 1878.
On today’s date, November 23 in 1876, William Marcy Tweed, the one-time “Boss” of the corrupt Democratic Party political machine of Tammany Hall was handed over to New York City Police. Tweed had been recognized from one of the political cartoons of Thomas Nast while he was on the lamb in Spain.
The Rise of William M. Tweed
Born on April 3, 1823 in New York City to a third generation Scottish-Irish chair maker, Tweed rose rapidly through the ranks of local politics from an ax-wielding volunteer fireman to a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1852. In 1858 the New York City democratic party, in an attempt to block Republican reformers at the state capitol of Albany, appointed Tweed to the NYC Board of
Supervisors. In this post, Tweed got his first taste of graft. Tweed and his fellows forced vendors to pay a 15% overcharge to them in order to do business with the city. Tammany Hall was the corrupt political organization (founded by Aaron Burr) which ruled NYC’s democratic politics for many years. By the mid 1860s, Tweed (above) had risen to command the organization and through the “Tweed Ring,” which openly bilked millions from city contracts, bought votes, and which cultivated judicial corruption, he and his henchmen dominated the political life of New York City. For example, Tweed’s Ring got a new charter passed which put NYC’s finances under the control of the Board of Audit, which consisted of Tweed and his men. This meant that the Ring was able to vastly over charge vendors for doing business with NYC, and then they could pocket the extra cash.
Tweed -vs- Thomas Nast
Of course along the way to all of this ill-gotten gain Tweed, who actually held the office of a State Senator from New York, acquired a good many enemies. The New York Times attacked him vigorously. And most damaging of all were the illustrations of Thomas Nast,
a political cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, a very popular news magazine of the day. Nast regularly portrayed Tweed and his henchmen as stealing money from the people of the city, and loving every moment of it. A famous depiction of Tweed from the pen of Nast is at the top of this posting. Another (above) depicts the Tweed ring saying “Who stole the people’s money? T’was him!” Tweed is said to have complained “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”
But all of this activity came to a head with The New York Times reports on the cost overruns in the re-modeling of the City Courthouse in 1871. With the cost of the re-done NYC Courthouse reaching well over $3,000,000 and counting, greater scrutiny came onto the project than any other Tammany-backed project had ever seen before. In a series of articles, the Times made the greed of the Tweed Ring apparent, picking
apart piece by piece the obviously frivolous expenses attached to the project. Huge sums were attached to furniture, carpeting and shades. New Yorkers became outraged, and fully supported the investigation of the whole matter by Samuel Tilden (above), a non-Tammany democrat who was looking to end the corruption of the Tammany organization. Ultimately Tweed’s man, the city Comptroller was obliged to resign, and was replaced by Tilden’s man, Andrew Green. Tilden and Green examined the city’s records and discovered that money from the contractors was going directly into Tweed’s pockets. He was arrested the next day.
“Boss” Tweed Goes to Jail
He got out on bail, and attempted to regain his position via elections. But the public had had enough of Tweed and his cronies. The election went very poorly, and Tweed was re-arrested. The jury at his first trial in January of 1873 was unable to agree on a verdict. But the second trial in November of that year returned a verdict of guilty on most of the counts. Tweed was locked up in the Ludlow St. Jail. But he was
allowed visits to his home, and during one of these, he escaped and fled to Spain wherein he worked as a common seaman. But his infamy followed him, as did his image as depicted by Thomas Nast (above). It was from one of Nast’s drawings that he was recognized, and taken prisoner, and handed over to the U.S. Navy who returned him to the NYPD on today’s date in 1876. Tweed was returned to prison. And it was there that he died from severe pneumonia on April 12, 1878. Tweed is to this day remembered as one of the mos corrupt figures of all of the big city political bosses. And it was the cartoons of Thomas Nast that lead to his downfall, and eventually to his recapture. Then we shall let Nast have the final word on the man with his January, 1876 cartoon depicting Tweed’s escape from prison: “Stone walls do not a prison make..”