originally published May 3, 2013
It would present a genuine challenge to any amateur historian to unearth a more succinct tale of greed and corruption than that of William “Boss” Tweed and his cronies at Tammany Hall. Not often does someone opt to steal so much from so many, and to do it so damn effectively. New York politics was forever altered by these silk-clad walking globules of unscrupulous slime.
This was an age before the internet and the 24-hour news cycle scraped at every corner of a government’s reign, hoping to peel away the façade and uncover some nefarious goings-on. People either trusted their government or else they favored the guys who promised to keep their pockets the greasiest.
It was a strange time.
Tweed’s political career began as a volunteer fireman. That seems about as humble a political start as one can have, but back in the late 1840’s, volunteer fire companies used to fight – and we’re talking about physical battles here – over who got to battle a blaze. Sometimes buildings would burn to the ground while crews on the ground punched one another. Tweed became known for his “ax-wielding violence”, always the mark of a good future politician.
After a quick stint as a city alderman and another in Congress, Tweed was appointed to the NYC Board of Supervisors, where he quickly forced local vendors to pay a 15% overcharge. It was a classic protection-racket scheme, but operated by government officials. Tweed soon became inextricably linked with the New York institution known as Tammany Hall.
Tammany Hall was a political machine, an organization that had been working to control New York city and state politics since 1789. They would integrate themselves with New York’s steady supply of fresh immigrants, helping them out and securing their votes to keep Tammany-friendly politicos in office. They were a good bunch to run with if you were the crooked type, and in 1863 Tweed ran the Tammany show.
Before long, every appointable position of power in the city went to one of Tweed’s buddies in the ‘Tammany Ring’. A local judge, George G. Bernard, appointed Tweed as a lawyer despite a complete lack of education. Why? Because he wanted to do a solid for the “Boss”.
There was literally no one in the state who carried more clout than William “Boss” Tweed.
He took to wearing a large diamond in his shirt, and buying up all the available land he could grab. When white-collar con-men Jay Gould and Big Jim Fisk printed off a bunch of phony stock certificates to the Erie Railroad, Tweed used his position in the US Senate to pass a law that legitimized those certificates. In exchange for this, Tweed was given a huge heap of stock and made director of the company.
By 1870, every alderman position in New York was held by someone in the Tammany inner circle. The Parks Department, the Comptroller’s office, the courts, the Public Works department… all of it was run by men in Tweed’s pocket, and all of it generated a stream of unspoken income that slithered right between his fingers. Tweed and his cronies bought up all the unused land they could find on the Upper East Side, including large parts of Yorkville and Harlem. Then they’d use city money to run water pipes out to the land so they could resell it all at a massive profit.
Then there was the whole courthouse fiasco.
The newly-commissioned courthouse wound up costing the city almost $13 million, the equivalent of about $178 million in today’s money. Everyone involved was ready to squeeze as much profit as they could from the project – a plasterer earned over $133,000 (that’s $1.82 million today) for two days’ work. A carpenter earned $360,000 ($4.9 million today) for a month. A month of almost nothing to do, since there was hardly any woodwork to be found in the concrete building.
Tweed also got his hands sticky in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. He and two of his Tammany buddies received over half the stock in the Bridge Company, and held exclusive voting rights even though the cities of Brooklyn and New York had put up nearly all the money.
Then it all fell apart.
After the Catholic-Protestant violence at the Orange Riot in July, 1871, had led to over 60 deaths and 150 injuries, Tweed’s reputation among the New York elite and the immigrant community took a hit. Also, the New York Times and Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast were trying to launch a media campaign against the Tammany circle of corruption. When County Sheriff James O’Brien tried and failed to blackmail Tammany Hall with evidence of their embezzlement, O’Brien simply forwarded the incriminating info to the Times.
The skeevy lice at Tammany should have just paid the blackmail.
A ‘Committee Of Seventy’ was formed to discuss political reform, and before long Tammany’s stronghold over the city’s finances was compromised. Democratic higher-up Samuel J. Tilden, along with new (non-Tammany) comptroller Andrew Haskell Green, finally found what they needed – solid evidence of money scooting right from the hands of city contractors into Tweed’s hungry wallet.
Boss Tweed was arrested the next day.
Luckily, being arrested in 1871 does not necessarily mean the end of one’s political career. His remaining popularity still nabbed him a seat in the State Senate in November. Tweed was soon arrested again, and in 1873 he was sentenced to twelve years in jail. A higher court nudged that back to only one year, so it seems Tammany’s influence still had a little kick left in its greasy shoes.
After he’d served his time, the City of New York then went after Tweed in a civil suit, looking to recover $6 million in embezzled funds. Tweed was unable to put up his bail at that point, and found himself locked up once more. He actually pulled off an escape, fleeing for Spain. His face was well-known though – mostly due to Thomas Nast’s political cartoons – and he was back in New York in 1876.
At this point, Tweed broke down. He offered to testify against everyone in his inner Tammany circle in exchange for release. In the end, Tweed was nothing more than a spineless rat. In a swift juke of sublime justice, Samuel Tilden – now governor of New York – took the testimony then recanted on the promise of freedom. Tweed died in Ludlow Jail in 1878, 55 years old and with scarcely a shred of self-respect.
All told, Tweed lined his pockets with an estimated $25-200 million, the equivalent of $1-8 billion in today’s money. This guy was Bernie Madoff but with political legitimacy. Fortunately, after his reign Tammany Hall lost a lot of power, and was formally disbanded in the early 1960’s. Nowadays politicians must be significantly less corrupt.
Or significantly better at hiding it.