In the summer of 1871, William Magear Tweed was at the height of his power.1 He was not only a state senator, representing the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City, where he grew up, but also the city’s commissioner of public works. As commissioner, he was a member of what used to be called the Board of Apportionment, a predecessor to the old Board of Estimate, which oversaw city contracts and land-use decisions. (It was abolished by the US Supreme Court in 1989.) But in addition, he was Grand Sachem, the leader, of the Society of Tammany, or Grand Columbian Order,2 the Democratic Party organization that had begun as a patriotic social club in 1789 and, by the 1850s, had become the city’s dominant political power. As head of Tammany, Tweed was the king of New York, with control over nearly every politician, judge, police captain, city contractor, and ordinary petitioner who sought to perform any kind of public labor in the city. Finally, he was the owner or part-owner of several companies that had exclusive contracts to do business with the city. Chief among these was the New-York Printing Company, which had the franchise as the exclusive printer for New York County—every ballot, notice, advertisement, and contract. Tweed was an extremely rich man.
The “Tweed Ring,” which consisted of Tweed and three confederates—A. Oakey Hall, Peter Sweeny, and Richard Connolly, Tammany men all—came to power with the elections of 1868, which cemented their control of most of the highest offices in the city. Hall became mayor. Connolly was reelected comptroller. Sweeny retained his appointive position of city chamberlain (manager of the city’s bank accounts), and Tweed was reelected as county supervisor, which gave him power to manage elections and oversee treasury disbursements. But the state government in Albany still controlled much of the city’s police force and school board, the fire department, the docks, and even the city budget. Thanks partly to $200,000 worth of bribes, mainly to the state legislators in Albany, in 1870 Tweed secured the passage of a home-rule amendment to the city charter, turning control over to the mayor, and making the city virtually self-governing.
The city’s business and political leaders, ignorant of the bribes, hailed Tweed for rescuing the city from upstate interference. The complicated jurisdictional split between New York City and Albany which Tweed negotiated 135 years ago continues to this day, and upstate lawmakers, resentful of the city’s power, still try to curb it by giving the state legislature the power to nullify decisions made by the mayor and the City Council.
Tweed’s grand edifice began to fall apart only eight months after it was erected. July 22, 1871, marked the beginning of his downfall, when a disaffected office-seeker leaked to The New-York Times compromising ledger sheets that proved beyond doubt the ring’s corruption. Kenneth D. Ackerman, in his thorough and sometimes fascinating biography, puts the figure of total graft—including the money Tammany leaders and corrupt businesses skimmed off inflated city contracts—at around $45 million (about $900 million today), most of it taken in only two and half years.
Ackerman believes that Tweed and Tammany had a far larger importance in history, both for good and ill, than their scant two years in power would suggest. On the one hand, the Tweed ring contributed to building and modernizing the city, helping to finance the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park, paving many miles of roads, and dramatically increasing the value of New York real estate. On the other hand, the ring truly earned its reputation as an almost universal symbol of political corruption.
But for corruption to thrive, good people must remain silent. This was certainly the case with the Tweed Ring. Looked at with the benefit of the hindsight of almost a century and a half, the Tweed Ring holds our interest not only as an example of corruption run rampant but of the timidity of reformers, who were for years reluctant to intervene. The newspapers, for the most part, said little—they were taken in by Tweed’s genial way with reporters and were benefiting handsomely from the huge amounts of advertising the city bought in their pages.
Of all the reformers, Samuel Tilden was in the strongest position to challenge Tweed. A lawyer with long involvement in New York politics—he would later, in 1876, become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee—and an earned reputation as an upright if somewhat remote public figure, Tilden was a very wealthy man by the late 1860s (his proud mansion on Gramercy Park is now the National Arts Club). He commanded enough respect in the city to ensure that if he spoke up against the ring, people would listen. Whether they would rally to his side was another question.
But Tilden lacked Tweed’s easy way with the working classes, and his constituency was small—and so he was intimidated by the ring’s power. During the fight over the charter in Albany, he backed down; soon after, as chairman of the state Democratic Party convention, he acquiesced in every Tweed demand, even refusing to allow a group of Tweed’s opponents to lodge an official protest against Tweed’s tactics on the convention floor. This earned him the Times’s dismissal as an “ornamental subordinate” who acted only “with the approbation of William M. Tweed.” Tilden was not alone. Only after the ring was exposed in the press did Wall Street and other of the city’s leaders begin to realize their stake in reform.
New York in the mid-nineteenth century was dangerous, filthy, and violent. It was also undergoing vast change. The Catholic population was growing rapidly, with a recent and heavy influx of immigrants chiefly from Ireland and Germany. New York was still dominated by Protestants, however. Today, when the city’s newspapers define the various electoral voting blocs, “the Protestant vote” isn’t mentioned, but back then Protestants held a popular Orange Irish parade every summer commemorating the Battle of the Boyne, in honor of the defeat of the Catholic James II.
Tweed was born in 1823, four years before the abolition of slavery in New York, the fifth and youngest child of a chair-maker. He was not Irish Catholic, but Scottish and Protestant. His upbringing was modest, though not penurious. His father, Richard Tweed, tried to advance his son socially, sending him to boarding school in New Jersey, but the young Bill dropped out, and apprenticed himself to his father. Richard Tweed later switched from making chairs to manufacturing brushes, and young Bill joined the business as his father’s bookkeeper. But he was a driven man, far too ambitious and socially curious to be content as a shopkeeper’s accountant.
In his late teens, Tweed—already “a tall overgrown man, full of animal spirits,” according to one account—had become a member of the Americus “Big Six” fire company. Volunteer fire companies were new, clublike organizations which had considerable prestige. The Americus “Big Six,” named after Amerigo Vespucci and consisting of seventy-five young men, was considered dashing and was particularly esteemed.3 Their red shirts, it was said, sartorially inspired Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of the Risorgimento, who may have seen the brigade in 1850 during a parade down Broadway held in his honor. These volunteer fire brigades were a path to politics, and it is not surprising that Tweed was drawn to them. On Election Day 1844, he asked a local poll-watcher how many votes were expected to be cast in the city that day. The veteran said that, with 45,000 voters enrolled citywide, and assuming the customary 92 percent turnout, the total would be about 41,000. When Tweed looked at the next day’s papers and saw that 55,000 ballots had been cast, politics began to interest him even more.
He began his ascent in the 1850s. First elected as a city alderman and a member of the school commission, Tweed won a seat in Congress in 1852, but found national issues far less rewarding than local ones. After joining Tammany he rose quickly to the top tier of its leaders. Tweed met the other three members of the ring in the 1850s, but their alliance was not firmly cemented until after the Civil War.
During the 1850s and early 1860s there were rumors about Tweed’s involvement in voter fraud and padded city contracts, but these remained rumblings. It was the draft riots of 1863 in New York that proved decisive in Tweed’s rise to power. Congress had passed a conscription law which was signed by President Lincoln and contained a provision allowing anyone able to do so to buy his way out of the draft for $300. Horatio Seymour, the governor of New York, opposed the law, and refused to enforce it. The council of aldermen which was at the time the city’s main legislative body was dominated by Copperheads—“peace” Democrats, many of whom were supporters of the Confederacy. As army officials were announcing the beginning of the draft lottery, the news of Gettysburg was making its way to New York: a Union victory, but at the cost of more than 23,000 Union soldiers killed, wounded, or missing. Few of New York’s workingmen were willing to fight.
On Monday, July 13, the streets exploded in violence. The demonstrators were those, mostly poor and Irish, who couldn’t afford to buy themselves out. Led to the draft office by a group of volunteer firemen, they smashed the selection wheel—literally a large wheel with names appended to it—and then set fire to the building. Crowds began to rampage through the city, smashing windows, setting fires, looting, and killing. The mayor, a well-to-do Republican named George Opdyke, fled City Hall and took up quarters in a hotel. Governor Seymour, who was in New Jersey when the riots broke out, returned to the city to huddle in the hotel with the mayor, afraid to face the crowds that at one point were surrounding the mayor’s house on Fifth Avenue.
With the governor and the mayor paralyzed, Tweed took control. He knew that his credibility depended on it: “Tammany over the years,” Ackerman writes, “had linked its fate to these same immigrants who were now tearing up the city.” When Opdyke and Seymour at last decided they had to face their constituents, they did so with Tweed at their side. After the second day of rioting, they retreated from the streets, leaving Tweed, by himself, urging calm.
His words went largely unheeded: by the time the riots were crushed by army troops on the fourth day, one hundred people had died, many of them black. But Tweed had earned a reputation as a strong leader, as New York politicians still do, just by being visible during a crisis. After the riots, his popularity grew when he traveled to Washington and persuaded the War Department to permit Tammany to run the next draft lottery. After the lottery was held, he headed a committee that considered the appeals of 1,034 draftees, found substitutes for 983, and excused 49 of them. Only two who originally appealed chose to join the army and go to fight. Tweed’s intervention, writes Ackerman, made everyone happy: “Lincoln got his soldiers, the city had order, and the poor had relief from a law blatantly unfair to them.”
By 1866, Tweed’s power in the city was almost complete. His flamboyance, charm, and, at three hundred pounds, his impressive size made him the perfect representative of a bloated and dynamic age. He held lavish lunches at expensive restaurants for his cronies, built himself a vast mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, bought a yacht—and all with stolen money. As deputy street commissioner, he could easily skim a little off the top of every street construction contract in Manhattan (and during the late 1860s there were many). As a state senator he gained control of patronage on the canal system upstate. With $65,000 in bribes to city aldermen, he helped secure approval of a $1.5 million bond issue for the Brooklyn Bridge, which moved the project forward. He was, by this time, working closely with Peter Sweeny, his colleague at Tammany. In 1866, Sweeny became the city’s chamberlain, permitted by law at that time to pocket the interest accrued on the city’s bank accounts. Sweeny publicly renounced the interest because he was aware not only that a law was pending in the legislature to end the practice, but also that friendship with the Boss would be more remunerative in the longer run.
The election of 1868 brought leaders of the Tweed Ring into the two highest offices in the city. Richard Connolly was reelected comptroller, and A. Oakey Hall, called “Elegant Oakey” because he was tall and had flair (and wrote plays), became mayor. Tammany’s candidate, John Hoffman, became governor. Tweed was reelected county supervisor. Many members of the press and rival parties alleged that Tammany was buying votes and encouraging its immigrant supporters to vote illegally; a congressional committee charged with looking into the matter found that the number of votes cast in New York City exceeded the number of voting-age adults by some 8 percent. But unable to name specific wrongdoers, the committee decided not to prosecute. The results of the election stood. The following January, all the winners were sworn into office. Two months later, Tweed became Tammany’s Grand Sachem. Now the real stealing could begin.
It seems astonishing for a few men to steal so much money in so short a time, yet they did. While Connolly looked after the books and Oakey, who knew the law, advanced the legal strategy, Sweeny fixed the judges. Tweed orchestrated it all. Learning that a road or some other improvement would be built, they bought the property nearby and flipped it at staggering profits. They submitted millions of dollars in false bills for work never done, choosing contractors as their accomplices, who got rich, too. They padded virtually every bill that came across their desks—Tweed was once paid $105,662.86 in “legal expenses” for helping his tycoon friends Jay Gould and James Fisk gain control of the Erie Railroad, a deal on which Tweed later made still more money. On the side, Tweed continued to make sure that the city spent millions of dollars on newspaper advertising so that editors would have a financial interest in keeping any hints of scandal out of their papers.
But it was not enough. Tweed, still a state senator, became chairman of the state senate’s committee on municipal affairs, and in January 1870 he began to push through the home-rule amendment to the city charter that he had long wanted to have passed. City leaders, even those opposed to Tammany, longed for freedom from Albany’s interference, which would often block plans “to improve urban life, whether by widening Broadway…or fixing dilapidated streets or sewage pipes.” Tweed’s home-rule measure addressed these matters. But, as Ackerman writes:
The finer print, its subtle web of clauses and sub-clauses, did something more. Within New York, it created effectively a four-person oligopoly: the mayor, the comptroller, the commissioner of parks, and the commissioner of public works, a post combining the old streets department and the Croton Reservoir, intended for Tweed. These four officials would form a board of apportionment that would approve all city spending, fix budgets, and even control judgeships. The city’s elected aldermen, who traditionally controlled the purse, would formally be stripped of this power. The system seemed designed perfectly for Tweed and Connolly….
In addition, the new charter made the mayor’s power over appointments absolute; once these commissioners were in place, no future mayor could fire them.
While many distinguished New Yorkers, including Samuel Tilden and Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, spoke out publicly against the new charter, they were a minority, and hardly a vocal one. Tilden’s role as lawyer for the railroads compromised him. As he fought Tweed’s friends Jim Fisk and Jay Gould with one hand, he accepted a retainer from Gould with the other. Newspaper editors, too, were compromised by their eager acceptance of ad revenue from the city. Tilden and Greeley did go to Albany to testify against the charter, but their words were no match for Tweed’s intimidating presence, not to mention his money. In April, both legislative houses passed the charter by lopsided margins. The ring was now fully in charge of the city.
Tammany planned to promote Governor John Hoffman for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1872, and thus do for the country what they’d done for New York.4 But in 1871, it was left to “a quiet, serious man,” George Jones, the co-founder of The New-York Times, to bring Tweed down. Jones had made a comfortable living in banking until he helped found the Times in 1851, and became its publisher, with Henry J. Raymond as its editor. When Raymond died in 1869, Jones needed a new editor. The Tweed story might have turned out differently if Jones had not hired a thirty-three-year-old British writer named Louis Jennings. For Jennings, attacking Tammany Hall was a natural strategy to help boost the paper’s circulation, as well as improve the paper’s standing with Republicans and the growing number of disaffected Democrats. That the Times lacked concrete evidence of wrongdoing mattered little. It ran the first of many editorials in September 1870, asserting that “we should like to have a treatise from Mr. Tweed on the art of growing rich in as many years as can be counted by the fingers of one hand.”
Tweed had been attacked before. Thomas Nast, whom President Lincoln had called the Union’s “best recruiting sergeant” because of his pro-Union cartoons in Harper’s Weekly, began to concentrate on Tammany, and, just before the 1870 election, “he moved Tweed into the foreground” of his caricatures—Nast’s depiction of the Tammany tiger glowering malevolently over the remains of “Liberty” in the Roman Colosseum has adorned the pages of many a civics book ever since. Even so, just before Election Day 1870, Tweed received an important validation. A committee of city elders, led by John Jacob Astor, had been empaneled to review the city’s finances soon after the Times’s attacks on what they called “the rowdies and vagabonds of New-York, the sneak thieves and the shoulder-hitters.” The Astor committee certified that the books had been “faithfully kept”—a conclusion reached after the committee spent only six hours looking at the books and examined only the material that Connolly gave it. The election of 1870 returned Oakey Hall to the mayoralty.
The sheriff of New York County was a Tammany hack, Jimmy O’Brien, who knew that the books had not been legally kept. He was also convinced that the ring owed him $350,000 for “supplies to the county jail, carrying prisoners to State Prison and other duties devolving on the sheriff.” Before he broke with the ring, he’d secured a job in the comptroller’s office for an accountant named William Copeland, “a neighborhood friend” of his. And now, in the middle of 1870, Copeland came to see him. Some things he was seeing in the comptroller’s office struck him as peculiar. O’Brien advised him to secretly copy by hand every ledger book he could lay his hands on.
By late 1870, Copeland had finished copying. He took the copies to O’Brien, who saw that the threat to expose their books would get Tammany to pay him the $350,000 they owed him. O’Brien made it clear that he had damaging information, and the ring’s leaders agreed to send the county auditor, James Watson, to make a deal with him. But Watson died in a carriage accident in January 1871 (it is unclear whether it was really an accident), and with his death, O’Brien’s negotiations with Tammany were over. His next step was to carry Copeland’s copies of the ledger books to the newspapers. He was turned down by the Sun, but he received an eager reception from George Jones. Here was the proof he’d been looking for.
On its front page the Times of July 22, 1871, ran the headline in huge type: “The Secret Accounts.” A brief narrative introduced a list, 136 items long, detailing virtually every transaction that Copeland had copied. They reached the final sum of $5,663,646.83, although the total barely scratched the surface of the Tweed Ring’s plunder. But it was proof enough.5
Even so, Tweed’s collapse did not begin just yet. Greeley and other progressive journalists, notably E.L. Godkin of The Nation, counseled caution; both were critical of what Greeley termed the Times’s “intemperate style of attack” (is it possible that both envied their old friend Jones’s scoop?). Tilden, for now, maintained his silence, while many who had been on the take protested their innocence. A plasterer, Andrew Garvey, explained his padded bank account:
Look at that wall, gentlemen. Garvey the plasterer. My God! Do they call that plastering? See that inimitable wall, those bas reliefs, those figures, those frescoes, those gorgeous paintings—Justice with the sword and blind as a bat—and this fine imitation of bronze, showing the law books laid out…. I earned my money for this work, and I’ll keep it.
By September, though, the anti-Tweed forces had grown. A meeting in the Great Hall at Cooper Union echoed with high-spirited speeches and resolutions. Tilden was not there, but he secretly met with the comptroller Richard Connolly soon afterward, and persuaded him that cooperation was his only option. Connolly agreed to accept Tilden’s friend, Andrew Green, as his deputy, who from the inside was able to collect the evidence against the ring. The reformers were now able to bring charges.
Tweed’s defense lawyers were among the best in the country (including the young Elihu Root, later secretary of state under Theodore Roosevelt). The first trial resulted in a hung jury—not surprisingly, given Tweed’s influence over the court system. But at a second trial, in November 1873, Tweed was convicted on 204 counts, and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. At his conviction, he was still representing the Lower East Side as a state senator, and had even visited his old neighborhood during the trial to proclaim his innocence:
At home again, among the friends of my childhood and among their sons, I feel I can safely place myself and my record, all I have performed as a public official, safely before your gaze. Reviled, traduced, maligned, and aspersed, as man had seldom been, I point proudly to my friends to prove my character and ask only for a full, free, impartial investigation into the official acts of my life.
Tweed was well treated in jail, given a ground-floor suite with a window and special meals from one of his favorite restaurants. Still, a man wants his freedom. Eventually, $60,000 worth of bribes helped secure his escape. He spent three months in Weehawken, across the Hudson, where no one bothered to look for him. He then fled to Spain but was caught and brought back to New York. Desperate to be released, he agreed to testify in public and confess to every crime he had committed. Filling 375 pages of transcript, his testimony held nothing back, and indeed led to the suspicion that Tweed was exaggerating his crimes in order to gain public sympathy for his honesty. But on April 2, 1878, he read in the papers that the state attorney general was breaking his pledge to release him after his confession. Ten days later he died in prison of bronchial pneumonia.
Ackerman relates the details of Tweed’s undoing adroitly. He is a lawyer, a former congressional staff counsel, and a historian. He has written two previous books on nineteenth-century America—Dark Horse, about the election and assassination of James Garfield, and The Gold Ring, about the Wall Street scandals of the Tweed era. He does not justify the assertion in his book’s subtitle that Tweed “conceived the soul of modern New York,” and wisely does not try. While during Tweed’s rule the city began to build institutions to accommodate its vastly growing population—roads, sewers, the beautiful Tweed Courthouse (now home to the city’s Department of Education), and schools, and undertook two of its greatest projects, Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, the making of modern New York seems more persuasively the creation of Fiorello LaGuardia, who worked closely with President Roosevelt to turn New York into a metropolis of public works without equal—and who did so without lining his pockets.
Ackerman’s book is not an attempt to rehabilitate Tweed, but neither is it a denunciation. His tone is detached, although occasionally he shows perhaps more sympathy for his subject than he deserves. He laments that the other ring members got off more easily—none of the three served prison time, and Hall, for example, became an actor for a while and then a lawyer, eventually defending Emma Goldman in an 1893 court case. “Only Tweed, it seemed, still deserved the scorn of mankind,” Ackerman writes. Tweed’s name is shorthand for corruption, but the Boss, like many of history’s larger-than-life rascals, has also come to represent a certain bygone flamboyance and charm. In retrospect rogues may seem quaint and appealing, but hardly when they are in charge of government. While the Times was a paper of relatively small circulation, its editor was ready—as others were not—to risk its reputation and financial health to expose corruption. The forgotten man who deserves to be remembered is George Jones.
December 1, 2005
Magear is correct, although I remembered from my high school textbooks that the man’s name was William Marcy Tweed. Ackerman, in a footnote, observes that Marcy was a reference to 1830s New York governor William Marcy, following “a then-common custom in the press of assigning political celebrities with middle names of famous people.” ↩
The physical “Tammany Hall” built by Tweed in 1868 still stands on the east side of Union Square, the inscription still gracing the red brick building that now houses the New York Film Academy. It cost $300,000 to build, a staggering amount then. The 1868 Democratic National Convention was held there. ↩
See Denis Tilden Lynch, Boss Tweed (Boni and Liveright, 1927). ↩
No one can say what would have happened, of course. But it seems unlikely that Hoffman would have been denied the Democratic nomination if the scandal had not been exposed, and it is possible that he would have won the presidency. In the election, Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden in the Electoral College, but Tilden won the popular vote. Democrats were badly divided in 1872, and the party might well have united behind Hoffman. ↩
The Times apparently protected its source, but O’Brien soon came to boast about his part in the ring’s undoing. ↩