Boss Tweed

Boss Tweed

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by Kenneth D. Ackerman

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William Magear Tweed, America's most corrupt politician ever, ruled New York City in the 1860s and 1870s. He rigged the votes, bribed the legislature, and stole on a massive scale. But even in prison, people still loved and admired him. Tweed's is a stunning tale of pride, fall, and redemption.

Editorial Reviews
"[An] excellent new biography of the Boss . . .


William Magear Tweed, America's most corrupt politician ever, ruled New York City in the 1860s and 1870s. He rigged the votes, bribed the legislature, and stole on a massive scale. But even in prison, people still loved and admired him. Tweed's is a stunning tale of pride, fall, and redemption.

Editorial Reviews
"[An] excellent new biography of the Boss . . . told in a crisp, clear way."
-Pete Hamill, New York Times Book Review

"A pleasure to read."
-Kenneth T. Jackson, Washington Post Book World

"[An] absorbing account of Tweed's rise and fall."
-Michael Kenney, Boston Globe

"Not only a compelling look at the colorful yet ruthless man who invented the big city political machine, it is also the gripping story of how dedicated newspapermen and zealous reformers brought down a notorious kingpin."
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Skillfully tells the story of the Tammany Hall chief . . . Ackerman makes it hard not to root for the old Boss in his final days when he faces his enemies."
-Jennifer Itzenson, Denver Post

A thoroughgoing, rayon-smooth biography of Boss Tweed . . . A fine piece of narrative historiography for a wide public, from scholars to the lay enthusiast of New York City's political past."
-Kirkus Reviews

"Kenneth D. Ackerman's superbly written biography of Boss Tweed is spellbinding . . . every bit as commanding as the man himself."
-Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City

"Engrossing and eye-opening . . ."
-New York Post

Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
Tweed and his well-oiled political machine provided the model for big-city bosses for generations to come, and, crooked though he was, he remains in many ways a tremendously appealing figure. Mr. Ackerman has it right when he writes, "Except for his stealing, Tweed would have been a great man; but then had he been honest, he wouldn't have been Tweed and would not have left nearly so great a mark."
— The New York Times
Pete Hamill
In his excellent new biography of the Boss, Kenneth D. Ackerman tells again the story of the man who died in 1878 and remains the epitome of big-city corruption. Tweed is a wonderfully vivid subject, a man of gigantic, Rabelaisian hungers. He seems always to have wanted more. More food. More money. More power. Unfortunately, for a long time he got what he wanted.
— The New York Times Sunday Book Review
Kenneth T. Jackson
Kenneth D. Ackerman's Boss Tweed is the first biography of the Tammany leader to appear in the past quarter-century. Focusing on the years after 1871, when Tweed was either in court or jail, the book is based upon solid research in the available primary and secondary sources, and is replete with rich biographical details and colorful anecdotes that bring the period to life.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
William Marcy Tweed didn t invent graft, but he rigged elections and stole from the public on an unprecedented scale, gaining a stranglehold on New York City and amassing a vast personal fortune. By the early 1870s, he and his ring had skimmed between $25 and $40 million from the municipal treasury, a staggering amount even in an era notorious for robber barons and market manipulators. Ackerman, the author of The Gold Ring: Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Black Friday 1869, a book about two other Gilded Age scoundrels, deftly chronicles Tweed s epic rise and ultimate disgrace, giving us a nuanced portrait of the Boss. Early in his career, Tweed brilliantly recognized that he could win power by mobilizing New York s teeming working-class and immigrant wards. Through patronage and largesse, Tweed recruited an army of ballot-box stuffers who helped install his cronies in office, allowing him to award jobs and contracts to friends while punishing enemies. Tweed s ring borrowed vast amounts on the city s tab and spent lavishly on such public projects as Central Park, making Tweed the city s grand benefactor, Santa Claus with a diamond pin. But while Ackerman gives Tweed his due, describing how the Boss s machine aided the poor and helped modernize a crowded, chaotic city, the author is too clear-eyed to present his subject as a latter-day Robin Hood. Ackerman s Boss Tweed robbed everyone and kept plenty for himself. And ultimately, Tweed s corruption and fiscal recklessness had crippling consequences for the city long after he died, penniless, in jail. In the end, this book is not only a compelling look at the colorful yet ruthless man who invented the big city political machine, it is also the gripping story of how dedicated newspapermen and zealous reformers brought down a notorious kingpin. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A thoroughgoing, rayon-smooth biography of Boss Tweed-lord of Tammany and at one point the single most influential man in New York City. Was he all bad? Well, pretty close to it, it seems, but Ackerman (Dark Horse, 2003) is able to detail some positive achievements while delineating Tweed's voluminous venality. He rose out of tinkering with immigrant voting-amid public concerns about citizenship and conscription in the Civil War-along with a welter of other political chicanery in the fog within a fog of political life that typified New York City in the mid-late 19th century. As Ackerman recaps, Tweed artfully turned the Know-Nothings, the Prohibitionists and the Albany Regency-which ran the pre-Civil War party in New York City-to his own ends: bribing the state legislature, fixing elections, skimming money from city contractors (to the tune of a staggering $60 million, akin to the entire U.S. federal budget at the time) and diverting colossal amounts of public funds. He was not only the craftiest of ballot-box fixers, but he was also responsible for the huge debt and ruined credit that would haunt the city for years to come (if not forever). While vital civic creations marked Tweed's tenure-from the Brooklyn Bridge to the important infrastructure up Broadway and around Central Park-Tweed was also the beneficiary of a stout city economy during his tenure: manufacturing concerns were up, as were factory jobs, and Wall Street was experiencing glory days. But then, too, his personal dealings were overlooked by the arrogant elitists of the money establishments, and it would take two publications-the New York Times and Harper's (with its populist cartoonist, Thomas Nash)-to produce the evidenceneeded to bring Tweed before the court and allow his nemeses, heretofore milquetoasts, attorney general Charles Fairchild and New York governor Samuel Jones Tilden, to bring him down. A fine piece of narrative historiography for a wide public, from scholars to the lay enthusiast of New York City's political past.

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Read an Excerpt


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

Carroll & Graf Publishers

Copyright © 2005 Kenneth D. Ackerman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7867-1435-2

Chapter One


April 12, 1878

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 who'd 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, he'd 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 who'd 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," he'd 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 he'd 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 he'd 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; he'd 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 he'd made any deals with Tweed-despite contrary statements he'd 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. She'd 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," he'd 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. They'd 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 he'd 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.


Excerpted from BOSS TWEED by KENNETH D. ACKERMAN Copyright © 2005 by Kenneth D. Ackerman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Other books by Kenneth D. Ackerman include (a) YOUNG J. EDGAR: Hoover and the red Scare, 1919-1920; (b) DARK HORSE: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield, and (c) THE GOLD RING: Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Black Friday 1869.

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Boss Tweed 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
If the author put in a bit more personal details of each of the players in this book, it would become a much more exciting read. Factually, it reads like a text book with pages of facts. If you are looking for a bit more personal insight of Tweed, it's not to be found here. Overall and good but boring read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Explains why a lot of the things in NYC are still the way they are. Also goes to show that places and surroundings don't actually change...but the people do. This book is a must read for those in NYC higher political offices at the moment. Or people on their way to play in the political arena. Over all it was a good read, very entertaining and informative.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Like any good and real story about corruption, this book will engage readers and leave them understanding the human side of a famous tale that is too often told in simplistic fashion devoid of its human drama.