Boss Tweed: The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York

Boss Tweed: The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York

by Kenneth D. Ackerman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619450028
Publisher: Viral History Press LLC
Publication date: 10/07/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 446
Sales rank: 643,735
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.20(d)

About 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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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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BOSS TWEED: The Corrupt Pol who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
J_P_Bary More than 1 year ago
This is a very well researched historical account of one of the more fascinating figures in New York politics. Some of the details are tedious hard to pin down, such as the legal hair-splitting involved in Tweed's trials or the exact ledgers and receipts of the expenditures that brought his notorious ring down. Ackerman appears to understand these things better than he is able to describe them. But nothing about Tweed's life is mundane and the author chronicles his outsized life in glorious detail. As a politician who could deliver votes on a scale sufficient to influence the outcome of national elections, there are so many plots and sub-plots in his life that it is difficult to put them all in perspective. Ackerman makes the wise choice to focus mainly on the man and his political organization in New York. Through the aspirations and machinations of figures like Samuel Tilden, Ackerman gives us enough of the give and take to see how Tweed both took advantage of and was victimized by, the political system.  Without excusing his faults, Ackerman paints a surprisingly sensitive human picture of Tweed, as a both natural leader and a shrewd manipulator whose main fault was to have the not uncommon feeling that he deserved a share in the wealth he could create for others. Tweed's role as a power-broker is shown as an outgrowth of his reputation among the poor as a man of the people and the admiration of the rich for his ability to "get things done". Tweed carefully burnished these images through the liberal expenditure of borrowed public funds and cared deeply about his personal appearance, even as he aspired to live the life of the indolent rich and took on the corpulent frame that became inextricably intertwined with Thomas Nast's iconic images of him as a corrupt politician. The author's most revealing descriptions are of Tweed's relations with his jailers and former colleagues. He chronicles the reasons for Tweed's sense of being double-crossed, the degree to which he took the brunt of the punishment meted out to his gang and the calculating way he himself was manipulated by those in power once he was out of it. More could have been done to place his complex relations with his family in perspective and to provide an explanation for the loyalties he gave to, and engendered among some of his acquaintances, while others seemed to have had no qualms about rolling him under. There is enough here, though, to both satisfy the idly curious and whet the appetite of the persistently thoughtful. In the end, we are left with an old man in prison, painfully and pragmatically accepting his fate, but never really understanding it. This is a worthwhile portrait of the archetypal political animal that was Boss Tweed and can provide insights into the workings of New York politics even today, as recent headlines have made clear.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Give_Me_Liberty More than 1 year ago
BOSS TWEED… Even if you know nothing about history the name in and of itself should conjure up images of corruption. He and his cronies; did not invent corruption; did not invent graft; did not invent bribery; did not invent kick-backs. They just elevated it to heights never seen before and elevated it to an entirely new art form. Boss Tweed is the personification of the old adage: POWER CORRUPTS AND ABSOLUTE POWER CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY. A worthwhile read… Makes you wonder what goes on today…
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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