Doomed by Cartoon: How Cartoonist Thomas Nast and the New York Times Brought Down Boss Tweed and His Ring of Thieves

Doomed by Cartoon: How Cartoonist Thomas Nast and the New York Times Brought Down Boss Tweed and His Ring of Thieves

by John Adler, Draper Hill


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The legendary Boss Tweed effectively controlled New York City from after the Civil War until his downfall in November 1871. A huge man, he and his Ring of Thieves appeared to be invincible as they stole an estimated $2 billion in today's dollars. In addition to the New York city and state governments, the Tweed Ring controlled the press except for Harper's Weekly. Short and slight Thomas Nast was the most dominant American political cartoonist of all time; using his pen as his sling in Harper's Weekly, he attacked Tweed almost single-handily before The New-York Times joined the battle in 1870. Where "Doomed by Cartoon" differs from previous books about Boss Tweed is its focus on looking at circumstances and events as Thomas Nast visualized them in his 160-plus cartoons, almost like a serialized but intermittent comic book covering 1866 through 1978. It has been organized to tell the Nast vs. Tweed story so that readers with an interest in politics history and/or cartoons will enjoy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781600374432
Publisher: Morgan James Publishing
Publication date: 08/01/2008
Pages: 332
Sales rank: 781,839
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

John Adler is a retired management consultant and entrepreneur, who has spent 12 years studying the 2,200-plus cartoons that Thomas Nast drew over 25 years (1862-1886) for Harper's Weekly, America's leading 19th century illustrated newspaper. This book, his first, contains more than 160 of them. Mr. Adler is the publisher of two digital databases - Harper's Weekly: 1857-1912 and Lincoln and the Civil - for which he was awarded the 2003 E-Lincoln Prize for History. As a public service, he also initiated and edited 30 historical and literary websites currently available at Several of them feature Nast, including Cartoonist Thomas Nast vs. Candidate Horace Greeley: The Election of 1872; Nast on Broadway: The Grand Caricaturama of 1867-1868; Nast and Shakespeare; and Nast and Literature.

Draper Hill, a political cartoonist by profession and a political cartoon historian by avocation, has been engrossed for 50 years by the artistry and imagination of Thomas Nast. John Adler tapped Mr. Hill's vast store of knowledge by commissioning him to prepare three Nast-oriented projects, providing about 60% of the narrative and interpretative content included in this book.

Read an Excerpt



After the Civil War, William Magear Tweed became the unquestioned political boss of New York City through a combination of bribery, threats, patronage, graft and illegal voting. His hand-picked governor, John T. Hoffman, ran New York State, and Tweed effectively controlled the state legislature. His next potential target was to "rule the general government" by having Hoffman win the presidency in 1872.

Along with Boss Tweed, New York's mayor, chief financial officer, head auditor, top police officials and most of its judges were active participants in his frauds. In addition, Tweed controlled or bought off almost all of the New York newspapers, so there appeared to be no effective way to combat him and his Tammany Hall Ring of thieves. They stole from $30 million to $200 million — possibly as much as $4 billion in today's dollars.

Into the breach stepped Thomas Nast and his editor, George William Curtis, of Harper's Weekly. Nast, whose combination of creativity and execution as an American cartoonist has never been equaled, challenged the Ring as early as 1867. Finally, with significant help from the New-York Times after August 1870, Tweed and his Ring were soundly beaten in the November 1871 election. Six and a half years later, after escaping once from prison, Tweed died in jail.

Both Tweed's and Nast's lives peaked in this 1870-71 period and its immediate aftermath. Nast put "What are you going to do about it?" into Tweed's caricatured mouth, and then with the help of the New-York Times, did something about it. As Tweed allegedly himself said: "Let's stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers write about me — my constituents can't read; but damn it, they can see pictures."

The New-York Times made the same point with the proof of the pudding in hand. (March 20, 1872).

"His (Nast's) drawings are stuck upon the walls of the poorest dwellings and stored away in the portfolios of the wealthiest connoisseurs ... Many people cannot read leading articles, others do not choose to read them, others do not understand them when they have read them. But you cannot help seeing Mr. Nast's pictures, and when you have seen them you cannot fail to understand them ... An artist of this stamp ... does more to affect public opinion than a score of writers."

Boss Tweed was a huge man — just under six feet tall and almost 300 pounds. Thomas Nast was a head shorter and probably weighed about half as much in 1871. Figuratively, indeed, David slew Goliath.

Primarily through Nast's cartoons, this book tells the story of how that happened. At their peak, they were seen by more than a million people, week after week after week. They enraged the voters sufficiently to "do something about it" against great odds. Enjoy the story, just as the audience of Harper's Weekly did 130-140 years ago.


Cast of Caricatures



The high-living Boss, who led the Tammany Hall Ring in stealing millions of dollars from the public.

THE BAD GUYS - The "Brains"


The "Brains" behind the organized theft, who originally was considered to be the ringleader.

THE BAD GUYS - The Mayor


Tweed's elegant, hand-picked mayor, and front man, who authorized the Ring's fraudulent payments.

THE BAD GUYS - The Money Man


"Slippery Dick," the comptroller and chief financial officer of the Tweed Ring, who devised and manipulated its crooked multiple-entry accounting schemes.

THE BAD GUYS - The Tammany Judges


A corrupt, hard-drinking, poker-playing chum of Boss Tweed, whose biased judicial decisions enabled otherwise illegal Tweed and Erie Ring activities.


A former Tammany Hall opponent who ran unsuccessfully against Mayor Hall in 1870, only to jump aboard the sinking Tweed Ring ship in 1871.

THE BAD GUYS - The Police Shield


President of the Police Commission, who used his influence to protect Tweed Ring, operations, and also served as president of one of the Ring's crooked banks.


The police superintendent who helped foil a coup against Tweed, met regularly with the Boss, and allowed police corruption to flourish.


The sheriff, who treated Tweed and other defendants with extraordinary leniency, and ultimately spent time in jail for doing so.

THE BAD GUYS - The Bagmen


The "Prince of Plasterers," who took huge kickbacks for inflated construction, repairs and rent, and also served as front man for other illegal payments.


Tweed's shadowy, personal financial assistant, and former clerk of the Board of Supervisors, who became wealthy by processing, depositing and sharing in many of the fraudulent payments, but operated so far behind the scene that his picture was never published in Harper's Weekly nor caricatured by Nast.


A furniture manufacturer, known derisively as "Chairs," who provided furnishings for Ring boondoggles at fraudulently inflated prices, and also was a front man for other illegal payments.

THE BAD GUYS - The Erie Ring


Jay Gould's partner and Boss Tweed's high-living business associate and close personal friend, who was gunned down by his former mistress's new lover two months after the Tweed Ring fell.


The extremely wealthy financier, who bought the political support of Boss Tweed for his Erie Railroad manipulations.

In the fall of 1869, Fisk and Gould tried to manipulate and "corner" the gold market with the help of President Ulysses S. Grant's brother-in-law but were unsuccessful. As Nast's cartoon shows, Wall Street was shaken.

THE BAD GUYS - The Respectable Screen


The gentlemanly mayor of New York City, and later governor of New York State, who provided the Ring with valuable cover.

THE BAD GUYS - The Turncoat Tammany Republicans


"Torpedo Tom," the thoroughly corrupt city official, who played a more prominent role in Nast's cartoons than he may have warranted in real life.


The former anti-Tammany educator and reformer, who became a secret double agent for a price.

THE BAD GUYS - The Defense Counsel


The renowned and talented lawyer, who had considerable success in defending Boss Tweed and Erie Ring culprits Jim Fisk and Jay Gould.


Harper's Weekly

Thomas Nast, Cartoonist

The New-York Times

George Jones, Publisher

This Nast cartoon, dated November 6, 1869, was published two years prior to the Tweed Ring's downfall. George Jones is at the far left, running behind Horace Greeley, publisher of the Tribune, who, in turn, trails the diminutive Nast. (The point of the cartoon is to enlist the German vote, symbolized by Civil War General and German immigrant, Franz Siegel, against the Tammany Ring.)

THE GOOD GUYS - The Reform Democrat


The Chairman of the New York State Democratic Party whose late intervention — always questionable to Thomas Nast — was important in toppling the Tweed Ring, and who used his success to build a political career as a state legislator, governor, and presidential nominee.


Setting the Stage

Young Bill Tweed

William Magear Tweed came into this world on April 3, 1823 at 1 Cherry Street in New York City, now in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. George Washington lived at Number 3 in 1789-1790, when New York was the nation's capital, and John Hancock lived at number 5 while president of the Continental Congress. In 1823, Tweed's father, Richard, ran a chair-making business in numbers 3 and 5. Richard Tweed was the third generation of Tweeds in America; his Protestant ancestors emigrated from Kelso, Scotland — a town on the river Tweed — in the mid-1700's.

Bill Tweed was 21 in November 1844, when he observed outright vote-buying on the street, along with bully-boy tactics, in the first election in which he was eligible to vote. He probably didn't see the actual ballot-box stuffing which led to 10,000 more ballots counted for presidential candidates James K. Polk and Henry Clay than there were eligible voters. Tweed married Mary Jane Skadden, 17 — his neighbor, childhood sweetheart, and daughter of his father's business partner — that same year.

Although his father gave him a first-hand business education, and he operated a small brush-making and then a chair-making business for several years, Tweed ultimately turned to politics. He began with Volunteer Fire Company No. 6, which had about 75 men in it.

His service as a volunteer fireman lasted eleven years (1839-1850), culminating in his election as leader of the Americus "Big Six" Fire Company for a few weeks in the late summer of 1850. He then embarked full time on a political career, beginning with his election in late 1851 to the New York Board of Aldermen, part of the Common Council notoriously known as the "Forty Thieves." The following year, he was elected to his only term in Congress — which he found very dull — and began serving while still acting as a New York City alderman. Tweed spent the turbulent 1850s as a minor Tammany Hall figure, assembling alliances and waiting out the flamboyant career of Fernando Wood, who was twice elected mayor on the Tammany Hall ticket (1854 and 1856) before winning with his own rival organization, Mozart Hall (1859).

Tweed learned many of the tricks of his political trade from Wood. Not the least of these was the state legislature's passage in 1849 of a charter amendment which removed the last vestiges of a property qualification for city voters, effectively ending politics in New York City as a "gentleman's game." Thereafter, the widespread use of votes from newly naturalized immigrants (see below) helped entrench "machine" politics, for the benefit of Tammany Hall.

Tammany Hall

Tammany Hall — named after Tamarend, a Delaware Indian chief — started as a patriotic social club prior to 1800, but soon became a political organization whose support often decided New York elections. As the number of Irish and German immigrants rapidly increased in the 1840s and 1850s, Tammany mobilized them for support, and they ultimately became the basis of its control of New York City.

One of Tammany's rare defeats came in April 1844 when James Harper, the founder of Harper & Brothers (Nast's later employer), was elected Mayor on an American Republican Party (anti-immigrant) platform. He started the first organized and uniformed police force in the city, but banned the sale of alcohol on July 4th and closed saloons on Sunday. The latter actions helped lead to his defeat for re-election

The sketches below are taken from Nast's 24-drawing panel of July 22, 1871. The initial capital letter "F" of "Friends" is fashioned into a gallows on which a ballot box hangs, symbolizing the death of voting rights from vote fraud. (See pages 108-109).

Tammany Hall continued as the power in Democratic politics up to the middle of the twentieth century. After the Tweed Ring's downfall, muscleman John Morrissey (see pages 41 and 62-63) struggled for control of Tammany with the urbane "Honest John" Kelly. Both of them sided with Tilden against Tweed, and Kelly took unchallenged control after Morrissey's death in May 1878, (three weeks after Boss Tweed died in jail). Kelly died in 1886, and was succeeded by the notorious Richard Croker, who ruled until 1901.

"The Tammany Phoenix" on the left, from the November 29, 1873 issue of Harper's Weekly, shows Morrissey with a crown on his head as a fighting cock, appropriate for an ex-boxer. The Tammany "Ring" has been replaced with a champion's belt around Morrissey's waist, while his feet stand on a fallen Tweed (with a $ sign on his forehead).

Four years later, Kelly had practical control of Tammany Hall, but Morrissey was still battling him, as portrayed in the cartoon on the right from the Harper's Weekly issue of November 24, 1877.

The Irish

By 1855, the majority of New York City's population of about 630,000 was foreign-born — 28% from Ireland, 15% from Germany and 9% from other countries. By 1870, with American-born children of the immigrants in the mix, the foreign-born population was down to 44% — 21% from Ireland, 16% from Germany and 7% from other countries — of a total population of 942,000.

The Irish immigrants, in particular, were trapped in poverty by a lack of skills, a glutted labor market, language, illiteracy, their Catholic religion, and the desire to cling together. An important factor was their love of whiskey from both saloons and grog shops, which Tammany supported and which the prohibition and temperance policies of first the Whig and then the succeeding Republican party opposed.

A Harper's Weekly cover cartoon just prior to the 1868 election (which is not by Thomas Nast) shows Judge John McCunn's naturalization mill manufacturing "Citizens at the rate of 480 an Hour" for the benefit of Democratic presidential candidate Horatio Seymour (at lower left). It was in the issue of October 24, just prior to the 1868 election which Seymour lost to General Ulysses S. Grant.

An incident in the 1866 election is related as typical by John L. Davenport who, at that time, was Chief Supervisor of Elections for the New York area, a federal post. (In his 1894 book, New York Election Frauds and Their Prevention).

An Irishman tried to vote "when the following conversation ensued:

"What name?" asked the inspector.

"Michael Murray, sir," replied the would-be voter.

"Michael Murray? No such name on the list, called the inspector, adding "There's a Michael Murphy!"

"Hould on, gintlemen," exclaimed the excited Irishman, as he pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and proceeded to read, "Sure and it is Michael Murphy instid of Michael Murray!"

According to Davenport, the man who had forgotten his instructions did not vote — at least not in that polling place.

Young Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast was born on September 27, 1840 — seventeen years after Tweed — in the military barracks of Landau in the Alsace region of Bavaria, Germany, where his father, Joseph Thomas Nast, played trumpet in a military band. Joseph's liberal political views motivated him to send Tom and his mother to New York City in 1846 when Tom was five, and to join them there in 1850 when his enlistment on an American ship expired. Coincidentally, both Tweed and Nast attended the same primary school in New York City, although many years apart.

Tom's father became a member of the Philharmonic Society and played in the band at Burton's Theatre on Chambers Street. His son often accompanied him and was exposed to Shakespeare's plays, among others, as well as to the leading actors of the time. Young Tom's early theatrical exposure provided useful knowledge as references and models for many of his later caricatures. In fact, he used Shakespearean references in more than 100 cartoons.

The future cartoonist was probably aged nine to eleven when he first encountered the future political boss, who was then a local celebrity of sorts in his late 20s, renowned as the leader of the much admired Volunteer Fire Company No. 6. In his 1904 biography of Nast, Albert Bigelow Paine makes it clear that the cartoonist had been partial to fires and firefighting:

"He found a great joy in running to fires. In Landau he had never seen a fire ... Now [in New York City], there were fires almost daily. The little boy was at first terrified, and then fascinated. He made a fire engine of his own and became chief of the crew. Less than a dozen blocks away, the Big Six — the fire company of which big Bill Tweed was chief — had its headquarters. On the engine of the Big Six was painted a tiger's head — a front view with fierce distended jaws ... The boy Nast used to regard this tiger's head ... with admiration and awe. Little could he guess then what use he would make of that sinister emblem in later days. For it was the Big Six tiger that was to go with Tweed into Tammany Hall, and it was Thomas Nast, the man and cartoonist, who was first to emblazon it as the symbol of rapacious plunder and civic shame.

"But in that long ago time, the Big Six boys with their polished engine and glaring tiger meant only excitement and joy. He pursued them when fires broke out — running and shouting with a crowd of other boys that mingled with a tangle of frightened teams and a score of yelping curs."


Excerpted from "Doomed by Cartoon"
by .
Copyright © 2008 John Adler.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction,
II. Cast of Caricatures,
III. Setting the Stage,
IV. The Battle for Public Opinion,
V. Boss Tweed Takes Charge: 1863-1865,
VI. Early Days of the Ring: 1866-1868,
VII. Nast Gets Serious: 1869-1870,
VIII. 1871: The Climatic Year Begins,
IX. Disclosure and Exposure,
X. Pre-Election: Nast's Campaign Builds,
XI. The Election Results,
XII. Aftermath: What Happened to the Bad Guys,
XIII. Boss Tweed - Bail and Jail: 1871-1875,
XIV. Boss Tweed - Flight and Plight: 1876-1878,
XV. What Happened to Thomas Nast,
XVI. Epilogue,
Appendix: William M. Tweed. Romance Of His Flight and Exile,

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