Name:  William Magear "Boss" Tweed

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Born:  April 3, 1823
Died:  April 12, 1878
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
William “Boss” Tweed was leader of the powerful Democratic political machine in New York City known as the Tweed Ring.  His name and visual caricature became synonymous with political corruption, power, and greed, an association that remains potent even today.  He was born in New York City to Eliza Magear Tweed and Richard Tweed, a chair maker.  Young Tweed learned chair making and worked at various jobs while a teenager before becoming a bookkeeper in a brush factory.  He married the owner’s daughter, Mary Jane Skaden, in 1844, and became his new father-in-law’s business partner.

As a young man, Tweed joined several fraternal societies, including the Odd Fellows, the Masons, and the Order of United Americans, an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant group (ironic, given his later identification with Irish-Catholic immigrants).  In 1849, he was instrumental in establishing a volunteer fire company, Americus Engine Company No. 6, for which he became foreman.  The fire company’s mascot was a Bengal tiger, which later became the symbol of the Tammany Hall Democrats.  His membership in those organizations functioned as a springboard into the political world.  During the 1840s, he shifted his political allegiance from the anti-Catholic American-Republican Party to the Whigs before settling down with the Democrats.

In 1850, the Democrats nominated Tweed for assistant alderman from the Seventh Ward; he lost, but the next year was a position on the city’s Board of Aldermen.  In 1852, he was elected to his only term in the U.S. Congress.  Instead of seeking reelection to Congress in 1854, he ran unsuccessfully for alderman.  It was at this time that Tweed began working actively for Tammany Hall, the leading Democratic political organization in the city.  In 1857, he became a school commissioner by popular ballot and a fire commissioner by appointment.  In 1858, he won a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors, where he would serve, often as board president, until 1870.

Also in the late 1850s, Tweed and his associates wrested command of Tammany Hall from Mayor Fernando Wood.  During the Civil War, Tweed dominated Tammany Hall and Democratic city politics, serving as chairman of the local Democratic Committee, as well as chairman of Tammany’s general committee and as its “Grand Sachem” (a term derived from an American Indian name for “chief”).  He was the first person to occupy the two highest offices in Tammany Hall at the same time.  The real source of Tweed’s power came from his control over the nomination process:  in exchange for office, politicians turned over their patronage-granting privileges to him, thereby making both appointed and elected officials beholden to the “Boss.”  Tweed’s patronage power was direct in the case of the Streets Department for which he served as deputy commissioner from 1863 to 1870.  In that position, he increased his political power by greatly expanding the number of patronage positions in the Streets Department.

Tweed used his formal and informal authority to gain financial profit for himself, his cohorts, and the city’s Democratic Party.  The Tweed Ring (or “Tammany Ring”) received kickbacks from companies that were granted exclusive contracts to provide the city with goods and services.  Tweed held controlling interest in the city’s official printing firm and its paper goods supplier, which sold their goods and services to the New York City government at tremendously inflated prices.  He also served on the board of directors of the Third Avenue Railway Company, the Harlem Gas Light Company, the Brooklyn Bridge Company, and as president of the Guardian Savings Bank.  Although he had no legal training, Judge George Barnard certified him as a lawyer.  His law firm then extorted “legal fees” from companies doing business with the city.

Other leaders of the Tweed Ring included Richard Connolly, the city comptroller, and Peter Sweeny, the county chamberlain (treasurer), with Mayor Oakey Hall and Governor John Hoffman providing respectable fronts for them.  Estimates of the amount of illegal profits procured by the Tweed Ring ranged from $30 to $200 million.  Tweed used some of his share in the illicit wealth to make real estate investments, thus making him one of New York City’s largest landowners by the late 1860s.  He also spent lavishly, living in a mansion on 5th Avenue and wearing a large diamond stud on his shirt.

Expanding from his urban base, Tweed entered state politics, winning election to the state senate in 1867 and reelection in 1869.  He used subterfuge and bribery to secure passage of favorable legislation, including aid for parochial schools, benefits for the Erie Railroad (for which he received stock, cash payments, and a seat on its board of directors), and a revised charter for New York City.  The 1870 charter placed control of the city’s finances more firmly in the hands of the Tweed Ring and it established the post of commissioner of public works, to which Governor Hoffman appointed Tweed.  Although pilloried by reformers, the Tweed Ring found support among the working class, many of whom were immigrants, by providing them with jobs and basic necessities like food and fuel; founding the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital; and expanding the number of public baths, almshouses, and orphanages in the city.  In the spring of 1871, as his regime was coming under increasing threat, he lent generous assistance to the foundation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  However, in less than three years (1869-1871), New York City’s debt tripled and its taxes rose accordingly.

The downfall of the Tweed Ring came when certain Tammany Hall members, disgruntled for failing to receive promotions, leaked incriminating evidence to The New York Times, which published a series of damning articles beginning in July 1871.  The pages of the Times and Harper’s Weekly, particularly in the editorial commentary of George William Curtis and the political cartoons of Thomas Nast, relentlessly exposed the allegations of malfeasance and corruption against Tweed and his allies.  In October 1871, the State of New York named Tweed and several contractors as defendants in a criminal lawsuit.  Nevertheless, within a few weeks, the electorate returned Tweed to the state senate for another term, despite a devastating loss for the rest of the Tammany Hall slate of candidates.  The Boss was finally arrested on December 16 for fraud and failure to audit the bills that contractors submitted to the city.  Soon after, he resigned as commissioner of Public Works and was removed from his Tammany Hall leadership positions.  A new city charter eliminated his other offices, and he was barred from attending state senate sessions.  In February and again in October 1872, criminal charges were filed against him.

The first trial against Tweed resulted in a hung jury, but the second ended with a conviction on misdemeanor charges.  The sentence (November 1873) was a $12,500 fine and 12 years in jail, which an appeals court in 1875 reduced to $250 and one year.  Since he had already served 19 months in the city jail on Blackwell’s Island, he was released.  The police, however, rearrested him the next day to stand trial on civil charges and additional pending criminal charges.  He could not raise the $3 million bail, so ended up in Ludlow Street jail.  There, he was granted privileges and liberties not allowed to other inmates, such as carriage rides and visits to his home and those of his adult children.  On December 4, 1875, the Boss escaped while on such a sojourn and hid out in New Jersey.

In March 1876, the civil jury found Tweed guilty and liable for over $6 million.  Learning of the judgment, he fled to Cuba, then Spain, where in September, officials arrested and deported him, identifying him and mistakenly assuming he was a child abductor based on a Thomas Nast cartoon.  Once back in New York City in November, Tweed was placed in the Ludlow Street jail again.  In poor health, he gave the state attorney general, Charles Fairchild, a full confession as part of a deal for his release.  Fairchild, however, changed his mind (if he ever intended to comply with the promise) and Tweed remained in prison.  At the request of John Kelly, the current leader of Tammany Hall, the new state attorney general, August Schoonmaker Jr., agreed to release Tweed at the end of the current legislative session on May 15, 1878.  That date, though, came too late for the former Tammany boss.  At noon on April 12, 1878, William M. Tweed died in the Ludlow Street jail from heart disease complicated by diabetes and pneumonia.

Sources consulted:  American National Biography; and, Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress.





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