His corruption was total. His takings were immense. And his reputation is legendary.
Few men are as synonymous with political corruption as William Magear Tweed or Boss Tweed.
Here are a few facts about the Boss and some of his more infamous activities.
1. HE GOT HIS START IN POLITICS AS A FIREMAN.
Boss Tweed was initially groomed to go into his father’s business as a chair-maker, before going on to study accounting.
He found his true calling, strangely enough, by helping to form a volunteer fire company.
At the time, volunteer fire companies competed vigorously with each other.
Some were connected with street gangs and had strong ethnic ties to various immigrant communities.
The competition could be so fierce that buildings would sometimes burn down while the fire companies fought each other!
No wonder fire companies were recruiting grounds for political parties at the time.
Tweed’s ax-wielding violence came to the attention (and approval) of the Democratic politicians who ran the Seventh Ward.
Appropriately, the snarling tiger logo of Americus Engine Company No. 6 would become the symbol of Tammany.
2. HE STOLE BIG, VERY BIG.
Tweed and his cronies stole somewhere between $30 million and $200 million from the city ($365 million to $2.4 billion today).
Boss Tweed and his cronies found ways to siphon money from any and every project they touched.
Here’s just one example:
The cost of constructing the New York County Courthouse suddenly multiplied to more than $13 million, twice the amount paid for the Alaska Purchase.
Later investigation would show: “A carpenter was paid $360,751 (~$4.9 million today) for one month’s labor in a building with very little woodwork … a plasterer got $133,187 (~$1.8 million today) for two days’ work.”
3. HE HAD MANY TITLES.
While he is most famous for his position as Grand Sachem (or “Boss”) of Tammany Hall, Tweed collected a wide range of titles.
He served terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and the New York State Senate and had himself appointed deputy street commissioner of New York City.
He served as director of the Erie Railroad, proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel, and director of the Tenth National Bank.
He bought the New-York Printing Company and Manufacturing Stationers’ Company.
Then he saw that they were made the city’s official printer and stationery printer, respectively (and that they overcharged, naturally).
4. HE PRETENDED TO BE A LAWYER.
Despite never studying as an attorney, Boss Tweed was certified as a lawyer by his friend George Barnard.
In his courtroom, Judge Barnard usually sat with his feet on the bench, whittled pine sticks, drank from a brandy bottle, and cracked bawdy jokes, while ruling in favor of Tammany Hall interests.
Tweed opened a law office to extort money for “legal services”.
5. HIS FRIENDS TRIED TO ERECT A BRONZE STATUE OF HIM—WHILE ALIVE
In 1871, Tammany pushed to build a bronze statue in Manhattan in Tweed’s honor (a project originally suggested by “The Sun” newspaper).
In a few days, the association had raised $8,000 with other individual pledges from $1,000 to $10,000.
While this may have seemed a great idea to Tweed, the press and public were not so enthusiastic.
“Has Tweed gone mad, that he thus challenges public attention to his life and acts?” the Evening Post wrote.
A Chicago clergyman publicly declared that Tweed was “more dangerous than were the ancient robber kings”.
Perhaps realising that a statue might be a step too far, Tweed published a letter:
“Statues are not erected to living men … I claim to be a live man, and hope (Divine Providence permitting) to survive in all my vigor, politically and physically, for some years to come.”
The plans were scrapped.
6. HE COST NEW YORK A PALEOZOIC MUSEUM
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was designer and architect of the Paleozoic Museum that never was.
This Paleozoic Museum would be contained within a vast glass-ceilinged building at the corner of Central Park West and 63rd Street.
Hawkins dared to publicly speak out “Boss” Tweed, whose Tammany Hall cronies were officially responsible for aspects of Central Park’s design.
A goon squad armed with sledgehammers broke into the workshop and smashed the seven completed statues and molds, burying the rubble somewhere near the southwestern corner of the park.
One is reported to have told Hawkins:
Don’t you bother so much about dead animals. There are lots of live animals – you can make models of them.
Frustrated and contemptuous, Hawkins was forced to abandon the Paleozoic Museum project.
7. HE WAS A MAN OF EXCESSIVE APPETITES—BUT DIDN’T SMOKE.
Boss Tweed’s most famous accessory may be the huge 10.5-carat diamond stickpin he wore on his shirt front.
It was ten and a half karats, valued at $15,000 in 1870 money; that would be about $300,000 in modern money.
The gifts one of his daughters received on her wedding day were reported to be worth $14 million in today’s dollars.
The stalls for his stables in Greenwich, CT were built of the finest mahogany. (The total was about $100,000).
The Tammany ring fittingly began as a “lunch club” and Tweedy feasted on duck, oysters, tenderloin.
He packed more than 300 pounds onto his almost 6-foot frame.
But he didn’t smoke and barely drank—though he kept plenty of cigars and whiskey on hand for any visiting friends.
8. CARTOONS DID BOSS TWEED IN.
Tweed made plenty of enemies, but perhaps his toughest was Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
The German immigrant vividly conveyed the city’s corruption with images of a bloated Tweed, replacing his head with a bag of money in one famous depiction, and using the snarling visual of a tiger (from Tweed’s own Engine No. 6 mascot) to represent the predatory Tammany Hall.
Nast also inspired some of the strange 8th Avenue subway statues.
Tweed recognized the power and danger of Nast’s’ images:
“My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”
Tweed so feared Nast’s campaign that he sent an emissary to offer the artist a bribe of $100,000, which was represented as a gift from a group of wealthy benefactors to enable Nast to study art in Europe
Feigning interest, Nast negotiated for more before finally refusing an offer of $500,000 with the words, “Well, I don’t think I’ll do it. I made up my mind not long ago to put some of those fellows behind the bars”
When Tweed attempted to escape justice in December 1875 by fleeing to Cuba and from there to Spain, officials in Vigo, Spain, were able to identify the fugitive by using one of Nast’s cartoons!
9. AN ARREST DIDN’T KEEP HIM FROM GETTING ELECTED.
In 1871, sheriff (and Tammany man) Matthew Brennan placed Tweed under arrest.
This was a week before voters went to the polls to decide the Boss’s State Senate seat.
Brennan quietly accepted a $1 million bond for Tweed’s bail and moved on, and the Grand Sachem defeated his rival days later.
10. IT TOOK THREE MORE ARRESTS TO LOCK HIM UP FOR GOOD.
In 1873, Tweed was convicted on charges of larceny and forgery, though he was released two years later.
He was quickly re-arrested on civil charges, convicted and imprisoned again (since he could not pay the $6.3 million he was judged to owe for his crimes).
Tweed hated prison 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.
During a home visit, he escaped to Cuba, then Spain, working as a seaman for two years before he was spotted by an American who—adding insult to custody—recognized him from Nast’s cartoons.
He was captured and sent back to the U.S.
11. HE WAS DOUBLE-CROSSED IN JAIL.
Desperate to get out of prison after his third apprehension, Tweed struck a deal with the state attorney general to confess all he had done if it would mean release.
He revealed all of his crimes (or at least as many as he could remember) in 1877, only to have the lawman back out of his agreement.
The attorney general did, after all, work for New York’s governor and Tweed’s old enemy Samuel Tilden.
12. DESPITE BEST EFFORTS, HE HAD A SHINDIG OF A FUNERAL.
While in prison, Tweed contracted severe pneumonia and died in 1878, reportedly worth not much more than $2,500.
It was an ignoble end, and New York City Mayor Smith Ely refused to fly the City Hall flag at half-staff.
His daughter was determined to keep the funeral “private and unostentatious,” allowing only close friends and family—with much of his family not even able to make the funeral (his wife and another daughter lived in Paris as invalids and two sons were in Europe).
His body was encased in an ice box for funeral services.
But despite these efforts to keep Tweed’s passing quiet, large crowds turned out in front of his daughter’s house for the funeral.
Even the Times, critical to Boss Tweed’s downfall, reported that
“Some were of the opinion that his punishment had been harder than he deserved.”