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The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York
• 1 • ALONE
“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, 300-pound body, once 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 once twinkled for friends and glared at enemies seemed vacant, haunted by depression. At noon, just as mid-day bells sounded from the Essex Street Market tower, Tweed died, prematurely old at 55 years, surrounded by strangers.
It had been almost five years since Tweed had walked the streets of New York City, his life-long 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 M. 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 PublicWorks, 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.
* “Honest graft” was defined by Tammany chief George Washington Plunkitt in 1905 as “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em”—basically exploiting insider influence as opposed to direct stealing from the city treasury. In practice, it amounted to both, but with discretion and moderation.
Tweed was the third-largest landowner in the city, director of the Erie
Railroad, 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. 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 newspaper banner headlines, his house of cards collapsed. City investigators ultimately figured that Tweed and his city “ring,” during a three-year period, had made off with a staggering $60 million from the local treasury—an amount larger than the entire annual U.S. federal budget up until the CivilWar. 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, HarpersWeekly. Only after newspapers had produced the evidence did prosecutors like Tilden and Fairchild dare 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; the charges each actually
carried a jail term of just a few months and an appeals court had freed Tweed a year later over the discrepancy, but Tilden had intervened again and or-dered Tweed immediately rearrested and Judge Davis had set bail at an impossibly high $3 million.**
* Located in the middle of the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, it is now called Roosevelt Island.
** About $60 million in modern dollars. Generally, to compare modern dollars with dollars in the 1860s or 1870s, multiply by twenty.
Now, six years later, Tweed alone remained in jail. 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 themselves for their clumsy handling of the case, running up huge legal costs while failing to recover more than a pittance of stolen city funds.
Tweed hated prison; it defied him—despite the fact that jailors 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’d escaped and fled. One night that month, he snuck 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, clean-shaven face, and workman’s clothes, and using a false name. He reached Cuba and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Spain, but only to face arrest. 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 to throw 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 investigating his crimes. Newspapers carried full transcripts of the startling disclosures as Tweed appeared day after day in a packed City Hall chamber and unflinchingly 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 suspi-cions 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 of the United States 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?
His last appearance outside Ludlow Street Jail came on March 26, 1878, two weeks before his death. Sheriffs had taken Tweed 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, even though he was now the city’s most notorious villain. 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 his game was up. A few days later came the fever, then the cough, then pneumonia.
John Murray Carnochan, Tweed’s physician at 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, 10-year-old George and 14-year-old Charles, had been kept in a New England boarding school for the past five years and forbidden
to see their father. Tweed’s two oldest daughters, Mary Amelia and Lizzie, both lived with husbands in New Orleans, a thousand miles away, both taking the same married name, Maginnis.
Of all Tweed’s children, only his daughter Josephine, 24 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 900,000 souls. New Yorkers had known him for twenty-five years as hero, villain, and criminal. Tweed 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 andfriendless,” 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 Tweed’s 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 demise.
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 “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.”
|Nast's final drawing of Tweed before the Boss's death, Harper's Weekly, January 26, 1878.|
Nast’s final drawing of Tweed, 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’sWeekly 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 Magear 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 press in the public arena, and his legal persecution had set a tone for political scandals lasting generations.
Fittingly, his most famous quotation is something he never said, at least publicly—“As long as I count the ballots, what are you going to do about it.” Thomas Nast had put the words in his mouth in a Harper’sWeekly cartoon in 1871.
The morning after Tweed died in jail, newspapers crammed their front pages with stories of his life and times. Politicians rushed to claim credit for having a hand in his downfall; only a rare friend dared to wax nostalgic for old Tammany Hall. People bought extra copies of the newspapers to save for children and grandchildren; they sensed the passing of a monumental figure. Tweed’s story would dominate church sermons and saloon arguments for weeks. “The career of Tweed was in many respects one of the most remark-able known to our peculiar land of peculiar institutions,” the Washington Post noted.18 How could one raised so high fall so low?
History would blacken Tweed’s name, portraying him as the worst municipal thief, the most corrupt politician, the craftiest ballot-box fixer—a stereotype used to tarnish entire generations of American political professionals. Already, he’d become a caricature: More people knew Tweed as the
comical thug in Nast’s Harper’sWeekly cartoons, the shameless villain in the New-York Times exposes, or the legendary wire-puller of Tammany Hall than as the vital flesh and blood person who’d walked the streets of Gotham for fifty-five years. He left a strange puzzle. Except for his stealing, Tweed would have been a great man; but had he been honest, he wouldn’t have been Tweed and would not have left nearly so great a mark.
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