Though tall and imposing—he would top more than 300 lbs.—William Magear Tweed could be a subtle charmer with a friendly smile, firm handshake, twinkling blue eyes, and an uncanny memory for faces and names. With the backing of the Democratic-controlled Tammany Hall, the former fireman won election to New York’s Common Council, taking his seat as an alderman in January 1852. There he started his education in patronage building. It got him what he wanted. For Tweed, money, not the civic good, was always the desired reward. The lessons he learned in the Common Council helped him establish his Tweed Ring, allowing that group to dominate New York’s politics and ravage the city’s treasury in the years after the Civil War.
The Common Council’s 20 Aldermen and 20 Assistant Aldermen had the power to appoint policemen and precinct commanders, judge criminal trials, and license saloons. Such responsibilities filled many of their pockets with kickbacks and bribes. And while not everyone in Tweed’s class of 1852 qualified as a grifter, the group ushered in the most corrupt council the city had ever seen. Their nefarious ways earned the aldermen the nickname the “Forty Thieves.”
Tweed boasted that he and his colleagues “know the virtue of a $50 bill when it is wisely employed, and the echo that it will produce.” And there was a vast and steady amount of money that could be had through appropriations and contracts for widening, paving, and extending streets; prison and school construction; streetcar and ferry franchises and selling real estate. Tweed served on the Law, Ferries and Repairs and Supplies committee and the Broadway Paving Committee, and with the help of his colleagues orchestrated shady land sales. When the city-owned Gansevoort Market—one of New York’s most valuable bits of land—went up for sale, bids came in for $225,000 and $300,000. The alderman, though, accepted an offer of $160,000, with the men earning between $40,000 to $75,000.
To receive the right to run ferry lines from New York to Brooklyn, applicants shelled out thousands of dollars in under-the-table payments in the hope of securing the deal. Railroad franchises for such throughfares as Third and Eighth Avenues were especially enticing. Most of all, the Forty Thieves salivated over the idea of a line along Broadway, the city’s most fashionable road. When lawyer Jake Sharp and others requested the right to run one, they offered a paltry $20 license fee per car. An overwhelming majority of the street’s landowners sought to squelch Sharp’s plan by making their own. Department store owner Alexander Stewart proposed a per-car license fee of up to $1,000 a year, while hotelier David Haight offered $10,000. Sharp, though, distributed bribes, and not surprisingly, Tweed and his colleagues granted him the franchise. When Stewart and others protested Sharp’s selection, Mayor Ambrose Kingsland vetoed the franchise.
Despite the setback, Tweed had his eyes on an even larger prize, winning a seat in congress. But Washington proved very different from New York. As a junior representative, Tweed possessed little power, could not finagle extra cash, and failed to be renominated. Back in the city he bided his time, and in 1855 received a spot on the Board of Education, where he raked in kickbacks from the sale of textbooks and on the purchase of furniture.
Then in 1857, the state legislature in Albany established a new Board of Supervisors. After the misdeeds of the Forty Thieves, the state hoped that the group would force good governance on local politicians by auditing expenditures and overseeing taxation and public improvements. Seeking fairness, Albany balanced the board’s makeup with six Democratic and six Republican representatives. Yet the parties filled the positions with loyalists like Tweed. When the board earned the power to pick election inspectors, Tweed used bribery to tilt the votes, and Democrats secured a say over 550 of the 609 slots, thus allowing them to decide election outcomes.
William Tweed would continue his climb to citywide power and wealth. He would take on such roles as Grand Sachem of Tammany, president of the Board of Supervisors, and chairman of the Democratic Central Committee of New York County. With so much control, he would become known as “Boss,” a title derived from the Dutch word bass for “master.” To consolidate his position, he formed his infamous ring with such like-minded cronies as Richard B. Connolly, A. Oakey Hall, and Peter B. Sweeny. The men orchestrated massive voter fraud, used patronage and bribery to sway judges, drained the city’s coffers, and made money through such shady deals as faked leases and selling overpriced products and services to the city. As commissioner of public works, Tweed oversaw street openings. This let them to know of development plans so they could buy up land where new streets and avenues were about to be created, thus allowing them to profit greatly.
What has become the most visible sign of Boss Tweed’s wicked ways sprouted in the early days of the Civil War. In December 1861, the cornerstone for the New York County Courthouse was laid on Chambers Street. The grand Italianate building took some two decades to complete, with Tweed purchasing a marble quarry in Massachusetts to supply a large share of the stone. As work progressed, nearly every contractor associated with its construction profited from inflated payments. All this ballooned the cost of what become infamously known as the Tweed Courthouse from the original $250,000 budget to some $12 million.
Many sought to end the control held by Tweed’s ring. In 1871, the New York Times published a series on the group’s malfeasance. Future governor Samuel Tilden, who served as chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee, started an investigation. And Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast ran biting caricatures of Tweed and his friends. The Nast images especially irked Tweed who once exclaimed “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”
All helped turn public opinion against Tweed and his ring. By then they had drained the city of between $30 million and $200 million. Sentenced for larceny and forgery, Tweed fled to Spain. There he was captured, partly because locals recognized him from Nast’s drawings. He would die in the Ludlow Street jail in April 1878 at age 55.
Feature image by Thomas Nast, published 1876, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain