These are grim times for New York political bosses. Former Speaker Sheldon Silver’s corruption trial ends on Monday. Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ corruption trial has just begun. Former Kings County Democratic Chairman Vito Lopez is dead.
Today is an for anniversary celebrating a rare win for New York reformers: on November 19, 1871, William “Boss” Magear Tweed was arrested
Here are some stories you may not have known about Boss Tweed
1) Tweed launched his career as a volunteer firefighter. Who doesn’t like firefighters? Until 1865, New York’s firefighters were all volunteers, which had its problems – often drunk, they struggled to actually put out fires. But firefighters were still loved in the community, and Tweed, who exhibited a charismatic touch, was recruited by Tammany to run for Alderman (today’s City Council). He quickly was elected to Congress, but utterly bored, he returned home after one term to take a series of party machine posts like Deputy Street Commissioner. The streets of New York were paved with patronage gold.
2) Tweed tried to stop the Civil War Draft Riots. The Civil War Draft Riots of June 1863 probably marked the ugliest chapter in the history of New York City. Poor Irish, angry that they were being drafted to fight as what they perceived was a fight for black people, took to the streets, setting fires, demolishing property, lynching black people, and battling with the police. Tweed not only supported the Union war effort, but he knew violence was bad for business. He and his Tammany allies sought to quell the riots, even saving the mayor from an angry mob.
Tweed’s solution to the Draft Riots was classic Tweed. He proposed that the city secure a bond to pay the $300 exemption fee for anyone who would rather not fight, as well as the bounty fee for whoever took their place. This extraordinarily expensive remedy kept the peace, but also nearly bankrupted the city.
3) Tweed’s reign at the top was short, like leprochauns. Many people casually conflate Tammany Hall with the Tweed Era, while Tammany was a force on the New York political scene for more than a century, Tweed’s prime was only about five years. Tweed was elected State Senate in 1867. He was also named Tammany Hall “Grand Sachem” in 1869 and appointed to his favorite patronage mill, the Department of Public Works in 1870. For a brief moment, Tweed was the king of New York, the master of all things political and financial in the empire state. (The city’s debt tripled in two years.) But by summer of 1871 it all came crashing down.
4) Tweed was an innovator in delivering social services for the poor. Yes, the Tammany machine depended on the reliable votes of new immigrants, but as Terry Golway wrote, “Earning and keeping the Irish vote was more than simply a matter of naturalizing immigrants and senting them on they way into the alien streets of New York, it required constant attention.” (Incidentally, Tweed was of Scottish descent.) While Irish recruitment had begun before Tweed’s tenure as Grand Sachem, Tweed poured unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money into schools, hospitals, poor houses and local infrastructure. Did he do so efficiently or fairly? Of course not! However, later Tammany alums like Al Smith later took the early welfare models and executed them at the state level, creating a safety net and economic rights for all New Yorkers, not just Tammany voters.
5) Tweed allied with the good guys when it served his purposes. John Hoffman, the popular reform mayor of New York City, won the governorship in 1868 with Tweed’s backing. There is no evidence Hoffman was part of the inner circle; Tweed just put his money on the right horse. That’s how Tammany rolled – in order to stay in power, not every person they supported was a “Tammany man.” To this day, that’s how most special interest groups work: stick with the winners, regardless of party, and watch the kickbacks flow. John Hoffman’s role in New York history is significant because he is the last New York City mayor ever to be elected New York State governor. Mayor de Blasio should take note, as predecessors Lindsay, Koch and Giuliani all found out the hard way.
6) “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” Tweed designed one of the earliest and most powerful political machines in American history. Over the past few decades, we have watched the power of political parties decline, both on the Democratic and Republican side. Today, the machines are run by special interest groups. That quote might as well be printed on the Real Estate Board of New York masthead.
7) For some reason, we still have an important government building named for Tweed. The Tweed Courthouse is considered the ultimate boondoggle in the history of New York public works. Taking nearly two decades, with cost overruns in the millions (real money back then), the construction generated infamous bills, like more than $41,000 for “brooms.” The New York City government now houses the Department of Education in the Tweed Courthouse and hasn’t changed the name, which sends a great message to the kids.
8) Tweed’s efforts to consolidate power sort of helped New York City in the long run. You know those annoying upstate legislators always meddling in New York City affairs. Turns out it’s always been thus. Tweed’s whole purpose for taking over state government was so that he could transfer power back to the city, the easier to manage. But upstate legislators wouldn’t give up their power so easily, as attached as they were to the bribes they received from downstate special interests. (When people wonder how Bloomberg got so much done as mayor, follow the money…) Tweed came out on top with an amendment that restored some self-governance to NYC. The new City Charter was good for Tammany business, but it was also supported by leading reformers like Peter Cooper (of said Village).
9) Tweed and his Ring may have stolen as much as $200 million from New York City. We’re not talking about just landing a contract for a buddy, or sneaking an appropriation into the budget. Depending on your metric, $200 million in 1871 is worth many billions of dollars in today’s money, and it was used to line the pockets of Tweed’s Ring. Other members of the ring include “Elegant” Abraham Oaks Hall, a dapper prototype for future Tammany Mayor “Gentleman” Jimmy Walker.** Hall ran into problems when his mishandling of a religious parade led to a Irish Catholic v. Irish Protestant brawl that killed 62 people.The brains of the operation was Parks Commissioner Peter Sweeney, whose schemes remind me of Office Space‘s Michael Bolton. The Comptroller was “Slippery Dick” Connolly. Enough said. These four men trusted each other little, and the Ring’s self-destruction was a question of if, not when. When the relatively young New York Times began invesitgating this story in the summer of 1871, Tammany was only mildly threatened – at one point they tried to buy out the paper to kill the story. But publisher George Jones would not sell, and the shocking revelations of theft, lies and greed led to a full investigation.
10) Tweed slayer Samuel Tilden was no saint. Known as the politician who brought down Boss Tweed, Tilden was an aristocratic politician who had no compunction about working with Tweed while he was in power. But following the Times‘ revelations, he formed the Committee of Seventy, which sounds a bit too much like a bad chapter in the French Revolution, and included a who’s who of old money New Yorkers. On November 19, 1871, Tweed was arrested, and Tilden was soon elected governor. Always remember, today’s reformer is tomorrow’s clubhouse man. (Or woman!)
11) Tweed was an early supporter of subterranean, people-moving pneumatic tubes. A precursor the subway, the Tweed operation supported the construction of these underground pathways that used steam power to transport horse carriages as fast as 50mph. When Tweed and his Ring went down, the project was considered corrupt by association. In a desperate effort to re-brand the project, its supporters argued that Tweed had been the one to hold it back. It was all for naught, as the Panic of 1873 wiped out financial markets across the country and dried up investment in the tubes. New York City would have to wait three decades for a subway.
12) Tweed was ulitmately foiled by a cartoon. Thomas Nast, basically the godfather of political cartoons, took an extreme disliking to Tweed, mocking his girth and love of money in a series of devastating cartoons. Tweed, who famously brushed of criticism from his political opponents (“What are you going to do about it?” was his manta), lamented,”I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.” After his conviction in 1873, Tweed was still permitted the occasional home visit. During one visit, he escaped out the back of his house and escaped across the ocean on a Spanish boat, posing as a fat, old sailor. At the Spanish border he was recognized by Floridian tourists on vacation, who’d seen his mug in a Nast cartoon. The authorities brought him back to New York, where he died in prison.
Tweed always believed other pols were just as crooked. While in prison, he received word that his sentence might be lifted in exchange for a confession, which led to a full revelation of his crimes. Unfortunately, Tilden and his associates would not honor that agreement, and Tweed continued to rot, not unlike Inca leader Atahuallpa, who converted to Christianity on a promise from the Spanish that it would spare his life. Instead, they burned him at the stake.
13) Boss Tweed is listed in the Bad Book of Bill: Rogues, Rascals and Rapscallions Named William, Bill and Willie, by Lawrence Binda. That book exists…
Closing Thought: In case you were wondering whether New Yorkers were just duped dopes during the Tweed Era, keep in mind that it was the beginning of industrialization, and the City was doing very well. As historian Kenneth Ackerman puts it, “It seemed like a great free ride, especially for the banks and brokerage houses making huge commissions on the bond sales. Tweed economics — borrow, spend and keep some for yourself — made sense to New Yorkers. Even the poor benefited.”
**A side note about Elegant Abe Oakley Hall. As counsel to Mayor Fernando Wood, Hall responded to the passage of an 1855 prohibition bill by legalizing the sale of alcohol in New York City 24/7 for two months until the law took effect. According to the Bowery Boys, “May and June of 1855 were the booziest months in New York City history.”