Corruption always has been a part of American politics. No one exemplifies this more than William “Boss” Tweed. Tweed was active in New York City politics in the mid-19th century. He was portrayed by Jim Broadbent in the 2002 film The Gangs of New York, and is best known for his role as head of in the city’s political machine, Tammany Hall.
Tweed was born in the Big Apple in 1823 and had a typical childhood for the era. He learned bookkeeping but opted not to go into this father’s chair-making business. When he was a teenager, he became a street thug and a volunteer firefighter.
The film depicts two fire companies brawling while a fire blazes. This depiction isn’t too far from the truth. Fire companies were politically oriented and often fought.
Tweed first ran for political office in 1852, winning the position of alderman. His next position was in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served one term. After returning to New York, he immersed himself into city politics.
New York City at the time was witnessing an influx of immigrants. This population boom meant it was necessary for the city to build new infrastructure and buildings.
Becoming Boss Tweed
Tweed quickly worked his way up the political ladder at Tammany Hall, the headquarters of The Society of Saint Tammany. The society was founded a century earlier as a charity. Its primary responsibility was to help immigrants find housing and employment.
Tweed became chairman of the New York County Democratic Central Committee in 1861. Not long after, he became Grand Sachem [or Boss] of the Hall and chairman of the General Committee of Tammany Hall. In the meanwhile, Tweed gained control of the city’s pocketbook. All his power was now consolidated, the city was controlled by the Tweed Ring, a group of Tweed’s associates that included the mayor and other government officials.
By the late 1860s, Tammany Hall had organized immigrants and the poor into a loyal voting bloc. The hall, among other things, fixed elections and government contracts. It also welded much influence on legislatures and ensured bills were passed that favored the Tweed Ring. Judges were bribed to ensure certain court outcomes, and gangs were used to intimated voters.
Tweed also used to his influence to arrange business deals and became one of the city’s largest landowners. He even charged clients legal service fees even though he never studied law.
Tweed’s Unwanted Media Attention
In 1871, Tweed’s political corruption came to the attention of the New York media after a disgruntled bookkeeper provided The New York Times with incriminating documents. The Times reported that the city courthouse was remodeled using embezzled city funds; the remodeling was quoted at $500,000 but ended up costing $13 million.
“The publication in yesterday’s journals of the Broadway Bank created the wildest excitement in the city,” the Times said Oct. 27, 1871. “The plundered tax payers at last saw spread before them the overwhelming evidence that their money had been shared by thieves. The Times had all along told them that Tweed and his gang were robbers, and yesterday it proved it. The damning evidence against Tweed, the ringleader of the band, was nowhere disputed, and loud were the demands that went up for the speedy arrest and punishment of the wrong-doers.”
Tweed attempted unsuccessfully to bribe the Times to stop reporting on him. He also tried unsuccessfully to bribe Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
“My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!” Tweed said.
The Undoing of Boss Tweed
Tammany Hall members soon were all voted out of office. However, Tweed now faced a legal battle and was tried twice. The first trial ended in a hung jury, and the prosecutor’s office suspected the jury had been bribed. At the second trial in 1873, jury members were protected and Tweed was convicted.
It’s estimated Tweed and his associates embezzled between $30 million and $200 million.
After serving his pitifully short sentence, Tweed was released, only be arrested again after the city sued him for $6 million. After a second conviction, he was sent back to prison but was allowed home visits with his family.
Tweed escaped during one of these visits in December 1875, fleeing south and eventually ending up in Spain. He was arrested by authorities the following year.
“He was surrendered to the sheriff of New York yesterday afternoon, and is now under close confinement in Ludlow Street Jail, pending trial on the criminal indictments found against him,” The New York Tribune said Nov. 24, 1876.
At the time of his arrest, there were 26 pending indictments against Tweed.
He died in a Manhattan prison in April 1878 from pneumonia, kidney disease and pericarditis.
His last words reportedly were, “I have tried to right some great wrongs. I have been forbearing with those who did not deserve it. I forgive all those who have ever done wrong to me, and I want all those who have ever been harmed by me to forgive me.”
Updated: 27 October 2020