Corruption

Issue

Happy belated birthday to Boss Tweed. April 3, 1823 – April 12, 1878. On the morning of April 12, 1878, William Tweed, known to the world as Boss Tweed, was dying. As the clock in the Essex Market tolled noon, the man who had once ruled New York, abandoned by friends and associates, lying in a prison bed, breathed his last.Tweed, disgraced, held up to contempt and ridicule before the very people who had held him in high esteem was gone.

It had been an amazing career. This giant of a man---he was 5 feet 11 inches tall and about 300 pounds---had risen from chief of the Cherry Hill gang on the lower East side to alderman, at a time when the Board of Alderman was openly called The Forty Thieves.

Tweed rose swiftly up the rungs of power. He took over Tammany Hall, the Democratic organization that controlled City Hall. And he began to plunder the city. He amassed a fortune for himself and his cronies by building projects in which the contractors kicked back to what was called the Tweed Ring.

Thus, carpenters, plumbers, plasterers paid a price for working on Tweed projects. And it paid them to do so. They earned big stipends as long as they kicked back to the boss and his pals. It was estimated that Tweed was stealing $1,000,000 a month from the city treasury, a huge amount a century and a half ago.

Boss Tweed was brought down by two powerful journalistic engines, The New York Times, which ran an expose based on leaks of the Tweed Ring’s books, and a gifted cartoonist named Thomas Nast. He depicted Tweed as a fat giant surrounded by his pigmy followers.

The cartoons hurt the most, and Tweed admitted it. He complained: “I don’t care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!”

The written evidence of fraud published in the Times and Nast’s cartoons ultimately stirred authorities to act. Tweed was arrested and charged with many counts of corruption. He was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Ultimately, Tweed fled to Europe but, on a request from American officials, he was arrested in Spain and brought back to the United States.

As historian Edward Ellis tells it, when a boat from the ship that brought him back put him ashore at Pier 46, a crowd watched as Tweed, now gaunt and poor, “lost his balance, fell forward, and tumbled into a heap of coal.” Back in the Ludlow Street jail, Tweed learned that friends had escaped prosecution by turning state’s evidence. He was furious.

He was offered his freedom if he confessed everything. He agreed to do that, but the promise wasn’t kept. And he died, betrayed by people he trusted in his criminal endeavors.

Thomas Nast demonized him. The Times published the ledgers that helped bring him down. But it is a symbol of corruption in government that his fame---or notoriety--- endures.

BY: Gabe Pressman Senior Correspondent at NBC New York