Search This Blog

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Downfall of Boss Tweed

By Anthony Ruggiero
Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved by the author

New York City’s history is rich with various instances of political triumphs and corruption. New York City’s history also has its share of political figures that have had a major influence in its continuous development. Some figures have helped changed New York for the better. Some, however, only had power to corrupt the city and get money for themselves. One of these figures is William “Boss” Tweed. Boss Tweed was the leader of New York’s Tammany Hall from 1868-1871. Tammany Hall was a major political force in New York City during the 1860’s and early 1870’s. However, in 1871, Boss Tweed’s reign came to an end when he was exposed for major fraud. After this exposure, Tweed’s life was never the same and he died penniless on April 12, 1878. In order to understand why Boss Tweed was ultimately exposed, it is important to learn about the man himself and the events that led to his downfall in 1871.

The life of Boss Tweed began on April 3, 1823, in the Lower East Side of New York City. In his early life, he was proficient in being a chair maker, saddler, clerk, and bookkeeper. He also opened a law office in 1860. However, he only had little knowledge of the law. According to Hirsch (1945), “he extorted large fees for political favors” (p.268). This would be a common action of Tweed later in his life when he led Tammany Hall. After stints as a volunteer fireman in 1848 and a Congressman from 1853 to 1855, Tweed was on his way to becoming a major political force in New York City.

Tweed’s major political rule began in 1863 when he was elected chief of Tammany Hall. During that year, the Draft Riots occurred. The United States was at the height of the Civil War. To fight the Confederate states, Congress passed a draft that stated that all men between the ages of 20 and 45 were liable to fight for the Union states. When the draft was enforced in New York City on July 13, 1863, disaster struck. Riots emerged, and over 100 deaths were the result. As a result of the riots, Manhattan was in a troubled state. Many people had moved away, especially African Americans, and property damage was immense. Tweed, however, was not going to let this get in his way. According to Munson (2005), “Through involved and astute political maneuvering, Tweed managed to have Tammany Hall designed as the main administrative apparatus of President Lincoln’s draft in the city” (p.83). Tweed found ways to solve the draft situation. According to Hamill (2005), “Tweed worked on managing the draft mess, creating a system of exemptions (cops, firemen, militia members) and case-by-case hardship exemptions for heads of impoverished families.” This was Tweed’s first big victory in New York City. This victory helped Tweed to escalate to the main leader of Tammany Hall in 1868 when his corruption would begin.

Tweed’s reign of corruption began in 1868 when he became both the chief of Tammany Hall and New York’s state senator. During this reign, he was assisted by four men: New York’s Governor John Hoffman, City Chamberlain Peter Barr Sweeney, Comptroller Daniel Connolly, and New York City’s mayor A. Oakey Hall. They would later be known as “Tweed’s ring”. Tweed, along with his ring, wanted to take control of all the city’s finances. To do this, he created a charter that would be passed in 1870. According to Hirsch (1945), “The charter turned over control of the municipal treasury to Tweed and his henchmen by creating a Board of Audit for the city” (p.269). Also, Tweed became the commissioner of the public works of New York in 1870. This position is what let Tweed perform his corrupt acts.

Tweed focused on public projects in New York City as a way to increase his profit. One way Tweed did so was overly inflating the prices of benches he paid at the store. According to Lynch (1927), “Tweed purchased three hundred benches at the rate of five dollars each, a total of $1,500.” The cashier of the Home Insurance Company was there to bid in some of them. Tweed told him he would let him have them at the price he paid, as the insurance man only wanted seventeen. Tweed turned the remaining benches over to the furniture house of Ingersoll and Company. The benches were sold for six hundred dollars each” (p.241). This made a huge profit for Tweed: $168,300, to be exact. Tweed would also set up contracts that included bills that were priced way higher than they should have been for the work performed. For example, a contract stated that a carpenter was to be paid $360,751 for a month’s worth of work. However, this carpenter hardly worked as there was barely any woodwork done. Another example of Tweed’s corruption was during the construction of City Hall Park. According to Simkin (1997), “Tweed also organized the building of City Hall Park. Originally estimated to cost $350,000, by the time it was finished, expenditure had reached $13,000,000”. One final way Tweed corrupted through the city was through the Brooklyn Bridge project. According to Greenspan (2013), “Tweed facilitated up to $65,000 in bribes to New York’s aldermen to win their backing for a $1.5 million bond issue. He then became a major holder of bridge stock and joined a committee charged with managing the project’s finances.” This was not his most successful endeavor as he was arrested before big money started to come in. Overall, it was estimated that Tweed stole up to 200 million dollars from the city. However, Tweed’s corruption could not last forever. In 1871, Tweed would go from a multi-millionaire and powerhouse to a broke, penniless man who was about to face trial. There were three factors that led to Tweed’s downfall: Thomas Nast and his drawings, the Orange Riots of 1971, and the Tweed Courthouse.

While many members of the city might have been outsmarted, one prominent figure was not. This figure was a German political cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast. Thomas Nast was a member of the Republican Party, so he was already opposed to Tweed’s political views. Tweed was a Democrat. However, Nast’s dissatisfaction went much beyond the difference in political parties. Nast viewed Tweed as a greedy politician who was only out for his personal gains. These opinions proved to be a strong influence in New York in 1871. “A man that can appeal powerfully to millions of people must be admitted to great power in the land. No writer can possibly possess a tenth part of the influence which Mr. Nast exercises. He addresses the learned and unlearned alike” (“Mr. Thomas Nast,” 1872). In Nast’s drawings, Tweed is depicted as an overweight, greedy villain stealing the city’s money. One of Nast’s most famous drawings is “Twas Him.” In this cartoon, Nast asks the question, “Who stole the people’s money.” In the cartoon, Tweed’s ring is arranged in a circular shape. Tweed and his four biggest supporters are placed in the front. They are all not taking responsibility for fraud as they all point to the men that are beside them. This pointing goes on until the men reach Tweed. Tweed stands there, not pointing at anyone. Nast does this to emphasize that Tweed is the mastermind of the fraud. These cartoons began to worry Tweed. According to Hinckley (2002), “Tweed is said to have once remarked that he feared Nast more than the other pesky reformers at the papers - because even though Tweed was confident that most of his supporters could not read, they could look at pictures.” Tweed feared Nast for a good reason. According to Hinckley (2002), “It helped give political reformers like Samuel J. Tilden, a one-time Tammany honcho himself, the public support to oust Tweed and his cronies.” Nast helped to change the political atmosphere of New York City. His drawings were a big influence on Tweed’s verdict of guilty of fraud and graft in 1873. However, Nast was only one contributor to Tweed’s downfall. The Orange Riots of 1871 became the turning point for Tweed. After the riots occurred, Tweed and Tammany Hall began to crumble, losing supporters from left and right.

The Orange Riots took place on June 12, 1871. This was only eight years after the Draft Riots had occurred. During the Draft Riots, Boss Tweed was seen as this great hero. He was the one who helped to solve the draft problem in New York City. Would Tweed be viewed as a great hero this time? The answer to that would be no, not exactly. The riots stemmed from a rivalry between two groups: the Irish Protestants and the Irish Catholics. This rivalry began all the way back in 1690. “The real roots of the trouble went back to 1690, nearly 200 years before, when the great Battle of Boyne was fought in Ireland. On that day, the adherents of William of Orange, the champion of Protestantism, won a complete victory over James II, the Catholic Champion. Ever since Protestant and Catholic Irishmen have looked upon the anniversary of the Boyne with diametrically opposite feelings” (“The Orange Riots of Fifty Years Ago, 1921). There had already been a riot in 1870 between the two groups. The Protestants organized a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Boyne. The Catholics were not happy with this and started a riot. This riot resulted in over eight deaths. In 1871, the Protestants proposed another parade. Tweed and Tammany Hall allowed the parade to happen to show that it can hold New York’s stability. Unfortunately, this did not happen. A riot again emerged. It was worse than in the previous years. The riot resulted in 60 deaths.

The Orange Riots had large negative impacts on Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. Before the riots, Tammany Hall held a strong grip on New York City. They kept it stable, or so everyone assumed. The Orange Riots ruined that reputation. Tweed could not maintain control over the two Irish groups. This led to a loss of faith in Tweed that was never recovered. The most interesting part about the Orange Riots is it led to Tweed’s downfall, but not in exposing his corruption. This was for an entirely different reason. This exposed Tweed’s failure to keep the Irish under control, a group that he has always tried to help. If things could not get any worse for Tweed, his dream of building a courthouse turned into a nightmare.

Tweed’s dream of building a courthouse began in 1858 when $250,000 was laid out for the cost of constructing the courthouse. However, as usual with Tweed, $250,000 was well below what would be the actual cost of the courthouse. According to Dunlap (1986), “All told, the documented cost of the courthouse was put at $8 million with estimates of its actual price tags-kickbacks to the Rings included- going as high as $14 million” (p. B5). This is an incredibly high cost for the construction of a building in the 1800s. One of the reasons why the cost was so high is what Tweed paid the construction workers. According to Barry (2000), “A furniture contractor received $179, 729 for three tables and 40 chairs. The plasterer, a Tammany functionary, named Andrew J. Garvey, got $133, 187 for two days' work” (p. B5). These high amounts came from fraudulent bills. Since these bills were not legal, little to no work was performed, thus delaying the construction and increasing the costs.

At this point, Tweed was unstoppable. He was incredibly rich and had a wealthy body of supporters. However, in July 1871, along with the Orange Riots, Tweed encountered a huge dent in his plan. According to Barry (2000), “In July 1871, two low-level city officials with a grudge against the Tweed ring provided the New York Times with reams of documentation that detailed the corruption at the courthouse and other city projects. The newspaper published a string of articles teasing out the details day by day before publishing a special supplement. Those articles coupled with the political cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, created a national outcry and soon Tweed and many of his cronies were facing criminal charges and political oblivion” (p. B5). This dent had officially ended Tweed’s reign. In 1873, he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to twelve years in prison. He only served one year as he managed to escape and go to Spain. However, he was soon found with the help of Thomas Nast’s cartoons. He went back to prison, where he would remain there for the rest of his life. Boss Tweed died on April 12, 1878. He was broke and unhealthy, a shadow of his former self.

William “Boss” Tweed definitely made a name for himself in New York City. He was one of the most controversial political figures to ever grace the city. At first, he seemed like an honest man who had his sights on the welfare of the city and its people. This was seen through how he handled the Draft Riots in 1863. He helped to stop them and provide a more peaceful environment in the city. As the years went on, his seemingly honest persona would start to show its true colors. Instead of protecting the well-being of the city, he was stealing from it time and time again. When all was said and done, he is said to have robbed up to 200 million dollars, an incredibly high amount in 1871. However, his greediness got the best of him. Tweed’s love of greed was prominent during the construction of the courthouse. Thomas Nast’s cartoons, in addition to the Orange Riots, changed Tweed’s reputation for the worse. In fact, these would change it for the rest of his life. He spent the rest of his life in and out of jail. He died a man without a cent. Boss Tweed is a classic tale of the tragedy of greed. One who has a love of money will find ways to get it, even if it means stealing. He may be initially successful at getting money, but it will only be a matter of time until it will start to crumble and completely fall apart. William Tweed is a perfect representation of this, a man who went from a millionaire to a man who had lost everything due to his love of the dollar bill.

About the author: Anthony Ruggiero currently a High School History Teacher in New York City, New York. In addition to teaching, I have been published in several magazines and blogs. For example, I have been published previously in History Is Now magazine, Historic-U.K.magazine, Tudor Life magazine, Discover Britain magazine, The Odd Historian magazine, the Culture-Exchange blog, Inside History magazine and The Freelance History Writer blog. Through continuing to research and write, I am able to share my findings with my students in order to engage them in their learning and help them succeed. My work can also be viewed on my Twitter handle: @Anthony10290122


Barry, D. (2000, December 12). The courthouse that Tweed built seeks to shed notorious past. The

New York Times, pp. B1, B9.

Dunlap, D. (1986, May 5). Boss Tweed's courthouse: An elegant monument to corruption. The

New York Times, pp. B1, B5.

Greenspan, J. (2013, May 23). Ten things you may not know about the Brooklyn Bridge.

Retrieved from


Hamill, P. (2005, March 27). Boss Tweed: The fellowship of the ring. [Review of the book Boss

Tweed: the corrupt sol who conceived the soul of modern New York]. The New York

Times. Retrieved from


Hinckley, D. (2002, November 11). The Tammany tiger. New York Daily News, p. 31.

Hirsch, M. (1945). More light on Boss Tweed. Political Science Quarterly, 60(2), 267-278.


Lynch, D. (1927). "Boss Tweed”: The story of a grim generation. New Brunswick, New Jersey:


Munson, S. (2005). Tammany's boss. Policy Review, (132), 82-86.

Simkin, J. (2014, August 1). William Tweed. Retrieved from http://spartacus-

Ybarra, T. (1921, July 10). The Orange Riots of fifty years ago. The New York Times, pp. 4-5.

Mr. Thomas Nast. (1872, March 20). The New York Times, p. 4.

No comments:

Post a Comment