William M. Tweed

William M. Tweed
William M. Tweed
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 5th district
In office
March 4, 1853 – March 3, 1855
Preceded by George Briggs
Succeeded by Thomas R. Whitney
Personal details
Born April 3, 1823(1823-04-03)
New York City, New York.
Died April 12, 1878(1878-04-12) (aged 55)
New York, New York.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Mary Jane C. Skaden
Profession Politician

William Magear Tweed (April 3, 1823 – April 12, 1878) – often erroneously referred to as William Marcy Tweed (see below),[1] and widely known as "Boss" Tweed – was an American politician most notable for being the "boss" of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine that played a major role in the politics of 19th century New York City and State. At the height of his influence, Tweed was the third-largest landowner in New York City, a director of the Erie Railway, the Tenth National Bank, and the New-York Printing Company, as well as proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel.[2]

Tweed was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, and the New York County Board of Supervisors in 1858, the year he became the "Grand Sachem" of Tammany Hall. He was also elected to the New York State Senate in 1867, but Tweed's greatest influence came from being an appointed member of a number of boards and commissions, his control over political patronage in New York City through Tammany, and his ability to ensure the loyalty of voters through jobs he could create and dispense on city-related projects.

Tweed was convicted for stealing an amount estimated by an aldermen's committee in 1877 at between $25 million and $45 million from New York City taxpayers through political corruption, although later estimates ranged as high as $200 million.[3][4] He died in the Ludlow Street Jail.


Early life

Tweed was born April 3, 1823 at 1 Cherry Street,[5] on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Son of a third-generation Scottish-Irish chair-maker, Tweed grew up on Cherry Street. At the age of 11, he left school to learn his father's trade, and then became an apprentice to a saddler.[5] He also studied to be a bookkeeper and worked as a brushmaker for a company he had invested in, before eventually joining in the family business in 1852.[5] In 1844, he married Mary Jane C. Skaden, and lived with her family on Madison Street for two years.

Ticket to a 1859 "soiree" to benefit Tweed's Americus Engine Co.

Tweed became a member of the Odd Fellows and the Masons, and joined a volunteer fire company, Engine No. 12.[5] In 1848, at the invitation of state assemblyman John J. Reilly, he and some friends organized the Americus Fire Company No. 6, also known as the "Big Six", as a volunteer fire company, which took as its symbol a snarling red Bengal tiger, a symbol which remained associated with Tweed and Tammany Hall for many years.[5] At the time, volunteer fire companies competed vigorously with each other; some were connected with street gangs and had strong ethnic ties to various immigrant communities. The competition could be so fierce that buildings would sometimes burn down while the fire companies fought each other.[6] Tweed became known for his ax-wielding violence, and was soon elected the Big Six foreman. Pressure from Alfred Carlson, the chief engineer, got him thrown out of the crew, but fire companies were also recruiting grounds for political parties at the time, and Tweed's exploits came to the attention of the Democratic politicians who ran the Seventh Ward, who put him up for Alderman in 1850, when Tweed was 26. He lost that election to the Whig candidate, but ran again the next year and won, garnering his first political position.[7]

Tweed was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, but his two year term was undistinguished.[8] In an attempt by Republican reformers in Albany, the state capital, to control the Democratic-dominated New York City government, the power of the New York County Board of Supervisors was beefed up. The board had 12 members, six appointed by the mayor and six elected, and in 1858 Tweed was appointed to the board, which became his first vehicle for large-scale graft; Tweed and other supervisors forced vendors to pay a 15% overcharge to their "ring" in order to do business with the city.[8] By 1853, Tweed was running the seventh ward for Tammany.[5]

Although he was not trained as a lawyer, Tweed's friend George Barnard certified him as an attorney, and Tweed opened a law office on Duane Street. He ran for sheriff in 1861 and was defeated, but became the chairman of the Democratic General Committee shortly after the election, and was then chosen to be the head of Tammany's general committee in January 1863. Several months later, in April, he became "Grand Sachem", and began to be referred to as "Boss", especially after he tightened his hold on power by creating a small executive committee to run the club.[5] Tweed then took steps to increase his income: he used his law firm to extort money, which was then disguised as legal services; he had himself appointed deputy street commissioner – a position with considerable access to city contractors and funding; he bought the New-York Printing Company, which became the city's official printer, and the city's stationery supplier, the Manufacturing Stationers' Company, and had both companies begin to overcharge for their goods and services.[5] He also started to form what became known as the "Tweed Ring", by having his friends appointed to office: George Barnard became recorder; Peter B. Sweeny the district attorney; and Richard Connolly the county clerk.[8]

Thomas Nast depicts Tweed in Harper's Weekly

With his new position and wealth came a change in style: Tweed began to favor wearing a large diamond in his shirtfront – a habit that Thomas Nast used to great effect in his attacks on Tweed in Harper's Weekly beginning in 1869 – and he bought a brownstone to live in at 41 West 36th Street, then a very fashionable area. He invested his now considerable illegal income in real estate, so that by the late 1860s he ranked among the biggest landowners in New York City.[5]

Tweed was elected to the New York State Senate in 1867, where he helped financiers Jay Gould and Big Jim Fisk take control of the Erie Railroad from Cornelius Vanderbilt by arranging for legislation that legitimized fake Erie stock certificates that Gould and Fisk had issued. In return, Tweed received a large block of stock and was made a director of the company.[5]


After the election of 1869, Tweed took control of the New York City government. His protégé, John Hoffman, the former mayor of the city, won election as governor, and Tweed garnered the support of good government reformers like Peter Cooper and the Union League Club, by proposing a new city charter which returned power to City Hall at the expense of the Republican-inspired state commissions. The new charter passed, thanks in part to $600,000 in bribes Tweed paid to Republicans, and was signed into law by Hoffman in 1870. Mandated new elections allowed Tammany to take over the city's Common Council when they won all fifteen aldermanic contests.[9]

The new charter put control of the city's finances in the hands of a Board of Supervisors, which consisted of Tweed, who was the commissioner of public works, and mayor A. Oakley Hall and comptroller Richard "Slippery Dick" Connolly, both Tammany men. Hall also appointed other Tweed associates to high offices – such as Peter B. Sweeny, who took over the Department of Public Parks[9] – providing the Tweed Ring with even firmer control of the New York City government[10] and enabling them to defraud the taxpayers of many more millions of dollars. In the words of Albert Bigelow Paine, "their methods were curiously simple and primitive. There were no skilful manipulations of figures, making detection difficult ... Connolly, as Controller, had charge of the books, and declined to show them. With his fellows, he also 'controlled' the courts and most of the bar."[11] Contractors working for the city – "Ring favorites, most of them – were told to multiply the amount of each bill by five, or ten, or a hundred, after which, with Mayor Hall's 'O. K.' and Connolly's indorsement, it was paid ... through a go-between, who cashed the check, settled the original bill and divided the remainder ... between Tweed, Sweeny, Connolly and Hall".[12]

For example, the construction cost of the New York County Courthouse, begun in 1861, grew to nearly $13 million – about $178 million in today's dollars, and nearly twice the cost of the Alaska Purchase in 1867.[13] "A carpenter was paid $360,751 (roughly $4.9 million today) for one month's labor in a building with very little woodwork ... a plasterer got $133,187 ($1.82 million) for two days' work".[13]

Nast depicts the Tweed Ring: "Who stole the people's money?" / "'Twas him."

Tweed and his friends also garned huge profits from the development of the Upper East Side, especially Yorkville and Harlem. They would buy up undeveloped property, then use the resources of the city to improve the area – for instance by installing pipes to bring in water from the Croton Aqueduct – thus increasing the value of the land, after which they sold and took their profits. The focus on the east side also slowed down the development of the west side, the topography of which made it more expensive to improve. The ring also took their usual percentage of padded contracts, as well as raking off money from property taxes. Despite the corruption of Tweed and Tammany Hall, they did accomplish the development of upper Manhattan, though at the cost of tripling the city's bond debt to almost $90 million dollars.[14]

During the Tweed era, the proposal to build a suspension bridge between New York and Brooklyn, then an independent city, was floated by Brooklyn-boosters, who saw the ferry connections as a bottleneck to the Brooklyn's further development. In order to ensure that the Brooklyn Bridge project would go forward, State Senator Henry Cruse Murphy approached Tweed to find out whether New York's aldermen would approve the proposal. Tweed's response was that $60,000 for the aldermen would close the deal, and contractor William C. Kingsley put up the cash, which was delivered in a carpetbag. Tweed and two other from Tammany also received over half the private stock of the Bridge Company, the charter of which specified that only private stockholders had voting rights, so that even though the cities of Brooklyn and Manhattan put up most of the money, they essentially had no control over the project.[15]

Tweed bought a mansion on Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, and stabled his horses, carriages and sleighs on 40th Street. By 1871, he was a member of the board of directors of not only the Erie Railroad and the Brooklyn Bridge Company, but also the Third Avenue Railway Company and the Harlem Gas Light Company. He was president of the Guardian Savings Banks and he and his confederates set up the Tenth National Bank to better control their fortunes.[5]


Tweed's downfall came in the wake of the Orange riot of 1871, which came after Tammany Hall banned a parade of Irish Protestants celebrating an historical victory against Catholicism, because of a riot the year before in which eight people died when a crowd of Irish laborers attacked the paraders. Under strong pressure from the newspapers and the Protestant elite of the city, Tammany reversed course, and the march was allowed to proceed, with protection from city policemen and state militia. The result was an even larger riot in which over 60 people were killed and more than 150 injured.

Although Tammany's electoral power base was largely centered in the Irish immigrant population, it also needed the city's elite to acquiesce in its rule, and this was conditional on the machine's ability to control the actions of their people, but the July riot showed that this capability was not nearly as strong as had been supposed.[16]

Nast shows Tweed's source of power: control of the ballot box. "As long as I count the Votes, what are you going to do about it?"

Tweed had for months been under attack from the New York Times and Thomas Nast, the cartoonist from Harper's Weekly – regarding Nast's cartoons, Tweed reportedly said, "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!"[17] – but their campaign had only limited success in gaining traction. They were able to force an examination of the city's books, but the blue-ribbon commission of six businessmen appointed by Mayor Abraham Oakley Hall, a Tammany man, which included John Jacob Astor III, banker Moses Taylor and others who benefited from Tammany's actions, found that the books had been "faithfully kept", letting the air out of the effort to dethrone Tweed.[18]

The response to the Orange riot changed everything, and only days afterwards the Times/Nast campaign began to garner popular support.[18] More importantly, the Times started to receive inside information from County Sheriff James O'Brien, whose support for Tweed had fluctuated during Tammany's reign. O'Brien had tried to blackmail Tammany by threatening to expose the ring's embezzlement to the press, and when this failed he provided the evidence he had collected to the Times.[19] Shortly afterward, county auditor Matthew J. O'Rourke supplied additional details to the Times,[19] which was reportedly offered $5 million to not publish the evidence.[20] The Times also obtained the accounts of the recently-deceased James Watson, who was the Tweed Ring's bookkeeper, and these were published daily, culminating in a special four-page supplement on July 29 headlined "Gigantic Frauds of the Ring Exposed".[18] In August, Tweed began to transfer ownership in his real-estate empire and other investments to his family members.[5]

The exposes provoked an international crisis of confidence in New York City's finances, and, in particular, in its ability to repay its debts. European investors were heavily positioned in the city's bonds and were already nervous about its management – only the reputations of the underwriters were preventing a run on the city's securities. New York's financial and business community knew that if the city's credit was to collapse, it could potentially bring down every bank in the city with it.[18]

Thus, the city's elite met at Cooper Union in September to discuss political reform: but for the first time, the conversation included not only the usual reformers, but also Democratic bigwigs such as Samuel J. Tilden, who had been thrust aside during Tammany's elevation. Although some at the meeting advocated lynching Tweed, the general consensus was that the "wisest and best citizens" should take over the governance of the city and attempt to restore investor confidence. The result was the formation of the Executive Committee of Citizens and Taxpayers for Financial Reform of the City (also known as "the Committee of Seventy"), which attacked Tammany by cutting off the city's funding. Property owners refused to pay their municipal taxes, and a judge – Tweed's old friend George Barnard, no less – enjoined the city Comptroller from issuing bonds or spending money. Unpaid workers turned against Tweed, marching en masse to City Hall demanding to be paid. Tweed doled out some funds from his own purse – $50,000 – but it wasn't sufficient to alleviate the crisis, and Tammany began to lose its essential base.[18]

Shortly thereafter, the Comptroller resigned, appointing Andrew Haswell Green, an associate of Tilden's, as his replacement. Green loosened the purse strings again, allowing city departments not under Tammany control to borrow money to operate. Green and Tilden had the city's records closely examined, and discovered money that went directly from city contractors into Tweed's pocket. The following day, they had Tweed arrested.[18]

Imprisonment, escape, and death

Tweed was released on $1 million bail, and Tammany set to work to recover its position through the ballot box. Tweed was re-elected to the state senate in November 1871, due to his personal popularity and largesse in his district, but in general Tammany did not do well, and the members of the Tweed Ring began to flee the jurisdiction, many going overseas. Tweed was re-arrested, forced to resign his city positions, and was replaced as Tammany's leader. Once again, he was released on bail – $8 million this time – but Tweed's supporters, such as Jay Gould, felt the repercussions of his fall from power.[18]

Tweed's first trial, in January 1873, ended with a hung jury, but his retrial in November resulted in convictions on 204 of 220 counts, a fine of $12,750[5] ($225,000.00 in 2010, adjusted for inflation) and a prison sentence of twelve years. Tweed served a year before the sentence was overturned, but was then hit with a civil suit by New York State attempting to recover $6 million in embezzled funds. Unable to put up the $3 million bail, Tweed was locked up in the Ludlow Street Jail, although he was allowed home visits. On one of these, Tweed escaped and fled to Spain, where he worked as a common seaman on a Spanish ship.[18] The U.S. government discovered his whereabouts and arranged for his arrest as soon as he reached the Spanish border; he was recognized from Nast's political cartoons. He was turned over to an American warship,[18] which delivered him to authorities in New York City on November 23, 1876, and he was returned to prison.[21]

Desperate and broken, Tweed now agreed to testify about the inner workings of his corrupt Ring to a special committee set up by the Board of Alderman,[5] in return for his release, but after he did so, Tilden, now governor of New York, refused to abide by the agreement, and Tweed remained incarcerated. He died in the Ludlow Street Jail on April 12, 1878 from severe pneumonia, and was buried in the Brooklyn Green-Wood Cemetery.[22] Mayor Smith Ely would not allow the flag at City Hall to be flown at half staff.[5]


In studies of Tweed and the Tammany Hall organization, historians have emphasized the thievery and conspiratorial nature of Boss Tweed, but along with lining his own pocket, and those of his friends and allies, Tammany and Tweed made substantial contributions to the development of New York City.

Tweed recognized that the support of his constituency was necessary for him to remain in power, and as a consequence he used the machinery of the city's government to provide numerous social services, including building more orphanages, almshouses and public baths.[5] Tweed also fought for the New York State Legislature to donate to private charities of all religious denominations, subsidize Catholic schools and hospitals, and keep the King James Bible available in schools. From 1869 to 1871, under Tweed's influence, the state of New York spent more on charities than for the entire time period from 1852 to 1868 combined[23] Tweed also pushed through funding for a teachers college and prohibition of corporal punishment in schools, as well as salary increases for school teachers. Certain aspects of Tammany Hall's activities – such as aid to the sick and unemployed, and advocacy for tenants and workers – foreshadowed later developments in the U.S. labor movement and Social Security.

During Tweed's regime, Broadway was widened between 34th Street and 59th Street, land was secured for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Upper East Side and Upper West Side were developed and provided the necessary infrastructure – all to the benefit of the purses of the Tweed Ring, but also, ultimately, to the benefit of the people of the city.

Tweed himself wanted no particular recognition of his achievements, such as they were. When it was proposed, in March 1871, when he was at the height of his power, that a statue be erected in his honor, he declared: "Statues are not erected to living men ... I claim to be a live man, and hope (Divine Providence permitting) to survive in all my vigor, politically and physically, some years to come."[5] One of Tweed's unwanted legacies is that he has become "the archetype of the bloated, rapacious, corrupt city boss.[5]

An 1869 tobacco label featuring Tweed

Middle name

Tweed never signed his name with anything other than a plain "M.", and his middle name is often mistakenly listed, even by otherwise reputable sources, as "Marcy", rather than "Magear", but Tweed's son's name was William Magear Tweed, Jr. The confusion is almost certainly because of a Thomas Nast cartoon with a picture of Tweed, supplemented with a quote from William L. Marcy, the former governor of New York.[24]

In popular culture

In 1945 Boss Tweed was portrayed by Noah Beery, Sr. in the Broadway production of Up In Central Park, a musical comedy with music by Sigmund Romberg.[25] The role was played by Malcolm Lee Beggs for a revival in 1947.[26] In the 1948 film version, Tweed is played by Vincent Price.

On the 1963–1964 CBS TV series The Great Adventure, which presented one hour dramatizations of the lives of historical figures, Edward Andrews portrayed Tweed in the episode "The Man Who Stole New York City", which aired on December 13, 1963.[27]

In John Varley's 1977 science-fiction novel The Ophiuchi Hotline, a crooked politician in a 27th-century human settlement on the Moon assumes the name "Boss Tweed" in emulation of the 19th-century politician, and names his lunar headquarters "Tammany Hall". Tweed was played by Philip Bosco in the 1986 TV movie Liberty,[28] and by Jim Broadbent as a major supporting character in the 2002 film Gangs of New York.[29] Tweed is portrayed as a defender of the rights of minorities and helper of those in need in Pete Hamill's 2003 novel Forever.


  1. ^ "William Magear Tweed (American politician) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia". britannica.com. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/610865/William-Magear-Tweed. Retrieved 2009-11-17. 
  2. ^ Ackerman, p. 2
  3. ^ "Boss Tweed", Gotham Gazette, New York, 4 July 2005.
  4. ^ Based on the inflation or devaluation rate of the dollar since 1870 of 2.7%, $25-$200 million is between $1 and $8 billion 2010 dollars
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Share, Allen J. "Tweed, William M(agear) 'Boss'" in Jackson, Kenneth T., ed (1995). The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300055366. , p.1205-1206
  6. ^ Burrows & Wallace, pp.654, 724, 823
  7. ^ Burrows & Wallace, p.823
  8. ^ a b c Burrows & Wallace, p.837
  9. ^ a b Burrows & Wallace, pp.927-928
  10. ^ Paine, p. 140.
  11. ^ Paine, p. 143.
  12. ^ Paine, p. 144.
  13. ^ a b Mintz, Steven. "Digital History". Digitalhistory.uh.edu. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=211. Retrieved 2009-07-19. 
  14. ^ Burrows & Wallace, pp.929-931
  15. ^ Burrows & Wallace, pp.934-935
  16. ^ Burrows & Wallace, pp.1003-1008
  17. ^ Bruce Jackson (2000-11-02). "lazio". Acsu.buffalo.edu. http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~bjackson/lazio.html. Retrieved 2009-07-19. 
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i Burrows & Wallace, pp.1008-1011
  19. ^ a b Ellis, pp. 347–348.
  20. ^ Paine, p. 170.
  21. ^ "Tweed, William Marcy, (1823 - 1878)". bioguide.congress.gov. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=T000440. Retrieved 2009-07-19. 
  22. ^ Ackerman, p. 28
  23. ^ Ackerman, p. 66.
  24. ^ Nevius, Michelle (2009). Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City. New York: Free Press. pp. 120. ISBN 978-1-4165-8997-6. http://books.google.com/books?id=O8K5OCC4CMwC&pg=PA120&lpg=PA120&dq=Boss+Tweed+%22Middle+Name%22#v=onepage&q=Boss%20Tweed%20%22Middle%20Name%22&f=false. 
  25. ^ Up In Central Park (1945) on Internet Broadway Database
  26. ^ Up In Central Park (1947) on Internet Broadway Database
  27. ^ The Great Adventure: The Man Who Stole New York City at the Internet Movie Database
  28. ^ "Characters: Boss Tweed" on IMDB
  29. ^ Ebert, Roger (2002-12-20). "Gangs of New York". suntimes.com. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20021220/REVIEWS/212200304/1023. Retrieved 2009-05-17. 
  • Ackerman, K. D. (2005). Boss Tweed: The rise and fall of the corrupt pol who conceived the soul of modern New York. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 0786714352.
  • Burrows, Edwin G. & Wallace, Mike (1999). Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195116348. 
  • The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. High Beam Encyclopedia. 22, November 2008, [1]
  • Ellis, Edward R. (2004). The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History. Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 0786714360,
  • "Boss Tweed", Gotham Gazette, New York, 4 July 2005.
  • Paine, Albert B. (1974). Th. Nast, His Period and His Pictures. Princeton: Pyne Press. ISBN 087861-079-0 (The original edition, published in 1904, is now in the public domain.)
  • Sante, Luc. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003.
Further reading
  • Hershkowitz, Leo. Tweed's New York: Another Look, 1977.
  • Lynch, Denis T. Boss Tweed The story of a grim generation. Blue Ribbon Books NY first print 1927 copyright Boni & Liveright Inc.
  • Mandelbaum, Seymour J. Boss Tweed's New York, 1965. ISBN 0471566527

External links

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
George Briggs
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 5th congressional district

March 4, 1853 – March 3, 1855
Succeeded by
Thomas R. Whitney
Party political offices
Preceded by
Fernando Wood
Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall
1858 – 1871
Succeeded by
John Kelly

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