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William Magear 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

Born April 3, 1823(1823-04-03)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died April 12, 1878 (aged 55)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Profession Politician

William Magear Tweed (April 3, 1823 – April 12, 1878), sometimes erroneously referred to as William Marcy Tweed,[1] known as "Boss" Tweed, was an American politician most famous for his leadership of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine that played a major role in the politics of 19th century New York. 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 City Board of Advisors in 1856. In 1858, Tweed became the "Grand Sachem" of Tammany Hall. He was elected to the New York State Senate in 1867.

Tweed was convicted for stealing between $40 million and $200 million[3] (based on the inflation or devaluation rate of the dollar since 1870 of 2.7%, this is between 1.5 and 8 billion 2010 dollars) from New York City taxpayers through political corruption. He died in the Ludlow Street Jail.

Contents

Early life

Tweed was born April 3, 1823, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Son to a chair-maker of Scottish-Irish descent, Tweed made his entrance into politics when he organized the Americus Fire Company No. 6 (also known as the "big six") as a volunteer fire company. Tweed was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, the New York City Board of Advisors in 1856, and the New York State Senate in 1867. Financiers Jay Gould and Big Jim Fisk made Tweed a director of the Erie Railroad, and Tweed in turn arranged favorable legislation for them. Tweed and Gould became the subjects of political cartoons by Thomas Nast in 1869.

Scandal

Tweed-le-dee and Tilden-dum
A Harper's Weekly cartoon depicts Tweed as a police officer saying to two boys, "If all the people want is to have somebody arrested, I'll have you plunderers convicted. You will be allowed to escape, nobody will be hurt, and then Tilden will go to the White House and I to Albany as Governor."

By 1870, Tweed, as commissioner of public works, led a ring that controlled the government of New York City.[4] He and his associates—Peter Barr Sweeny (park commissioner), Richard B. Connolly (controller of public expenditures), and Mayor A. Oakey Hall—defrauded the taxpayers of many 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."[5] 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".[6]

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).[7] "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".[7]

Tweed's downfall began in April 1870 when he refused to authorize the Orange Parade, an annual Protestant celebration. City Sheriff James O'Brien, whose support for Tweed had fluctuated during Tammany's "reign", gave The New York Times evidence of embezzlement in light of the Protestant-Catholic riot that ensued on parade day. The newspaper was reportedly offered $5 million to not publish the evidence. In a subsequent interview, Tweed's only reply was, "Well, what are you going to do about it?"[citation needed] Accounts in The New York Times and political cartoons drawn by Thomas Nast and published in Harper's Weekly resulted in the election of numerous opposition candidates in 1871. 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!"[8]

Imprisonment, escape, and death

In October 1871, Tweed was arrested and held on $8 million bail. The efforts of political reformers William H. Wickham (1875 New York City mayor) and Samuel J. Tilden (later the 1876 Democratic presidential nominee) resulted in Tweed's trial and conviction in 1873. Tweed was given a 12-year prison sentence, which was reduced by a higher court and he served one year. He was then re-arrested on civil charges, sued by New York State for $6 million and held in debtor's prison until he could post $3 million as bail. On December 4, 1875, Tweed escaped from the custody of sheriff William C. Conner and fled to Spain where he worked as a common seaman on a Spanish ship.

The U.S. government discovered his eventual destination of Spain and arranged for his arrest as soon as he reached the Spanish border. He was delivered to authorities in New York City on November 23, 1876, and was returned to prison.[9] He was recognized in Spain from political cartoons showing his corruption. However, the Spanish constables did not recognize the significance of the cartoon and therefore believed they had apprehended a notorious child kidnapper.

Tweed died in the Ludlow Street Jail on April 12, 1878 from severe pneumonia. He was buried in the Brooklyn Green-Wood Cemetery.[10]

An 1869 tobacco label featuring Tweed

Contributions

In studies of Tweed and the Tammany Hall organization, historians have emphasized the thievery and conspiratorial nature of Boss Tweed along the Upper West Side, and securing land for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Certain aspects of Tammany Hall's activities (aid to the sick and unemployed, advocacy for tenants and workers) foreshadowed later developments in the U.S. labor movement and Social Security.

Despite having stolen millions from the public treasury, Tweed made many improvements to the city of New York including the widening of Broadway between 34th Street and 59th Street and the construction of many buildings in Manhattan.

Tweed also fought for the New York State Legislature to donate to private charities of all religious denominations, subsidize Catholic schools, orphanages, 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.[citation needed] Tweed also pushed through funding for a teachers college and prohibition of corporal punishment in schools, as well as salary increases for school teachers.

In popular culture

The 2002 film Gangs of New York has Tweed, played by Jim Broadbent, as a major supporting character. Both Tammany Hall and the type of corruption Tweed was known for have prominent places in the film.[11]

Tweed is portrayed sympathetically in Pete Hamill's novel Forever as a friend of the protagonist.

Notes

  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, Kenneth D. (2005). Boss Tweed. New York: Carrol & Graf Publishers. p. 2. ISBN 0-7867-1686-X. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=nzMoAc-iew0C&dq=boss+tweed&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=MegtesiEzO&sig=IMhTobW2YefK1CmQDDLEvxZdjP0&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=14&ct=result#PPA2,M1. 
  3. ^ "Boss Tweed", Gotham Gazette, New York, 4 July 2005.
  4. ^ Paine 1974, p. 140.
  5. ^ Paine 1974, p. 143.
  6. ^ Paine 1974, p. 144.
  7. ^ a b Digital History, Steven Mintz. "Digital History". Digitalhistory.uh.edu. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=211. Retrieved 2009-07-19. 
  8. ^ Bruce Jackson (2000-11-02). "lazio". Acsu.buffalo.edu. http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~bjackson/lazio.html. Retrieved 2009-07-19. 
  9. ^ "bioguide.congress.gov". bioguide.congress.gov. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=T000440. Retrieved 2009-07-19. 
  10. ^ Ackerman 2005:28
  11. ^ 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. 

References

  • Ackerman, Kenneth D. Boss Tweed. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005.
  • "Boss Tweed", Gotham Gazette, New York, 4 July 2005.
  • Sante, Luc. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003.
  • The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. High Beam Encyclopedia. 22, November 2008, <http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-Tweed-Wi.html>
  • 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.)

Further reading

  • 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
  • Ackerman, Kenneth D. Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Politician Who Conceived the Soul of New York, 2006.
  • Hershkowitz, Leo. Tweed's New York: Another Look, 1977.

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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