Boss Tweed and the Forty Thieves of New York City

Though tall and imposing – he would weigh in excess of 300 pounds – William Magear Tweed could be a subtle charmer, with a friendly smile, a firm handshake, sparkling blue eyes and an uncanny memory for faces and names. With the support of Democrat-controlled Tammany Hall, the former fireman won election to the New York Common Council and took his seat as alderman in January 1852. There he began his training in the establishment of patronages. It got him what he wanted. For Tweed, money, not the common good, was always the desired reward. The lessons he learned in the Common Council helped him found his Tweed Ring, which allowed that group to dominate New York politics and devastate the city’s treasury in the years following the Civil War.

The Common Council’s 20 Aldermen and 20 Assistant Aldermen had the power to appoint constables and district commanders, to judge criminal cases and to license saloons. Such responsibilities lined many of their pockets with kickbacks and bribes. And while not everyone in Tweed’s class of 1852 qualified as a fraud, the group instituted the most corrupt council the town had ever seen. Their nefarious behavior earned the councilors the nickname “Forty Thieves”.

Tweed boasted that he and his colleagues “know the value of a $50 bill, if used wisely, and the echo it will generate”. And there was a vast and steady supply of money to be had through appropriations and contracts for the widening, paving, and widening of roads; prison and school construction; Tram and ferry concessions and real estate sales. Tweed was a member of the Legal, Ferries and Repairs and Supplies Committee and Broadway Paving Committee and, with the help of his colleagues, organized shady property sales. When the city’s Gansevoort Market — one of New York’s most valuable properties — came up for sale, bids were received for $225,000 and $300,000. However, the city council accepted an offer of $160,000, with the men earning between $40,000 and $75,000.

To obtain the right to operate ferry lines from New York to Brooklyn, the applicants paid thousands of dollars under the table in hopes of securing the deal. Railroad concessions for thoroughfares like Third and Eighth Avenues were particularly tempting. What the Forty Thieves liked most was the idea of ​​a line on Broadway, the hippest street in town. When attorney Jake Sharp and others asked for the right to operate one, they offered a meager license fee of $20 per car. An overwhelming majority of the street’s landowners attempted to thwart Sharp’s plan by making their own. Department store owner Alexander Stewart proposed a per-car license fee of up to $1,000 per year, while hotelier David Haight offered $10,000. However, Sharp handed out bribes, and unsurprisingly, Tweed and his colleagues granted him the franchise. When Stewart and others protested Sharp’s selection, Mayor Ambrose Kingsland vetoed the franchise.

Despite the setback, Tweed had his eye on an even bigger prize and won a seat in Congress. But Washington turned out to be very different from New York. As a junior representative, Tweed had little power, failed to garner extra money and was not re-nominated. Back in town, he bided his time and in 1855 secured a seat on the Board of Education, taking kickbacks from the sale of textbooks and the purchase of furniture.

In 1857 the state legislature in Albany established a new board of directors. After the Forty Thieves’ misdeeds, the state hoped the group would impose good governance on local politicians by auditing spending and overseeing taxation and public improvements. In an effort to be fair, Albany balanced the composition of the board with six Democratic and six Republican representatives. But the parties filled the positions with loyalists like Tweed. When the board gained the power to select election inspectors, Tweed used bribery to tip the votes and Democrats secured a say in 550 of the 609 seats, allowing them to decide the outcome of the election.

William Tweed would continue his rise to citywide power and wealth. He would take on roles such as Grand Sachem of Tammany, President of the Board of Supervisors and Chairman of New York County’s Democratic Central Committee. With so much control, he would become known as “Boss”, a title derived from the Dutch word bass for “master”. To solidify his position, he formed his infamous ring with like-minded cronies like Richard B. Connolly, A. Oakey Hall and Peter B. Sweeny. The men orchestrated massive voter fraud, used patronage and bribery to sway judges, drained the city’s coffers, and made money through such shady deals as forged leases and selling overpriced products and services to the city. As public works officer, Tweed oversaw road openings. By doing so, they learned of development plans so they could buy land on which to build new streets and avenues and make a big profit.

What has become the most visible sign of Boss Tweed’s evil ways dates back to the early days of the Civil War. In December 1861, the cornerstone of the New York County Courthouse was laid on Chambers Street. The great Italianate building took about two decades to complete, with Tweed buying a marble quarry in Massachusetts to supply much of the stone. As work progressed, almost every contractor benefited from overpayments. All of this increased the cost of what has become known as the Tweed Courthouse from its original budget of $250,000 to around $12 million.

Many tried to end control of Tweed’s ring. 1871, the New York Times published a series on the group’s misconduct. Future governor Samuel Tilden, who served as chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee, launched an investigation. and Harper’s Weekly Political cartoonist Thomas Nast brought scathing caricatures of Tweed and his friends. The Nast pics particularly annoyed Tweed, who once exclaimed: “Stop the damn pics. I don’t really care what the newspapers say about me. My constituents can’t read, but they can’t help but see those damn pictures!”

All helped turn public opinion against Tweed and his ring. By then, they had siphoned between $30 million and $200 million from the city. Tweed was convicted of theft and forgery and fled to Spain. There he was captured, partly because the locals recognized him from Nast’s drawings. He died in Ludlow Street Jail in April 1878, aged 55.

Feature image by Thomas Nast, published 1876, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain