William “Boss” Tweed was so outlandishly a crooked politician, what he did in elected office in New York City was almost too devilish to believe. He stole so much cash from the New York City coffers, by 1870, Tweed had become the third largest land owner in the entire city.
William Tweed, a third generation Scottish-Irishman, was born on April 3, 1823 at 24 Cherry Street on the Lower East Side. His father was a chair maker and the young Tweed tired to follow in his father’s footsteps, but the lure of the streets was too much for him to overcome. He ran with a motley crew of juvenile delinquents called the “Cherry Street Gang,” who wrecked havoc on local merchants, by stealing their wares and selling them on the street’s black market. Soon Tweed became boss of the “Cherry Hill Gang,” and he (as did most gang members of that day) joined various volunteer fire companies, which were a springboard for men with big political ambitions. Tweed helped found American Fire Engine Company No. 6, which was called the Big Six. During his time in the volunteer fire business, Tweed forged friendships with people of all ancestries; Irish, Scottish, Germans, anyone who could help him climb the ladder of public services, with only one thing in mind, steal often and steal big.
In 1850, Tweed ran unsuccessfully for assistant alderman on the Democratic ticket. But a year later was elected alderman, a non-paying job, but with unlimited power for anyone smart enough and crooked enough to take advantage of its perks. Just scant weeks after he became an alderman, Tweed brokered a deal to buy land on Wards Island for a new potters field. The asking price was $30,000, but Tweed paid $103,450 of the city’s money for the land, then split the difference between himself and several other elected civic-minded officials.
In 1855, Tweed was elected to the city board of elections, which was another cash cow for the greedy Tweed. He sold city textbooks for his own profit and sold teacher’s jobs to whomever had the money to buy one. In once instance, he peddled a teacher’s position to a crippled schoolmarm for $75, even though the job only paid $300 a year. In 1857, Tweed was appointed to the New York County Board of Supervisors, which propelled Tweed into a much more profitable form of thievery. He formed what was known as the “Tweed Ring,” which was nothing more than Tweed and his buddies controlling every job and work permit in the entire city of New York. Every contractor, artisan and merchant, who wanted to do business with the city, had to cough up cash, and they coughed up plenty. It is estimated that Tweed’s board of supervisors pocketed 15% of every dollar spent on construction in New York City.
Concerning Tweed and his cronies, American lawyer and diarist George Templeton Strong wrote in 1860, “Our city government is rotten to the core.”
By 1865, Tweed’s wealth had grown to impressive proportions, as did his girth. Standing 5 feet 11 inches, Tweed’s weight ballooned to 320 pounds. His reputation for eating was legendary and he consumed enormous amounts of the finest foods. He floundered around town like a whale out of water, with a huge diamond stuck right in the middle of his fancy shirt, flouting his tremendous wealth.
It is estimated, from 1865 to 1871, Tweed’s gang stole as much as 200 million dollars from the New York City treasury. They did this by over-billing the city for everything imaginable. They paid out of the city’s coffers $10,000 for $75 worth of pencils; $171,000 for $4,000 worth of tables and chairs, and $1,826,000 for the plastering of a municipal building that cost only $50,000 to plaster. Tweed also gave citizenship to over 60,000 immigrant, none of whom could read or write, but who could vote for Tweed and his cohorts on election day.
Tweed’s downfall began on December 25, 1869, when Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon of Tweed and his gang breaking into a huge box, with the caption “Taxpayers’ and Tenants’ Hard Cash.” Upon seeing the cartoon, Tweeds 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!”
With the pressure mounting to unveil the extent of Tweed’s corruption, a blue ribbon panel, headed by future Presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden, was formed to investigate New York City’s financial documents. When the books were checked, it was discovered that money had gone directly from city contractors into Tweed’s pocket. The next day, Boss Tweed was arrested.
His first trial, in January 1873, ended in a hung jury — a jury many people thought was bought by Tweed’s money. But in November of that same year, Tweed was convicted on 204 out of 220 counts and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was incarcerated at the Ludlow Street Jail, but was allowed home visits. During one such visit, Tweed fled the country and traveled to Spain, where he worked as a seaman on a commercial ship. He was recognized, because his picture was frequently in the newspapers, and returned to America. He again was imprisoned at the Ludlow Street Jail; this time with no home visits allowed.
On April 12, 1878, Boss Tweed died in the Ludlow Street Jail from a severe case of pneumonia. He was buried in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery, and due to Tweed’s outlandish treachery, New York Mayor Smith Ely would not allow the City Hall flag to be flown at half staff in Tweed’s memory.
No one could account for what became of Boss Tweed’s vast amounts of ill-gotten gains, since there were no reports of a Wells Fargo stagecoach following his horse-drawn hearse.
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