In the summer of 1870 proof was published of vast frauds by leading city officials, prominent among them "Boss" William M. Tweed, who, in the language of Judge Noah Davis, "saw fit to pervert the powers with which he was clothed, in a manner more infamous, more outrageous, than any instance of a like character which the history of the civilized world afforded."
William Marcy Tweed was born in 1823, at 24 Cherry Street, New York City. A youth devoted to business made him a fair penman and an adept reckoner, but not a business man. He, indeed, once attempted business, but, as he gave his chief attention to speculation, gambling and ward politics, completely failed, so that he seems forever to have renounced legitimate money-making. As a volunteer fireman, known as "Big Six," a gross, licentious Falstaff of real life, albeit loyal and helpful to his friends, Tweed led the "Roughs," being opposed by his more decent fellows, the "Quills." The tide of "respectability," receding uptown, left Tweed's ward in the hands of poor immigrants or the sons of such, who became partly his willing accomplices, partly his unwitting tools, in his onslaughts upon taxpayers. He began these forays at twenty-seven, as Alderman, suspended them for a time in Congress, resumed them in 1857 as Public School Commissioner, continued and enlarged them as member and four times president of the Board of Supervisors, and brought them to a climax as a functionary of the Street Department. He thus became, in time, the central sun in the system of brilliant luminaries known as the "Tweed Ring."
The multitudinous officials of the city were the Ring's slaves. At one time eight hundred policemen stood guard to prevent a hostile majority in Tammany Hall itself from meeting. The thugs of the city, nicknamed "Tweed's lambs," rendered invaluable services at caucus and convention. Two days before election these venal cohorts would assemble in the 340 election districts, each man of them being listed and registered under several assumed names and addresses. From Tweed's house in 1868 six registered, from Justice Shandley's nine, from the Coroner's thirteen. A State Senator's house was put down as the home of thirty voters. One Alderman's residence nominally housed twenty, another's twenty-five, an Assemblyman's fifteen. And so it went. Bales of fictitious naturalization papers were secured. One year 105,000 blank applications and 69,000 certificates were ordered printed. In one case thirteen men, in another fifteen, were naturalized in five minutes. The new citizens "put in" election day following their leaders from polling-place to polling-place as needed.
When thieves could be kept in power by such means plunder was easy and brazen. Contractors on public works were systematically forced to pay handsome bonuses to the Ring. One of them testified: "When I commenced building I asked Tweed how to make out the bills, and he said, 'Have fifteen per cent. over.' I asked what that was for, and he said, 'Give that to me and I will take care of your bills.' I handed him the percentage after that." Innumerable methods of fraud were successfully tried. During the year 1863 the expenditures of the Street Department were $650,000. Within four years Tweed quadrupled them. A species of asphalt paving, dubbed "Fisk's poultice," so bad that a grand jury actually declared it a public nuisance, was laid in great quantities at vast cost to the city. Official advertising was doled to twenty-six daily and fifty-four weekly sheets, of which twenty-seven vanished on its withdrawal. But all the other robber enterprises paled before the city Court House job. This structure, commenced in 1868, under stipulation that it should not cost more than $250,000, was in 1871 still unfinished after an outlay of $8,000,000, four times as much as was spent on Parliament House in London. Its ostensible cost, at least, was not less than $12,000,000. As by witchcraft the city's debt was in two years more than doubled. The Ring's operations cheated the city's taxpayers, first and last, out of no less than $160,000,000, "or four times the fine levied on Paris by the German army." Tho wallowing in lucre, and prodigal withal, Tweed was yet insatiably greedy. "His hands were everywhere, and everywhere they were feeling for money." In 1871 he boasted of being worth $20,000,000, and vowed soon to be as rich as Vanderbilt.
With his coarse nature the Boss reveled in jibes made at the expense of his honor. He used gleefully to show his friends the safe where he kept money for bribing legislators, finding those of the "Tammany Republican" stripe easiest game. Of the contractor who was decorating his country place at Greenwich he inquired, pointing to a statue, "Who the hell is that?" "That is Mercury, the god of merchants and thieves," was the reply. "That's bully!" said Tweed. "Put him over the front door." His donation of $100 for an altar cloth in the Greenwich Methodist Church the trustees sent back, declaring that they wanted none of his stolen money. Other charitable gifts of his were better received.
The city papers, even those least corruptible, were for long either neutral or else favorable to the Ring, but its doings were by no means unknown. They were matters of general surmise and criticism, criticism that seemed hopeless, so hard was it to obtain exact evidence.
But pride goeth before a fall. Amid its greatest triumph the Ring sowed the wind whence rose the whirlwind which wrought its ruin. At a secret meeting held in the house of John Morrissey, pugilist member of Congress, certain of the unsatisfied, soon known as the "Young Democracy," planned a revolt. Endeavoring to prevent the grant by the New York Legislature of a new charter which the Ring sought, the insurgents met apparent defeat, which, however, ultimately proved victory, Tweed building for himself far worse than he knew. The new charter, abstractly good, in concentrating power concentrated responsibility also, showing the outraged people, when awakened, where to strike for liberty. In spite of whitewashing by prominent citizens' of blandishments and bulldozing, of attempts to buy the stock of the Times and to boycott Harper's Weekly, where Nast's cartoonshis first work of the kindgave the Ring international notoriety, the reform spirit proved irresistible. The bar had been senile or quiet, but the New York Bar Association was now formed, which at once became what it has ever since been, a most influential censor of the bench. The Young Democracy grew powerful. Public-spirited citizens organized a Council of Political Reform.
The occasion of conclusive exposure was trivial enough. Sheriff O'Brien was refused part of what he thought his share of the sheriff fees. An expert accountant in the Comptroller's office supplied him with damning evidence against the Ring. On July 18, 1871, Mr. O'Brien walked into the Times office and, handing the editor a bundle of documents, said, "There are all the figures; you can do with them just what you please." The figures were published on the 20th in an exhibit printed in English and German, causing excitement compared with which that arising from the Orange Riot of July 12th seemed trifling. The sensation did not end with talk. On September 4th a mass-meeting of citizens was held at Cooper Institute and a committee of seventy prominent men chosen to probe the frauds and to punish the perpetrators. For the work of prosecution the Attorney-General appointed Charles O'Conor, who associated with himself the ablest counsel. Samuel J. Tilden was conspicuously active in the prosecution, thus laying the foundation for that popularity which made him the Governor of New York, 1875-'77, and in 1876 the Democratic candidate for the Presidency of the United States.
On October 28, 1871, Tweed was arrested and gave a million dollars' bail. In November, the same year , he was elected to the State Senate, but did not take his seat. On December 16th he was again arrested, and released on $5,000 bail. The jury disagreed on the first suit, but on the second he was convicted and sentenced to pay a fine of $12,500 and to suffer twelve years' imprisonment. This sentence was set aside by the Court of Appeals and Tweed's discharge ordered. In the meantime other suits had been brought, among them one to recover $6,000,000. Failing to find bail for $3,000,000, he was sent to the Ludlow Street Jail. Being allowed to ride in the Park and occasionally to visit his residence, one day in December he escaped from his keepers. After biding for several months he succeeded in reaching Cuba.
A fisherman found him, sunburnt and weary but not homesick, and led him to Santiago. Instead of taking him to a hotel, Tweed's guide handed him over to the police as probably some American filibuster come to free Cuba. The American consul procured his release (his passports had been given him under an assumed name), but later found him out. The discovery was too late, for he had again escaped and embarked for Spain, thinking there to be at rest, as we then had no extradition treaty with that country. Landing at Vigo, he found the governor of the place with police waiting for him, and was soon homeward bound on an American war-vessel. Caleb Cushing, our Minister at Madrid, had learned of his departure for that realm, and had put the authorities on their guard. To help them identify their man he furnished them a caricature by Nast, representing Tweed as a Tammany policeman gripping two boys by the hair. Thus it came about that "Twid antelme" was apprehended by our peninsular friends as a child-stealer. Tho everything possible was done to render him comfortable in jail, Tweed sighed for liberty. He promised, if released, to turn State's evidence and to give up all his property and effects. Some papers suggested that the public pitied the man and would be glad to have him set free. No compromise with him was made, however, and he continued in jail till his death in 1878.
1 From Andrews's "History of the Last Quarter-Century of the United States. 1780-1895." By permission of the publishers, Charles Scribner's Sons. Copyright, 1895, 1896.