Encyclopedia of New York City

William M(agear) "Boss" Tweed

(b New York City, 3 April 1823;d New York City, 12 April 1878). Political leader. His middle name was almost certainly Magear (his mother's maiden name) but is often given incorrectly as Marcy. Born in his family's home at 1 Cherry Street (now the site of the approaches to the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan), he left school at eleven to learn chairmaking from his father and was later apprenticed to a saddler; he also studied bookkeeping for a time, was a clerk at a mercantile office in the city, and worked as a bookkeeper and later a partner in brush shops at 206 and 357 Pearl Street. He married Mary Jane C. Skaden on 18 September 1844, and they lived for two years with her family at 193 Madison Street. Standing about six feet (1.82 meters) tall and weighing nearly three hundred pounds 136 kilograms), he had what James Bryce described as "an abounding vitality, free and easy manners, plenty of humor, though of a coarse kind, and a jovial swaggering way which won popularity for him among the lower and rougher sort of people." After joining a volunteer fire company, Engine Company no. 12, he was invited by the state assemblyman John J. Reilly to help form a new fire company, no. 6, in 1848; they named it the Americus Engine Company and adopted as its symbol the image of a fierce Bengal tiger (an animal later associated with Tammany Hall under Tweed's leadership and afterward). He became the foreman in 1849 and through the company, which was known as the Big Six, was introduced to municipal politics. After unsuccessfully seeking election as a Democratic assistant alderman in 1850 he won a seat in the following year as an alderman representing the seventh ward.counseling, and other services rather than place children in foster care. It moved to Riverside Drive and 168th Street, changing its name to the Westside Center for Family Services. In March 1988 the Westside Center merged with Harlem-Dowling Children's Services.

In 1852 Tweed joined his brother Richard in the family's chairmaking business and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. After serving a single term he was appointed to the Board of Education and in 1856 to the Board of Supervisors of New York County By 1858 he was a member of the general committee of Tammany Hall and the undisputed leader of the seventh ward. He and his well-trained ward heelers, district leaders, and block captains built a large power base by courting the support of Catholics and helping to feed, clothe, and shelter immigrants and the poor. Although he had little knowledge of the law he was certified as a lawyer by his friend George Barnard in 1860 and opened a practice at 95 Duane Street. Despite his defeat in the election for sheriff in 1861 he was widely recognized as an astute politician. Shortly after the election he was named chairman of the Democratic General Committee of New York County, and on 1 January 1863 he was chosen to lead the general committee of Tammany Hall. He earned the nickname "Boss" after becoming grand sachem of the society in April. He then formed a smaller executive committee, which eventually wielded much more power than the general committee, and had himself appointed deputy street commissioner. In the following year he bought a controlling interest in the New York Printing Company, which became the city's official printer and was paid lavishly for the work it performed. He also bought the Manufacturing Stationers' Company, which sold supplies to the city at wildly inflated prices, and used his law practice to extort large sums that were disguised as legal fees for services rendered.

Tweed began wearing a large diamond in his shirtfront and turned to real estate to invest the enormous sums that he received in the form of kickbacks. Among his properties was a fashionable brownstone at 41 West 36th Street that he bought in 1866, and by the late 186os he was one of the city's largest landowners. About this time he helped Jay Gould and Jim Fisk in their battle with Cornelius Vanderbilt for control of the Erie Railroad. Elected to the state senate in 1867, he pushed the Erie Classification Bill through the state legislature to legalize stock issued fraudulently by Gould and Fisk; they rewarded him with a large block of stock and a seat on the board of directors. Recognizing that he needed the support of his constituents to remain in power, he prevailed on the municipal government to provide more orphanages, almshouses, and public baths, helped to set up the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital, introduced a bill in the state legislature to fund parochial schools, sought to increase state appropriations to private charities, and fought for greater home rule for New York City. He also made himself the commissioner of public works. As the chairman of the senate committee on cities he oversaw the passage of a new charter for the city in 1870 that replaced the Board of Supervisors with a new Board of Audit. This body, consisting essentially of a group of associates known as the Tweed Ring, siphoned off staggering amounts of money from the many bond issues that were passed, and from 1869 to the end of 1871 the city's debt tripled and municipal taxes climbed accordingly.

Tweed moved into a mansion at 5th Avenue and 43rd Street and owned a stable on 40th Street where he kept his carriages and sleighs. By 1871 he was on the board of directors of the Harlem Gas Light Company, the Brooklyn Bridge Company, and the Third Avenue Railway Company, and was president of the Guardian Savings Bank. To keep control of their own fortunes and funds belonging to the city he and his confederates organized the Tenth National Bank. He also widened Broadway and fought to preserve a site for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park. Seeking to prevent a statue from being erected in his honor, he declared in March 1871: "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."

His fortunes soon changed, owing partly to the efforts of Thomas Nast, who exposed the corruption of Tweed and his associates in a series of cartoons. Evidence of the ring's corruption was passed to the New York Times, which published a series of damning articles from 8 July 1871, and in August Tweed began transferring his real-estate holdings and other investments to family members. After his reelection as chairman of the general committee of Tammany Hall he was served with an arrest warrant on 26 October; he nonetheless won reelection as a state senator in November and planned to return to Albany until his criminal indictment and arrest in December. At the end of the month he was deposed as grand sachem and expelled from the Tammany Society. His trial began on 7 January 1873 and ended in a hung jury. At a second trial, begun on 19 November, he was convicted on 204 of 220 counts, ordered to pay a fine of $12,750, and sentenced to twelve years in prison (when asked his occupation by prison officials, he replied "statesman"). He was released after a year when a judge ruled the sentence excessive, but was immediately rearrested on a civil charge and imprisoned on Ludlow Street. On 4 December 1875 he escaped to New Jersey during a visit to his family at 647 Madison Avenue. A civil trial in February 1876 ended in a judgment of $6 million against him. Using the alias John Secor, he fled to Florida and Cuba before reaching Spain, where the authorities sent him back to the city. He was returned to prison on 23 November. Toward the end of 1877 he disclosed many details of the ring's activities to a special committee of the Board of Alderman. On his death from pneumonia in prison Mayor Smith Ely refused to fly the flag at City Hall at half staff.

Tweed is the archetype of the bloated, rapacious, corrupt city boss. It is estimated that he and his associates illegally gained from $30 million to $200 million in their dealings with the city.

Alexander B. Callow Jr.: The Tweed Ring (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966)

Leo Hershkowitz: Tweed's New York: Another Look(Garden City, N.Y: Anchor / Doubleday, 1977)

Oliver E. Allen: The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1993)

-Allen J. Share

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