William Magear Tweed worked at a brush factory, and moved into management after marrying the owner's daughter. He soon became a rising star in New York City politics of the 1850s and a key player in Tammany Hall, the behind-the-scenes group that had make-or-break power over local Democratic Party nominations. By the late 1850s Tweed and his associates controlled the group, and in 1863 he was elected Chair of Tammany Hall.
With absolute power over who could be nominated as a Democratic candidate and enormous influence over appointments to office, "Boss Tweed" was himself appointed a Deputy Street Commissioner, and began putting cronies on the city payroll for doing no work. With his substantial kickbacks, Tweed bought several companies which were promptly awarded city contracts. He was elected to the State Senate in 1867, and within months had charmed and cajoled his way to similar near-absolute control over the state's capitol.
In famously barbed caricatures, Thomas Nast, cartoonist for Harper's Weekly, was one of the few prominent voices to speak against him, but Boss Tweed's dynasty was brought down from within, when other members of Tammany Hall shared evidence of Tweed's corruption with the New York Times. The Times ran a series of articles exposing Tweed in July 1871, and on 16 December 1871 he was arrested. On 19 November 1872 he was convicted on 204 of the 220 charges against him, and sentenced to thirteen years in debtors' prison.
After nineteen months in jail, he was released on appeal, then immediately re-arrested to face additional charges and civil suits. Freed from prison on an 1875 "furlough" weekend, he fled to Spain, where he was arrested as soon as his ship docked. When he was returned to prison in New York, Tweed gave a complete confession to all his crimes in hopes of leniency or a pardon, but his listed crimes were so extensive -- exceeding even what was already known, and implicating many high-ranking officials -- that the state's Attorney General refused to make a deal. He died in the federal prison in New York City.
Tweed & Thomas Nast
William Magear Tweed (1823-1878), more commonly known in American
history as “Boss Tweed,” was an object of scathing criticism by Thomas Nast.
Tweed was a New York City politician who led a group of corrupt politicians
who gained power in the Democratic party in 1863, when Tweed was elected
“Grand Sachem” of Tammany Hall. Originally a fraternal organization formed in
1786, the Society of Tammany grew more political in the nineteenth century
and its building became the site where the Democratic party activists often met.
Although he held minor elective offices, Tweed primarily exercised power
through his control of patronage, the ability to appoint supporters to jobs in
New York City government. For instance, after he was appointed
commissioner of public works, Tweed enlarged the street maintenance crew to
include twelve jobs as “manure inspectors.”
Not only did Tweed maintain and increase his power by rewarding his
supporters, he also profited personally from business conducted by the city of
New York. For a company to receive business contracts with the city, it had to
inflate its prices and kick back a portion of its income to Tweed and his closest
associates in local government. This coterie of corrupt politicians enriching
themselves at the public’s expense was known at the time as the Tweed Ring.
The Tweed Ring was successful in part because it was popular among many
voters, especially the Irish immigrants who had flooded the city in search of a
better livelihood. Tweed and his friends ensured that Irish-American supporters
received jobs and other assistance from the city government and from
companies doing business with the city.
For Nast, Tweed personified two great evils afflicting American society after
the Civil War: corruption and greed, on the one hand, and the influence of Irish
immigrants on the other. Harper’s Weekly and the New York Times crusaded
against corruption in city government in 1870 and 1871. Nast used his talents in
a campaign to undermine Tweed and rally good government forces to
overthrow the boss. Cartoon after cartoon pictured Tweed as a thief. In
addition to his caricatures of Tweed, Nast created the Tammany Tiger as a
symbol for the Ring, and sometimes he used it as a more general symbol for the
Nast succeeded in creating a negative image of Boss Tweed but was less
successful in turning him out of power. Eventually, rivals in the Democratic Party,
who sought the spoils of office for themselves, turned on Tweed. They provided
evidence of his corruption to local newspapers, which eventually gave
prosecutors the proof needed to convict Tweed. Businesses hoping to recover
money extorted by the Tweed Ring also sued the fallen boss. He eventually fled
the country, but was captured and returned. Tweed died in prison.