The History of Tammany Hall

Whig Failure Restores Tammany to Power

THE course of the Whig city administration served only to strengthen Tammany and was responsible for the conviction, which later so often prevailed, that if Tammany Hall was bad the Whigs were no better, and were perhaps worse.  At this time of general distress complaints were numerous that the sum of $1,300,000 was exacted from the rentpayers in a single year.  In the early part of 1838 one-third of all the persons in New York City who subsisted by manual labor was substantially or wholly without employment.1  Not less than 10,000 persons were in utter poverty and had no other means of surviving the Winter than those afforded by the charity of neighbors.  The Almshouse and all charitable institutions were full to overflowing;  the usual agencies of charity were exhausted or insufficient, and 10,000 sufferers were still uncared for.  The great panic of 1837 had cut down the city’s trade one-half.  Notwithstanding the fall of prices, the rents for tenements in New York were greater than were paid in any other city or village upon the globe.2  So exorbitant were the demands of the landlords that the tenants found it impossible to meet them.  The landowners were the backbone of the Whig party;  it was not unnatural, therefore, that their rapacity developed among the people at large a profound distrust of Whig men and principles.

The Whig officials, so far as can be discovered, took no adequate steps to relieve the widespread suffering.  The Tammany ward committees, on the other hand, were active in relief work.  This was another of the secrets of Tammany Hall’s usual success in holding the body of voters.  The Whigs made fine speeches over champagne banquets, but kept at a distance from the poor, among whom the Wigwam workers mingled, and distributed clothing, fuel and food and often money.  The leaders set the example.  One of these was John M. Bloodgood,3 who frequently went among the charitable citizens, collecting, in a large basket, cakes, pies, meat and other eatables, and distributing them among the needy.

In the Spring of 1838 Tammany nominated Isaac L. Varian for Mayor, and the Whigs renominated Aaron Clark.  The Whigs used the panic as an example of the result of Democratic rule.  Controlling the city, they employed all its machinery to win.  It was reasonably certain that they did not stop at fraud.  In some wards canvassing was delayed until other wards were heard from.  In still other wards the Whigs refused to administer the oath to naturalized citizens.  With all this they obtained a plurality of only 519 out of 39,341 votes.  Had it not been for dissensions in the tumultuous Sixth Ward, Tammany would have won.

In the Fall election of 1838 the Whig frauds were enormous and indisputable.  The Whigs raised large sums of money, which were handed to ward workers for the procuring of votes.  About two hundred roughs were brought from Philadelphia, in different divisions, each man receiving $22.  Gen. Robert Swartwout, now a Whig, at the instance of such men as Moses H. Grinnell, Robert C. Wetmore and Noah Cook, former Wigwam lights, who left the Hall because the “destructionist” Anti-Monopolists captured it, arranged for the trip of these fraudulent voters.  After having voted in as many wards as possible, each was to receive the additional compensation of $5.  They were also to pass around spurious tickets purporting to be Democratic.  The aggregate Whig vote, it was approximated, was swelled through the operations of this band by at least five to six hundred.4  One repeater, Charles Swint, voted in sixteen wards.  Such inmates of the House of Detention as could be persuaded or bullied into voting the Whig ticket were set at large.  Merritt, a police officer, was seen boldly leading a crowd of them to the polls.  Ex-convicts distributed Whig tickets and busily electioneered.  The cabins of all the vessels along the wharves were ransacked, and every man, whether or not a citizen or resident of New York, who could be wheedled into voting a Whig ballot, was rushed to the polls and his vote was smuggled in.  The Whigs were successful, their candidate for Governor, William H. Seward, receiving 20,179 votes, to 19,377 for William L. Marcy.

Departing from its custom of seeking local victory on national issues, Tammany, in April, 1839, issued an address expatiating on the increase of the city expenses from a little over $1,000,000 in 1830 to above $5,000,000 in 1838.  Deducting about $1,500,000 for the Croton works, there would still remain the enormous increase of $2,500,000.  The city population had not trebled in that time, nor had there been any extraordinary cause for expenditure.  Where had all this money gone ?

Tammany further pointed out that, unlike the Whigs, it had never stooped so low as to discharge the humble laborers in the public service, when it (Tammany) held the Common Council.  Nor had it ever been so abject as to provide them with colored tickets, as the Whigs had done, so that the laborers might be detected if they voted contrary to their masters.  Tammany further charged that the Whigs in the previous election had taken the Almshouse paupers, with embossed satin voting tickets in their hands, to the polls, and were planning to do it again.

Tammany made good use of this charge.  But the practise was not exclusively a Whig industry.  In those years both Democrats and Whigs, according to which held power, forced Almshouse paupers to vote.  for a fortnight before the election the paupers were put in training.  On the morning of election they were disguised with new clothing, so that the public might not see their gray uniforms.  They were given tickets to vote “and tickets for grog, silver coin and also good advice as to their conduct at the polls.”  Then they were carried to the polls in stages, with an officer on each step to see that none escaped.  Many would return to the Almshouse drunk and with torn clothing, or after having exchanged their new garments for liquor.5  There were usually about 800 paupers.  In the Fall and Winter of 1888 a quarter of the population was relieved at the Almshouse.

Clark and Varian were both renominated for Mayor in the Spring of 1889.  Preparations for fraud on a large scale were made by both parties.  The newspapers supporting Varian admitted that Tammany thought proper to follow the Whigs’ example, and to counteract its effects, by colonizing the doubtful wards with Democratic voters.  On both sides repeating was general.  An Albany police officer named Coulson brought twenty-three persons, one of whom was only seventeen years old, to New York City, where they voted the Whig ticket in the different wards.  For this they received $5 in advance, and $1 a day.

Of the 41,113 votes Varian6 received 21,072, and Clark 20,005.  The Wigwam secured a majority of 12 in the Common Council.

Fearing that Tammany in power would use the administration machinery in elections even more than had the Whigs, the latter now made a great outcry for a registry law,7 proclaiming it the only fraud preventive.  The sudden conversion of the Whig leaders to civic purity called forth derision.  But the people at large, the non-politicians, ashamed of such barefaced frauds in their city, took up the agitation.  The Registry bill was introduced in the Legislature in May, 1839.  It provided for the registration of voters in New York City, and made fraudulent voting a felony, with severe penalties.

After the frauds of 1834 the Wigwam leaders had given out that they would take serious steps to obtain from the Legislature a law causing voters to be registered, but had done nothing.  They now opened a campaign against the Whig bill.  In the Spring of 1840 the ward committees declared against it on the pretext that it interfered with constitutional rights;  that it was an insidious attempt to take from the poor man either his right of suffrage or to make the exercise of that right so inconvenient as practically to debar him from voting.  The Common Council, on March 16, 1840, denounced the proposed law as inquisitorial, tyrannical and disfranchising in its effect, as well as unjust, because they (the Aldermen) “know of no sin which she (New York City) has committed to make her worthy of the signal reproach now sought to be cast upon her.”8  A few days later the Common Council on joint ballot delivered itself of a solemn protest against the constitutionality of the Registry bill, and on the night of March 24 an assemblage in the Wigwam did likewise.  It was in this year that the full account of the Whig frauds of 1838 was made public.  Commenting upon this, the Tammany Nominating Committee, with characteristic naivete, said in its address:  “It is with shame that we record these dark transactions and proclaim them to the people.  We would, if we could, blot out their existence, for it brings disgrace on our whole country and will make the enemies of civil freedom laugh with joy.”

The Registry bill became a law, but Tammany continued to protest against it.  When, in 1841, the Legislature increased the penalties for its violation, Acting Mayor Elijah F. Purdy commented upon it severely.9

The able, sincere and high-minded William Leggett, the guiding spirit of the Equal Rights party, died on May 29, 1839, not quite forty years old.  The Tammany Young Men’s General Committee eulogized his virtues and talents, proclaimed him amongst the purest of politicians and announced the purpose of raising a monument to his memory.  Of this committee, curious to relate, the chairman was Fernando Wood and the secretary Richard B. Connolly — two men who became known for anything but devotion to the virtues they here exalted.

Leggett, some years before this, had become a radical Abolitionist.  By this time the anti-slavery movement in the city and State had grown to considerable proportions, though as yet it had exercised but little influence on politics.  Several riots had taken place in the streets of the city, two rather serious ones happening on July 9 and 10, 1834, and June 21, 1835, and Lewis Tappan, an antislavery propagandist, had been mobbed.  The local movement gradually acquired new adherents, and constantly increased its propaganda.  At this period, however, it was more in the nature of a growing moral force.

During this period another great series of disclosures regarding Tammany chieftains was made public.  Samuel Swartwout, whom Jackson had made Collector of the Port shortly after coming into office in 1829, fled from the city late in 1838.  He had long been a power in the organization.  His name had been mentioned unpleasantly when he, with M.M. Noah and Henry Ogden,10 contrived by means of their official positions to get $10,000 reward for the recovery of the jewels stolen from the Prince of Orange, though the recovery had been made by others.  And in 1833 he had threatened, as Collector of the Port, to remove the Custom House uptown because the merchants would not lend him more than $7,000 on the strength of some worthless “Jersey meadows.”  Three years later he was connected with the unsavory Harlem Railroad stock corner and the manipulation of the funds of the Commercial Bank.  Early in 1838 he joined forces with the notorious politicians of the Seventh Ward Bank for the defeat of William Leggett for the Democratic nomination for Congress, securing the nomination of Isaac L. Varian in his stead.  A few months later the city was astounded to learn that since 1830 he had been systematically robbing the Government, through the manipulation of Custom House receipts, and that the total of his thefts amounted to nearly $1,250,000.11  Fleeing to Europe, he wandered aimlessly about12 for many years.13  The community was so impressed with the size of this defalcation that a verb, “to Swartwout,” was coined, remaining in general use for many years thereafter.  A defaulter was generally spoken of as having “Swartwouted.”

A lesser figure in Tammany circles, though a person of considerable consequence, followed Swartwout in flight.  This was William M. Price, at the time District Attorney for the Southern District of New York.  It was discovered that he had defaulted to the Government in the sum of $75,000.  Price, like so many other Tammany politicians of his time, had been mixed up with Seventh Ward Bank politics.  During the latter part of his career he had been known as the personal representative in the city of President Van Buren.

During the following Spring, William Paxen Hallett, a member of the “Big Four” against whom the Equal Rights party had so energetically protested in 1836, was made the defendant in a civil suit involving grave fraud.  As referee in a suit for damages of one John A. Manning against one Charles J. Morris, Hallett had wrongfully reported that only trifling judgments remained outstanding against Morris, and the court had accordingly given the latter a year’s time in which to make good a judgment for $3,496 rendered in favor of Manning.  It appeared, however, in the proceedings before the Superior Court, May 20, 1839, that Hallett knew, or should have known, of a previous judgment against the defendant for $15,014.44 in favor of one Nathan Davis, who during the year of grace seized upon all of Morris’s property, thus defrauding Manning.  The testimony was so convincing that Hallett was forced to compromise the suit by paying the damages asked for.  Through the influence of the organization, however, he escaped prosecution.

The “ring” of Police Justices had for several years been a crying scandal.  Whig and Tammany magistrates were equally involved.  Public clamor fixed upon John M. Bloodgood, despite his private charities, as the first victim.  The Assistant Aldermen impeached him in January, 1839,14 and submitted the case to the Court of Common Pleas, by whom he was tried.15  Testimony was brought out tending to show that the Police Justices, by means of an understanding with policemen and jailers, extorted money from prisoners and shielded counterfeiters, thieves, street walkers and other malefactors from arrest or conviction.  The charges were dismissed.16  Stronger testimony of the same kind was brought out in May, 1840, on the trial of Police Justice Henry W. Merritt, and other testimony involved in the same way Special Justice Oliver M. Lowndes.  The case, however, was dismissed.17

A strong public agitation had been waged for the reorganization of the criminal courts.  The Weekly Herald of February 1, 1840, had made the statement that the farce of conducting the correctional machinery of the city involved a yearly sum of $1,360,564 — this sum being the total of judges’, policemen’s and court attendants’ salaries (about $50,000), added to the blackmail exacted from offenders, and various “pickings and stealings.”  The statement was an extravagant one; $700,000 would have been nearer the mark.  But whatever the sum, the acquittal of the Police Justices by their fellows in judicial evildoing indicated that the carnival was to continue.  The Tammany leaders had been “out” for the two years 1837-38, and were now vigorously making hay while the sun shone, while such of their Whig contemporaries as still held office were vying with the chiefs in systematic and organized plundering.

The Manhattan Bank scandals were made public in February, 1840.  This was the bank whose charter Aaron Burr had so ingeniously secured in 1799.  It had been a Tammany institution from the beginning, and Tammany politicians had ruled its policies.  It was now generally regarded as the leading financial institution in the city, rivaled only by the Bank of America.  It carried $600,000 of Government funds on deposit, and, of course, a large city and State fund.

It was now shown that for years it had loaned large sums to Tammany leaders and to family connections of its directors and officials, and that it had spent other large sums for political purposes.  The total of its worthless loans and political expenditures reached the enormous sum of $1,344,266.99.  Cashier Campbell P. White, tried on the technical charge of stealing several of the bank’s books, was freed through the disagreement of the jury,18 but on a second trial, charged with assaulting Jonathan Thompson, a Tammany director of the bank who had criticized his management, he was fined $250 and imprisoned for fifteen days.19  In the midst of the excitement Colin G. Newcomb, the teller, disappeared with $50,000.  That the bank weathered the storm well-nigh reaches the dimensions of a miracle.  Paulding, twice a Tammany Mayor;  Bowne, another Tammany ex-Mayor;  and Robert H. Morris, at that time Recorder, appeared as the defendant’s witnesses in the first trial.  White was an influential Wigwam chief, and in 1832 had been elected to Congress on the Tammany ticket.

1 The New Yorker, January 20, 1838.

2 Ibid., February 17, 1838.  James Parton, in his biography of Horace Greeley, attributes the latter’s conversion and life-long devotion to Socialist principles in large part to the frightful sufferings which he witnessed in New York City, in the Winter of 1838.

3 Bloodgood was the son of Abraham Bloodgood, one of the earliest Tammany politicians.  The son likewise achieved considerable influence in the organization.  He was for a long time a Police Justice.  He will be met with again toward the end of this chapter.

4 Confession of Hart Marks, one of the leaders, before Justice Lowndes in the lower Police Court, November 6, 1838, and of Jonathan D. Stevenson and others in the Recorder’s Court, October 20,1840.

5 Documents of the Board of Aldermen, 1844-45, XI, No. 51.

6 Varian was a rugged, popular, but not over-educated man.  Sir Charles Lyell, the noted British geologist, once asked him questions as to the formation of Manhattan Island.  Varian said he had dug a well on his farm at Murray Hill and after going through “a stratagem of sand and a stratagem of clay they struck a stratagem of red rock.”  At another time, while reading a New York newspaper at the Stanwix House in Albany, Varian remarked to Walter Bowne, then Mayor, that they had a new Street Inspector in New York City.  “Indeed ! who is he ?”  “A perfect stranger,” replied Varian;  and he read from the paper:  “‘Last evening the wind suddenly changed to the north, and this morning, thanks to Old Boreas, our streets are in a passable condition.’  Old Boreas,” said Varian, reflectively, “I thought I knew every Democrat in New York, but I never heard of him.”

7 In 1834 the Board of Assistant Aldermen had passed a resolution in favor of the registry of voters, and the Native American Association, early in 1838, had petitioned the Legislature similarly.  The Whigs seized hold of the movement as political capital for themselves.

8 Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. XVIII, pp. 404-5.

9 Ibid., Vol XX, pp. 229-30.

10 Ogden was a Tammany politician of considerable importance.  At the time of Swartwout’s flight he was the Cashier of the Custom House, a post which he had held for several years.  He was also a director of the Seventh Ward Bank.

11 The exact amount was $1,222,705.69.  House Executive Document, No. 13, Twenty-fifth Congress, Third Session;  also House Report, No. 313.

12 A pathetic tale is told of an American meeting Swartwout in Algiers, several years after this episode, and of the defaulter crying like a child over his enforced exile from the land of his birth.

13 Jesse Hoyt, another Sachem, succeeded Swartwout as Collector of the Port.  Hoyt was charged, about this time, with having defaulted in the sum of $30,000 in dealings with certain Wall street brokers.  The Superior Court Judgment Roll for 1839-40 records two judgments against him, secured by Effingham H. Warner, one for $10,000 and one for $5,747.72.  Both judgments were satisfied within a few years after his assumption of the Collectorship of the Port.

14 See “Articles of Impeachment,” Journal and Documents of the Board of Assistant Aldermen, 1839, Vol. XIII, No. 12 and No. 25.

15 Court Minutes, New York Common Pleas, record of February 19 and 20, 1839.  (These records are neither paged nor indexed.) The Common Pleas of this time was popularly known as the Mayor’s Court; and the Judges were the Mayor, Recorder and certain Aldermen.  The later Court of Common Pleas was not established until 1856.

16 A curious reason for the dismissal was given in the decision of the Judges.  It was that the charges had not been individually sworn to.  It appeared, therefore, that the Board of Assistant Aldermen, acting in its official capacity in formulating impeachment proceedings, was not a recognizable party before the Court of Common Pleas.

17 Journal and Documents of the Board of Assistant Aldermen, 1839-40, Vol. XV, No. 71.  The reason for dismissing these charges was identical with that given in the case of Bloodgood.  A statement of the case is given in the report of District Attorney James R. Whiting to the Board of Aldermen during this year.  See Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen, 1840, Vol. XIX, pp. 135-37.  The Common Pleas volume for 1840 is missing from its place in the County Court Building.

18 Session Minutes, 1840.

19 Ibid.