The History of Tammany Hall

CHAPTER XVII
Defeat and Victory
1850-1852



UNDER a new charter the Mayor’s term was extended to two years, and the time of election, with that of the other city officers, was changed to November.  The latter change gave great satisfaction to the leaders, for it enabled them to trade votes.  Trading grew to such an extent that charges become common of this or that nominee for President, Governor, State Senator and so on being “sold out” by the leaders to insure their own election.

The Tammany organization, too, had made a change.  It had adopted the convention system of nominating.  This new method was much more satisfactory to the leaders, because the election of delegates to the conventions could easily be controlled, and the risk of having prearranged nominations overruled by an influx of “gangs” into the great popular meeting was eliminated.

A show of opposition to the proposed program was, however, still necessary.  The first general convention was held in October, 1850.  Fernando Wood was the leading candidate for Mayor, and it was certain that he would be nominated.  But the first ballot showed a half-dozen competitors.  The second ballot, however, disclosed the real situation, and Wood was chosen by 29 votes, to 22 for John J. Cisco.

Wood was a remarkable man.  As a tactician and organizer he was the superior both of his distant predecessor Burr and of his successors Tweed and Sweeny.  He was born in Philadelphia, in June, 1812, of Quaker parents.  At the age of thirteen, he was earning $2 a week as a clerk.  Later, he became a cigarmaker and tobacco dealer, and still later, a grocer.  As a lad he was pugnacious; in a Harrisburg bar-room he once floored with a chair a State Senator who had attacked him.  But he seems to have been amenable to good advice;  for once when a Quaker reprimanded him for his excessive use of tobacco with the observation, “Friend, thee smokes a good deal,” he at once threw away his cigar, and gave up the habit.

Coming to New York, he engaged in several business enterprises, all the while taking a considerable interest in politics.  He was elected to Congress in 1840, serving one term.  Gradually he came to make politics his vocation.  Political manipulation before his day was, at the best, clumsy and crude.  Under his facile genius and painstaking care, it developed to the rank of an exact science.  He devoted himself for years to ingratiating himself with the factors needed in carrying elections.1  He curried favor with the petty criminals of the Five Points, the boisterous roughs of the river edge, and the swarms of immigrants, as well as with the peaceable and industrious mechanics and laborers; and he won a following even among the business men.  All these he marshaled systematically in the Tammany organization.  Politics was his science, and the “fixing” of primaries his specialty; in this he was perhaps without a peer.

His unscrupulousness was not confined to politics.  During this brief campaign he was repeatedly charged with commercial frauds as well as with bribery and dishonest practises at the primaries.  A year later he was shown to have been guilty before this time of having defrauded a partner of $8,000, and he escaped conviction by the merest technicality.2

Political standards in the fifties were not high.  But the rowdy character of a great part of Tammany’s membership, and the personal character of many of its nominees, particularly that of Wood, proved too much to bear, even for those days, and a strong revulsion followed.  Former Mayors Havemeyer and Mickle;  John McKeon, a leader of note, and other prominent Democrats revolted.  The election resulted in a Whig victory, Ambrose C. Kingsland securing 22,546 votes to 17,973 for Wood.  A great Democratic defection was shown by the fact that Horatio Seymour carried the city by only 705 plurality.

So general were the expressions of contempt for the character of the Wigwam that the Sachems resolved to invoke again the spirit of patriotism, and consequently fixed upon a revival of the old custom of Independence Day celebrations.  In 1851 the ruling Council of Sachems was a mixture of compromise “Barnburners” and “Hunkers.”  The committee of arrangements — Elijah F. Purdy, Daniel E. Delavan, Richard B. Connolly, Stephen C. Duryea and three others — sent invitations, filled with lofty and patriotic sentiments, to various national politicians.  “Barnburners” also were invited, the conciliatory Sachems being sincerely tired of a warfare which threatened to exile them all from the sinecures of city and State offices.

The Society of Tammany, or Columbian Order, the circular said, had originated “in a fraternity of patriots, solemnly consecrated to the independence, the popular liberty and the federal union of the country.”  Tammany’s councils were “ever vigilant for the preservation of those great national treasures from the grasp alike of the treacherous and the open spoiler.”  It had “enrolled in its brotherhood many of the most illustrious statesmen, patriots and heroes that had constellated the historic banners of the past and present age... And it remained to the present hour,” the glowing lines read on, “instinct with its primitive spirit and true to the same sacred trust.”

The rhetoric delivered at the celebration was quite as pretentious and high-flown.  But the phrases made no impression on the public mind.  No impartial observer denied that the Wigwam’s moral prestige with the State and national party was for the time gone.  Throughout the country the belief prevailed that the politicians of the metropolis deserved no respect, merit or consideration;  and that they were purchasable and transferable like any stock in Wall street.

If before 1846 nominations were sold it was not an open transaction.  Since then the practise of selling them had gradually grown, and now the bargaining was unconcealed.  Upon the highest bidder the honors generally fell.  Whigs and Tammany men were alike guilty.  If one aspirant offered $1,000, another offered $2,000.  But these sums were merely a beginning; committees would impress upon the candidate the fact that a campaign costs money;  more of the “boys” would have to be “seen”;  such and such a “ward heeler” needed “pacifying”;  a band was a proper embellishment, with a parade to boot, and voters needed “persuading.”  And at the last moment a dummy candidate would be brought forward as a man who had offered much more for the nomination.  Then the bidder at $2,000 would have to pay the difference, and if the office sought was a profitable one, the candidate would be a lucky man if he did not have to disgorge as much as $15,000 before securing the nomination.  Some candidates were bled for as much as $20,000, and even this was a moderate sum compared to the prices which obtained a few years later.

The primaries were attended by “gangs” more rowdy and corrupt than ever;  Whig ward committees often sold over to Tammany,3 and Whig votes, bought or traded, swelled the ballot boxes at the Wigwam primaries.  Nearly every saloon was the headquarters of a “gang” whose energies and votes could be bought.  In Tammany Hall an independent Democrat dared not speak unless he had previously made terms with the controlling factions, according to a relatively fixed tariff of rates.  The primaries of both parties had become so scandalously corrupt as to command no respect.

The discoveries of gold in California and Australia created in all classes a feverish desire for wealth.  Vessel after vessel was arriving in the harbor with millions of dollars’ worth of gold dust.  Newspapers and magazines were filled with glowing accounts of how poor men became rich in a dazzlingly short period.  The desire for wealth became a mania, and seized upon all callings.  The effect was a still further lowering of the public tone; standards were generally lost sight of, and all means of “getting ahead” came to be considered legitimate.  Politicians, trafficking in nominations and political influence, found it a most auspicious time.

This condition was intensified by the influx of the hordes of immigrants driven by famine and oppression from Ireland, Germany and other European countries.  From over 129,000 arriving at the port of New York in 1847, the number increased to 189,000 in 1848, 220,000 in 1849, 212,000 in 1850, 289,000 in 1851 and 300,000 in 1852.  Some of these sought homes in other States, but a large portion remained in the city.  Though many of these were thrifty and honest, numbers were ignorant and vicious, and the pauper and criminal classes of the metropolis grew larger than ever.  The sharper-witted among them soon mended their poverty by making a livelihood of politics.  To them political rights meant the obtaining of money or the receiving of jobs under the city, State or national government, in return for the marshaling of voters at the polls.  Regarding issues they bothered little, and knew less.

The effects of the Whig and Native American denunciation of the alien vote were now seen.  The naturalized citizens almost invariably sided with Tammany Hall, although there were times when, by outbidding the Wigwam, the Whigs were enabled to use them in considerable numbers.

Despite an unusual degree of public condemnation, Tammany managed, by a temporary pacification of the factions and a general use of illegal votes, to carry the city in the Fall of 1851 by nearly 2,000 majority.  But it could not hold the regular Democratic strength, for Wright, the candidate for Governor, received over 3,000 majority.  Frauds were notorious.  In one of the polling places of the Nineteenth Ward, the Wigwam’s candidates for Alderman and Assistant Alderman were counted in after a mob invaded it and forced the Whig inspectors to flee for their lives.  When the votes for the Assembly ticket were counted 552 were announced, although there were only 503 names on the poll list.  This was but an instance of the widespread repeating and violence.

With its large majority in the Common Council Tammany at first made a feint at curtailing city expenses.  The taxpayers complained that the taxes were upwards of $3,500,000, for which there was little apparent benefit.  The new Common Council made professions of giving a spotless administration; but before its term was over it had generally earned the expressive title of “the Forty Thieves.”4  This was the body that with lavish promises of reform replaced the Whig Common Council.  William M. Tweed, an Alderman in the “Forty Thieves” Common Council, was busy in the Fall of this year indignantly defending, in speeches and public writings, the Aldermen from the numerous charges of corruption;  but, as will be seen, these charges were by no means groundless.

Since the passings of the Equal Rights party, the mechanics and laborers had taken no concerted part in politics, not even as a faction.  But at this period they were far from being lethargic.  The recent discoveries of gold and silver had given a quickened pulse to business, enormously increasing the number of transactions and the aggregate of profits.  The workers were determined to have their share of this prosperity, and acted accordingly.  Old trade-unions were rapidly strengthened and new ones formed.  More pay and shorter hours of work were demanded.  Between the Spring of 1850 and the Spring of 1853 nearly every trade in the city engaged in one or more strikes, with almost invariable success.

Having now no sincere leaders to prompt them to concerted political action, the workers oscillated listlessly between the two parties.  They had lost the tremendous influence secured in the thirties, and the business element had again become dominant.  Legislature and Common Council vied with each other in granting exploitative charters, and the persons who secured these, generally by bribery, were considered the leaders of public opinion.  Every company demanding special privileges of the State maintained its lobby at Albany.  The City Council was more easily reached, and was generally dealt with personally.  Fortunes were made by plundering the city and State, and while the conduct of the agents and actual performers in this wholesale brigandage — the lobbyists, Legislators and Aldermen — was looked upon somewhat doubtfully, their employers stood before the world as the representatives of virtue and respectability.  The one force which might have stood as a bulwark against this system of pillage had been so completely demoralized by its political experiences that it could now only look on and let matters drift as they would.

In the Baltimore Democratic convention the Wigwam was represented by so boisterous a delegation that its speakers were denied a hearing.  Among the delegates were Capt. Rynders, “Mike” Walsh and a number of the same kind.  Cass was their favorite, and they shouted for him lustily;  but on attempting to speak for him they were invariably howled down, despite the fact that Cass had a majority of the convention almost to the end of the balloting.

The Wigwam, however, lost no time in indorsing the nomination of Franklin Pierce.  In this ratification the “Barnburners” joined, ardently urging the election of candidates on a platform which held that Congress had no power under the Constitution “to interfere with the domestic institutions of the States”;  which advocated compromise measures, the execution of the Fugitive Slave law, and which opposed all attempts to agitate the slavery question.

The election of November, 1852, was not only for President and Congressmen, but for a long list of officials, city and State.  Each of the Wigwam factions began playing for advantage.  On July 16 a portion of the general committee met, apparently to accept an invitation to attend the funeral of Henry Clay.  The “Barnburners,” finding themselves in a majority, sprang a trick upon the “Hunkers” by adopting a plan of primary elections favorable to their side.  Later the general committee, in full meeting, substituted another plan, and a great hubbub followed.  A “committed of conciliation,” composed of members of both factions, was appointed.  When it met, on August 20, the halls, lobbies and entrances of Tammany Hall were filled with a vicious assortment of persons, chiefly inimical to the general committee.  “The bar-room,” wrote a chronicler, “was the scene of several encounters and knockdowns.  It was only necessary for a man to express himself strongly on any point, when down he went, by the hammer-fist of one of the fighting men.”  Even members of the committee, while passing in and out of the room, were intimidated.  Daniel E. Sickles was threatened with personal violence, and it might have gone hard with him had he hot taken the precaution of arming himself with a bowie and revolver.  Members’ lives were constantly threatened;  the scenes of uproar and confusion were indescribable.  Mr. Sickles, for his own safety, had to jump from a window to Frankfort street, and other members were forced to retreat through secret byways.5  It was near day-break when the factions consented to leave the Wigwam.

The anxiety of each was explained by the proceedings at the primaries.  The faction having a majority of the inspectors secured by far the greater number of votes, and consequently the delegates who had the power of making nominations.  At the primaries of August, 1852, fraud and violence occurred at nearly every voting place.  In some instances one faction took possession of the polls and prevented the other from voting;  in others, both factions had control by turns, and fighting was desperate.  One party ran away with a ballot box and carried it off to the police station.  Many ballot boxes, it was alleged, were half filled with votes before the election was opened.  Wards containing less than 1,000 legal Democratic voters yielded 2,000 votes, and a ticket which not a hundred voters of the ward had seen was elected by 600 or 700 majority.  Whigs, boys and paupers voted;  the purchasable, who flocked to either party according to the price, came out in force, and ruffianism dominated the whole.

The police dared not interfere.  Their appointment was made by the Aldermen and Assistant Aldermen, with the nominal consent of the Mayor, exclusively on political grounds and for one year.  The policeman’s livelihood depended upon the whims of those most concerned in the ward turmoils.  A hard lot was the policeman’s.  On the one hand, public opinion demanded that he arrest offenders.  On the other, most of the Aldermen had their “gangs” of lawbreakers at the polls, and to arrest one of these might mean his dismissal.6  But this was not all.  The politics of the Common Council changed frequently;  and to insure himself his position the guardian of the peace must conduct himself according to the difficult mean of aiding his own party to victory and yet of giving no offense to the politicians of the other party.  Hence, whenever a political disturbance took place the policeman instantly, it was a saying, became “deaf and blind, and generally invisible.”7

The necessity of uniting to displace the Whigs from the millions of city patronage and profit brought the factions to an understanding.  Jacob A. Westervelt, a moderate “Hunker,” and a shipbuilder of wealth, who was considered the very essence of “respectability,” and a contrast to Wood, was nominated for Mayor.  Tammany planned to have its candidates swept in on the Presidential current.  National issues were made dominant, and the city responded by giving the Pierce electors 11,159 plurality, and electing the whole organization ticket.8  Fraud was common.  No registry law was in force to hinder men from voting, as it was charged some did, as often as twenty times.  On the other hand, 80,000 tickets purporting to be Democratic, intended for distribution by the Whigs, but not containing the name of a single Democrat, were seized at the post-office and carried in triumph to the Wigwam.

Tammany once more had full control of the city.




1 Wood’s was an attractive personality.  He was a handsome man, six feet high, slender and straight, with keen blue eyes, and regular features.  His manner was kindly and engaging.

2 Wood was charged with having obtained about $8,000 on false representations from his partner, Edward E. Marvine, in a transaction.  Marvine brought suit against Wood in the Superior Court, and three referees gave a unanimous decision in the plaintiffs favor.  The Grand Jury, on November 7, 1851, indicted Wood for obtaining money under false pretenses, but he pleaded the Statute of Limitations.  A friendly Recorder decided that as his offense had been committed three years previously (on November 7, 1848), the period required by the statute had been fully covered.  The indictment, therefore, was quashed, and Wood escaped by one day.

3 New York Tribune, May 5, 1852.  (This admission on the part of a Whig journal caused a great stir.)

4 There was another “Forty Thieves” Council five or six years later, which must not be confounded with the earlier and more notorious one.

5 The Herald, which, as usual, supported Tammany this year, described (August 24, 1852) these violences in detail.

6 The political lawbreaker had a final immunity from punishment in the fact that Aldermen sat as Justices in the Mayor’s Court, which tried such culprits, if ever they happened to be arrested.

7 See Report of Chief of Police Matsell, Documents of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. XXX, part 1, No. 17.  The extreme turbulence of the city at this time may be judged from the fact that, despite the comparative immunity of political lawbreakers, during the eight years 1846-54, 200,083 arrests were made, an average of 25,010 a year.

8 The vote on Mayor stood:  Westervelt, 33,251;  Morgan Morgans, 23,719;  Henry M. Western, 861;  blank and scattering, 227;  total, 58,058.