The History of Tammany Hall

Fernando Wood’s First Administration

THOUGH the City Reform party brought about some beneficial changes in the system of city government, its Common Council did not meet public expectations.  The Tribune, the chief supporter of the party, admitted this (May 8, 1854), declaring that much feeling was manifested over the failure of the reformers to realize the public hopes, and attributing the failure “to the power of those representing the great political parties in the two boards to league together and sell out to each other the interests of the city as partizan or personal considerations might dictate.”

Accordingly, preparations were made to overthrow the new party.  Fernando Wood now secured the “Softshell” nomination for Mayor, by packing the convention with his henchmen.  The “Hardshells” held a separate convention, which ended in a row, a part nominating Wood, and the rest Augustus Schell.

Wood successfully intrigued to cause the Whigs to separate from the City Reformers;  and to further divide the opposition, Tammany nominated sham reformers for the lesser city and State offices.  The Whigs nominated for Mayor, John J. Herrick;  the City Reformers, Wilson G. Hunt, and the Native Americans, or “Know-Nothings,” springing to life again, put forward James W. Barker.  Schell, Wood’s Tammany opponent, withdrew in favor of Hunt.

The disreputable classes, believing that his success meant increased prosperity to themselves, energetically supported Wood, and the liquor-dealers formally commended him.  In the city at this time were about 10,000 shiftless, unprincipled persons who lived by their wits and the labor of others.  The trade of a part of these was turning primary elections, packing nominating conventions, repeating and breaking up meetings.  Most of these were Wood’s active allies.

He needed them all on election day.  With every resource strained to the utmost, he won by a close margin.  He was credited with 19,993 votes; Barker with 18,553; Hunt, 15,386, and Herrick, 5,712.  Tammany, therefore, succeeded, though in a minority of over 17,000 votes.

Upon assuming office, Wood surprised his followers by announcing that he would purge all offices of corruption and give good government.  His messages were filled with flattering promises and lofty sentiments.  At the outset he seemed disposed for good.  He closed the saloons on Sunday, suppressed brothels, gambling houses and rowdyism, had the streets cleaned, and opened a complaint book.  The religious part of the community for a time believed in him.  He assumed personal charge of the police, and when a bill was introduced in the Legislature to strip him of this power, the foremost citizens called a mass meeting to support him.

The troubles between the “Hardshells” and “Softshells” continued throughout the year 1855.  When the latter held their county ratification meeting in the Wigwam and the name of their nominee for Street Commissioner was announced, the “Hardshells,” who had come thither with a nominee of their own, Raised an uproar, whereupon “the factions on both sides went to work and pummeled each other pretty soundly and highly satisfactorily to the lookers, for at least ten minutes.”

The election of 1855 was of little consequence.  All eyes were now turned to the coming contest of 1856.  Before the end of a year Wood had begun to reveal his real nature.  Many of the decent element that had for a time believed in him began to turn against him.  He had also made himself unpopular with certain powerful Sachems by not giving them either a share, or a large enough share, in the spoils.  His appointments were made wholly from a circle of personal friends who were more attached to him than to the Tammany organization.  Knowing the folly of expecting a renomination from Tammany, as it was then constituted, he set about obtaining it by trickery.

Inducing Wilson Small, a Custom House officer holding a seat in the general committee, to resign, Wood had himself substituted.  Then he personally assumed control of the primary election inspectors in every ward, so as to manipulate the election of convention delegates.  He caused the appointment of an executive committee, which was to have the entire choice of inspectors in every instance in which the general committee failed to agree.  This new committee was composed mainly of his friends, and he named himself chairman.

His henchmen incited divisions in such of the wards as were not under the control of his inspectors, and the contests, upon being referred to the “executive committee,” were of course decided in Wood’s favor.  Thus he appropriated a great majority of the delegates to the nominating convention.

“It is well known,” wrote Peter B. Sweeny and J.Y. Savage, secretaries of the Tammany General Committee, in a long statement denouncing Wood’s thimble-rigging “that for many years this [primary] system has been degenerating until it has become so corrupt as to be a mere machine in the hands of unprincipled men, by which they foist themselves before the people as the nominees of a party for office in defiance of public sentiment.”1  Sweeny and Savage charged further than when the primary elections took place under this patent process for cheating the people, the ballot boxes were stuffed and detachments of police were stationed at every poll to aid Wood’s agents and bully his opponents.  A sickening mass of evidence of corruption was at hand, Sweeny and Savage recounted.

Wood was renominated by the city convention, and at an hour when most of his opponents on the general committee were absent, he had that body endorse his nomination by a vote of 56 to 26, nearly all of those voting being office-holders by his grace.

He also arranged a reconciliation between the “Hardshells” and “Softshells.”  With a show of traditional Tammany custom, the “Softs” marched in Indian file to the Stuyvesant Institute, the headquarters of the “Hards,” and the reunited leaders marched back to Tammany Hall — in pairs, arm-in-arm.  The “Hardshell”-“Softshell” contention thus became a thing of the past.

But Wood’s personal enemies in the Wigwam were not to be appeased, and they nominated a candidate to oppose him — James S. Libby.  Bitter feelings were aroused.  At the Wood ratification meeting in the Wigwam, October 22, both Wood and Anti-Wood men crowded in, and then ensued another of those clashes for which Tammany Hall had become so celebrated.  When John Kelly mentioned Wood’s name the Anti-Wood men raised a din and smothered the speaker’s voice.  The Wood men, growing enraged, “pitched into the Anti-Woodites hot and heavy, and for a time a scene of the wildest clamor ensued.  A general fight took place in front of the speaker’s stand and all round the room.  Blows were given and exchanged with great spirit, and not a few faces were badly disfigured.”  After a few planks had been plucked from the stand and wielded with telling effect, the Wood men won.  “The great body of the Libbyites were kicked out of the room and down the stairs with a velocity proportionate to the expelling force behind.”

The City Reform party was far from being satisfied with Wood’s administration.  In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that by the time of his second year in office the blackness of his administration exceeded anything known before.  Seasoned men fancied they knew something of corruption, extravagance and malfeasance in the City Hall, but by 1856 they better understood the growth of these under a reckless and unprincipled Mayor.

The saloon power had grown until it controlled the politics of the city.  In every groggery could be found a crowd of loafers and bruisers who could always be relied upon to pack a primary or insure or defeat the election of certain nominees. In these saloons the ward politicians held their meetings, and the keepers were ready at all times to furnish persons to parade, carrying partizan banners they could not read, or to cheer at mass meetings at the drop of a handkerchief.  The saloon-keepers also furnished cheap illegal voters, ballot-box stuffers and thorough-bred “shoulder-hitters,” to intimidate peaceable citizens, or as a last resort, to smash the ballot boxes.

The saloon-keepers were largely above the law.  A disingenuous bill, passed in 1855, ordered the saloons to be closed on Sunday, but made no provision for enforcement.  They were accordingly kept open, likely enough through assurances from Wood that the owners would not be molested.  Their support of the Mayor was wellnigh unanimous.

It was the domination of politics by this element that caused great irritation and disgust.  But the opposition to Wood was hopelessly divided.  It had to contend, moreover, with the adverse factor of the introduction into the campaign of national issues.  The fear of the new Republican party was sure to bring out a heavy vote for Buchanan and Breckinridge, and on the strength of this wave Tammany reasonably expected to be again swept into power.

The City Reformers had greatly declined in numbers, but they again came forward for the contest, nominating Judge James R. Whiting.2  The Native American party, still maintaining its bitterness against the control of politics by foreigners, chose Isaac O. Barker, and the Whigs, Anthony J. Bleecker, making, with Wood and Libby, five Mayoralty candidates.

Though backed by the dregs of the city on the one hand, Wood did not neglect to secure some “respectability” on the other.  During the campaign he received a testimonial signed by some of the leading bankers and merchants, praising him and his administration and expressing the hope of his reelection.  Nearly all of the signers, it was afterwards disclosed, profited by Wood’s placing of city funds or buying of city goods.

Wood sought to force every man on the police force to subscribe to his election fund, one policeman, who refused to contribute, being kept on duty twenty-four hours at a stretch.  From this source alone he gathered in from $8,500 to $10,000.

On election day the scum of the town shouted, repeated and bruised for Wood.  Candidates were traded openly, and bribing was unconcealed.3  The majority of the policemen were off on furlough, given by the Mayor as head of the Police Department, assisting actively for his reelection.  At the polling places, so terrific was the competition for the millions of city plunder, that the Wood and Anti-Wood men fought savagely.  In the Sixth Ward the Wood partizans, upon being attacked, retreated for the while, and coming back, armed with brickbats, clubs, axes and pistols, set upon and routed their foes.  The police meanwhile calmly looked on, until the riot was at its height, when they made a show of concern by firing fifteen or more shots, all of which fortunately went astray.  The Wood partizans then broke the ballot boxes to pieces and carried off the fragments for kindling wood.  In the Seventeenth Ward the Anti-Wood men destroyed some of the Wood boxes;  and in the First, and most of the other wards, the day was enlivened with assaults, riots and stabbings.

The count of the vote gave Wood, 34,860;  Barker, 25,209;  Bleecker, 9,654;  Libby, 4,764, and Whiting, 3,646.  The Buchanan electors carried the city with 41,913 votes; Fillmore, the American candidate, and Fremont, Republican, were allowed respectively 19,924 and 17,771 votes.  Tammany Hall obtained a serviceable majority in the Common Council.

The Republicans maintained that 10,000 fraudulent Democratic votes were cast in New York City and Brooklyn, and credited Wood with having profited by the most of those cast in this city.  It was not an unreasonable contention, in view of the enormous increase over the vote of two years before.

A few days after the election a meeting in Tammany Hall, called to celebrate Buchanan’s triumph, resolved that next to the success of Buchanan and Breckinridge, “the brightest and most signal achievement of the Democratic party, at this election, was the triumphant election of Fernando Wood !”

1 This statement was published officially in the New York newspapers, September 27, 1856.

2 Whiting, according to the testimony of James Perkins, before the Senate Investigating Committee in 1833, had been the chief lobbyist in the task of securing the notorious Seventh Ward Bank charter in 1831.  It is a striking commentary on political standards of the day that unrebutted charges of such a nature formed no bar to the advancement of a politician to such distinctions as those of Judge, District Attorney and reform candidate for Mayor.

3 Josiah Quincy related, in a lecture in Boston, that while in New York City on this election day, he saw $25 given for a single vote for a member of Congress.  Upon expressing his surprise, Quincy was told that this man could afford to pay it.  If reelected, it would be a money-making operation.  He had received $30,000 at the last session for “getting a bill through,” and at that rate could afford to pay a good price.