The History of Tammany Hall

Wood’s Second Administration

UNDER Wood’s second administration city affairs went from bad to worse.  The departments reeked with frauds.  The city paid Robert W. Lowber $196,000 for a lot officially declared to be worth only $60,000 and to two-thirds of which, it was proved, Lowber had no title.  Controller Flagg charged that both the Mayor and the Common Council were parties to it.1  Fraudulent computations and illegitimate contracts were covered by false entries.2  Amounts on the ledger were revised so as to steal considerable sums from the city outright.3  To Bartlett Smith had been awarded a contract for grading certain streets.  Before beginning work, however, the Legislature created Central Park out of that very territory.4  Smith demanded $80,000 from the city “for trouble in arranging to do the grading”—a claim the Common Council allowed, but Flagg refused to pay.

It was generally charged that Wood sold the office of Street Commissioner to the notorious Charles Devlin5 for $50,000 cash, with certain reservations as to the patronage and profits.  Devlin recouped himself;  for an investigation revealed that he spent half a million dollars on contracts of which he was either the real contractor or surety, and on which he made the prices 75 per cent higher than they ought to have been.6  Of how much the city was plundered it was impossible to find out, since no reliable accounts of expenditures were kept in the Finance Department.7  Not a few officials, relinquishing offices paying about $2,500 a year, retired loaded with riches and surrounded by friends whom they had enriched.  Wood himself was now reputed to be worth $400,000.

Even the Judiciary was held in general contempt.  The Lowber fraud (see previous page) was promptly excused and the defendant exonerated by the courts.  In November, 1855, a City Judge was tried for corruption in having entered a nolle prosequi in a certain case.  The verdict was “not guilty,” with this remarkable addition:  “And the jury are unanimously of opinion that in the entry of the nolle prosequi by the City Judge he has been guilty of irregularity, and it is the unanimous recommendation of the jury that Judge —— resign.”  He resigned.8  In December, 1855, during a trial for murder in the Supreme Court, counsel for the defendant exclaimed:  “I know the jury have too much intelligence to pay any regard to the assumptions of the Court.”9  A man was killed at a prize fight.  The Coroner, after stating the evidence at the inquest, concluded:  “If the persons implicated are tried before our Court of Sessions they will have reason to congratulate themselves, as it is a difficult matter in this city to convict a person charged with any other crime than theft.”10  In January, 1856, the seat of one of the Judges of the Supreme Court was contested by two candidates, both claiming to have been elected by popular vote.  Both asserted the right to sit;  in opposition to the opinions of the Judges sitting, one of the contestants took and kept his seat by pure “nerve.”11

A new city charter, adopted in 1857, changed the date of municipal elections to the first Tuesday in December, and provided for an election for Mayor and Common Council in December, 1857.  The change was aimed partly at Wood.  He had probably expected severe opposition of some kind, for he had early begun planning for the continued control of the Tammany General Committee, so as to secure a renomination.

In the primary elections, late in 1856, for delegates to this committee for 1857, a majority favorable to Wood had been elected, after violence and ballot-box stuffing in every ward.  The Wood men took possession of the Wigwam and elected Wilson Small chairman.  The rival party met in another place and organized a general committee.  Each put forward the claim of “regularity.”

As the “usages” of the party required that the “regular” committee should have legal possession of Tammany Hall, it was necessary to determine which that committee was.  Then the Sachems stepped in.  Seven of them — a majority of one — were Wood’s personal enemies.  By a vote of seven to five the Sachems concluded to order the election of a new general committee, which was to have all known Democrats enrolled into associations.

“Tammany Society,” said the “seven Sachems’” report,

“is the undisputed owner of Tammany Hall;  and the right to control the use of that building which is inherent in its ownership has been fully secured by the lease.  The Council is determined that their action shall vindicate fully the rights and powers of the venerable society of which they are officers; and also, prove a safe and efficient barrier against the tide of corruption and fraud which is sapping the power of the great party to which the society has adhered during the whole period of its existence.”

At the society’s annual election, on May 20, the Isaac V. Fowler, or “reform” ticket, had the names of some men of note — Samuel J. Tilden, Elijah F. Purdy, Peter B. Sweeny, Edward Cooper, William H. Cornell, John McKeon and Emanuel B. Hart — while Wood’s candidates were inferior hack politicians and nonentities.  The “seven Sachems” had previously managed to get into the Wigwam unobserved by the Wood men, and had rapidly elected nearly sixty new members, all their own partizans, to the society.12  These voted at the election, enabling Wood’s opponents to beat him by a majority of sixty.13  Then the “seven Sachems” turned Wood and his men out of the Wigwam.

In a public address, the Wood men thereupon declared the society an irresponsible body of less than four hundred members, one-third of whom held no communication with the Democratic party, and that of its thirteen Sachems seven were “Libby bolters.”  “What, then, is the issue ?” asked the address.  “Shall the Sachems rule the people;  or shall the people rule themselves ?  Shall the Sachems of this close corporation, to procure offices for themselves and friends, be permitted, unrebuked by.  the people, to exercise this omnipotent, dictatorial, supervisory power over the great Democratic party, its organization and interests, to rule out or rule in your general committees whenever it suits their caprice or selfish purposes ? ”

The control of the police force was considered as necessary as ever to success at the election.  The changes of 1853, from which much was hoped, had, proved of little benefit.  The force was in a chaotic state.  Political and pecuniary reasons alone guided the appointment of policemen.  No record of merit was kept;  there was no systematic instruction of policemen in their duties except as to drill.  Some Captains wore uniforms, others refused.  When an applicant appointed to the force was tested for qualifications in reading, a large newspaper was given to him, and he was told to read the title.  Murder abounded, and the city was full of escaped convicts.14  One of the most important provisions of a special act of 1857 was the transfer of the police from city control to that of the State.  Unwilling to surrender so effective a hold, Wood resisted the Legislature’s action.  For a time there were two police departments — the Metropolitan force, under the State Commissioners, and the municipal police, under the Mayor — each contending for supremacy.  One day a part of the two forces came into collision in the City Hall, and twelve men were wounded.  It was found necessary to summon the militia to quell the disturbances, and Wood was arrested.  Finding resistance useless, he submitted grudgingly to the new order.15

The police being so disorganized, the criminal classes ran the town.  Chief among Wood’s supporters were the “Dead Rabbits” or “Black Birds,” — a lawless “gang” who overawed certain portions of the city and who had a rival in the “Bowery Boys,” whose sole profession seems to have been to pack primaries, break ballot boxes and fight the “Dead Rabbits.”  On July 4, 1857, the “Dead Rabbits,” presumably having nothing else to do, attacked a body of police in Jackson street.  A band of “Bowery Boys” hurried to the front, and a pitched street battle ensued, pistols and muskets being procured from neighboring places.  Barricades were thrown up in the most approved Parisian style.  The result was the killing of ten and the wounding of eighty persons, some of whom were innocent bystanders.  This was the most deadly of the numerous collisions of these “gangs.”  As they had a powerful political influence, the police did not molest them.16

As a member of the Metropolitan Police Commission, Mayor Wood about this time was instrumental in giving out a contract for 4,000 glass ballot boxes, at $15 apiece.  It was disclosed in James Horner’s affidavit before Judge Davis, in the Supreme Court, in November of this year, that the city needed no more than 1,200 of the boxes; that Wood’s brother had secured the 4,000 boxes at a cost of less than $5 apiece and that the Mayor was to share in the $40,000 of expected profits.

Wood neglected no means of ingratiating himself with the masses.  The panic of 1857 suddenly deprived over 80,000 mechanics and laborers in the city of employment.  Wood proposed the employment of the idle on public works, and the buying by the city of 50,000 barrels of flour and an equal amount of other provisions to be disposed of to the needy at cost.17  The Common Council failed to see the value of this plan, but did appropriate a sum for public works in Central Park, the better share of which went to contractors and petty politicians.  To win the good will of the Roman Catholics, becoming more and more a power, the Common Council gave over to the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum a perpetual lease of the entire plot from Fifth to Fourth avenue, Fifty-first to Fifty-second street, at a rental of $1 a year.18

So resourceful was Wood and so remarkable his political ingenuity that though he and his general committee were driven out by the Tammany Society, he nevertheless brought things about so that the Democratic convention in Tammany Hall, on October 15, renominated him for Mayor, by 75 votes to 12.  The Tammany General Committee thereupon openly repudiated him, and the curious complication was presented of a candidate who was the Tammany “regular” nominee, yet opposed by both the society and the general committee.

Instantly a determined citizen’s movement to defeat him sprang up.  The city taxes had nearly doubled in the three years of Wood’s administration and were now over $8,000,000, of which over $5,000,000 had already been signed away in contracts or spent in advance of collection.  Yet the Common Council had recently resolved to spend the exorbitant sum of $5,000,000 on a new City Hall.  The Mayor vetoed the resolution only when the most intense public opposition was manifested.

A committee of citizens, representative of the Republicans, Democrats and Native Americans, nominated Daniel F. Tiemann, a paint dealer, and a member of Tammany Hall, but who was an Alderman and as Governor of the Almshouse had made a good record.

To Wood’s support there concentrated the preponderance of the foreign born, the native rowdies and the usual mass blinded into voting for the “regular” ticket.  The gamblers, brothel-keepers, immigrant runners and swindlers of every kind bought and cheated for him in the belief that the reformers would drive them from the city.  Wood had taken the precaution to manufacture thousands of voters.  From the Wigwam, where the Wood partizans backed up their right to meet with fists, drummers-up were sent to bring in prospective citizens.  Upon promising faithfully to vote the Tammany ticket, a card, valued at fifty cents, was furnished gratuitously to each.  It was addressed to a Judge who owed his election to Tammany, and read :

“ Common Pleas :
          “ Please naturalize the bearer.
                    “ N. Seagrist, chairman.”19

From 3,000 to 4,000 voters, it was estimated, were turned out by this process.

The sentiment of certain politicians may be taken from John Cochrane’s20 remark that “he would vote for the devil incarnate if nominated by Tammany Hall.”  Meanwhile they took care to make out Wood to be a much-abused man.  At the ratification meeting in Tammany Hall, on November 23, long resolutions were passed, fulsomely flattering Wood and asking voters to remember that if Wood was assailed, so Jefferson, Jackson and Daniel Webster were pursued to their graves by harpies.  The voters were asked not to be deceived by the abuse of the graceless, godless characters and disappointed demagogues.20

Wood and his partizans strained every nerve for success.  But it was a futile effort.  The opposition won, Tiemann receiving 43,216 votes, to 40,889 for Wood.  His large vote, however, showed the dangerous strength of {he worst classes of the city, and boded ill for the years to come.

The opposition of the Tammany Society and the general committee having been responsible for his defeat, Wood made renewed efforts to regain sway over both.  On their part, elated at his supposed downfall, the Anti-Wood members of the general committee decided to expel Daniel E. Sickles and C. Godfrey Gunther, two of his supporters, and met for that purpose in the Wigwam on December 9, 1857.

Wood’s followers thought proper to impress upon the general committee a sense of their strength.  Accordingly, their fighting men were present in full force, awaiting an opportunity to mingle in the proceedings.  The probability of a violent row increasing momentarily, the Metropolitan police were summoned to Tammany Hall.  For a time they kept the hostiles within bounds; but the bar was well patronized, and large delegations of the “Dead Rabbits” and “shoulder-hitters” from the wards were flowing in constantly.

At 9 o’clock a desperate fight was begun in the center of the bar-room, amid intense excitement.  By using their clubs unsparingly, the forty policemen succeeded in separating the combatants, though not before a young man, Cornelius Woods, had been shot in the shoulder with a slug.  Unwilling to draw upon themselves the resentment of the influential ward politicians, the police made no arrests.  The meeting broke up without definite action being taken in the matter of expelling the two supporters of Wood.

The first and chief point in the struggle for the control of the organization was, as usual, the control of the Tammany Society.  Both factions were alive to this necessity.  On April 13, 1858, 150 members of the society met at the Westchester House, Bowery and Broome streets, where it was announced that 212 members were pledged to vote for Anti-Wood Sachems.  Some of these members were seeking the ascendency for their own benefit, while others were not active in politics at all, but had become disgusted with Wood’s methods and men.  At the election, six days later, the Anti-Wood ticket, headed by Isaac V. Fowler and Nelson J. Waterbury, won by a majority of nearly 100, 378 members voting.  More than twenty members who had not been at an election of the society for twenty years or more, and a large number who had eschewed voting for ten years, hastened, some from distances, to deposit their votes.  Three came from Hudson, a number from Albany, two from Washington, and one from Cincinnati.

The result was Wood’s forced withdrawal from the organization.  He immediately started a Democratic organization opposed to Tammany and upon the same lines.  It was known generally as “Mozart Hall,” from the name of the assembly room in which it met.  Wood denounced Tammany, declaring that its nominees were chosen by five members of the Tammany Society, in a parlor, and ferociously expressed his determination to wage war upon the society as long as he lived until (this reservation was added) “it opened its doors.”

Each hall, as a matter of political business, made the most virtuous and the strongest claims of being the true Democratic organization.  Each execrated the other and announced itself as the sole, valiant, sincere upholder of Democracy.

Wood’s enemies made haste to guarantee their ascendency when, on December 28, the Sachems ordered elections for the committees to be held on December 30, thus giving but one day’s notice of the event.  Moreover, they forced upon all persons accepting membership in the committees, a pledge that in case of their election they would support the Tammany organization and all nominations made under its authority, and disclaim allegiance to any other organization, party or clique.

The election of delegates to the various nominating conventions, in the Fall of 1858, was attended by the customary disorder.  Wood’s partizans were everywhere inciting trouble.  At O’Connell’s Hall, on Mulberry street, a crowd, seeing that the result was unfavorable to their side, split the ballot boxes and threw them into the street.  The “Dead Rabbits,” scenting trouble, appeared hastily, and a fight ensued on Hester street, in which two of them were shot.

This municipal election was the first in which the Democratic voters of Irish nativity or lineage insisted on a full share of the best places on the party’s ticket.  Previously they had seldom been allowed any local office above Coroner.  Their dominance on the Tammany ticket again roused the “Know-Nothing” sentiment, and a combination of Native Americans, Republicans and independents resulted.  The combination secured 16 of the 24 Councilmen.

The politicians were now confronted with a registry act, which omitted the blunder of that of 1840 in applying only to New York City.  This measure became a law in 1859, despite the stubborn opposition of Tammany, some of whose leaders, Isaac V. Fowler and others, issued an address asking Democrats to arise and defeat it.  Failing to defeat it, they resolved to circumvent it by means of the Board of Supervisors, which was required to appoint the registry clerks.  This body was by law divided equally as to politics, the Legislature calculating that this would insure fair dealing.  But by the purchase of the vote of one of the Republican Supervisors for $2,500,21 the Tammany members were enabled not only to redistrict the city to their own advantage, but to appoint trusted tools as registrars.  For appearances’ sake they allowed a Republican registry clerk here and there.  Of 609 registrars appointed, the Republicans secured about 75;  and of the whole 609, 68 were liquor-sellers, 92 were petty office-holders, 84 were supposed gamblers, and 50 of the names were not in the city directory.  The Tammany leaders held daily private caucuses, and made a list of henchmen with extreme care, in order to exclude Wood from any influence with the registry clerks.  William M. Tweed, a member of the board, generally named the men, and Elijah F. Purdy boasted that Tammany demanded the appointment of none but Democrats, and that they (the Tammany Supervisors) meant to sustain their party at any and all hazards.  Having the registry clerks, Tammany Hall could revel in false registry and repeating.  Good citizens, dejected at the outlook, were sure of a repetition of the frauds of former years.

Seeking to satisfy all parties, Mayor Tiemann failed to satisfy any.  He was accused of using the official patronage for the advantage of Tammany Hall, in the hope of getting a renomination from it in 1859.  He and his chief office-holders appointed to the office the most notorious fighting men and ruffians in the city.  The Tammany leaders did not favor him, possibly because they thought William F. Havemeyer a man of more weight, popularity and respectability.

Accordingly they nominated the latter.  Wood had himself nominated by Mozart Hall, and the Republicans chose George P. Opdyke, a millionaire.  In this triangular con, test the Tammany men felt that the force of Havemeyer’s good record would put them in power.  Singularly, however, with all its manipulation of the registry lists, and the excellent character of its nominee, Tammany lost.  The Irish voters sided almost solidly with Wood, and the lowest classes of the city, fearing the election of a man so distasteful to them as Havemeyer or Opdyke, used all their effectiveness for Wood, who received 29,940 votes, against 26,913 for Havemeyer, and 21,417 for Opdyke.

It was conceded that much of the worst part of Tammany’s strength had gone over to Wood.  This fact was suggestive, to a degree, of Wood’s assurance, considering the declaration in his letter of acceptance of the nomination that he favored “excluding the bullies and rowdies from public employment and of dealing summarily with that class of outlaws.”

Although Tammany had nominated a good man, for the sake of sliding into power upon the strength of his reputation, its lesser candidates were generally incompetent or of bad character;  half a dozen of its nominees for Councilmen were under indictment for various crimes.

1 Documents of the Board of Aldermen, 1859, No. 16.  The courts decided later in favor of Lowber.  As Controller Flagg refused to pay the claim on the ground of no funds being “applicable,” Lowber caused the Sheriff to sell at auction, in October, 1858, the City Hall with its equipment and paintings to satisfy a judgment of $228,000, including damages, costs and interest.  Mayor Tiemann bid the City Hall in for the sum of $50,000, and turned it over to the city when reimbursed.  Documents of the Board of Alderman, 1859, Vol. XXVI, No. 1.

2 Ibid., Vol. XXIII, No. 42; also Ibid., Vol. XXV, No. 10.

3 Ibid.

4 The Act was passed July 21, 1853.  This was one of the very few public-spirited measures of the time.  Tammany, however, immediately began to utilize the measure, through contracts for the clearing and improvement of the park, to the profit of its leaders and followers.

5 Devlin was appointed by Mayor Wood to succeed Joseph S. Taylor, deceased.  At the same time Daniel D. Conover was selected for the post by the Governor, who claimed the right of appointment.  The Mayor used inflammatory language, a turbulent mob gathered, and the militia had to be ordered out to prevent serious violence between the partizans of each.  (Assembly Documents, 1858, No. 80.)  The courts later decided in favor of Devlin.

6 Devlin was removed from office by Mayor Tiemann in April, 1858.

7 Report of Special Common Council Committee, October 22, 1857.

8 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November, 1856.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Statement to the author by Douglas Taylor, one of the “seven Sachems.”

13 Of this action Talcott Williams (Tammany Hall, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898) says:  “For the first time, the Tammany Society, which is only the landlord of the political body which leases its hall, exercised its singular power of deciding between rival organizations.”  This, of course, is a decided error.  Repeated instances of the activity of the society in this direction have been given in this work.

14 Assembly Documents, 1857, II, part 2, No. 127.

15 Assembly Documents, 1858, No. 80.  The chaos produced during this dispute was extreme.  Members of one force would seize and liberate prisoners taken by the other force, combats were frequent, and peaceable citizens were often unable to secure protection.

16 This riot is briefly treated in Document No. 80.

17 Proceedings of the Board of Alderman, Vol. LXVII, pp. 157-60.

18 Ibid., Vol. LXVIII, p. 140.

19 This reference to Seagrist was handed down in an Aldermanic committee’s report some years before:  “... Thomas Munday, Nicholas Seagrist, Captain Norris, Mackellar and others were charged with robbing the funeral pall of Henry Clay, when his sacred person passed through this city.”  Documents of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. XXII: No. 43.

20 Cochrane later followed Wood into Mozart Hall, but subsequently returned to Tammany Hall.  He was elected to Congress, serving one term.  He raised a regiment at the outbreak of the Civil War, and in June, 1862, was made a Brigadier-General.  He was elected Attorney-General of the State in 1863.  In 1879 he joined the Greeley movement.  He held various local offices, both in 1879 and in 1883 being elected to the Presidency of the Board of Aldermen.  As late as 1889 he was a Sachem.  He died in 1898, in his 85th year.

21 Statement of William M. Tweed before a special investigating committee of the Board of Aldermen, 1877 (Document No. 8, Documents of the Board of Aldermen, Vol. II, pp. 15-16).  Isaac V. Fowler, Tweed testified, furnished the $2,500 which was paid to Peter R. Voorhis, a Republican member.  Tweed further stated, that besides himself there were in the conspiracy Elijah F. Purdy, William C. Conner, Isaac Bell, Jr. (a Sachem) and John R. Briggs.