The History of Tammany Hall

The Tweed “ Ring ”

THE Tweed “Ring” was, in a measure, the outgrowth of the act of 1857 creating the Board of Supervisors. The Whigs, and their successors, the Republicans, had up to that year held the legislative power of the State for the greater part of ten years, during which their chief concern had been the devising of means for keeping down the Democratic majority in New York City. Their legislation was directed to the transferring of as much as they could of the government of the city to State officials, a change generally welcomed by the honest part of the citizenship, on account of the continuous misgovernment inflicted by city officials.

The real result of these transfers, however, was merely to make two strongholds of corruption instead of one. The Republican power in Albany and the Tammany power in New York City found it to their, interests to arrange terms for the distribution of patronage and booty. Accordingly, as one means to that end, the Board of Supervisors for New York County was created. It was founded strictly as a State institution. Unlike the Boards of Supervisors of other counties, it had no power to tax. It could only ascertain and levy the taxes decreed by the State Legislature, which was required to pass yearly a special act declaring the amount necessary for the maintenance of the city government. It was to be an elective body, and each side was to have an equal quota of the twelve members. But in the first board convened, this delicate balance was upset, as has been shown, by the buying of a Republican member, which in effect gave Tammany a majority.

William M. Tweed was born in Cherry street in 1828. He spent the usual life of a New York boy. His father was a chairmaker in good circumstances and gave his children a fair education. Fascinated, as were most New York boys of the period, with the life of a volunteer fireman, he became a runner with Engine 12 before he was of age, and in 1849 he was elected foreman of another fire company. Carrying a silver-mounted trumpet, a white fire-coat over his arm and wearing an oldfashioned stiff hat, he led the ropes. So popular was young Tweed that he became a powerful factor in ward politics, and gifted with the qualities that counted most in those circles, he was not slow in utilizing his popularity. The Americus Club, for a long time Tweed’s favorite quarters, and at times the place where Tammany politics were determined, was started with him as its foremost luminary.

Though defeated for Assistant Alderman in 1850, he was elected the next year and served in the “Forty Thieves” Board. He was a delegate, in 1852, to the Congressional convention of the Fifth District, composed of two East Side wards of New York City, and Williamsburg. A deadlock ensued, through each of two candidates polling forty-four votes. Finally the Williamsburg delegates “threw over” their favorite and voted for Tweed, who as chairman of the convention, cast the deciding vote for himself, with the statement that “Tweedie never goes back on Tweedie.”  He was elected, but beaten for reelection, in 1854, by the “Know-Nothings.”  The latter he fought so persistently that he became known as the champion of the foreign element. He was made a Sachem of the Tammany Society because of his extreme popularity, and in 1857 he was elected to the Board of Supervisors. Selling his business of chairmaking, he thereupon devoted his entire time to politics.

The first “ring” was the Supervisors’ “Ring,” founded in 1859. by the Democrats in the board for the purpose of procuring the appointment of Inspectors of Election.1  One member of the board, as already shown, was bribed by a present of $2,500 to stay away from a session when the Inspectors were appointed. Tweed was so well pleased with the success of this scheme that he was inspired to wider efforts. Aided by two men—Walter Roche and John R. Briggs—he began a systematic course of lobbying before the Board of Aldermen in support of excessive bills for supplies. He and his associates collected heavy tribute on every successful bill.

His prestige was not visibly lessened by his defeat for Sheriff, in 1861, by James Lynch, a popular Irishman. In the same year he was elected chairman of the Tammany General Committee. This instantly made him a person of great political importance. But his grasp was yet insecure, since a hostile body of Sachems might at any time declare the general committee “irregular.”  Recognizing this, he planned to dominate the society by having himself elected Grand Sachem. Holding these two positions, he reckoned that his power would be absolute. For the time, however, he thought it wise to be satisfied with the one;  but eventually he succeeded Hoffman as Grand Sachem, and in his dual positions gained complete control of the political situation and dictated nominations at will.

The title of “boss” he earned by his despotic action in the general committee. When a question was to be voted upon which he wished to have determined in his favor, he would neglect to call for negative votes and would decide in the affirmative, with a significantly admonishing glance at the opposing side. Soon friends and enemies alike called him “Boss” Tweed, and he did not seem to take the title harshly.

He made short shrift of his antagonists. Once, when chairman of a Tammany nominating convention, he declared the nomination of Michael Ulshoeffer, for Judge, unanimous, amid a storm of protests. On adjournment, thirty delegates remained behind to make a counternomination. Tweed blocked their plan by having the gas turned off.

Meanwhile he daily increased his strong personal following. Nominally Deputy Street Commissioner, to which place he was appointed in 1863, he was virtually the head of that department, and could employ, when so inclined, thousands of laborers, who could be used in manipulating ward primaries when the ward leaders showed a spirit of revolt. The Aldermen had to apply to him for jobs for their ward supporters. As a member of the Board of Supervisors at the same time, he was in a position to exercise his mandatory influence respecting the passage of resolutions dealing with expenditures and the giving out of contracts. In 1868 he added a third office to the list-that of State Senator, and was thus enabled to superintend personally the “running” of the Legislature.

The members of the “ring” — Tweed and his subordinates, Peter B. Sweeny, Richard B. Connolly and the rest — were growing rich at a rapid rate. According to the subsequent testimony of James H. Ingersoll, it was in 1867 that the understanding was reached that persons who supplied the public offices with materials would be required to increase the percentages given to the officials, and that all purveyors to the city must comply. The previous tax had been but 10 per cent., and it had been somewhat irregularly levied. A few tradesmen refused to pay the advance, but plenty there were to take their places. Ingersoll was one of these. He was told to fix his bills so as to “put up 35 per cent.,” and he obligingly complied with the command. Of the 85 per cent collected, 25 went to Tweed and 10 to Controller Connolly.

Tweed had become dissatisfied with the old Tammany Hall building, and a site for a new hall -the present location on Fourteenth street — was secured. The funds in hand for the building were insufficient, however, and had to be augmented by private subscription. It well illustrates the liberality with which the Tammany chieftains were supplying themselves financially, to note that when John Kelly, the Grand Sachem, at a meeting of the society announced that a loan of $250,000 would be needed, the sum of $175,000 was subscribed on the spot, fifteen members alone subscribing $10,000 each.2  A far more astonishing incident happened in the Fall of 1867, when Peter B. Sweeny, the City Chamberlain,3 announced his determination to give to the city treasury, for the benefit of the taxpayers, over $200,000 a year, interest money, which before that had been pocketed by the City Chamberlain.

While the “ring” was plundering the city and plotting theft on a more gigantic scale, the Sachems, many of them implicated in the frauds, laid the corner-stone of the new Tammany Hall building. The ceremony was marked by the characteristic pronouncement of virtuous sounding phrases. “Brothers and friends,” rhapsodized Mayor Hoffman, “in the name of the Tammany Society, I proceed to lay the corner-stone of a new hall which will, for the next half century at least, be the headquarters of the Democracy of New York, where the great principles of civil and religious liberty, constitutional law and national unity, which form the great corner-stones of the republic, will always be advocated and maintained....”  The “braves” then marched to Irving Hall, where Tweed, Sweeny and Connolly had caused such inscriptions as these to be hung about:  “Civil liberty the glory of man”;  “The Democratic party — Upon its union and success depends the future of the republic. He who would seek to lower its standard of patriotism and principle, or distract its councils, is an enemy to the country.” Gazing approvingly on these inscriptions from the platform sat Tweed, Sweeny and Connolly, A. Oakey Hall and a host of Judges and office-holders of all sorts, while Andrew J. Garvey (who will reappear in these chapters) conducted the invited guests. The building of this hall — an imposing one for the day — in a central part of the city, gave to the Tweed combination an advantage of no inconsiderable significance.

In the new Wigwam, on July 4, 1868, the Democratic national convention was held. Tammany, in fact, forced its candidate, Horatio Seymour, on the convention. The galleries were filled with seasoned Wigwam shouters, cheering vociferously for Seymour. Only persons having tickets were admitted, and these tickets were distributed by an able young Wigwam politician, who saw to it that only the right sort of persons gained entrance. Gaining its point on the nomination, Tammany magnanimously allowed the Southern men to dictate the declaration in the platform that the reconstruction acts were “unconstitutional, revolutionary and void.”  There was a general suspicion that the organization, hopeless of the election of a Democratic President, had forced Seymour’s nomination for the purpose of trading votes for its State and local ticket.

The State convention again named Hoffman for Governor, and preparations began for a lively campaign. Tammany addressed itself to the citizenship as the defender of the interests of the poor, and instanced the candidacy of John A. Griswold for Governor, Edwin D. Morgan for Governor, and “several other millionaires,” as a proof of the plutocratic tendencies of the Republican party. On October 19 the general committee, with Tweed in the chair, adopted an address urging the people to stand by Seymour and Blair. Continuing, it said :

“We are united. We believe in our cause. It is the cause of constitutional liberty, of personal rights, of a fraternity of States, of an economical government, of the financial credit of the nation, of one currency for all men, rich and poor, and of the political supremacy of the white race and protection of American labor... [Hoffman] is the friend of the poor, the sympathizer with the naturalized citizen, and the foe to municipal oppression in the form of odious excise and all other requisitional laws.... Is not the pending contest preeminently one of capital against labor, of money against popular rights, and of political power against the struggling interests of the masses ?”

Public addresses and pronunciamentos, however, formed but a small part of the Tammany program for 1868. For six weeks the naturalization mills worked with the greatest regularity in the Supreme, Common Pleas and Superior Courts, producing, it was estimated, from 25,000 to 80,000 citizens, of whom not less than 85 per cent voted the Tammany Hall ticket. On October 30 Tweed announced to the general committee that “at 10 o’clock to-morrow the money for electioneering purposes will be distributed” and that those who came first would,be served first. The chairman of the executive committee spread forth the glad tidings that there was $1,000 ready for each election district. There being 327 election districts, this made a fund of $327,000 from the general committee alone, exclusive of the sums derived in the districts themselves from the saloonkeepers and the tradesmen, whose fear of inviting reprisals by Tammany officials made them “easy marks” for assessments. Tweed personally suggested to the twenty-four leaders the stuffing of ballot boxes.4  By fraudulent naturalization, repeating, the buying and trading of votes, and intimidation, Seymour secured a total of 108,316 votes, against 47,762 for Grant. The whole vote of the city was swelled to 156,288, of which, it was conclusively demonstrated, at least 25,000 were fraudulent.5  Tweed himself confessed, nine years later, that he thought the Inspectors of Elections “lumped” the votes and declared them without counting, in order to overcome the result in the rest of the State and give the electoral vote to Seymour.6  To prevent the Republicans from getting the use of certain telegraph wires on election night, Tweed sent out long, useless messages, and it was even proposed to telegraph the whole Bible if necessary.7

Hoffman was swept into the Governorship on the strength of the frauds. His election left vacant the Mayor’s chair, and a special election to fill it was called for the first Tuesday of December.

It was all essential to the “ring” that its candidate, A. Oakey Hall, should be elected. The candidacy of Frederick A. Conkling, the Republican nominee, was not feared, but John Kelly, who controlled a considerable part of the Irish vote, was a threatening factor. Disappointed at not receiving a new post at the close of his term as Sheriff, he had led a revolt against the “ring,” and had himself nominated for Mayor at the Masonic Hall “reform” convention. “Influences” were soon set at work;  and suddenly, after Kelly had appeared before the nominating convention and accepted the nomination, he withdrew from the contest, on the score of ill-health.8  Hall won, receiving 75,109 votes, to 20,835 for Conkling. The degree in which Tammany fraudulently increased the vote at the November election is indicated in the fact that at the December election, despite a repetition of frauds, the Tammany vote declined 33,000.

The “ring” nominations, being equivalent to election, yielded a large price. There was no Democratic opposition, Mozart Hall having practically passed out of existence, through Wood’s resignation of its leadership. The revenues of the various city offices were constantly rising, and a keener competition for the places arose. In 1866, before the really extensive operations of the “ring” began, it was estimated that the offices of Sheriff and County Clerk were worth $40,000 a year each. Several years later it was found that the yearly revenue of the Register amounted to between $60,000 and $70,000, partly derived from illegal fees. It was well known that one Register had received the sum of $80,000 a year.9  The yearly aggregate of the illegal transactions in the Sheriff’s office could not be accurately ascertained;  but it was a well-authenticated fact that one Sheriff, about 1870, drew from the office the sum of $150,000 the first year of his term. He was a poor man when elected;  upon retiring at the end of the two-years term, he did not conceal the fact that he was worth $250,000, clear of all political assessments and other deductions.

All nominations for city, county and, too, often, State offices, and notoriously those for Judges, were dictated by Tweed. He not only controlled all the local departments, but swayed every court below the Court of Appeals.10  Judges were nominated partly with a view to the amount they could “put up,” and partly with a view to their future decisions on political questions. Fernando Wood had frankly presented the latter reason in his speech nominating Albert Cardozo, one of Tweed’s most useful puppets, for the Supreme Court.11  At the Judiciary election of May, 1870, repeating was the order of the day, and the registry was swelled to an enormous extent. In one of the wards, about 1,100 negroes were registered;  but when they went to the ballot boxes, they were amazed to learn that white repeaters had already voted upon nearly 500 of their names. Later, when a few of the negroes tried to vote, they were arrested as repeaters. The corrupt means used in selecting the Judiciary, and the hopelessness of securing just verdicts in any of the courts, prompted one writer seriously to discuss, in the pages of a standard magazine, the formation of a vigilance committee modeled upon that of San Francisco.12

Tweed had for some time recognized the importance of gaining a seat in the State Senate. That body could at any time create or abolish city departments or offices, or change the laws affecting them. The Tammany officials, realizing its potentialities, had already made terms with it, and the “ring,” which subsisted at first between the two factions of partizans in the Board of Supervisors, had grown into a compact “ring” between the Republican majority at Albany, the Board of Supervisors and the Democratic officials of New York City. Tweed saw the necessity of being at the center of political bargaining and legislative manipulation, and accordingly had himself elected to the upper house.

Upon taking his seat, in 1868, he at once began to procure legislation increasing his power in New York City. His first measure was the “Adjusted Claims” act, which gave the City Controller power to adjust claims then existing against the city, and to obtain money by the issue of bonds. Payments under this act were first made by the Controller in July, 1868, and were continued to January, 1869. During this time, 55 per cent. of the claims paid were divided among the members of the “ring.” In July, 1869, payments under the act were resumed, but the percentage was increased to 60 per cent., and after November, 1869, to 65 per cent.

The conspiring contractors were led by Andrew J. Garvey, Ingersoll & Co. and Keyser & Co. At first, 25 per cent of the spoils went to Tweed, 20 to Connolly and 10 to Sweeny. When the rate was subsequently increased, others were permitted to share in the harvest, and Watson, the County Auditor;  Woodward, the clerk of the Board of Supervisors, and the recognized gobetweens for the “ring” members, received 2½ per cent. Five per cent was reserved for “expenses”—in other words, the sums necessary to bribe the requisite members of the Legislature. The division of the spoils was a matter of daily occurrence when Tweed was in town, and took place in the Supervisors’ room in the County Court House. After Watson’s warrants had been cashed, Garvey would carry Tweed’s share of the plunder to the “Boss” at the office of Street Commissioner George W. McLean. On one such visit Garvey found McLean present. In trying to hand the parcel secretly to Tweed, it fell on the floor. Tweed quickly covered it with his foot, and later, with apparent carelessness, picked it up and threw it into a drawer. The too-ingenious Garvey was thereafter instructed to “do business” with Woodward.13

Tweed soon reached a position of general control in the State Legislature. But it cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Often he had to pay for what he wanted quite as heavily as did the corporations who maintained lobbies there. “It was impossible to do anything there without paying for it,” were his own words;  “money had to be raised for the passing of bills.”14  A well-known lobbyist of the time stated that for a favorable report on a certain bill before the Senate $5,000 apiece was paid to four members of the committee having it in charge. On the passage of the bill a further $5,000 apiece, with contingent expenses, was to be paid. In another instance, when but one vote was needed to pass a bill, three Republicans put their figures up to $25,000 each. One of them, it is needless to say, was secured. A band of about thirty Republicans and Democrats, shortly afterwards becoming known as the “Black Horse Cavalry,” organized themselves under the leadership of an energetic lobbyist, with a mutual pledge to vote as directed.15  Naturally their action exercised a strong “ bull” influence on the market for votes;  and the sums paid by Tweed and other “promoters” grew to an enormous aggregate.

Honesty among legislators was at a discount. There were some honest men in both houses who voted for several of the bills alluded to, on their merits. The lobbyists entered these men in their memoranda to their corporations as having been “fixed,” put the money in their own pockets and allowed the honest members to suffer under the imputation of having been bribed. Any corporation, however extensive and comprehensive the privileges it asked, and however much oppression it sought to impose upon the people in the line of unjust grants, extortionate rates or monopoly, could convince the Legislature of the righteousness of its requests upon “producing” the proper sum.16  The testimony before the Select Committee of the New York Senate, appointed April 10, 1868, showed that at least $500,000 was expended to get legislation legalizing fraudulent Erie Railway stock issues.

In 1869 the “ring” opened operations in the Legislature and in the municipal bodies on a greater scale than ever. Tweed began to concern himself in Erie and other railroads, and to compel different corporations to give tribute for laws passed in their interest or for providing against hostile measures. He ordered the passage of the Erie Classification bill, at the suggestion of “Jim” Fisk, Jr. and Jay Gould, who for that service made him a director of the Erie railroad.17  At this juncture Fisk and Gould were engaged in great stock frauds and in breeding a disastrous panic, which caused widespread ruin and suffering. Tweed abetted their schemes. One of his most servile tools, Judge George G. Barnard, of the Supreme Court, did whatever Tweed directed him, especially in favor of Gould and Fisk. One biographer of Fisk wrote quite innocently: “Jay Gould and Fisk took William M. Tweed into their [Erie] board, and the State Legislature, Tammany Hall and the Erie 'Ring’ were fused in interest and have contrived to serve each other faithfully.”18  Once Tweed complained that a friend “had gone back on him,” and when asked in return how it was that he could stand such drains on his check-book, he laughed and showed a slip of paper on which he had calculated his Erie profits for the foregoing three months;  they amounted to $650,000.

During the campaign of 1869, for the election of members of the Common Council and certain State officers, a legal question arose as to whether Mayor Hall had been elected for two years or merely for the unexpired year of Hoffman’s term. Hall claimed a two-years’ term, and the best lawyers supported the claim. But to make sure of the matter, Tammany, in the late days of the campaign, instructed its members and followers to cast ballots for him, and the Police Commissioners distributed special ballot boxes for the Mayoralty vote. As no proclamation on the subject had been issued, two Republicans and other opponents of Tammany Hall had no opportunity to make nominations. Mayor Hall consequently received nearly the entire number of votes cast—65,568, out of a total of 66,619.

After entering the Board of Supervisors, Tweed had boasted that he would soon be among the largest realestate owners in the city. He made good the boast. A comparatively poor man in 1864, he was reputed five years later to be worth $12,000,000. This was an exaggeration, for he was not worth anything like that sum at any one time;  but he was, nevertheless, an enormously rich man. He had investments in real estate and iron mines;  he was interested in every street opening and widening scheme;  he had a hand in all city, and in some State, contracts, and he held directorships in many railroad and gas companies and other corporations. Connolly, who some years before had left a position as a book-keeper, at a moderate salary, to engage in politics “as a financial speculation”;  Sweeny, and the rest of the “ring,” suddenly became millionaires. Many other politicians shared in the sacking of the city.

1 Documents of the Board of Aldermen, 1877, part 2, No. 8, pp. 15-16. This document, embodying the. full confession of Tweed before a special investigating committee, will be frequently referred to in this and the following chapter. Its value as a support to many of the statements made in the text of this work rests upon the credibility of Tweed’s word. The best opinion is that Tweed told the approximate truth. He was not a vengeful man;  he was, at the time, old, and broken in power and health;  he had no reason for concealment or evasion, and it is unlikely, considering his moral temperament, that he would have made false statements for the purpose of involving innocent men, or of adding to the sum of venality already proved against the guilty.

2 New York Herald, September 10, 1867.

3 “I heard that Peter B. Sweeny paid $60,000 for his confirmation as City Chamberlain by the Board of Aldermen”—Tweed’s testimony, Document No. 8, p. 105.

4 Document No. 8, p. 225.

5 It was probably at this election that a certain amusing incident in the swearing in of the Election Inspectors occurred. No Bible being at hand, they were sworn on a copy of Ollendorf’s New Method of Learning to Read, Write and Speak French. The courts subsequently upheld the substitution of Ollendorf for the Bible, deciding that it was not such an act as would vitiate the election. Documents of the Board of Supervisors, 1870, Vol. II, No. 12.

6 Document No. 8, pp. 133-34.

7 Document No. 8, p. 226.

8 Kelly left rather hastily for Europe, where he remained three years.

9 Report of the Bar Association Committee on Extortions, March 5, 1872.

10 Tilden:  The Tweed Ring, J. Polhemus, 1873.

11 “The Ermine in the ‘Ring,’” Putnam’s Magazine supplement (about 1869). It happened that a singular suit brought by Wood against the city came before this very Judge, when Wood obtained by his decision a judgment for $180,000 for the rent of premises owned by him, not worth, for any use of the city, over $35,000. The buildings, in great part, were so unfit for use that the city, although paying rent for them for years, established its departments elsewhere. Wood re-leased these unused offices, collecting a double rent.

12 Ibid.

13 Garvey’s testimony, Tweed Case, etc., Supreme Court, 1876, Vol. I: pp. 814-16.

14 Document No. 8, p. 29.

15 Document No. 8, pp. 212-13.

16 New York Sun, February 6, 1871.

17 Q.—“Did you ever receive any money from either Fisk or Gould to be used in bribing the Legislature?”
    A. —“ I did, sir !  They were of frequent occurrence. Not only did I receive money, but I find by an examination of the papers that everybody else who received money from the Erie Railroad charged it to me.”  Tweed: Document No. 8, p. 149.

18 A Life of James Fisk, Jr., New York, 1871.