The History of Tammany Hall

Tweed in His Glory

URGED by various motives, a number of Tammany leaders combined against Tweed.  Some sought more plunders others felt that their political aspirations had not been sufficiently recognized, and a number were incensed against Sweeny.  They were led by Henry W. Genet, John Fox, John Morrissey, James O’Brien, “Mike” Norton and others, and called themselves the “Young Democracy.”  Tweed had used these men in building his power;  now, combined, they believed they could retire him.  The dangerous classes joined them.  Heretofore, these had stood by Tweed under a reciprocal agreement valuable to both sides.  But the “Boss” had recently yielded to the public indignation over the leniency shown to an influential murderer, and had given orders to the Judges to deal more severely with flagrant criminal cases.  This act constituted a virtual breaking of the compact, and the lawbreakers with one accord turned against him.  There were at this time in the city, it was charged, about 30,000 professional thieves, 2,000 gambling establishments and 3,000 saloons.[1]

The plan of the Young Democracy leaders was to induce the Legislature to pass a measure known as the Huckleberry charter, the object of which was to abolish the State commissions governing the city and to obtain a relegation of their powers to the Board of Aldermen.  The disclosure was made, many years later, that Richard Croker and seven other members of the Board of Aldermen had signed an agreement before a notary public, on March 20, 1870, pledging themselves to take no official action on any proposition affecting the city government without first obtaining the consent of Senator Genet and four other Young Democracy leaders.[2]  These latter boasted that they would “put the charter through” if it took $200,000 to do it.  To save himself, Tweed opened a half-way understanding with the Young Democracy chiefs, by which he was to join them and abandon Sweeny.  Tweed even offered — though vainly — one of the most formidable young leaders $200,000 outright if he would swerve the Young Democracy to his interest.

The Young Democracy succeeded in winning over a majority of the general committee, and influenced that majority to call a meeting to be held in the Wigwam, on March 28.  But the plotters had overlooked the society, whose Sachems, being either in, or subservient to, the “ring,” now exercised the oft-used expedient of shutting out of the hall such persons as happened to be obnoxious to them.  When the members of the general committee appeared before Tammany Hall, on the night of March 28, they found to their surprise that the “ring” had caused to be placed a guard of 600 policemen about the building, to prevent their ingress.  The gathering convened in Irving Hall, nearby, where by roll call it was found that 187 members of the committee, later increased by about a dozen — a clear majority of the whole number — were present.  Fiery speeches were made, and the set purpose of dethroning and repudiating the “ring” Sachems was emphatically declared.

But the Young Democracy failed to distribute among the members of the Legislature the sum promised, and the country members, by way of revenge, voted down the Huckleberry charter.  Greatly encouraged by his enemies’ defeat, the “Boss” went to Albany with a vast sum of money and the draft of a new charter.  This charter, supplemented by a number of amendments which Tweed subsequently caused the Legislature to pass, virtually relieved the “ring” of accountability to anybody.  The State commissions were abolished, and practically the whole municipal power was placed in the hands of a Board of Special Audit, composed of himself, Connolly and Mayor Hall.  No money could be drawn from the city without the permission of this board.  The powers of the Board of Aldermen, moreover, were virtually abolished.[3]

The charter, which immediately became known as the “Tweed charter,” was passed on April 5.  The victory cost every dollar of the sum Tweed took with him.  Samuel J. Tilden testified that it was popularly supposed that about $1,000,000 was the amount used.[4]  Tweed stated that he gave to one man $600,000 with which to buy votes, this being merely a part of the fund.  For his services this lobbyist received a position requiring little or no work and worth from $10,000 to $15,000 a year.[5]  Tweed further testified that he bought the votes of five Republican Senators for $40,000 apiece, giving one of them $200,000 in cash to distribute.  The vote in the two houses was practically unanimous:  in the Senate, 30 to 2, and in the Assembly, 116 to 5.  The state of the public conscience in New York City may be judged from the fact that the charter received the support of nearly all classes, “large numbers,” according to the Annual Cyclopedia for 1871, “of the wealthiest citizens signing the petition” [for its passage].

Tweed’s enemies were now crushed.  At the election (April 18) of the Sachems of the society the opposition could poll only a paltry 23 votes, against the 242 secured by Tweed’s candidates;  and even this minority was a factitious one, Tilden declaring that Tweed had arranged for it, to furnish the appearance of a contest.

Tweed’s organization was wonderfully effective.  The society stood ready at a moment’s notice to expel from the Wigwam any person or group obnoxious to him.  The general committee was now likewise subservient.  In every ward he had a reliable representative — a leader, whose duty was to see that his particular district should return its expected majority.  Under the leaders there were sub-leaders, ward clubs and associations, and capt ins of every election district.  The organization covered every block in town with unceasing vigilance, acquainting itself with the politics of every voter.  The moment a leader lost his popularity, or hesitated at scruples of any sort, Tweed dismissed him;  only vote-getters and henchmen were wanted.  So large was his personal following, that he not only caused thousands to be appointed to superfluous offices, but had a number of retainers, to whom he paid in the aggregate probably $60,000 a year, “letting them think they were being paid by the city.”[7]  Opposition he had no difficulty in buying off, as in the case of one “Citizen’s Association,” whose principal men he caused to be appointed to various lucrative positions in the city government.[8]

The Registry law having been virtually repealed at Tweed’s order, election frauds were made easier, and as a result of the abolition by the “Tweed charter” of the December city election, and the merging into one day’s polling of national, State and city elections, the “ring” was in a position to resume the old practise of trading candidates, if all other resources failed.

With the passage of the “Tweed charter” and the City and County Tax Levy bill[9] of 1870, the stealing expanded to a colossal degree.  At a single sitting — on May 5, 1870 — the Board of Special Audit made out an order for the payment of $6,312,500 on account in building the new County Court House.  Of this sum barely a tenth part was realized by the city.[10]  From the 65 per cent levied on supplies, at the end of 1869, the rate was swelled to 85 per cent.  “Jobs” significant of untold millions lurked in every possible form.  Great projects of public improvements were exploited to the last dollar that could be drawn from them.  A frequent practise of Tweed was to create on paper a fictitious institution, jot down three or four of his friends as officers, put a large amount for that institution in the tax levy and pocket the money.  Asylums, hospitals and dispensaries that were never heard of, and never existed except on paper, were put down as beneficiaries of State and city.  The thefts were concealed in the main by means of issues of stocks and bonds and the creation of a floating debt, which the Controller never let appear in his statements.

A new reform movement appeared during the Summer and Fall of 1870.  Republicans, independents and disaffected Democrats combined forces and nominated Thomas A. Ledwith for Mayor.  The reform ticket was apparently received with great public approval, and hopes began to be entertained of its success at the polls.  Tweed, however, had already secured, by ways known best to himself, assurance of Republican assistance;  he had large numbers of Republican officials, Election Inspectors, and the like, in his pay, and therefore knew that he had nothing to fear.  Besides this, Tammany was united and enthusiastic.  Its candidates, Hall, for Mayor, and Hoffman, for Governor, had seemingly lost none of their popularity with the rank and file.  A few days before the election a popular demonstration, perhaps the largest in Tammany’s history, was held in and about the Wigwam.  August Belmont presided, and addresses were made by Seymour, Hoffman, Tweed and Fisk (who had now become a Democrat).  All the speakers were received with boisterous enthusiasm.

Tweed won, Hall receiving 71,037 votes, to 46,392 for Ledwith.  But the indications were plain that a reaction against the “ring” had begun, for Hoffman’s vote exceeded that of Hall by 15,631, while Ledwith’s vote exceeded that of Stewart L. Woodford, the Republican candidate for Governor, by nearly 12,000.

Partly to quiet his conscience, it was suspected, and in part to make himself appear in the light of a generously impulsive man, Tweed gave, in the Winter of 1870-71, $1,000 to each of the Aldermen of the various wards to buy coal for the poor.  To the needy of his native ward he gave $50,000.  By these acts he succeeded in deluding the needier part of the population to the enormity of his crimes.  Abstractly, these beneficiaries of his bounty knew he had not amassed his millions by honest means.  But when, in the midst of a severe Winter, they were gladdened by presents of coal and provisions, they did not stop to moralize, but blessed the man who could be so good to them.  Even persons beyond the range of his bounty have hailed him as a great philanthropist;  and the expression, “Well, if Tweed stole, he was at least good to the poor,” is still repeated, and furnished, in its tacit exoneration, the prompting for like conduct, both thieving and giving, on the part of his successors.

One of Tweed’s schemes was the Viaduct Railroad bill, which virtually allowed a company created by himself to place a railroad on or above the ground, on any city street.  The Legislature passed, and Governor Hoffman signed, the bill, early in 1871.  One of its provisions authorized and compelled the city to take $5,000,000 of stock;[11]  another exempted the company’s property from taxes or assessments, while other bills allowed for the benefit of the railroad the widening and the grading of streets, which meant a “job” costing the city from $50,000,000 to $65,000000.[12]  Associated with Tweed and others of the “ring” as directors were some of the foremost financial and business men of the day.  The complete consummation of this almost unparalleled steal was prevented only by the general exposure of Tweedism a few months later.

In the Assembly of 1871 party divisions were so even that Tweed, though holding a majority of two votes, had only the exact number (65) required by the constitution as a majority.  In April “Jimmy” Irving, one of the city Assemblymen, resigned, to avoid being expelled for having assaulted Smith Weed.  But Tweed was equal to the occasion, for the very next day he obtained the vote and services of Orange S. Winans, a Republican creature of the Erie Railroad Company.  It was charged publicly that Tweed gave Winans $75,000 in cash, and that the Erie Railroad Company gave him a five-years’ tenure of office at $5,000 a year.[13]

Tweed neglected no means whatever to avert popular criticism.  A committee composed of six of the leading and richest citizens — Moses Taylor, Marshall O. Roberts, E.D. Brown, J.J. Astor, George K. Sistare and Edward Schell — were induced to make an examination of the Controller’s books, and hand in a most eulogistic report, commending Connolly for his honesty and faithfulness to duty.  So highly useful a document naturally Was used for all it was worth.[14]

But it was in his tender providence over the newspapers that his greatest success in averting public clamor was shown.  Both in Albany and in this city he showered largess upon the press.  One paper at the Capital received, through his efforts, a legislative appropriation of $207,900 for one year’s printing, whereas $10,000 would have overpaid it for the service rendered.[15]  The proprietor of an Albany journal which was for many years the Republican organ of the State, made it a practice to submit to Tweed’s personal censorship the most violently abusive articles.  On the payment of large sums, sometimes as much as $5,000, Tweed was permitted to make such alterations as he chose.[16]  Here, in the city, the owner of one subservient newspaper received $80,000 a year for “city advertising,” and to some other newspapers large subsidies were paid in the same guise.  Under the head of “city contingencies,” reporters for the city newspapers, Democratic and Republican, received Christmas presents of $200 each.  This particular practice had begun before Tweed’s time,[17] but in line with the expansive manner of the “ring,” the plan was elaborated by subsidizing six or eight men on nearly all the city newspapers, crediting each of them with $2,000 or $2,500 a year for “services.”[18]

The proprietor of the Sun, a newspaper that, from supporting the Young Democracy, veered suddenly to an enthusiastic devotion to the “Boss,” proposed, in March, 1871, the erection of a statue to Tweed.  The “Boss’s adherents jumped at the idea;  and an association for the purpose was formed by Edward J. Shandley, a Police Justice, and a host of other men of local note, in professional, political and social circles, among whom were not only ardent friends of Tweed, but also those who, having opposed him, sought this opportunity of ingratiating themselves into his favor.  The statue was to be “in commemoration of his [Tweed’s] services to the commonwealth of New York” — so ran the circular letter.

In a few days the association had obtained nearly $8,000, some politicians giving $1,000 apiece.  Other men pledged themselves to pay any amount from $1,000 to $10,000, and were on the point of making good their word when a letter from Tweed appeared, discountenancing the project.  It was printed in the Sun of March 14, 1871, under the heading :


“Statues,” wrote Tweed in part, “are not erected to living men, but to those who have ended their careers, and where no interest exists to question the partial tributes of friends.”  Tweed hinted that he was not so deficient in common sense as not to know the bad effect the toleration of the scheme would have, and, ever open to suspicion, he broadly asserted that the original statue proposition was made either as a joke or with an unfriendly motive.

One of the signers of the circular has assured the author that it was a serious proposal.  The attitude of the Sun confirms this.  On March 15 that newspaper stated editorially that it thought “Mr. Tweed had acted hastily,” and inquired whether it was too late “to realize so worthy and so excellent an idea.”  In the same issue appears an interview with Justice Shandley, who says :

“We had contemplated eventually making a public proposition that the testimonial finally take the form of the establishment of a grand charitable institution, bearing Mr. Tweed’s honored name, and so overcome the prejudices that the statue proposition have engendered, and passing the fame of that statesman, philanthropist and patriot down to future generations.  Mr. Tweed has willed otherwise, and we must submit.”

A Chicago clergyman, reading of the suggestion, publicly declared that Tweed was “more dangerous than were the ancient robber kings.”  Copying this expression, the Sun urged editorially on May 13 :

“Now, let the friends of Mr. Tweed combine together and answer this clergyman by erecting and endowing the Tweed Hospital in the Seventh Ward of this city.  A great monument of public charity is the best response that can be made to such accusations.”

Tweed aimed at a high social place.  He had removed from his modest house on Henry street to a pretentious establishment, on Fifth Avenue.  His daughter’s wedding was among the marvels of the day;  from her father’s personal and political friends she received nearly $100,000 worth of gifts.  Among the wedding presents were forty complete sets of silver and fifteen diamond sets, one of which was worth $45,000.  Her wedding dress cost $4,000, and the trimmings were worth $1,000.

All of his expenditures showed a like disregard of cost.  In the construction of the stables adjoining his Summer place at Greenwich, Conn., money “was absolutely thrown away.”  The stalls were built of the finest mahogany.  All told, these stables were said to have cost $100,000.

The Americus Club was his favorite retreat, and there his satellites followed him.  Scores of them were only too glad to pay the $1,000 initiation fee required, in addition to the $2,000 or so charged for sumptuously fitting the room to which each was entitled.  The grandeur of their club badges well illustrated their extravagance.  One style of the badges was a solid, gold tiger’s[19] head in a belt of blue enamel;  the tiger’s eyes were rubies, and above his head sparkled three diamonds of enormous size.  Another style of badge was of solid gold with the tiger’s head in papier-maché under rock crystal.  It was surrounded by diamonds set in the Americus belt.  Above was a pin with a huge diamond, with two smaller diamonds on either side.  This badge was estimated to be worth $2,000.

A third style showed the tiger’s head in frosted gold, with diamond eyes.  Everywhere the prodigal dissipation of the plunder was visible.  Sums of a few thousand dollars Tweed professed to hold in utter contempt.  A city creditor once appealed to him to use his influence with Controller Connolly to have a bill paid.  Twenty times he had asked for it, the creditor said, and could get it only by paying the 20 per cent. demanded.  (This 20 per cent., it should be explained, was the sum extorted from all city creditors by the officials in the Controller’s office as their portion after the chiefs of the “ring” had taken the lion’s share.) Tweed looked at the man a moment and then wrote hastily to Connolly :

“Dear Dick :  For God’s sake pay ——’s bill.  He tells me your people ask 20 per cent.  The whole d——d thing isn’t but $1,100.  If you don’t pay it, I will.  Thine.  William M. Tweed.”

The “Boss’s” note being virtually a command, the bill was paid in full.

1 Statement of Rev. Dr. H.W. Billings, in Cooper Union, April 6, 1871.

2 Testimony Senate Committee on Cities, 1890, Vol. II, pp. 1711-12.

3 The amendments to the charter of 1857 had abolished the Board of Councilmen and reinstituted the Board of Aldermen and the Board of Assistant Aldermen, the two constituting the Common Council.  The “Tweed charter” continued these two boards, legislating the then incumbents out of office, and ordering a new election in May.  The “ring,” of course, secured a large majority in this new Council.

4 The Tweed Case, etc., Supreme Court, 1876, Vol. II, p. 1212.

5 Document No. 8, p. 73.

6 Ibid., pp. 84-92.

7 Document No. 8, p. 212.

8 Ibid., pp. 223-25.

9 For the passage of this bill Tweed paid “in the neighborhood of $50,000 or $100,000.”  Document No. 8, p. 154.

10 While this was going on Tweed maintained the most benevolent attitude in public.  At the Fourth of July celebration in the Wigwam he “called the vast assemblage to order, and with coolness, but delighting (sic) modesty, welcomed brothers and guests.”  Celebration at Tammany Hall of the 94th Anniversary, etc., by the Tammany Society or Columbian Order.  Published by order of the Tammany Society, 1870.

11 Senate Journal, 1871, pp. 482-83.

12 See A History of Public Franchises in New York City, by Gustavus Myers.

13 Winans was unfortunate in his bargain, for after rendering the service agreed upon, his employers failed to keep their promises.  Tweed gave him only one-tenth of the sum promised, and the Erie Railroad Company gave him no office, nor, so far as can be learned, any compensation whatever.

14 John Foley stated to the author that the six members of this committee were intimidated into making this report under the threat that the city officials would raise enormously the assessments on their very considerable holdings of real estate.

15 Document No. 8, pp. 215-18.

16 Ibid.

17 It was city money which the reporters frequenting the City Hall and court buildings received.  The Aldermen passed in 1862 a resolution giving them (sixteen in all) $200 apiece, for “services.”  Mayor Opdyke vetoed the resolution, but it was passed over his veto.  (Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen, 1862, Vol. LXXXVIII, p. 708.)  The grant was made yearly thereafter.

18 Statement of Mr. Foley.

19 The tiger as the symbolic representation of Tammany Hall doubtless dates from this time.  This animal was the emblem of the Americus Club, and in Mr. Nast’s cartoons it frequently appears, with the word AMERICUS on its collar.  In all probability Mr. Nast was responsible for the transference of the symbol from the club to the organization.  The author has been unable to find any earlier reference to the Tammany tiger.