Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Famous Queens Resident Series, Part XXXI

Boss Tweed - The “Boss” of Tammany Hall once lived in Bayside

William M. "Boss" Tweed (April 3, 1823 – April 12, 1878) was an American criminal, who was convicted and imprisoned for stealing millions of dollars from New York City through political corruption. Tweed was a politician and head of Tammany Hall, the name given to the Democratic Party political machine that played a major role in the history of 19th century politics. He was of Scottish-Irish descent.

Tweed's middle name does not appear on any surviving documents. Tweed invariably gave his name as "William M. Tweed" on the many government orders he signed. The M. probably stands for Magear, the middle name of his son William Magear Tweed Jr, since a son named Junior has the same name as his father. Magear was Tweed's mother's maiden name. The often used but incorrect middle name Marcy originated in a joking reference to New York Governor William L. Marcy (1833–1838), the man who said "to the victor belongs the spoils".

Tweed had started his ascent as a volunteer fireman, which, in 1840s New York City, was often considered the first stepping stone into New York City politics. Tweed himself was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, the New York City Board of Advisors in 1856, and the New York State Senate in 1867.
Financiers Jay Gould and Big Jim Fisk made Boss Tweed a director of the Erie Railroad, and Tweed in turn arranged favorable legislation for them. Tweed and Gould became the subjects of political cartoons by Thomas Nast in 1869.

In April 1870 Tweed secured the passage of a city charter putting the control of the city into the hands of the mayor (A. Oakey Hall), the comptroller, and the commissioners of parks and public works. He then set about to plunder the city. The total amount of money stolen was never known, but has been estimated from $75 million to $200 million. Over a period of two years and eight months, New York City's debts increased from $36 million in 1868 to about $136 million by 1870, with little costs or expenditures to show for the debt.

Tweed was accused of defrauding the city by having contractors present excessive bills for work performed—typically ranging from 15 to 65 percent more than the project actually cost. The opposition was strengthening. This extra money was propagandized against Tweed and stated as having been divided among Tweed, his subordinates and his cronies. The most excessive overcharging came in the form of the famous Tweed Courthouse, which cost the city $13 million to construct (the actual cost for the courthouse was about $3 million), leaving about $10 million for the pockets of Tweed and his gang. The city was also billed $3 million for city printing and stationery over a two-year period.

While he was known primarily for the vast corrupt empire, Tweed was also responsible for building hospitals and orphanages, widening Broadway along the Upper West Side, and securing the land for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tweed's demise came when one of the plunderers, dissatisfied with the amount he received, gave The New York Times evidence that conclusively proved that stealing was going on. The newspaper was reportedly offered $5 million to not publish the evidence. In a subsequent interview about the fraud, Tweed's only reply was, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" However, accounts in The New York Times and political cartoons drawn by Thomas Nast and published in Harper's Weekly resulted in the election of numerous opposition candidates in 1871. Tweed is attributed with exclaiming, "Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents can't read, but,darn it, they can see pictures!"
In October 1871, when Tweed was held on $8 million bail, Boss Tweed was the chief bondsman. The efforts of political reformers William H. Wickham (1875 New York City mayor) and Samuel J. Tilden (later the 1876 Democratic presidential nominee) resulted in Tweed's trial and conviction in 1873. He was given a 12-year prison sentence, which was reduced by a higher court and he served one year. He was then re-arrested on civil charges, sued by New York State for $6 million and held in debtor's prison until he could post $3 million as bail. On January 3, 1875, Tweed escaped and fled to Cuba.

His presence in Cuba was discovered by the U.S. government, and he was held by the Cuban government. Before the U.S. government could arrange for his extradition, Tweed bribed his way onto a ship to Spain. Before he arrived, the U.S. government discovered his eventual destination and arranged for his arrest as soon as he reached the Spanish coast. The Spanish authorities identified him, purportedly recognizing him from one of Nast's cartoons, and extradited him; he was delivered to authorities in New York City on November 23, 1876, where he died in the Ludlow Street Jail, just a few blocks from his childhood home, two years later on April 12, 1878, at the age of 55. He was buried in the Brooklyn Green-Wood Cemetery.

In studies of Tweed and the Tammany Hall machine, almost all histories and textbooks have condemned the corruption, graft, and conspiratorial nature of "Boss Tweed". History books in American schools have often also pointed out how he was exposed by cartoonist Thomas Nast and ended his days in Ludlow Street Jail. Exposers of machine corruption, like the Muckraker Lincoln Steffens, may speak of supporters of a machine as innocent or ignorant victims, but those voters expected and demanded rewards for their votes such as help in dealing with employers or landlords, finding jobs, or surviving periods of illness or unemployment[citation needed]. Thus, it was the rise of the social welfare concept of government that did the most to weaken machine politics[citation needed].

• Boss Tweed was portrayed by Jim Broadbent in the 2002 film Gangs of New York.

• Tweed, portrayed as villainous and vindictive, was mentioned in chapter 14 of Neal Shusterman's young adult novel Downsiders.

• In the Elseworlds miniseries Green Lantern: Evil's Might, Tweed and Tammany Hall are featured as two of the main villains. This depiction of Tweed even goes as far as to mention Thomas Nast's political cartoons.

• In the 1977 science-fiction novel "The Ophiuchi Hotline" by John Varley, a crooked politician in the human-settled Moon of the 27th century takes up the name "Boss Tweed" in deliberate emulation of the 19th Century politician, and even names his Lunar headquarters "Tammany Hall".

• The role of Boss Tweed was originated by Noah Beery, Sr. in the 1945 original Broadway production of "Up In Central Park".

• Tweed has a cameo appearance of sorts in the novel Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In Bolgia 5 of the Malebolge, demons are seen pulling Tweed out of the lake of boiling pitch and torturing him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bob Holden falls under this great tradition of Tweed, with his hypocritical basement operation and his attempted shakedown of elected governenment officials.