[Paleopsych] NYT: 'Boss Tweed': When the King of New York Was the King of Corruption
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Mon Apr 18 19:22:27 UTC 2005
NYT: 'Boss Tweed': When the King of New York Was the King of
By WILLIAM GRIMES
BOSS TWEED: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul
of Modern New York
By Kenneth D. Ackerman
Illustrated. 464 pages. Carroll & Graf Publishers. $27.
The imposing marble building at 52 Chambers Street in Lower
Manhattan, recently converted into the headquarters for the Department
of Education, has long been one of the city's great marvels, and not
for its architecture. Built as a courthouse, it was budgeted at
$250,000 in 1858, when the first plans were drawn up, but between 1862
and 1870 the city poured as much as $12 million into its construction,
or something like $240 million in current dollars.
Officially, the building was the New York County Courthouse, but New
Yorkers then and now know it as the Tweed Courthouse, in honor of
William M. Tweed, the political boss of bosses, who turned its
construction into a private enrichment scheme for himself and his
cronies and who, in the years after the Civil War, made New York
politics a byword for shameless corruption. As the head of Tammany
Hall, the Democratic political machine, and commissioner of public
works, he dispensed patronage, bought and sold political appointments,
rigged elections, controlled judges, paid off the press and looted the
city treasury. He had a high old time doing it, too.
In "Boss Tweed," Kenneth D. Ackerman, a freelance historian who has
written two books on the Gilded Age, chronicles Tweed's rise and fall,
from his early days as the head of a volunteer fire company to his
reign as the city's undisputed political overlord, a position that he
abused with gusto until chronic overreaching finally brought him down,
undone by a disgruntled former associate who turned over incriminating
documents to The New York Times.
"Boss Tweed," although erratically narrated and poorly organized,
manages to get the job done, in large part because Mr. Ackerman has
his hands on a terrific story with compelling characters. Tweed, of
course, is worth his weight in gold. He was a natural politician, a
gregarious, good-natured backslapper who, by handing out jobs and
charity, earned the love and loyalty of the lower orders, especially
the Irish immigrants despised by the city's establishment. He was, in
one description, "a hearty boon companion, a lover of his friends and
generous to 'the boys.' "
He stole shamelessly and flaunted his wealth, setting up multiple,
richly decorated residences and traveling by private yacht or private
railway car. At six feet and nearly 300 pounds, he was physically
imposing and a cartoonist's dream. Thomas Nast, whose caricatures in
Harper's Weekly helped turn the tide against Tweed, depicted him with
an enormous stomach, an oversize diamond pinned to his shirt, and, in
one cartoon, a moneybag instead of a head.
Mr. Ackerman draws vivid portraits of the inner circle known as the
Tweed Ring, a grasping, venal crew led by the mayor, A. Oakey Hall, a
man fond of stylish clothes and execrable puns. (After breaking a leg,
he wrote in a letter, "In every way I realize I am like poor France -
disordered - and especially in the Bonapartes.") "Elegant Oakey," as
his friends called him, was a lightweight. The truly dirty work went
to Richard (Slippery Dick) Connolly, the city comptroller, and the
sullen, publicity-shy parks commissioner, Peter B. Sweeny.
The Tweed Ring siphoned off millions from public-works projects and
sales of city bonds. Favored contractors kicked back a hefty
percentage of the inflated bills that they submitted, often for work
that was never done or for materials never purchased. Tweed himself
made several fortunes buying real estate on streets scheduled for
improvements and by making his own company the city's official
The city tolerated Tweed, for a time, because the economy was booming.
Manufacturing was up, Wall Street was on a roll and property values,
in part because of the city's ambitious public works projects, were
soaring. "It seemed like a great free ride, especially for the banks
and brokerage houses making huge commissions on the bond sales," Mr.
Ackerman writes. "Tweed economics - borrow, spend and keep some for
yourself - made sense to New Yorkers. Even the poor benefited."
Leo Hershkowitz, in his 1977 revisionist history, "Tweed's New York: A
Closer Look," argued that Tweed was in fact a kind of hero who
enfranchised the working man, helped create some of the city's
greatest public works and institutions and, in the end, took the fall
for the crimes of others. It is one of the weaknesses of "Boss Tweed"
that Mr. Ackerman, who clearly disagrees with this view, never
addresses the argument directly (or, for that matter, ever explains in
what way Tweed "conceived the soul of modern New York," as the book's
subtitle has it).
Eventually, as the Ring grew ever greedier, the city's economy felt
the pinch. Between 1869 and 1871, New York's debt tripled, to $97
million from $36.3 million, with interest payments alone approaching
$10 million a year. Foreign investors began looking askance at New
York bonds, especially when The New York Times, in 1870, began a
relentless campaign attacking Tweed and the Ring.
Just why the newspaper chose to take on the Ring remains unclear.
Initially, it had no damning evidence, only deep suspicions. That
changed in July 1871 when a Tammany insider with a grudge dropped off
a sheaf of documents at the newspaper's offices on Park Row. They
contained the paper trail linking Tweed and his cronies to phony bills
and vouchers totaling $6.3 million. The Times presented the
information in loving detail, while Nast turned out one acid-etched
cartoon after another. The days of the Boss were numbered. Indictment,
conviction and prison followed.
Even as his cronies fled to foreign parts or cut deals with the
prosecution, Tweed remained good-humored and unrepentant. He played
the game of New York politics fair and square, which is to say, he
stole with both hands but always kept his word when it came time to
spread the money around to his followers and flunkies. "The fact is
New York politics were always dishonest - long before my time," he
said in a jailhouse interview. "There never was a time you couldn't
buy the Board of Aldermen." A politician, he added, "takes things as
Tweed and his well-oiled political machine provided the model for
big-city bosses for generations to come, and, crooked though he was,
he remains in many ways a tremendously appealing figure. Mr. Ackerman
has it right when he writes, "Except for his stealing, Tweed would
have been a great man; but then had he been honest, he wouldn't have
been Tweed and would not have left nearly so great a mark."
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