A Brief History
On this date in 1876, a public cry for justice was answered when W. M. “Boss” Tweed was turned over to legal authorities in New York city after having been captured in Spain.
Digging deeper, we find perhaps the most famously corrupt American government official of all time, and that is saying a lot!
Holding a variety of political offices, from congressman to New York County Board of Supervisors to state senator, Tweed also held several appointed local government jobs, all of which he used to enrich himself. He did so by selling jobs and contracts, as well as denying jobs and contracts, and the same for government services. Tweed thus became the leader of the corrupt government organization known to the public as “Tammany Hall,” a name that has become the definition of rotten government.
How rotten? Well, our money was worth more then, but when taking inflation into account, he is believed to have stolen somewhere between one and eight billion dollars in today’s money! Fleecing the public on this scale was bound to generate some resentment which became apparent in 1871 when he denied Irish Protestants permission to celebrate the Protestant victory over Catholics. Plenty of non-Irish Protestants were also miffed, with riots and investigations starting.
Notable among the journalists joining the growing chorus against their miserable government was Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist that pilloried Tweed and his crowd with a series of very famous newspaper cartoons. The attempts by Tweed and his Tammany cronies to bribe and threaten their way out of trouble were overcome by the surge of anti-corruption sweeping the city.
Tweed was arrested and released on a million dollar bond, and incredibly was elected to the state senate! Arrested again during another round of crackdowns, Tweed was given bail of eight million dollars, went to trial, had a hung jury, and then was finally convicted in November of 1873. Given one year in jail and sued by the state for embezzled funds, Tweed escaped custody during a home visit and went to Spain, working as a sailor on a Spanish ship. Turned over to the US Navy by Spain, he was dropped off in New York November 23, 1876 and re-jailed.
Out for himself to the end, Tweed gave authorities all the information and testimony he could about the Tammany Hall organization and activities in exchange for a promise of release from prison. Surprise! No release, and in prison he stayed and died. Thus ended arguably the most famous corrupt politician in America.
Question for students (and subscribers): Why are so many politicians corrupt? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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Of the books on Tweed and his downfall, we recommend the following:
Ackerman, Kenneth D. Boss Tweed: The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York. Viral History Press LLC, 2011.
Adler, John and Draper Hill. Doomed by Cartoon: How Cartoonist Thomas Nast and the New York Times Brought Down Boss Tweed and His Ring of Thieves. Morgan James Publishing, 2008.
The featured image in this article, a cartoon by Thomas Nast (1840–1902) of Columbia (female personification of the USA) standing before a wall separating two groups, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1925, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.