1873 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

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On November 19 William M. Tweed, the deposed boss of New York City’s monumentally corrupt municipal government, was convicted on 204 misdemeanor counts of approving fraudulent invoices. The invoices in question accounted for only a small fraction of the twenty million to two hundred million dollars that Tweed and his associates had stolen from the city between 1865 and 1871. The conviction culminated a four-year campaign to bring Tweed to justice that had been led by two men: George Jones, the publisher of The New York Times (which proudly proclaimed itself “ THE ONLY REPUBLICAN JOURNAL in the City of New York”), and Thomas Nast, the cartoonist whose wicked caricatures in Harper’s Weekly were a constant torment to Tweed. Tweed had unsuccessfully offered both men large bribes to leave him alone.

As their attacks intensified, other citizens joined in the reform movement, motivated by a mixture of disgust at Tweed’s thievery and contempt for his followers. At first Tweed’s opponents were mostly native-born (though Nast was German), Protestant, upper-class Republicans. His core supporters were the exact opposite: foreign-born (usually Irish), Catholic, lower-class Democrats. Aristocrats feared what would become of their beloved city when put in the hands of such people. The reformers’ idea of clean government was rule by gentlemen too rich to take bribes.

The big break came in July 1871, when the Times began publishing receipts and records documenting the Tweed Ring’s defalcations. The incriminating papers had been stolen by a minor ring functionary who was angry at being denied a payoff he felt entitled to. As the exposé continued, politicians and newspaper editors jumped on the bandwagon and a reform Democratic faction emerged. Some ring members fled the country, others turned canary, while still others decided to stick with the tried-and-true tactics of bribery and intimidation. Tweed, choosing the last of these courses, had managed to arrange a hung jury at his first trial, but a carefully selected and sequestered panel convicted him the second time around.

Tweed was released in January 1875 but was immediately rearrested. The state was suing him for six million dollars, and he would be confined until he posted half the amount as bail. This time he was held in debtor’s prison, where his wealth bought him moderately pleasant accommodations and daily trips, accompanied by the jailer, to see his family. On one such excursion in December 1875, Tweed escaped (possibly with the jailer’s complicity), and he remained at large for close to a year until he was captured in Spain, working as a common seaman on a Spanish brig. Authorities there had identified him from his likeness in a Nast cartoon.

Events that followed his return almost managed to turn Tweed into a sympathetic figure. The state’s suit had been decided against him in his absence, and he now owed six million dollars. With his health failing and his empire in ruins, what Tweed craved most of all was a final few years of peace. In 1877 he wrote out a long, detailed confession of his ring’s activities, offering it and all the property he still owned in return for his release from jail. That turned out to be carrying reform too far.

The confession named many important figures in both parties who had previously been thought to be clean. Even the former governor Samuel J. Tilden, who had built his reputation on overthrowing the Tweed Ring, was implicated. Rather than reveal half of the city and state government to be crooks, Att. Gen. Charles S. Fairchild returned the confession to Tweed, claiming it was inaccurate. The investigation of ring activities petered out, and Tweed died in the debtors’ prison on April 12, 1878. His last words were, “I hope Tilden and Fairchild are satisfied now.”