- Historic Sites
The Corrupting of New York City
It began early. It’s not going away. It’s about a lot more than payoffs and ward politics. And it’s about a lot more than New York.
December 1986 | Volume 38, Issue 1
Padded bills, bribery, and kickbacks from contractors were routine. A bid of $300,000 was offered for a piece of city-owned waterfront property, but the city sold the land for $160,000. Was it cynical to ask whether the buyer might have made an additional payment to the officials who approved the sale? The city had the opportunity to buy land cheap for a paupers’ cemetery, but it paid three times the asking price. Was it cynical to ask where the extra cash had gone? At one point twenty-nine aldermen had been cited for contempt of court—and many of them also indicted for bribery—yet the law allowed them to continue to serve as judges in the criminal courts.
Then, in 1857, the Republican-dominated state legislature passed a series of laws that set the stage for the rise of the most notorious band of rascals in the city’s history. Many jobs previously controlled by city politicians were now to be controlled by the Republican governor and the state senate. A metropolitan police district, fire district, and health district were created, to be run by boards whose members mostly were appointed by the governor. A state board was established to administer Central Park, in the heart of the city. A Board of Supervisors for the county of New York was established—a board that served as the main link between the city and the state and that soon was captured by a Democrat, the rising young Tammany politician named William Marcy Tweed.
Tweed was born in New York City in 1823 and left school at eleven to go to work for his father, a chairmaker. In his teens he led a local gang and earned the nickname Big Bill. (Eventually he weighed nearly three hundred pounds.) He was a fun-loving youth who walked with a swagger, made friends easily, and loved any kind of fight.
In New York City at the time, young men with a taste for politics gravitated to the engine rooms of volunteer fire, companies. Tweed joined the Americus Vespucci company and, after two years, at twenty-seven, became the foreman of the red-shirted men of Americus Engine Company Number Six, known as the Big Six. The emblem of the Big Six, painted on the engine, was the head of a snarling Bengal tiger. Later the tiger would become the emblem of Tammany.
After two years of service on the New York City Council, Tweed was elected to Congress, in 1852. Washington seems not to have offered the kind of opportunities that he expected from a political career, and, complaining that he was “lonesome,” he returned to New York. There he obtained an appointment as a commissioner on the Board of Education. In addition, in 1857 he became a member of the newly formed Board of Supervisors.
One function of the board was to audit bills presented to the city for payment. Soon Tweed had organized a “ring” of supervisors who voted together on these bills. Contractors who wanted to do business with the city found themselves obliged to pad their invoices and, when the city paid, to kick back a part of the padding to the ring. Tweed later apologized for the simplicity of the scheme: “It was just for making money,” he said, “not for controlling politics.”
By the end of 1863 Tweed had become both the grand sachem of Tammany and the chairman of the central committee of the New York County Democratic party. That unusual double honor left little doubt who ruled as the “boss” in New York City politics. Over the next few years, the Supervisors’ Ring gave way to the more formidable and more famous Tweed Ring, which existed both to make money and to control politics.
With the election of the Tammany candidate John T. Hoffman as governor in 1868—an election “secured,” one contemporary said, “by the grossest and most extensive frauds ever perpetrated in the city, e.g. illegal naturalization of foreigners, false registration, repeating of votes, and unfair counting”—the Tweed Ring came into full power. Its members were A. Oakey Hall (“Elegant Oakey”), the city’s mayor; Richard B. Connolly (“Slippery Dick”), the comptroller; Peter B. Sweeny (“Sly Sweeny,” “Spider Sweeny,” “Brains Sweeny”), the commissioner of the Parks Department; and Tweed himself, the commissioner of the Department of Public Works.
The elections of 1868 gave the Democratic party a majority in both houses of the New York State Legislature. Tweed was in the state senate, and in 1870 he steered through the legislature a new charter for his city. The charter returned to New York much of the power that the charter of 1857 had taken away, and it placed the entire control of the city’s finances in the hands of a new Board of Apportionment consisting of the mayor, the comptroller, the commissioner of the Parks Department, and the commissioner of the Department of Public Works —that is, Hall, Connolly, Sweeny, and Tweed. “You can’t get anything in Albany without paying for it,” Tweed said at about this time, and he seems to have paid approximately one million dollars in bribes to get the new charter.