The Corrupting of New York City


A single building, the old New York County Courthouse at 52 Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan, still stands as a monument to the spirit of the Tweed era. The plans for the courthouse were approved by Tweed’s Board of Supervisors in 1858, with the cost of the building and all furnishings budgeted at $250,000. That estimate turned out to be optimistic, not by 50 percent, not by 500 percent, but by 5,000 percent. Completed in 1872, Tweed’s “Palace of Plunder” cost approximately $12.5 million. That made it sixteen times as expensive as a slightly smaller courthouse built in Brooklyn in the same period.

Where did the money go? About 65 percent went to the members of the Ring, in the form of kickbacks from contractors who shamelessly padded the bills submitted to the city. And $460,000 went for lumber later estimated to be worth $48,000. Then $350,000 went for carpeting—an overcharge, The New York Times estimated, of $336,821. Cuspidors cost the city $190 each. For a building whose total cost was supposed to be $250,000, “Brooms, etc.” cost $41,190. Plastering cost $2.87 million, including nearly $1.3 million for “repairs” before the building even opened.

Marble for the courthouse came from a quarry owned by Tweed himself. From the firm of James Ingersoll, a boyhood friend of the Boss, came furniture, carpeting, and shades that cost the city nearly $5.7 million. Roscoe Conkling, the Republican senator from New York, noted that the amount that Tweed and his cohorts spent on furnishings alone was nearly three times the amount that the Grant administration required to run the entire United States diplomatic corps for two years.

Honest citizens watched with amazement. “To be a citizen of New York is a disgrace,” the attorney George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary in 1868. “A domicile on Manhattan Island is a thing to be confessed with apologies and humiliation. The New Yorker belongs to a community worse governed by lower and baser blackguard scum than any city in Western Christendom.”

In 1871 the Ring made an error that led to its downfall. Through a clerk in the comptroller’s office, the city’s former sheriff, James O’Brien, obtained copies of secret records about the courthouse. O’Brien threatened to go public unless the Ring paid him $300,000 ($350,000 according to a second source) to satisfy a baseless claim for fees related to his tenure as sheriff. It seemed a reasonable request, and Tweed and Connolly would have paid, but Peter “Brains” Sweeny refused. Contempt for the former sheriff appears to have clouded his judgment.

Rebuffed, O’Brien took his documents to The New York Times , and on July 8, 1871, New Yorkers were treated to the first in a series of articles that presented “reliable and incontrovertible evidence of numerous gigantic frauds on the part of the rulers of the city.” To the daily revelations in the Times and other newspapers were added the pitiless caricatures of a bloated Tweed drawn by the great cartoonist Thomas Nast and published in Harper’s Weekly . The cartoons bothered the Boss: “My constituents don’t know how to read,” he said, “but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”

Tweed later apologized for his first ing’s simplicity: “It was just for making money, not for controlling politics.”

The election of November 1871 swept the Ring out of power. Not long afterward a number of Tweed’s associates were moved by a sudden desire to visit distant lands. Peter Sweeny and Richard Connolly went to Paris, where they soon were joined by Tweed’s old friend James Ingersoll and by Andrew Garvey, whose company had handled the plastering of the courthouse.

A. Oakey Hall completed his term as mayor and managed to persuade a jury that he had been guilty of nothing more than an “ineradicable aversion to details.” Tweed himself spent the rest of his life in and out of jail. On April 12, 1878, at age fifty-five, while awaiting trial in a suit to recover six million dollars he was said to have stolen, he died in the Ludlow Street Jail in Manhattan.

The corruption of the Tweed era is so uninhibited that the splendor of the story may obscure an important point. For all their flamboyance, Tweed and the Tweed Ring did not matter much in the long run. The forces that contributed to Tweed’s rise did not cease to exist when he fell. The forces that put an end to his power did not put an end to the power of Tammany.

During the approximately eighty years between the founding of modern Tammany in the early 1850s and the inauguration of Fiorello H. La Guardia as mayor in 1934, anti-Tammany reformers held power in New York City for only ten years. Every decade or so, little waves of discontent built to a big wave that swept Tammany out of office. But always the big wave spent its force, and always Tammany returned. “Tammany is not a wave,” a chief of police explained during one period of reform, “it’s the sea itself.”