The House That Tweed Built

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When a further half-million dollars was granted in 1866, a reform group sniffed the pungent odor of corruption. It seemed a bit odd that $3,150,000 of the taxpayers’ money had been spent but that the courthouse still was not finished, except for one corner occupied by the court of appeals. The reformers indignantly demanded an investigation. The officials of the city and county of New York were obliging, but their feelings were somewhat ruffled. They pointed out that the Board of Supervisors had already set up a committee to investigate the courthouse contracts. Nevertheless, to serve justice, they established another committee, christening it the Special Committee to Investigate the Courthouse. This committee was to investigate the investigating committee set up by the Board of Supervisors that was investigating the courthouse. The Special Committee took a remarkably short time to declare that the investigating committee, the contracts, and everything else about the courthouse were free from fraud.

The tempo of appropriations for the courthouse increased as the Tweed Ring expanded its power. Boss Tweed demonstrated his unchallenged authority over the state legislature by having it contribute a large amount of money to the courthouse, and he completed a one-two punch by persuading the city at the same time to donate $6,997,893.24 more. “Just imagine,” said a newspaper, “the untiring industry, the wear and tear of muscle, the anxiety of mind, the weary days and sleepless nights, that it must have cost the ‘Boss’ to procure all these sums of money.” Thus, from 1858 to 1871, more than thirteen million dollars had been spent on the new courthouse.

When, in 1871, New Yorkers finally realized that their courthouse had been a gold mine of graft, one of the first questions asked was how this incredible swindle had been perpetrated. Such a colossal steal, it seemed, could be engineered only by a complicated and subtle stratagem. What astonished, angered, and perhaps embarrassed New Yorkers was the revelation that the Ring, confident of its power and contemptuous of detection, had employed such brazen tactics.

The scheme hinged upon each member of the Ring playing a role tailored to his particular talents and office. Boss Tweed’s role was to operate exclusively in the area of top-level decision-making and to exercise his considerable charm—always enhanced by a bulging pocketbook—among his acquaintances in the New York City and State governments. To assist him in the gentle art of political persuasion, Tweed, like most successful executives, had a resourceful and imaginative aide. Peter Barr Sweeny, the city chamberlain. Dark, brooding, mysterious, Sweeny seemed to some to be more shadow than man. Heavy-set, with a jet-black walrus mustache and a large head covered with a mass of thick black hair, he always wore black clothes and a highcrowned black hat. Sweeny, a behind-the-scenes manipulator, was painfully shy in public. In 1857, as district attorney, he broke down in his first speech before a jury and was so humiliated that he resigned and fled to Europe. His forte was to operate as Tweed’s alter ego in party caucuses, private offices, and hotel corridors. This reputation for stealthy astuteness won him many nicknames—Brains Sweeny, Sly Sweeny, Spider Sweeny—but his friends called him Squire. It was Tweed and Sweeny who made all the initial arrangements between the Ring and the hand-picked courthouse contractors.

The third major figure in the operation was the city comptroller, Richard Connolly. His tall stovepipe hat, gold-rimmed spectacles, stately nose, clean-shaven face, and plump belly gave him a distinguished appearance, and he was called the Big Judge by his cronies. Connolly artfully feigned an innocence that led the uninitiated to think of him as a mere child in the game of politics. But the nickname given him by the reformers, Slippery Dick, was proved accurate when in 1871 he was shown to be worth six million dollars, although his salary had been only $3,600 in 1857. It was Connolly’s job as the Ring’s bookkeeper and financial expert to supervise the assault on the soft underbelly of the city treasury. After the contractors submitted the bills for their work, Connolly made certain that the Ring received sixty-five per cent of the amount due as its commission, with the remaining thirty-five per cent going to the contractors. He then drew up payments, or warrants, drawn from the city treasury, approved them as city comptroller, and turned them over to Boss Tweed, who in turn “persuaded” the Board of Supervisors to give its official approval to the warrants. The operation reached its final stage when the padded warrants were placed on the desk of the colorful “Elegant Oakey” Hall, the mayor of New York.

Abraham Oakey Hall, a nervous, sparkling little man who had a pool-shark’s touch with the electorate, delighted New York with his purple rhetoric and his gaudy elegance. He was a politician, playwright (the heart-toaster, Let Me Kiss Him for His Mother , was one of his plays enjoyed by New York theatregoers), journalist, lawyer, poet, clubman, lecturer, humorist, and humbug. Oakey Hall had only one defect as mayor, one newspaper commented, “a lack of ability.” But there was one talent Hall did not lack: he could write his name. When, as the highest city officer, he signed the inflated warrants, the deed was done.