The House That Tweed Built

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When the Tweed Ring was exposed in 1871, it became a favorite pastime to calculate how far, placed end to end, the furnishings and materials charged to the city for the courthouse would reach. One newspaper reckoned that there was carpeting enough to reach from New York almost to New Haven, or halfway to Albany. Another wag estimated that since Ingersoll was paid $170,729.60 for chairs alone, if each cost $5, the city had bought 34,145 chairs. Now if they were placed in a straight line, they would reach 85,363 feet, or nearly eighteen miles. What would happen, asked the New York Times, if the sum spent for cabinet work and furniture were spent in furnishing private houses? Allowing $10,000 per house, the paper estimated, it would furnish nearly 3,000 houses.

The revelations of the cost of the building inspired several New Yorkers to visit their new courthouse. Although they realized that corruption had been at work, they expected to see some kind of magnificence for their thirteen million dollars. Instead they found an unfinished waste of masonry—gloomy rooms, dark halls, and ugly, fake marble walls—resembling more an ancient tenement than a new public building. In 1871, after thirteen years of construction work, not all of the floors were occupied. One of the largest rooms, the Bureau of Arrears of Taxes, had no roof. The county clerk’s office, sheriff’s office, and office of the surrogate were not carpeted but were covered with oilcloth and grimy matting. The walls were filthy, and in many places large chunks of plaster had peeled off, leaving ugly blotches—a fitting tribute to the Prince of Plasterer’s repair bills. One visitor counted 164 windows and shuddered at the cost of awnings and curtains, many of which had not yet been delivered. When the prominent reformer George C. Barrett made his pilgrimage, he came away shocked. His impression left no doubt that the city must long endure a reminder of the most audacious swindle in its history. “It might be considered,” he said, “that the cornerstone of the temple was conceived in sin, and its dome, if ever finished, will be glazed all over with iniquity. The whole atmosphere was corrupt. You look up at its ceilings and find gaudy decorations; you wonder which is the greatest, the vulgarity or the corruptness of the place.” As a final irony, the grand dome which had been planned to crown the county’s temple of justice was never completed.

Boss Tweed and his friends reached the zenith of their power in July, 1871. On July 4, Tammany wildly celebrated the glories of Independence Day and the beneficent leadership of Grand Sachem William Marcy Tweed. Four days later came the beginning of the end. The New York Times, leading one of the greatest crusades against civic corruption in American history, began publishing the facts and figures on the Ring’s adventures in graft. The Times was aided by Harper’s Weekly with its acerbic cartoons by Thomas Nast, who drew the courthouse with “Thou Shalt Steal As Much As Thou Canst” over its portal. The evidence was turned over to the newspaper by an unhappy Tammany warrior, ex-Sheriff James O’Brien. Furious because Tweed had not paid a fraudulent claim he had made against the city, O’Brien had hired a spy in Connolly’s office to copy entries out of the Ring’s secret account books.

While it was estimated that the Ring in all its various operations had stolen anywhere from twenty million to two hundred million dollars from the city and state, it was the courthouse that captured New York’s attention and ignited its wrath. At first the Boss had magnificent poise. “Well,” he said, “what are you going to do about it?” And Mayor Hall—or “Mayor Haul,” as Nast labelled him—quipped, “Who’s going to sue?” But as the Times, day by day, week by week, revealed the enormity of the courthouse scandal—the plaster, the carpets, the repair bills, the thermometers —the Forty Thieves panicked and Oakey Hall became a prophet: “We are likely to have what befell Adam,” he said, “an early Fall.” Tweed tried to bribe the Times into silence and failed, while Nast refused an offer of $500,000 to study art abroad rather than corruption at home. The Boss said of Thomas Nast, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.” By the fall of 1871, the Ring was on the threshold of collapse. As new evidence of wrongdoing accumulated, a mass meeting of outraged New Yorkers was held at Cooper Union and a committee of seventy leading citizens was organized to bring about the fall of Tweed. Under the leadership of Samuel J. Tilden, who later became governor of New York and the Democratic nominee for President in 1876, a civil suit to recover the stolen money was brought against the Ring’s leaders. In the November, 1871, election, one of the most exciting in New York history, the Ring was smashed when Tammany was crushed at the polls. New York now awaited expectantly the trials of all the culprits who had so boldly picked the civic purse, but the city was to be denied that satisfaction.