Biography of William 'Boss' Tweed, American Politician

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U.S. Army Signal Corps / Contributor / Getty Images

William M. “Boss” Tweed (April 3, 1823–April 12, 1878) was an American politician who, as the leader of the political organization Tammany Hall, controlled New York City politics in the years following the Civil War. Tweed leveraged his power as a landowner and corporate board member to extend his influence throughout the city. Along with other members of the “Tweed Ring,” he was suspected of siphoning untold millions from the city’s coffers before public outrage turned against him and he was finally prosecuted.

Fast Facts: William M. 'Boss' Tweed

  • Known For: Tweed commanded Tammany Hall, the 19th-century New York City political machine.
  • Born: April 3, 1823 in New York City
  • Died: April 12, 1878 in New York City
  • Spouse: Jane Skaden (m. 1844)

Early Life

William M. Tweed was born on Cherry Street in lower Manhattan on April 3, 1823. There is a dispute about his middle name, which was often mistakenly given as Marcy, but which was actually Magear—his mother's maiden name. In newspaper accounts and official documents during his lifetime, his name is usually printed simply as William M. Tweed.

As a boy, Tweed went to a local school and received a typical education for the time, and then apprenticed as a chair maker. During his teens, he developed a reputation for street fighting. Like many youths in the area, Tweed became attached to a local volunteer fire company.

In that era, neighborhood fire companies were closely aligned with local politics. Fire companies had illustrious names, and Tweed became associated with Engine Company 33, whose nickname was “Black Joke.” The company had a reputation for brawling with other companies that would try to outrace them to fires.

When Engine Company 33 disbanded, Tweed, then in his mid-20s, was one of the organizers of the new Americus Engine Company, which became known as Big Six. Tweed was credited with making the company’s mascot a roaring tiger, which was painted on the side of its engine.

When Big Six would respond to a fire in the late 1840s, its members pulling the engine through the streets, Tweed could usually be seen running ahead, shouting commands through a brass trumpet.

Lithograph of New York City firemen
A fire company of the type led by young Boss Tweed. Library of Congress

Early Political Career

With his local fame as the foreman of Big Six and his gregarious personality, Tweed seemed a natural candidate for a political career. In 1852 he was elected the alderman of the Seventh Ward, an area in lower Manhattan.

Tweed then ran for Congress and won, beginning his term in March 1853. However, he did not enjoy life in Washington, D.C., or his work in the House of Representatives. Though great national events were being debated on Capitol Hill, including the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Tweed’s interests were back in New York.

After his one term in Congress, he returned to New York City, though he did visit Washington for one event. In March 1857 the Big Six fire company marched in the inaugural parade for President James Buchanan, led by former congressman Tweed in his fireman’s gear.

Tammany Hall

Cartoon of Boss Tweed with moneybag head by Thomas Nast
Boss Tweed depicted by Thomas Nast as a bag of money. Getty Images

Picking up again in New York City politics, Tweed was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors in 1857. It was not a highly noticeable position, though Tweed was perfectly positioned to begin corrupting the government. He would remain on the Board of Supervisors throughout the 1860s.

Tweed eventually rose to the pinnacle of Tammany Hall, the New York political machine, and was elected the “Grand Sachem” of the organization. He was known to work closely with two particularly unscrupulous businessmen, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk. Tweed was also elected as a state senator, and his name would occasionally appear in newspaper reports about mundane civic matters. When the funeral procession for Abraham Lincoln marched up Broadway in April 1865, Tweed was mentioned as one of many local dignitaries who followed the hearse.

By the late 1860s, the finances of the city were essentially being overseen by Tweed, with a percentage of nearly every transaction being kicked back to him and his ring. Though he was never elected mayor, the public generally regarded him as the true leader of the city.

Downfall

By 1870, the newspapers were referring to Tweed as "Boss" Tweed, and his power over the city’s political apparatus was nearly absolute. Tweed, partly due to his personality and his penchant for charity, was very popular with the common people.

Legal problems began to appear, however. Financial improprieties in city accounts came to the attention of newspapers, and on July 18, 1871, an accountant who worked for Tweed's ring delivered a ledger listing suspicious transactions to The New York Times. Within days, the details of Tweed's thievery appeared on the front page of the newspaper.

A reform movement consisting of Tweed's political enemies, concerned businessmen, journalists, and the noted political cartoonist Thomas Nast began to attack the Tweed ring.

After complicated legal battles and a celebrated trial, Tweed was convicted and sentenced to jail in 1873. He managed to escape in 1876, fleeing first to Florida, then Cuba, and finally Spain. The Spanish authorities arrested him and turned him over to the Americans, who returned him to prison in New York City.

Death

Tweed died in prison, in lower Manhattan, on April 12, 1878. He was buried in an elegant family plot at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Legacy

Tweed pioneered a certain system of politics that came to be known as "bossism." Though seeming to exist at the outer fringe of New York City politics, Tweed actually wielded more political clout than anyone in the city. For years he managed to keep a low public profile, working behind the scenes to orchestrate victories for his political and business allies—those who were part of the Tammany Hall "machine." During this time, Tweed was mentioned only in passing in the press as a fairly obscure political appointee. However, the highest officials in New York City, all the way up to the mayor, generally did what Tweed and "The Ring" directed.

Sources

  • Golway, Terry. "Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics." Liveright, 2015.
  • Sante, Luc. "Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York." Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.