Boss Tweed

William M. “Boss” Tweed was a legendary corrupt political leader of New York City in the years following the Civil War. Along with members of the “Tweed Ring,” he was suspected of siphoning untold millions of dollars from the city’s coffers before public outrage turned against him and he was prosecuted.

Tweed, a former street tough from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, never held high political office in New York City. His highest elective office was a single unhappy and unproductive term in the U.S. House of Representatives in the mid-1850s.

Tweed, though seeming to exist in on the outer fringe of politics, actually wielded more political clout than anyone in New York City. For years he managed to keep a low public profile, only being mentioned in passing as a fairly obscure political appointee in the press. But the highest officials in New York City, up to the mayor, generally did what Tweed and "The Ring" directed.

Boss Tweed: Legendary Political Boss of New York City

Photographic portrait of Boss Tweed
Boss Tweed. Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images

As leader of New York City’s famed political machine, Tammany Hall, Tweed essentially ran the city in the years following the Civil War. He was also known to work closely with two particularly unscrupulous businessmen, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk.

After a series of devastating revelations by newspapers, and a campaign of cutting political cartoons from the pen of Thomas Nast, Tweed’s outrageous corruption was exposed. He was eventually sent to prison, from which he escaped before being recaptured. He died in prison in 1878.

Early Life

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

William M. Tweed was born on Cherry Street in lower Manhattan on April 3, 1823. (There is a dispute about his middle name, which is generally said to be Marcy, though some claim it was Magear. 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 basic education for the time, and then apprenticed as a chair maker. During his teens he developed a reputation for street fighting. And like many youths in the area, 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 it to fires.

When Engine Company 33 disbanded, Tweed, 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 pumping engine.

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

Early Political Career

With his local fame as the foreman of Big Six, and his gregarious personality, Tweed seemed a natural 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, and began his term in March 1853. He did not enjoy life in Washington or the 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.

Tweed Controlled New York City

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 rose to the pinnacle of Tammany Hall, being elected the “Grand Sachem” of the organization. He was also elected a state senator. His name would occasionally appear in newspaper reports in 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 real power in the city.

Tweed's Downfall

By 1870 the newspapers were referring to him as Boss Tweed, and his power over the city’s political apparatus was nearly absolute. And Tweed, partly due to his personality and 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 an accountant who worked for Tweed's ring delivered a ledger listing suspect transactions to the New York Times on the night of July 18, 1871. Within days Tweed's thievery was appearing on the front page of the newspaper.

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

After complicated legal skirmishing, 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.

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