Thomas Nast's Campaign Against Boss Tweed

How a Cartoonist Helped End Legendary Corruption

Thomas Nast's cartoon showing New York Times reader confronting Boss Tweed.
Nast drew a reader of the New York Times confronting Boss Tweed and associates. Getty Images

In the years following the Civil War, a former street brawler and Lower East Side political fixer named William M. Tweed became notorious as "Boss Tweed" in New York City. Tweed never served as mayor. The public offices he held at times were always minor.

Yet Tweed, hovering on the fringe of government, was by far the most powerful politician in the city. His organization, known to insiders simply as "The Ring," collected millions of dollars in illegal graft.

Tweed was ultimately brought down by newspaper reporting, mainly in the pages of the New York Times. But a prominent political cartoonist, Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly, also played a vital role in keeping the public focused on the misdeeds of Tweed and The Ring.

The story of Boss Tweed and his stunning fall from power can't be told without appreciating how Thomas Nast depicted his rampant thievery in ways anyone could understand.

How a Cartoonist Brought Down a Political Boss

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

The New York Times published bombshell articles based on leaked financial reports which began the downfall of Boss Tweed in 1871. The material revealed was astounding. Yet it's unclear whether the solid work of the newspaper would have gained as much traction in the public mind if it hadn't been for Nast.

The cartoonist produced striking visuals of the Tweed Ring's perfidy. In a sense, the newspaper editors and the cartoonist, working independently in the early 1870s, supported each other's efforts.

Nast had first gained fame drawing patriotic cartoons during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln considered him a very useful propagandist, particularly for drawings published prior to the election of 1864, when Lincoln faced a serious reelection challenge from General George McClellan.

Nast's role in bringing down Tweed became legendary. And it has overshadowed everything else he did, which ranged from making Santa Claus a popular character to, much less amusingly, viciously attacking immigrants, especially Irish Catholics, whom Nast openly despised.

The Tweed Ring Ran New York City

Thomas Nast cartoon of the Tweed Ring titled Stop Thief
Thomas Nast depicted the Tweed Ring in this cartoon titled "Stop Thief". Getty Images

In New York City in the years following the Civil War, things were going fairly well for the Democratic Party machine known as Tammany Hall. The famed organization had started decades earlier as a political club. But by the middle of the 19th century it dominated New York politics and essentially functioned as the city's real government.

Rising from local politics in a working class neighborhood along the East River, William M. Tweed was a large man with an even larger personality. He had kicked off his political career by becoming known in his neighborhood as the head of a flamboyant volunteer fire company. In the 1850s he served a term in Congress, which he found utterly boring. He happily fled Capitol Hill to return to Manhattan.

During the Civil War he was widely known to the public, and as a leader of Tammany Hall he knew how to practice politics at the street level. There's little doubt Thomas Nast would have been aware of Tweed. But it wasn't until late in 1868 that Nast seemed to pay any professional attention to him.

In the election of 1868 the voting in New York City was highly suspect. It was charged that Tammany Hall workers had managed to inflate vote totals by naturalizing a huge number of immigrants, who were then sent to vote for the Democratic ticket. And observers claimed that "repeaters," men would would travel the city voting in multiple precincts, were rampant.

The Democratic presidential nominee that year lost to Ulysses S. Grant. But that many not have mattered much to Tweed and his followers. In more local races, Tweed's associates succeeded in putting a Tammany loyalist into office as governor of New York. And one of Tweeds closest associates was elected mayor.

The U.S. House of Representatives formed a committee to investigate Tammany's rigging of the 1868 election. Tweed was called to testify, as were other New York political figures, including Samuel J. Tilden, who would later lose a bid for the presidency in the controversial election of 1876. The investigation didn't lead anywhere, and Tweed and his associates at Tammany Hall continued as always.

However, the star cartoonist at Harper's Weekly, Thomas Nast, began to take special notice of Tweed and his associates. Nast published a cartoon lampooning the election fraud, and over the next few years he would turn his interest in Tweed into a crusade.

The New York Times Revealed Tweed's Thievery

Thomas Nast's cartoon showing New York Times reader confronting Boss Tweed.
Nast drew a reader of the New York Times confronting Boss Tweed and associates. Getty Images

Thomas Nast became a hero for his crusade against Boss Tweed and "The Ring," but it should be noted that Nast was often fueled by his own prejudices. As a fanatical supporter of the Republican Party, he was naturally opposed to the Democrats of Tammany Hall. And, though Tweed himself was descended from immigrants from Scotland, he was closely identified with the Irish working class, which Nast intensely disliked.

And when Nast first began to attack The Ring, it probably appeared to be a standard political fight. At first, it seemed that Nast didn't really focus on Tweed, as cartoons he drew in 1870 seemed to indicate that Nast believed Peter Sweeny, one of Tweed's closest associates, was the real leader.

By 1871 it became clear that Tweed was the center of power in Tammany Hall, and thus New York City itself. And both Harper's Weekly, mostly through the work of Nast, and the New York Times, through mentions of rumored corruption, began to focus on bringing down Tweed.

The problem an obvious lack of evidence. Every charge Nast would make via cartoon could be shot down. And even the reporting of the New York Times seemed to be flimsy.

All that changed on the night of July 18, 1871. It was a hot summer night, and New York City was still disturbed from a riot which had broken out between Protestants and Catholics the previous week.

A man named Jimmy O'Brien, a former associate of Tweed who felt he had been cheated, possessed duplicates of city ledgers which documented an outrageous amount of financial corruption. And O'Brien walked into the office of the New York Times, and presented a copy of the ledgers to an editor, Louis Jennings.

O'Brien said very little during the brief meeting with Jennings. But when Jennings examined the contents of the package he realized he had been handed an amazing story. He immediately took the material to the editor of the newspaper, George Jones.

Jones quickly assembled a team of reporters and began examining the financial records closely. They were stunned by what they saw. A few days later, the front page of the newspaper was dedicated to columns of numbers showing how much money Tweed and his cronies had stolen.

Nast's Cartoons Created a Crisis for the Tweed Ring

Thomas Nast cartoon of Tweed Ring members all pointing to someone else.
Nast drew members of The Ring all saying someone else stole the people's money. Getty Images

The late summer of 1871 was marked by a series of articles in the New York Times detailing the corruption of the Tweed Ring. And with actual evidence being printed for all the city to see, Nast's own crusade, which had, to that point, been based mostly on rumor and hearsay, took off.

It was a fortunate turn of events for Harper's Weekly and Nast. Up until that point, it appeared that cartoons Nast drew mocking Tweed for his lavish lifestyle and apparent gluttony were little more than personal attacks. Even the Harper brothers, owners of the magazine, expressed some skepticism about Nast at times.

Thomas Nast, through the power of his cartoons, was suddenly a star in journalism. That was unusual for the time, as most news stories were unsigned. And generally only newspaper publishers such as Horace Greeley or James Gordon Bennett really rose to the level of widely known to the public.

With the fame came threats. For a time Nast moved his family from their house in upper Manhattan to New Jersey. But he was undeterred from skewering Tweed.

In a famous duo of cartoons published on August 19, 1871, Nast made a mockery of Tweed's probably defense: that someone had stolen the public's money, but no one could tell who that was.

In one cartoon a reader (who resembled New York Tribune publisher Greeley) is reading the New York Times, which has a front-page story about the financial chicanery. Tweed and his associates are being quizzed about the story.

In a second cartoon members of the Tweed Ring stand in a circle, each gesturing to another. In answer to a question from the New York Times about who stole the people's money, each man is answering, "'Twas him."

The cartoon of Tweed and his cronies all trying to escape blame was a sensation. Copies of Harper's Weekly sold out on newsstands and the magazine's circulation suddenly increased.

The cartoon touched upon a serious issue, however. It seemed unlikely that the authorities would be able to prove the obvious financial crimes and hold anyone accountable in court. 

Tweed's Downfall, Hastened By Nast's Cartoons, Was Fast

Thomas Nast cartoon depicting a defeated Boss Tweed in November 1871
In November 1871 Nast drew Tweed as a defeated emperor. Getty Images

A fascinating aspect of Boss Tweed's downfall is how quickly he fell. In early 1871 his Ring was operating like a finely tuned machine. Tweed and his cronies were stealing public funds and it seemed like nothing could stop them.

By the fall of 1871 things had changed drastically. The revelations in the New York Times had educated the reading public. And the cartoons by Nast, which had kept coming in issues of Harper's Weekly, had made the news easily digestible.

It was said that Tweed complained about Nast's cartoons in a quote that became legendary: "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."

As the position of The Ring began to collapse, some of Tweed's associates began to flee the country. Tweed himself remained in New York City. He was arrested in October 1871, just prior to a critical local election. He remained free on bail, but the arrest didn't help at the polls.

Tweed, in the November 1871 election, retained his elected office as a New York State assemblyman. But his machine was battered at the polls, and his career as a political boss was essentially in ruins.

In mid-November 1871 Nast drew Tweed as a defeated and demoralized Roman emperor, flabbergasted and seated in the ruins of his empire. The cartoonist and the newspaper reporters had essentially finished Boss Tweed.

Legacy of Nast's Campaign Against Tweed

By the end of 1871, Tweed's legal problems were just beginning. He would be put on trial the following year and escape conviction due to a hung jury. But in 1873 he would finally be convicted and sentenced to prison.

As for Nast, he continued to draw cartoons depicting Tweed as a jailbird. And there was plenty of fodder for Nast, as important issues, such as what happened to money swindled by Tweed and The Ring remained a hot topic.

The New York Times, after helping to bring down Tweed, paid honor to Nast with a highly complimentary article on March 20, 1872. The tribute to the cartoonist described his work and career, and included the following passage attesting to his perceived importance:

"His drawings are stuck upon the walls of the poorest dwellings, and stored away in the portfolios of the wealthiest connoisseurs. A man who can appeal powerfully to millions of people, with a few strokes of the pencil, must be admitted to be a great power in the land. No writer can possibly possess a tenth part of the influence with Mr. Nast exercises.
"He addresses the learned and the unlearned alike. Many people cannot read 'leading articles,' others do not choose to read them, others do not understand them when they have read them. But you cannot help seeing Mr. Nast's pictures, and when you have seen them you cannot fail to understand them.
"When he caricatures a politician, the name of that politician ever afterwards recalls the countenance of which Nast has made him a present. An artist of that stamp — and such artists are very rare indeed — does more to affect public opinion than a score of writers."

Tweed's life would spiral downward. He escaped from prison, fled to Cuba and then Spain, was captured and returned to prison. He died in New York City's Ludlow Street Jail in 1878.

Thomas Nast went on to become a legendary figure and an inspiration for generations of political cartoonists.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "Thomas Nast's Campaign Against Boss Tweed." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Thomas Nast's Campaign Against Boss Tweed. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Thomas Nast's Campaign Against Boss Tweed." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).