In Honor of Tweed, the Soul of Modern New York

Boss Tweed

hide caption"The brains that achieved the Tammany victory at the Rochester Democratic Convention," an 1871 political cartoon by Thomas Nast that depicts William Marcy "Boss" Tweed.

Kean Collection/Getty Images

April 3rd is the birthday of William Marcy Tweed — also known as Boss Tweed, the 19th century Manhattan politician whose name is synonymous with corruption, graft and more than a little bit of New York's glory.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

It is National Tweed Day. Thousands - OK, hundreds - all right, dozens of people across the country are putting on their finest tweed coats and raising their sherry glasses to toast the sheep that gave them their distinguished herringbone. But is Tweed Day really about the fabric? A lot of people on the Internet think so, but the origin could lie somewhere else.

April 3rd, 1823, also happens to be the birthday of William Marcy Tweed, a.k.a. Boss Tweed, the 19th century New York politician whose name is synonymous with corruption and graft, and just a little bit of nostalgic glory. We're here to tell you we're not sure if today is all about the fabric or the fantastic gall of one politician.

But since it is indisputably Boss Tweed's birthday, we intend to celebrate by looking back at his career legacy. We're joined now by Kenneth Ackerman, who wrote "Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York." Hi, Kenneth.

Mr. KENNETH ACKERMAN (Author, "Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York;" Of Counsel, Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz, PC): Good morning, Alison.

STEWART: So, Boss Tweed certainly wasn't the only corrupt politician of his day, but what did he do so differently and spectacularly?

Mr. ACKERMAN: Well, Boss Tweed was one of those people who whatever he did, he did in a big, bold, brassy way. He stole more money than any other politician in history. He fixed elections in a bigger, more upfront way than any other politician in history. And he served probably as much time in jail as any politician in history.

STEWART: You say he fixed elections. He was sort of in the vote-early-vote-often category, right?

Mr. ACKERMAN: Yeah, the way he would run an election, he would get his volunteers to vote literally 20, 30 times. He would get a group of guys, get them liquored up first thing in the morning, get them registered in 20 or 30 different polling places, and get the deputy sheriff's office to escort them around from polling place to polling place. If the voting inspector tried to block one of his voters, the voting inspector would get arrested.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

You have to respect the pure gall, really. Right?

STEWART: It's true, right?

Mr. ACKERMAN: This was a man who, in 1860 or 1868, the year he consolidated power, he arranged for some 40,000 immigrants to be naturalized in the two or three weeks before election day so that he could run up his totals.

STEWART: Wow, that's amazing. The numbers are a little bit shocking, when you think about it, the amount of money that he and his cronies ultimately stole from New York. What kind of numbers are we talking about?

Mr. ACKERMAN: Well, during the four of five years that he and his group were at their peak of power, this was maybe 1868 to 1872, it's estimated that they stole at least 45 million dollars, maybe as many as 200 million dollars. Remember, these are 1870 dollars, so multiple by 20 for inflation and you're talking in the billions.

STEWART: How did that money end up in his hands?

Mr. ACKERMAN: Well, he was very clever about it, very organized about it. He was a very good manager. Tweed had a system that anyone who did business with the city had to pad their bills to pay the politicians, and at first, when he started out, the padding was maybe ten percent, 15 percent. By the time he really got going, that number went up to about 60 or 70 percent. So, it's 60 or 70 percent of the entire city and county budget went to Tweed and his cronies.

STEWART: That's amazing. So, he was an alderman at one point and a commissioner, but, really, how did he amass this much power?

Mr. ACKERMAN: Well, he did it over time. Tweed consolidated - he rose through the ranks of Tammany Hall. He started out as an alderman and became a supervisor. He was actually a congressman in Washington for a couple years, but he found that pretty boring. He was one of those people who thought that if it's not in New York City, it can't be very important.

So, he became very powerful during the Civil War in New York. New York during the Civil War was wrenched apart by draft riots, and after the riots, there was Tweed, who was then the head of Tammany Hall and the head of the board of supervisors, who came up with a way to run the draft in New York that was honest, that was fair to the poor, and that got troops for Lincoln's army.

That made him a unifying figure in New York, and after the war, people trusted him. He built a machine that was so well-constructed that you almost have to sit back and admire the architecture. He controlled city hall through the mayor. He controlled the state through the governor. He controlled the judges. He controlled Wall Street. He controlled the newspapers. All through his friends, through bribes, through controlling who ran for office, and who was elected.

STEWART: Yeah, you wrote in your book - you wrote that, "Except for stealing, Tweed would have been a great man."

Mr. ACKERMAN: Yes. Well, Tweed and his circle, for all their stealing, they did more to build New York City and to bring the immigrants into the mainstream than anyone else of their generation. It was Tweed and his circle who are responsible for the Brooklyn Bridge, for Central Park, for all of the streets in midtown Manhattan, for building the sidewalks, digging the sewers. Yes, there was graft attached to all of that, but still it got done.

STEWART: We're speaking with Kenneth Ackerman, who wrote the book "Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York," on this Tweed Day. One of the things that's sort interesting about him, and you see it a lot when you research around the pictures of him, he wasn't just corrupt and powerful. He was pretty ostentatious as well.

Mr. ACKERMAN: Oh, yeah. He was a big man. He was 300 pounds, and he would come into a room and steal all of the oxygen. All of the eyes would be on him. At his height, he would - he wore on his shirtfront a diamond stickpin that was measured at ten and a half carats. It supposedly cost his friend some 30,000 dollars. That would be about a million dollars today, and he wore it all the time.

STEWART: Now, of course, the law caught up with Boss Tweed, finally. He was eventually jailed for his crimes, but it seems only apropos that he escaped.

Mr. ACKERMAN: Yes. You don't often think of an overweight, middle-aged politician breaking out of jail and making a run for it, but Tweed did it. He was convicted on 204 counts of misdemeanor fraud, locked up for a long time. He recognized he would never get a fair trial in New York State because his crimes had become so political, so one night, he was being held in the debtors' prison on Ludlow Street.

One night, he managed to sneak out and he made his way first to New Jersey, then to Cuba, then to Spain, but when he got to Spain, it was kind of a setup. He was arrested at the dock and brought back to New York. It was a terrible experience for him. He was on the run for about ten months, most of that time on ships, and Boss Tweed, being a big guy, got seasick, and during that ten months of running, he lost about 100 pounds of body weight just from sheer seasickness during that time.

By the time he got back to New York, being drug back in a Navy ship to stand trial once again, he was very sick, and at that point, he made a deal with the prosecutors to make a full public confession in exchange for giving him freedom to die in peace. And he kept his bargain. He made a full confession in public before a committee of alderman, but the prosecutors broke the deal. When Tweed died, ironically, as the biggest thief of his generation, he was viewed as a victim of prosecutorial abuse.

STEWART: So, since it is Tweed Day and the people, maybe they don't like the fabric, and they've heard a little bit about Boss Tweed, and maybe they are enamored, what do you think is a good way to celebrate? Head down to Ludlow Street and have a drink, where there's probably a bar where he was?

Mr. ACKERMAN: I should say you should go out and steal something, but that would be wrong.

STEWART: That would be wrong! We do not endorse that at National Public Radio. Kenneth Ackerman is the author of "Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York." Hey, thanks, Ken.

Mr. ACKERMAN: Thanks for having me.

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