Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Stop Them Damned Pictures


Boss Tweed, leader of the Democratic Tammany Hall political machine in New York City (c. 1863-1871), was born William Marcy Tweed on this day in 1823 in New York City.

A rough-housing dropout who became leader of the local volunteer fire company, Tweed entered politics as a defender of the immigrant poor, but was nipping at the till almost from the beginning, first as a grafting alderman of Manhattan, and then as a listless U.S. congressman (1853-55). Later as a member of the New York board of supervisors and state senator, he climbed to the top of the Tammany Hall machine and lined his pockets with millions of dollars (estimated at $30-200 million!) of city money from public works kickbacks and bribes, while controlling all Democratic Party nominations in New York. While Tweed got rich, New York got the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Bridge.

In the early 1870s, in the wake of city budget shortages, the New York Times began to run exposés on Tweed and his "Ring" of cronies, but even more damaging were Thomas Nast's stinging caricatures of Tweed as a gluttonous vulture in Harper's Weekly; as Tweed himself said, "Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!" In 1873, he was prosecuted by Samuel Tilden on corruption charges and sentenced to 12 years, but his sentence was reduced to one year. After he was released, the reform movement was in full swing, and he was arrested again on other charges.

In December 1875, Tweed escaped from prison and fled to Cuba on a Spanish ship, then to Europe. There he was recognized, purportedly from one of Nast's cartoons, extradited to the U.S. and brought back to prison, where he died at age 55, on April 12, 1878.


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