William Marcy Tweed

Tweed, William Marcy, 1823–78, American politician and Tammany leader, b. New York City. A bookkeeper, he became (1848) a volunteer fireman and as a result acquired influence in his ward. He was an alderman (1852–53) and sat (1853–55) in Congress. By 1857 he was a power in Tammany. As chairman of the Tammany general committee and later as grand sachem, "Boss" Tweed gained absolute power in the city Democratic party, controlling party nominations and party patronage. He also became a state senator in 1868 and extended his influence into state politics. He engaged in various business deals, and through political services to Jay Gould and James Fisk he became a director of the Erie RR. But it was chiefly from the rich plums plucked through the control of New York City expenditures that Tweed made his great fortune. For a time the Tweed Ring, consisting of Tweed and his henchmen—Peter Sweeny, city chamberlain; Richard B. Connolly, city comptroller; and A. Oakey Hall, mayor—controlled the city without interference. They defrauded the city to the extent of at least $30 million through padded and fictitious charges and also profited extravagantly from tax favors. Votes were openly bought and other nefarious vote-getting methods were employed. City judges became notoriously corrupt. Attempts within Tammany to oust the Tweed Ring failed, and in 1870 Tweed forced through the state legislature a charter that greatly increased the powers of the ring. Tweed maintained personal popularity because of his openhandedness and charity to the poor. The immediate cause of Tweed's downfall was the publication in the New York Times of evidence of wholesale graft revealed by M. J. O'Rourke, a new county bookkeeper. The effective cartoons of Thomas Nast aroused public indignation. A committee of 70, organized to fight Tammany, elected most of its candidates in 1871, although Tweed himself was returned to the state senate. Largely through the efforts of Samuel J. Tilden, Tweed was tried for felony, but the jury could not reach a verdict. In a second trial he was convicted and given a 12-year prison sentence; this, however, was reduced by a higher court, and he served one year. Arrested once more on other charges, he escaped and went to Cuba and then to Spain, but was extradited (1876) to the United States. He died in prison two years later.

See D. T. Lynch, " Boss " Tweed (1927, repr. 1974); W. A. Bales, Tiger in the Streets (1962); S. J. Mandelbaum, Boss Tweed's New York (1965); A. B. Callow, The Tweed Ring (1966); L. Hershkowitz, Tweed's New York: A Closer Look (1977); K. D. Ackerman, Boss Tweed (2005).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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