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HOME > ARTICLES > JUNE 2003

THE PEN vs THE SWORD
THOMAS NAST vs BOSS TWEED


Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed are synonymous with larceny, embezzlement and unprincipled criminal misconduct in New York City. One man with moral ideals for government and a crusading pen brought the house of Tammany and Tweed to justice. That man was Thomas Nast.

In 1869, William Marcy Tweed was an influential state senator and the most forceful politician in New York City. He served the city as alderman and as manager of the Commission of Public Works. But the most powerful position he held was as Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall, a private club with very close ties to the city's Democratic Party. If you wanted to run for or hold a public office; work for or with public officials; the approval must always come from Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed.

The primary source for Tweed's power came from his talent of gathering money in and doling it out to the right people, and the "right people" included Tweed himself. Tweed used his "gathered" taxpayers money to rig elections, bribe the press, fund public charities, build roads and buildings and provide jobs, all administered by the Democrats and Tammany Hall. When questioned about the graft in city government, Tweed always answered, "Well, what are you going to do about it?"

One person wanted to do something about it and did. A young Republican, Thomas Nast, who as a political cartoonist for Harper's Weekly, drew "unflattering caricatures" of Tweed and his cronies for the paper. Nast's cartoons left no doubt as to who was corrupt, especially with Tweed's new endeavor to rob the people.

In September, 1869, Tweed introduced a bill into the New York State Legislature that was to abolish New York City's Board of Supervisors and create a new Board of Special Audit to manage the city's finances.

Of course, the new Board's members were to be "Boss" Tweed's henchmen- -New York Mayor Hull, Chamberlain Sweeny and Comptroller Connolly.

Following this announcement Nast's cartoons became particularly scathing. Nast published a series of cartoons depicting Tweed and friends rigging elections and stealing from the poor. To protect himself from charges of libel, Nast scrambled the names. Tweed became "Sweed," and Sweeny became "Tweeny" and Mayor Abraham Oakey Hall became "A.O.K. Haul." Only Harper's Weekly and the New York Times dared to print negative and unflattering items about "Boss" Tweed. The circulation at Harper's Weekly rose in six months from 50,000 to 160,000 readers. Tweed told Nast's editors

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.

Tweed tried to bribe Harper's editors into silencing Nast. However, the editors saw the money in the rising circulation and refused to stop the cartoons. Despite Nast's cartoon campaign the new Board of Special Audit was approved allowing Tweed and friends to officially take control of the city's treasury. Not being content with stealing thousands from the city, now Tweed and friends had their hands on millions.

For an entire year Nast attacked what he called the "Tweed Ring of thieving politicians." He portrayed Tweed as a "corpulent thief with his hand in the public till, and an enormous diamond stickpin in his shirt front." The public began to question Tweed's group and in 1870 insisted on an investigation into the financial dealings of Tammany and Tweed. A three man commission including John Jacob Astor was appointed to investigate the Board of Audit. After a private meeting with Tweed and commission said the "city's accounts were correct and faithful." Thomas Nast characterized the commission with one of his famous cartoons, "Three Blind Mice."

The New York Times had joined Harper's Weekly in condemning Boss Tweed's and Tammany Hall's corruption. The paper published Tweed's secret ledgers that illustrated the type and extent of corruption.

Repairing fixtures in NY Armory - $1,149,874
1 plasterer - I months wages - $2,870,464
1 day work for plasterer-$45,966

Thomas Nast showed the same type of fraud with his cartoon, "Who Stole the People's Money?"

The continuing adverse press disturbed Tweed so much that in 1871 he tried to bribe Nast to leave town, telling him that

...a group of public-spirited citizens, admirers of his work...wanted to pay him to travel to Europe, where he could study under European masters.

Nast declined that offer. The Tweed party then instructed a banker to offer Nast up to a half million dollars to leave town. Again, Nast refused. Though only making five thousand dollars a year he told the banker that he could not afford to leave his steady job. However, for the safety of his family he did move to Morristown, New Jersey but did not stop his scathing attacks on Tweed.

Next Boss Tweed tried to bribe the publisher of the New York Times, George Janes. In refusing Janes said, "I don't think that the devil will ever bid higher for me than that."

Only months after these bribery charges on October, 1871, a grand jury investigated charges of graft against Mayor A. Oakey Hall. Charges were dropped within a week but he was reprimanded for approving 39,257 pay vouchers for over 6 million dollars, all completely fraudulent. One month later W.M. Tweed was re-elected to the state senate but with the new reforming views growing within the state, all of Tweeds "cronies in crime" were defeated in the election.

The "Tweed Ring" realized what the new reform movement in government would mean to them and moved quickly to get out while they were still able. Richard Connolly resigned and sailed to France, City Chamberlain Peter Sweeny left for a very extended vacation in Canada, Boss Tweed did not move quite fast enough. He was arrested and convicted of 204 criminal charges and sentenced to twelve years in prison and fined $12,750. Tweed still had some political power and one year later his sentence was reduced to $250 fine and one year in prison. The judicial system was not finished with Tweed, however. As he left prison in 1875 he was arrested on a civil charge. The people were trying to recover the stolen six million dollars which was traced to his personal bank account. While awaiting trial Tweed did not face a harsh imprisonment since he was allowed daily visits to his family. Not trusting the courts to set him free this time Tweed fled to New Jersey. A few months later in March, 1876, he was found guilty in absentia and Tweed this time fled overseas to Spain. But there his luck ran out.

Even in Spain Thomas Nast's cartoons were known. Tweed was arrested by Spanish police when he was recognized from a Nast cartoon showing Tweed holding two street kids. Not able to read the English caption, the Spanish police thought it meant that Tweed was wanted for kidnapping. Crime truly did not pay for William Marcy Tweed and his stolen millions could not stop his extradition to the United States and his imprisonment. He died in 1878 at the age of 55, in prison thanks to one cartoonist and two editors who refused to be bribed. In this instance, the pen was truly mightier than the sword..

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