Boss Tweed: His Rise To Power, Arrest, And Escape


A photo of Tweed taken in 1870. Source: (Wikipedia).

William Magear Tweed, who would later be known as Boss Tweed was born at 1 Cherry Street, on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. His father was a furniture maker, and Tweed started learning his father’s trade at 11, but he had other ambitions.

Becoming A Volunteer Firefighter Led To Politics

He joined a volunteer fire company; these companies were tied to various immigrant communities and to street gangs, but they were also a place to recruit for political parties. Because Tweed became known to the Democratic party, he was elected to be the alderman for the Seventh Ward. In 1852, he served a term in Congress, returning to New York City politics after this. By the late 1850s, had held a number of local offices including school commissioner, member of the county board of supervisors, and street commissioner. In the process, he made political allies, who selected him to run the city’s political machine, Tammany Hall. Because of conditions in the city, and because problems were not being addressed, Tweed figured out how to profit from solving the problems that were not being addressed.

He Helped People Avoid The Draft

In 1863, one of Tweed’s first acts was to engineer a deal so that some family men were able to get exemptions from the draft. At the time, the wealthy were able to pay a substitute so they could avoid fighting in the war. Tammany Hall helped them with loans to pay for substitutes, a move that helped to build Tweed's popularity. 

One of Nast's political cartoons featuring the Tammany Ring. Source: (Wikipedia).

Building His Ring

Tweed’s friend, George G. Barnard certified him as an attorney, and he used his law firm to extort money; this was not his only extortion scheme, however. He built the “Tweed Ring” (which was, incidentally, bipartisan) by getting his friends elected to office and managed to take control of New York City government after the election of 1869, helping them to get the new charter put in place in 1870, and Tammany was able to take over all 15 of the alderman positions as well as other offices. The Tweed Ring also had control of a Board of Audit, which was in control of the city finances. Thus, Tweed was able to collect millions of dollars from graft and skimming off the top.


He became one of the largest landowners in New York City and was responsible for the development of upper Manhattan. For every construction project, contractors were told to multiply the amount of the bill by five, ten or a hundred, which they did, and once the original bill was paid, Tweed and his cronies took the remainder, defrauding the city of millions and increasing the city’s bond debt to nearly $90 million.

Election Fraud

Beyond the financial greed, the Tweed Ring manipulated elections, hiring people to vote multiple times and getting the police to protect them; stuffing ballot boxes with fake votes; and bribing or arresting election officials who questioned what was going on. They also hired thugs and crooked cops to “sway voters’ minds.” The people in government got their jobs based on patronage rather than talent.

He Did Help The Poor

Despite his corruption, he did help immigrants and the poor, ensuring they had a place to live, sufficient food, medical care, food, and jobs. The Tweed Ring provided basic services that were lacking in the city, for the price of a vote. Tweed also donated to the organizations that helped them. If a tenement burned down, members of the Tweed Ring followed the fire trucks to make sure the displaced residents were taken care of. 

Another of Nast's political cartoons about Tweed. Source: (Wikipedia).

Trying To Bring Him Down

All told, the Tweed Ring brought in between $50 and $200 million dollars in corrupt money. However, his greed got the most of him eventually. Tweed was under attack from The New York Times who exposed the corruption of Tweed and his cronies, as well as from Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, who satirized him. Although he tried to bribe them to stop, they refused to accept the bribes. An examination of the books was forced, but the mayor was a Tammany man, and the businessmen who were appointed to the commission had benefited from Tweed, so the investigation turned up nothing.

His Arrest

Two things happened in 1871. James Wilson, the auditor who recorded the Ring’s books died and they ended up in the hands of James O’Brien a former sheriff. Additionally, public sentiment started turning against Tweed when Tammany initially forbade a parade of Irish Protestants. This led to a riot, eroding faith in the strength of Tammany. After the Times started to publish daily details about Tweed’s activities, with a final four-page supplement on July 29, “Gigantic Frauds or the Ring Exposed.” This led to a crisis of confidence in New York City’s finances and fears that the city would not repay its debts and would bring the banks crashing down. Once the city’s workers turned against Tweed and city records were examined, he was arrested. While out on $1 million bail, he was re-elected to the state senate in November 1871, although he didn’t serve because he was arrested again. Once again, he was released on bail, albeit more substantial.

Nast's Cartoons Were Used To Catch Him 

In November 1873, he was found guilty and convicted of 204 of 220 counts. He was fined a fraction of what he took and sentenced to 12 years, but was released after one. The state then filed a civil suit to try to recover $6 million in embezzled funds. Because he couldn’t make bail this time, he ended up in the Ludlow Street Jail, but he was allowed home visits; it was during a visit on December 4, 1875 that he eluded the guards and escaped. He fled to Spain, but his freedom didn’t last; American authorities discovered his whereabouts, and then the Spanish used Nast’s cartoons to identify and extradite him. He was returned to prison, where he died on April 12, 1878 from pneumonia.