Wednesday, August 7, 2013

77. Thomas Nast and the Power of the Pen

     When the New York Times accused Boss Tweed and Tammany of “monstrous abuses” and called them “reckless plunderers,” the Boss scratched an ear, shrugged: they had no proof; besides, his constituents couldn’t read. But some were hungry; asked for a donation for the Seventh Ward poor at Christmas, he wrote a check for five thousand dollars. “Oh Boss,” said an alderman half in jest, “add another naught.” He did, making it fifty thousand.

     When he first heard that some artist in Harper’s Weekly was drawing pictures of him and his pals and had labeled them a Ring (“true as steal”), he didn’t give the scribblings a glance. But when friends thrust at him a drawing by Thomas Nast that was now the talk of the town, he looked, winced:

A workman in a garret receiving a notice of eviction, while in a garden Tweed and his cronies sprawl on a bed of roses and swill champagne, Connolly and Sweeny looking crafty and sinister, Mayor Hall a prancing little fop with pince-nez, and the Boss flaunting a paunch swollen to immense proportions and adorned with a sparkling diamond. “The rich grow richer.”

     The Tammany leaders had been made to look contemptible and ridiculous, yet shrewd and sinister: the brilliant renderings of an artist sparked by rage.

     A week later a lawyer called on Nast at his home. Since the gentleman had talent as an artist, some unnamed patrons would stake him to a study tour of Europe to the tune of a hundred thousand dollars. Asked Nast, a short, stocky man with a trim mustache and goatee, pointed nose, and quick, keen eyes, 

Thomas Nast
     “Can I get two hundred thousand?”


     “A half million?”

     “For sure. Take the money, go.”

     Nast wiggled his nose, grinned. “I think I’ll stick around.”

"Let us prey."

      Dismissing the lawyer, he went back to his board, picked up his pointed pencil and steel pen:

Tweed as a bloated vulture, diamond stickpin intact, with taloned cronies, perched on the bones of the city. “Let us prey.” 

      In July, while the slums baked and festered, a select hundred of the Tammany stalwarts retired for long weekends to the Americus Club and its wooded shoreline estate in Connecticut, where the Boss hoped to initiate the boys into clean-cuffed wining and dining and gentlemanly disport. Rising from sheets of blue silk and white lace, they donned the club uniform of blue navy pantaloons with a gold cord running down the side, a blue navy coat, and a white vest and white navy cap – the whole outfit further enhanced by a membership badge of a gold tiger’s head on a relief of blue enamel, with (for those who could afford it) eyes of blazing rubies. All talk of politics was banned. At the members’ disposal was a magnificent well-staffed clubhouse (dubbed the “Hotel de Tweed”) with billiard rooms, pool rooms, card rooms, a dining hall and kitchen, a barbershop, a well-stocked bar, and a library with plush armchairs and shelves of finely bound books that betrayed few signs of wear. The boys lingered through a ritual of meals, played pool and billiards under gaudy frescoes in rooms with mantels of Italian black marble adorned with imported bronzes, and eyed lazily a fleet of twenty rowboats in the harbor and the steam yacht William M. Tweed.

      Some of the members actually went rowing or sailing; all yearned for a rare invitation to visit the palatial yacht, where the Boss hosted a chosen few amid oriental rugs, tables set with sterling silver, and for large parties even an orchestra. Everyone was welcome at the annual clambake held on Tweed Island, a rocky bit of land a hundred yards from shore, where guests slurped a savory chowder accompanied by claret and champagne. The chowder had never been tastier, the drinks more sparkling, the Boss more chipper and blithe, his whole three-hundred-pound frame pulsing with laughter when someone told a joke. This was living!

      One morning while the Boss was reclining in the club barbershop, having his beard clipped and his scant locks slicked with oil, they brought him a New York Times that blazoned from stolen secret ledgers the expenses of the new county courthouse on Chambers Street: “Thermometers,” seven thousand dollars; “Brooms, etc.,” forty-one thousand; “Plastering,” close to three million; “Carpentry,” well over four.  "TAMMANY ROGUES" proclaimed the Times, while heaping scorn on the contractors: G.S. Miller was "the luckiest carpenter in the world," and Andrew J. Garvey "the prince of plasterers."  Given in telling detail, the figures were so outrageous that the shock and wrath of citizens exploded as far as Connecticut.

      Half cropped, half scented, Tweed rushed back to the city to be met by reporters at the station. “Is it true?” they demanded, goading him until his nostrils stung, and he glared out of deepset eyes:

      “Well, what are you goin’ to do about it?”

      These words (instantly regretted) were quoted all over town. At his drawing board at home, Nast, in shirtsleeves, eyeing a photograph of Tweed, whom he hated for his bullying bulk, his lips’ smug curve, and the sly look in his eye, dipped his pen in ink:

File:Boss Tweed, Thomas Nast.jpgTweed’s vast frame spreading boldly, hands in pockets, with a dollar sign for a head: The "Brains."

      Solid citizens flocked to Cooper Union. Republicans and Democrats alike, they denounced the Tammany frauds, and to cries of “Hang them!” formed a Committee of Seventy to wrest the city from the Ring. Cheers; talk of vigilantes.

      The Boss had never shown fear; at a meeting once, when an enemy jabbed his gut with a pistol, he had faced him down unblinking. But this was different: morality, scattered in droplets for years, had suddenly congealed in a mass. When he glanced at the latest cartoon – Tweed and his pals in a circle, each one pointing to the next: “Who stole the people’s money? ’Twas him” – his ruddy tint paled, his stomach clenched. But could these puny moralists in tight collars really yank him down – he who was muscled and blooded like an ox, and more than anyone, knew and loved the city, from its spired and porticoed monuments to the ankle-deep gore of its slaughter pens, the stink and shit of its sewers?

File:Tammany Ring, Nast crop.jpg
Front row from left to right: Tweed, Peter "Brains" Sweeny,
Slippery Dick Connolly, Mayor A. Oakey Hall.  These four

constituted the alleged Ring, "true as steal."

      The Committee of Seventy petitioned the courts for an injunction to prevent the city government from raising or paying out funds. The petition was put to Justice George G. Barnard, Tweed’s chum, the white-toppered, whittling dandy of Gotham. Money was the blood of the tiger; without it, no henchman could be soothed or flattered, no voter coaxed. With a solemn air Barnard banged his gavel, granted the injunction: astonishment.

      In his Duane Street office Tweed took his goldheaded cane topped by a Tammany tiger and beat his desk five times. How could that brandy-reeking clown, that insect whom he had plucked from the mire to a pinnacle, do this to him? Rumors flitted: he had been promised the governorship. Barnard governor? Preposterous! But Barnard didn’t think so.

      Elections were approaching. On the street where Nast lived, thugs were seen watching his house. Quickly, Nast sent his family to friends in New Jersey. Then, rising in the middle of the night, his brain hot, his ink-stained fingers nimble, he sketched feverishly:

Tweed feasting, Tweed smiling, Tweed towering, Tweed gloating; the whole city squashed under Tweed’s huge thumb.

      In shops and newsstands citizens clutched for the Weekly, whose circulation had tripled. The Boss they saw pictured there was fat, sly, evil, gross.

      “Them damned pictures … ” Alone in his office, William Marcy Tweed leafed through his file of cartoons, pounded them, hurled them, yearned to shout that Bill Tweed, big and loose as the city, was a friend to all, meaty, juicy, warm. But twist and wiggle as he might, he knew that others viewed him locked in the mold of the Boss.

      “Bill,” said his friend Jim Fisk, “don’t let them galoots of reformers rattle your old tin oven!" But when he dined out the duckling had lost its savor, the ale its tang. Feeling clumsy and crude, he started burning records in his office, transferred real estate to one of his sons.

      One week to the election. Sleepless, gaunt, obsessed, Nast chewed his pencils, drew:

From his box in an arena, Tweed as a Roman emperor, smug, monstrous, watching the bleeding Republic, a prostrate virgin, ripped by a snarling tiger.  "What are you going to do about it?"


      Having always loved his country, the Boss raged, almost wept. “They need me!” he bellowed. “I make this city work!”

      Even before the election they arrested him.

     Source note: This post, like the earlier one on Tweed, draws on both primary and secondary sources. Some of the dialog is fictional, but the characters and events depicted are all true to historical fact.

     Coming soon:  Next Sunday, The Hercules of Parks.  (Never heard of him?  If you live in the city, his works are all around you.)  Wednesday, August 14:  Tweed at the End: "I have tried to do some good."  (Who did him in, and who was loyal.)  Newly in the works:  Who makes money in wartime?  New York, 1861-1865.  (Contractors, speculators, bounty brokers.  And a glance at today.)

©   2013   Clifford Browder