Wednesday, August 14, 2013

79. Tweed at the End: "I have tried to do some good."

File:Tweed-Boss-LOC.jpg     At the elections of November 1871 the enraged reformers triumphed over Tammany, with one exception: William Marcy Tweed was reelected state senator.

     The Boss had already been arrested in a civil suit to recover stolen money, but had provided bail at once, with one million coming from Jay Gould, and so avoided jail.  The Committee of Seventy, strengthened by its victory at the polls, then sought indictments of all those implicated in the courthouse and other graft, prompting an impromptu flight of Tammany stalwarts and cronies in all directions out of the city of New York.  James Ingersoll, the millionaire furniture maker, and James Sweeny, the brother of the Squire, were reported to be refugees in Paris.  Andrew Garvey, Grand Marshal of Tammany Hall now also known as the prince of plasterers, was spotted on a ship bound for Germany, where the prince mistook a pilot coming on board for a policeman and, like a true son of Tammany, tried to bribe him, whereupon the indignant pilot threw the money overboard to the laughter and applause of onlookers.

     Other targets of investigation announced a sudden and intense need of vacation and vanished.  State Senator Henry Genet, known to many as Prince Hal, was so indiscreet as to remain within reach of the law, and was tried and convicted of fraud.  But old friendships survive the vicissitudes of politics.  Sheriff Matt Brennan delayed turning him over to the Tombs, and one Sunday Prince Hal and his custodian, a deputy sheriff, observed the Sabbath by roaming the city's bars and getting drunk.  Ordered to appear in court the next day with his prisoner, Brennan came alone, explaining that he had allowed Genet time to go home and arrange his affairs, which evidently required extensive traveling.  The result: Brennan got thirty days in jail and Genet a protracted vacation in Europe.  Peter Barr Sweeny, the Squire, left for the wintry clime of Canada to seek his health, later joining his brother in Paris, and the well-named Slippery Dick Connolly was tried and convicted, albeit in absentia, since he had fled abroad with six million dollars to finance his international wanderings.

     Two prime targets of the reformers remained.  Mayor A. Oakey Hall ("O. K. Haul" in the Nast cartoons) stayed to face charges, and in the three ensuing trials the supposed popinjay, rendered ridiculous in the Nast cartoons with his beribboned pince-nez perched on his nose, proved to be an effective defense attorney for himself, gay, witty, and charming, then caustic or tearfully melancholy, and always the soul of innocence.  Yes, he had signed some 39,257 vouchers as mayor, but, having "an ineradicable aversion to details," had had neither time nor inclination to read them all and was unaware of any impropriety.  One trial ended with the death of a juror, another with a hung jury, and the third and last with an acquittal.  But the Elegant Oakey was not done yet; triumphant, he wrote a play about a man accused of stealing that was done on Broadway with none other than the ex-mayor himself in the lead.

     Also on hand, standing his ground "like a Roman," as his lawyer asserted, was William Marcy Tweed, who had aged considerably.  At his first trial in January 1873 he was defended by a brilliant team of lawyers, and the jury disagreed.  Friends advised him to decamp, but he refused to, confident that he would be acquitted.  At his second trial in November 1873 the jury did indeed find him guilty of no less than 204 counts in the indictment.  Sentenced to twelve years in prison and a fine of $12,750, he was sent to the county penitentiary on Blackwell's Island, but the court of appeals reduced the sentence to a year and a fine of $250.  Released in January 1875, he was immediately arrested on a civil action brought by the state to recover $6 million of the Ring's alleged theft, with bail at the unheard-of amount of $3 million, and when he failed to provide this amount, he was sent again to prison.  The reformers, led by the ambitious Samuel J. Tilden, the state's newly elected governor, were determined to make an example of him.

     But Tweed still had friends in high places.  Confined to Ludlow Street Jail, most of whose inmates were debtors imprisoned by their creditors, he took frequent afternoon rides in a carriage accompanied by two turnkeys, and on the way back stopped off at his home for dinner.  On December 4, 1875, while the two turnkeys sat in the parlor, he snuck out the back door of his home and disappeared.  Immediately a reward of $10,000 was offered for his capture, and over the next few weeks he was reported to be in Savannah, Dallas, Havana, London, and elsewhere.  Just who helped him escape and where he lay in hiding he never disclosed; he was probably hiding nearby in New Jersey.  Soon, shorn of his beard and wearing a wig, he made his way by boat to Santiago, Cuba, and from there to Vigo, Spain, where the former state senator and Grand Sachem of Tammany arrived disguised as a common sailor busy scrubbing a deck.  Alerted to be on the watch for him, the Spanish authorities identified him with the aid of a Nast cartoon and, unable to read English and thinking him a kidnapper, arrested him and with great pomp handed him over to the crew of an American frigate dispatched specially to take him into custody.

     A broken man in failing health, the ex-boss wanted only to die peacefully at home, and hoping to obtain this offered the authorities the only thing still his to give: an elaborate confession, backed up by  canceled checks.  But Governor Tilden had no interest in prosecuting the many others involved in Tammany fraud, some of them judges, legislators, and upstate mayors; he wanted only to scapegoat Tweed.  Attorney General Charles S. Fairchild interviewed Tweed in his Ludlow Street Jail quarters and promised him his freedom in exchange for testimony against Peter Sweeny, who had returned from France in hopes of avoiding prison by arranging a settlement with the authorities.

     Months passed with no further word from the authorities; in time it became clear that Fairchild would not approve his release.  Tweed suffered several heart attacks, and Luke Grant, his black servant, never left his side at night, sleeping on the floor by his bed.  Sometimes, unaware that the Boss was reading his Bible, Luke would burst into song and provoke from Tweed an outburst of profanity.  But then Tweed quickly made amends.  Learning that Luke was in love, he dictated Luke's letters to the girl, using the fanciest words he could think of; the girl was mightily impressed.  

     Visitors came daily, found Tweed comfortably lodged in a two-room suite with blooming plants on the window sills, and a table with several books, including an open Bible, but the windows had steel bars.  Tweed's memory for faces was unimpaired; staring out a window at people passing in the street, he could name almost all of them, state their occupation, and say something about their family.

     Slowly he declined, complaining of more pain in his heart; obviously the end was near.  When his heart pained him, Luke pillowed his master on his own breast and massaged his heart to relieve the pain.  A married daughter and her husband, the deputy warden, and a few loyal friends came; other family members were abroad.  Luke was in tears.  "I have tried to do some good," said the dying man, "if I have not had good luck.  I am not afraid to die."  When his breathing became labored, with great effort he gasped, "Tilden and Fairchild -- they will be satisfied now."  He closed his eyes, the room was oppressively silent.  Suddenly the great bell in the nearby Essex Market tower pealed high noon like a thunderclap, and he was gone.  Luke was on his knees, clasping his master's lifeless hands and sobbing.

      The funeral was held at his daughter's house; only one politician of note attended.  But a throng of  poor people gathered outside in the street, remembering his generosity, a job of some sort, a fiver when they were in desperate need, a load of coal to see them through the winter.  After the service they were invited in to view the coffin: men in rough clothing, women in calico with market baskets, several blacks, several men with dogs; they were quiet, respectful, orderly, as they took a last look at the Boss, his hair and whiskers snow-white, his face like chiseled marble.  Many accompanied the cortege all the way to Greenwood in Brooklyn, where he was buried beside his mother.  Though he looked much older, he was only fifty-five.

      For a fair appraisal of Tweed and Hall, one has to shake off the image of the Nast cartoons, which is easier said than done.   Some of the reformers in later years decided that Hall may well have been guilty only of negligence, nothing more.  As for Tweed, whatever his faults were, his ending can only inspire sympathy.  He was being used by the powers that be for their own purposes, and in so doing they failed to honor their promise to him.  (He himself had always kept his word.)  Whether his confession was reliable, or perhaps exaggerated so as to curry favor with them, can be debated.  Whether there even was a tight-knit "Ring" of four -- Tweed, Hall, Sweeny, and Connolly -- has been questioned, though the fact of colossal graft seems undeniable.  Tweed had been a superb politician; it is a shame that he didn't use his talents more constructively.  But Samuel Tilden played his hand well, becoming first governor and then, in 1876, the Democratic candidate for the presidency, winning the majority of the popular vote but finally losing to Rutherford B. Hayes in the electoral college (a mysterious institution that most citizens don't understand, and that some are even sublimely unaware of).

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A self-caricature of Nast, sharpening his pencil to
draw a cartoon.

     Thomas Nast has been hailed as the most successful political cartoonist in our history.  Besides helping the Times bring down Tweed and his cronies, he is credited with popularizing the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant, and Santa Claus as the jolly, plump, red-faced figure that we conceive of today.  A German-born immigrant, he had all the virtues and vices of the WASP, portrayed the Irish as monkey-faced animals or drunken thugs, and  Roman Catholicism as a dangerous subversive force trying to gain control of our youth.  But contrary to some accounts, the word "nasty" does not derive from his name; "nasty" was around long before he was.

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"The usual Irish way of doing things," a Harper's 
Weekly cartoon of 1871 by Nast.




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"The American River Ganges," a Harper's Weekly cartoon of 1875 by Nast, showing Catholic
bishops as crocodiles.  In the distant background, Saint Peter's basilica topped by a cross, and
closer, in the center, a public school with the U.S. flag flying upside down, a signal of distress.
     One Tammany figure who did succumb to the reformers was Justice George G. Barnard, whose propensity for diamonds, cards, brandy, frilled shirts, and profanity was proverbial, and who presided over his courtroom with his boots propped up on the desk before him, while whittling away at pine sticks that the attendants kept him supplied with.  In 1872 he was impeached by the New York State Assembly on charges of unjudicial conduct, including fraud and corruption, and was removed from the bench and barred from holding any public office in the state.  After that he was rarely seen in public, but to friends in private he expressed his bitter grief.  He died in 1879 at the age of forty-nine.

     It would be encouraging to say that the reformers, having destroyed Tweed and his alleged "Ring," put an end to corruption in New York, but such was not the case.  In the words of George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany stalwart of a later date, reformers were "mornin' glories -- looked lovely in the mornin' and withered up in a short time, while the regular machines went on flourishin' forever, like fine old oaks."  Tammany Hall withstood many onslaughts by reformers, always survived, and dominated New York City politics well into the twentieth century.

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Plunkitt, in a shiny top hat, seated at his preferred rostrum,
the bootblack stand outside the County Courthouse.  (Yes,
that courthouse, known today as the Tweed Courthouse.)

     And who was George Washington Plunkitt (1842-1924)? you may well ask.  He was a veteran Tammany politician who served at various times in both houses of the state legislature, but who today is best remembered for his impromptu talks on politics delivered from the bootblack stand of the New York County Courthouse, expressing candidly the views of a machine politician who thought the civil service system heralded the downfall of the U.S. government.  Needless to say, he believed in patronage and spoils, saw no need for reform.

     Some of his sayings are memorable:

  • Everybody is talkin' these days about Tammany men growin' rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin' the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft.  There's all the difference in the world between the two.
  • There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works.  I might sum up the whole thing by sayin', "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."
  • This city is ruled entirely by the hayseed legislators at Albany.
  • There's only one way to hold a district; you must study human nature and act accordin'.
  • The Irish was born to rule, and they're the honestest people in the world.
  • You hear a lot of talk about the Tammany district leaders bein' illiterate men.  If illiterate means havin' common sense, we plead guilty.
  • Make the poorest man in your district feel that he is your equal, or even a bit superior to you.  Above all, avoid a dress-suit.
  • Tammany's the most patriotic organization on earth, not withstandin' the fact that the civil service law is sappin' the foundations of patriotism all over the country.  Nobody pays any attention to the Fourth any longer except Tammany and the small boy.

    As an "honest" grafter, he made a fortune by buying up land that he knew would be needed for public projects.  His world was small -- even Brooklyn was terra incognita for him -- but he did know the world of Manhattan politics and is a must-read for anyone interested in Tammany and its ways.  His talks were recorded in William L. Riordon's Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, first published in 1905 but available in more recent editions.


     Today the Tweed courthouse, the focus of so much graft, serves as the headquarters of the Department of Education.  Once disparaged as a colossal boondoggle costing more than the purchase of Alaska, it has been carefully restored and is now recognized as a landmark of note.  A striking example of Victorian neoclassical style, to my eye it is downright handsome.


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The Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street today.  The rotunda is not visible in this photo.  The huge building in the left background is the Municipal Building.

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Interior of the octagonal rotunda.

























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Staircase, west wing.


























     Note on WBAI:  It's not quite as bad as I thought.  The national and international news, coming from a different source, continues, and they have brought back the English-language news of Al Jazeera.  But the city-based local news is gone, and that's serious enough.

     Coming soon:  Next Sunday, Famous New York Streets: Broadway.  The first of a series of posts on streets; other possibilities being Wall Street, Fifth Avenue (and its poor cousin, Sixth), and the Bowery.  And more posts on colorful New Yorkers: Texas Guinan, the Queen of Mean, the Mad Poet of Broadway, the King of Gossip (can you guess?), and others.  And war profiteering, then and now.

©  2013  Clifford Browder