Corrupt ‘Boss’ Tweed Brought Back to America and Jail
William Magear Tweed was a larger-than-life corrupt politician, a 300-pound behemoth whose extravagant lust for power and money matched his girth. From 1858 to 1871 “Boss Tweed” controlled New York City and much of the state, using Tammany Hall (the lead committee for the local Democratic Party) as a power base to dominate the city’s political and economic life. The “Tweed Ring” had a hand in every election and business transaction, routinely rigging elections and demanding bribes and kickbacks from merchants and contractors. It was corruption on a staggering scale. Although no accurate accounting is possible because Tweed’s cronies controlled the city’s books, it is estimated that during his reign the Tweed Ring stole anywhere from $25 to $200 million—a staggering sum for the times, worth billions of today’s dollars.
As lofty as his perch once was, Tweed’s downfall was precipitous. A disgruntled sheriff, whose attempts to blackmail Tweed for a larger share of the Ring’s profits failed, leaked details to the New York Times, which began exposing Tweed on July 8, 1871. The public was furious, and turned on Tweed. He was arrested in October 1871, and convicted and sentenced to prison in 1873 on charges of forgery and larceny. Although his original 12-year sentence was reduced on appeal and he was released in 1875, Tweed was arrested again—this time on civil charges—and once again imprisoned. He managed to escape and fled all the way to Spain, but was extradited.
A U.S. warship, the Franklin, brought Tweed back to America in 1876, bringing him straight to New York City to face justice. He was immediately thrown back into jail, this time with much stricter supervision, and died in the Ludlow Street Jail on April 12, 1878, at the age of 55 from pneumonia.
The Franklin, carrying Tweed, was due to arrive in New York City on Nov. 23, 1876. On that day, newspapers all across the country carried articles about the big bad crook being brought home to face the music. It is astonishing how sarcastic these articles and notices are, as the following examples demonstrate. It is apparent that Tweed’s influence is gone, his grip on power completely broken, and the public and press have turned on him with a vengeance.
This first notice was printed by the Daily Critic (Washington, D.C.) on Nov. 23, 1876:
A dispatch from Sandy Hook announces the approach of the United States steamer Franklin. “She is under steam,” it is said, and “coming in slowly,” which is no wonder when we reflect that she has to labor under the weight of the portly Tweed, to say nothing of the heavier burden of responsibility which is connected with him. It would be premature even now to predict that she will land him in safety.
This notice was printed by the Indianapolis Sentinel (Indianapolis, Indiana) on Nov. 23, 1876:
Tweed will not have his old quarters in Ludlow street [jail]. He will have to meditate upon the unsubstantiability of all mundane things in a back room, where grates protect the great, and where there is no difference between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
This notice was printed by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on Nov. 23, 1876:
William M. Tweed has not yet arrived to glad the eyes of the anxious officials of New York. The Franklin, with the big prisoner on board, was spoken [to] yesterday not eighty miles from Sandy Hook, and the ship of war was making haste very slowly. What is the matter? Does the government possess any knowledge of Tweed’s preference with regard to the Presidency, and keep him away for fear of complicating matters still more? Just imagine Tweed added to the Louisiana board of canvassers.
On the same date, the New York Herald ran a long article on the impending arrival of the Franklin and the important prisoner it carried, including this passage:
At Ludlow Street Jail
The rumored approach of the Franklin yesterday afternoon caused but little flutter in the vicinity of Tweed’s future residence. Supposititious arrivals of the sort have been so frequent of late that Warden Watson has become habitually incredulous. He considers the business too much overdone, and not until the footsteps of his honest guest shall be heard ascending the entrance to the castle will Mr. Watson be assured. Yesterday’s promising news lured a few expectant people to the neighborhood of the jail, who bravely bore the suspense of waiting until hunger or disgust called them away. Within the jail the prospects of the arrival were discussed with an indifference which only weeks of disappointment could engender. No extra preparations were made, and none have ever been beyond the making up of a bed in the room intended for the great voyager’s habitation. This room is in the southeast corner of the jail, and is separated from that formerly occupied by Tweed only by the reception parlor. The new apartment is about fifteen feet by eight, and has a window, overlooking a garden, upon the east side. Its furniture consists of a low bedstead, a little stand with washing utensils upon it and a single chair. There are several closets in the room, wherein Mr. Tweed may hang up such articles of wear as he does not require to “hang up” outside. If the sea breezes shall exert their customary expanding effects upon the wanderer’s person he may find his lodgings a trifle too small.
This notice was printed by the Quincy Whig (Quincy, Illinois) on Nov. 23, 1876:
The great envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of reform, more vulgarly known as “Boss” Tweed, arrived at quarantine in New York harbor today. And thus a chicken comes home to roost. He is here at last, in time to take a place in the Reform cabinet.
This notice was printed by the Washington Nation and reprinted by the St. Albans Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont) on Nov. 23, 1876:
The American, no matter what may be his station, is determined to rise. Tweed went away in a common schooner and returns in a great ship, the guest of the greatest nation the sun ever scorched.
Tweed’s extradition and return was news even on the West Coast, as seen in this notice printed by the Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California) on Nov. 23, 1876:
Arrival of Boss Tweed
New York, November 23d.—The United States steamer Franklin, with William M. Tweed on board, is expected to arrive at quarantine about noon.
Sandy Hook, November 23d.—The steamship Franklin is now lying off the lightship.
New York, November 23d.—Tweed was landed from the tug Catalpa at Pier 4 North River, at ten minutes to 4, and was immediately taken to Ludlow street jail in a closed carriage.
Tweed may have once been “boss,” but he returned from his capture in Spain a greatly reduced man, both in size and reputation. This article was printed by the Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York) on Nov. 24, 1876:
Tweed in Jail
He Is Greatly Reduced in Flesh and Cast Down in Spirits—His Warlike Defiance All Gone—The Suits against Him to Be Pressed
New York, Nov. 24.—Tweed has greatly reduced in size since his escape from Ludlow street jail, having lost fully seventy-five pounds. His former Secretary and now counsel, Foster Dewey, who visited him yesterday, is quoted by a reporter as saying that “he is downcast, apparently crushed and greatly humiliated. You may remember his old warlike and defiant attitude towards his opponents. There is none of that spirit left in him. He is like a child, nervous and apprehensive of danger.”
The officers of the Franklin were apparently glad to be rid of their charge. Mr. Phelps being questioned, said that it was not decided yet whether the forgery suits would be pressed against Tweed. That they will be pressed, however, is beyond doubt, as an order was served on the Sheriff calling for the delivery of Tweed even should he procure bail in the civil suits now pending.