On December 4, 1875, William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, notorious leader of New York City’s Democratic political machine, escaped from prison and fled to Europe. Between 1865 and 1871, Boss Tweed and his cronies stole millions of dollars from the city treasury. Convicted of forgery and larceny in 1873, Tweed was released in 1875. Immediately rearrested on civil charges, he was allowed daily visits to his family in the company of his jailor. On one of these trips, Tweed made his escape.
Elected an alderman in 1851, the former bookkeeper and volunteer fireman worked his way up New York City’s Democratic hierarchy by holding various elected and unelected positions in the municipal government. He served one congressional term, but operated most effectively at the state level. By 1868, the year he gained a seat in the New York senate, Tweed firmly controlled the state Democratic Party. Two years later, he maneuvered passage of a revised city charter. A newly instituted board of audit became the principle means by which the Boss and his friends siphoned the city treasury of between twenty million and two-hundred million dollars.
The movement to overthrow the “Tweed Ring” included the New York Times, Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast, and reforming Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. On July 22, 1871, the newspaper began publishing an exposé of the Tweed Ring’s activities. Nast followed up with cartoons roasting Tweed. “Let’s stop them damned pictures,” the Boss supposedly said, “I don’t care so much what the papers write about—my constituents can’t read—but damn it, they can see pictures.” Despite bribes and threats, Nast continued to lambast Tweed weekly on the pages of Harper’s. Meanwhile, Tilden’s efforts to oust Tweed solidified his name as a reformer—a reputation that made him Governor of New York in 1874 and nearly put him in the White House in 1877.
With his 1873 conviction behind him, Tweed was sued by New York State for $6 million. Held in debtor’s prison until he could post half that amount as bail, the former boss had few options. Still wealthy, his prison cell was fairly luxurious. Yet Tweed was determined to escape. Fleeing to Spain, he worked as a common seaman on a Spanish ship until recognized by his likeness to a Nast cartoon and captured. Extradited to New York, William Marcy Tweed died in debtor’s prison on April 12, 1878.
Boss Tweed, acting as a policeman, although wearing the uniform of a convict, holds two boys by the collar with one hand, and carries a billy club in the other. Reform Tweed: “If all the people want is to have somebody arrested, I’ll have you plunderers convicted. You will be allowed to escape; nobody will be hurt; and then Tilden will go to the White House, and I to Albany as Governor.”
The political machine that created Boss Tweed and that Tweed strengthened remained a powerful force in New York City politics. Through a system of patronage and charity, Tammany Hall, the executive committee of the New York City Democratic Party, commanded the allegiance of many voters. Lacking a government safety net, poor citizens relied on the party for access to employment, or for help with funeral expenses. Public works projects like Central Park provided politicians with patronage opportunities ranging from lucrative contracts to day work digging ditches.