By ERIC FETTMANN
BOSS TWEED: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York
By Kenneth D. Ackerman
Carroll & Graf, 438 pages, $27
For more than 125 years, the name of William “Boss” Tweed, Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall, has epitomized rampant and unvarnished political greed and corruption. Tweed and his cohorts stole untold millions from the New York City treasury, doling out contracts.
Lately, however, Tweed’s image has undergone some surprising polishing. There was Jim Broadbent’s engaging portrayal of the larger-than-life Boss in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” And Queens College Prof. Leo Hershkowitz, a longtime scholar of Tammany Hall, has argued that Tweed essentially was innocent of the charges against him and confessed only to win his freedom from prison (it didn’t work).
Meanwhile, Tweed’s name remains attached to the courthouse he built behind City Hall that symbolized his plunder of the city fisc. Indeed, when Mayor Bloomberg opened a school in the building, he proposed calling it the Tweed Academy — until howls of protest from historians promoted a change of heart.
Tweed didn’t invent corrupt government, of course. As he lamented on his deathbed in the Ludlow Street Jail, “the fact is New York politics were always dishonest — long before my time. There never was a time when you couldn’t buy the Board of Alderman.”
But as Kenneth Ackerman notes in his engrossing and eye-opening new biography of Tweed, “he and his Tammany crowd elevated the techniques to stunning proportions . . . The Tweed Ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically employed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature the treasury and the ballot box.”
What’s astonishing is that the height of the Tweed Ring’s power and influence lasted only about three years before it came crashing down. But as Ackerman explains in his absorbing narrative, the financial “rewards” followed years of meticulous political planning and manipulation.
To be sure, Tweed’s legacy is more complex than the simple story of a scheming pol who was only in it for the money. For one thing, Tweed was smart enough to understand that New York’s immigrants — and particularly, its Irish immigrants — represented a potent political force. And so he befriended the Irish, winning their trust and affection by exchanging political favors and patronage for support at the ballot box.
For another, even as they were stealing the city blind, Tweed and his ring actually delivered important and substantial projects that made New York a better place. They spent millions on Central Park, tripling the value of surrounding real estate. Streets were paved — providing untold jobs for the laboring classes — and projects like the Brooklyn Bridge and the new courthouse became reality.
Even one of the contractors who overcharged the city by huge amounts (with a hefty portion of the profits going straight to Tweed) and who later blew the whistle admitted: “Mr. Tweed has frequently told me to have the work done well.”
In short, writes Ackerman, “At its foundation, Tweed’s system had an irresistible political logic: Everyone benefited, rich and poor alike, and no one seemed to get hurt.”
Ironically, by his last years, as he languished in prison following a temporarily successful flight to Cuba and Spain, Tweed had become a sympathetic figure. For one thing, he alone suffered punishment for Tammany’s crimes — his co-conspirators went scot-free. When his nemesis, Gov. Samuel Tilden, reneged on a deal that would have allowed the physically and emotionally broken Tweed to die in his own bed, he turned the Boss into a martyr.
In the end, writes Ackerman, “William Tweed had left enormous footprints on his city; he had built as grandly as he had stolen.” Indeed, he adds, “except for his stealing, Tweed would have been a great man.
“But then, had he been honest,” notes the author, “he wouldn’t have been Tweed — and would not have left nearly so great a mark.”