Boss Tweed: A few more cartoons, from people besides Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly was not the only cartoonist to aim his pencil at William M. Tweed, Boss of Tammany Hall.  When the scandal broke in 1871 after The New-York Times published proof of massive frauds by Tweed and his circle, every paper in town with an artist on staff joined the frenzy.  Here are few samples:
This unsigned, front-page drawing from the Evening Telegram, a friendly newspaper (that was taking plenty of subsidy money from City Hall), shows Tweed before the scandal, celebrating New Year’s Eve at a party for his Tammany crowd at the New York Academy of Music on Union Square.   

Just a few months later, the same Evening Telegram changed its tune after the Tweed frauds became public knowledge.  Holding onto the City Treasury vault are the core members of Tweed’s Ring: (from left) City Chamberlain Peter (“Brains”) Sweeny,  Comptroller Richard (“Slippery Dick”) Connolly, Tweed, and the mayor, A. Oakey Hall. 
As the scandal worsened, Sweeny and Hall tried to save themselves by blaming Connolly, the Comptroller, for the massive thefts.  Here, they try to convince Connolly (seated in the center) to take the fall by resigning his post,  thereby admitting guilt.  Connolly, of course, refuses.  “Tamani Tycooni invite Connolli to Hari-Kari — No-go-he.”   From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, October 7, 1871.

In the end, all four of the Ring members are forced out, though only Tweed spends time in prison.  Sweeny and Connolly flee to Europe and Hall wins an acquittal after three criminal trials.  This drawing by artist A. Hoyt shows Tweed leading them off into the subset.

A rare Tweed photo — at his clubhouse in Greenwich, Connecticut

Yes, that’s Boss Tweed.  He’s the one with the beard, sitting up front in the middle, a white hat in his lap, surrounded by his friends.  Tweed had so, so very many friends back then, in 1870 — before they all abandoned him in the scandal.

But surprisingly, this is not New York  City.  By 1870, as Tweed sat at his very pinnacle of power as supreme leader of New York’s political and financial worlds, having made himself filthy rich from years of graft, Tweed had largely moved his summer headquarters away from  his usual Manhattan haunts — his law office on Duane Street and his mansion on Fifth Avenue at 43rd — to Greenwich, Connecticut. 
Tweed owned two steam-powered yachts (even though he got constantly sea-sick and hated being on the water) to make the quick trip from lower Manhattan across the Long Island Sound to Greenwich.   In Greenwich, he owned a 40-acre estate with wide green lawns and gardens.  And on a beautiful, sunny inlet called Indian Harbor, he founded his own playhouse– the Americus Club — where he served as president.

Tweed’s political friends from New York City all jumped at the chance to join him there.  They all loved making the summer weekend pilgrammages to Greenwich.  By all accounts, they had a wonderful time and lots of fun — with swimming, boat races, fancy dinners, lots of music, brandy and cigars.  They laughed and talked and told stories until the late night hours.  
Back in New York, the high society Union League and Manhattan Clubs would never allow these grubby politicians inside, but Tweed happily relished their company.
Also back in New York, forces were secretly converging during that summer of 1870 to destroy Tweed’s life: Thomas Nast’s relentless stream of humiliating cartoons, the relentless attacks by the New York Times (which soon would obtain a stolen copy of the Tweed Ring’s secret account books, disclosing an amazing record of theft and kickbacks),  and secret plotting by enemies inside his own camp.  Within a year, Tweed would be toppled from power.  Within two years, he would be in prison.  After that, he would never walk free again, and his reputation would be blackened for over a century.

But look at Tweed on this pretty summer day in 1870.  He looks as if he didn’t have a care in the world, surrounded by friends at his Greenwich summer retreat. 

If only time could have stopped for him at that moment.

Thanks to our friend Alan Bennett for finding this photo on Greenwich Nostalgia group page on Facebook.


Thomas Nast cartoons — some appetizers


Thomas Nast in the early 1870s, about the time of his
Tweed cartoons.


You can’t tell the story of New York’s Boss Tweed, who ruled the City with greed and grandeur in the years after the Civil War and was driven from power in a citizens’ uprising in 1872, without the fantastic drawings of Thomas Nast — the brilliant, young cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly.    

Here are a few appetizer samples.

Click here for more of the story — from our newly-reissued book Boss Tweed: the Corrupt Pol who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York.

“As long as I count the ballots, what are you going to do about it?”  This is the most famous quote attibuted to Tweed.  In truth, there is no evidence that he ever said it.  Most likely, Nast simply made it up to get people mad at the Boss.  


In 1871, Tweed chose these three leading New York businessmen — John Jacob Astor III, Moses Taylor, and Marshall O. Roberts — to examine the City’s financial books.  The three spent just six hours at it, looked only at the papers Tweed showed them, and didn’t ask any questions.  Based on this, they gave the City’s finances a clean bill of health — somehow missing over $100 million in frauds.  Nast dismissed them as “Three Blind Mice.”


This cartoon, from June 1871, is the first where Nast uses the famous quote “What are you going to do about it?”
Notice the big object on the front of Tweed’s shirt, looking big as a grapefruit.  It is a 10.5-carat diamond pin costing that some of Tweed’s friends game him that year as a Christmas present.  It cost $15,500 in 1871 dollars — about half a million in modern money.  Nast made it a regular feature.


Here is Tweed stealing from the Public Treasury to pay off his poor, immigrant supporters.  Tweed was no Robin Hood.  He stole from the rich, but kept most of it for himself and his friends.  Even so, the poor got a better deal from Tweed than from anyone else.  

The answer to today’s bad economy? Bring back BOSS TWEED !!

Thomas Nast’s lasting image of Boss Tweed as the classic American pol,
from Harper’s Weekly, October 21, 1871.

Please don’t misunderstand.  Stealing is wrong.  Graft is bad.

Still, watching today’s politicians in Washington tripping over themselves trying to figure out ways to stimulate the economy — or trying to fix it by cutting back — I get nostalgic for the master. Bring back Boss Tweed.

William Magear Tweed, Boss of New York’s Tammany Hall machine in the 1860s and 70s, controlled mayors, governors, newspapers, and companies.  He used his power to steal from the city and county — for an astounding estimated $100 million (billions of dollars in modern money) during his relatively brief time at the pinnacle.

But Tweed kept his power not just by stealing elections (which he did often).  He also used his power to build.  Talk about infrastructure?  Tweed and his Tammany crowd did more to modernize New York City than anyone else in their generation.  Tweed didn’t need a “Stimulus Package” to grease the economy.  He used the direct method — graft.

Tweed spent the city into a $100 million deficit, mostly with money borrowed from investors in Europe who had no idea he was cheating them.  Most of the cash went to pay politicians and hire legions of laborers.  Was some of it stolen?  Of course!  But along the way, it helped spark an economic boom.

Boss Tweed knew how to spread the wealth around. The rich, the poor, all prospered. Stock prices and property values both soared under Tweed.  Taxes stayed low.  His system collapsed only when the New York Times got its hands on a purloined copy of the Tweed Ring’s secret account books and printed it on its front page — the journalistic coup of the Nineteenth Century.  By then, Tweed had been humiliated by the cartoons of Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly (see above), making him an easy mark.

A year after Tweed fell from power, in 1873, a financial panic hit New York and threw the city and country into the worst economic depression of the Nineteenth Century.

Graft aside, Tweed’s regime left the city and country wonderfully enriched: Their fingerprints are on every major NY creation of the Gilded Age: Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Tweed Courthouse, new widened streets and sidewalks, the New York Stock Exchange, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mount Sinai Hospital, and dozens of charities. The list is almost endless. And they left a tradition of political inclusion, a “wide tent” approach that modern politicians could only envy.

Except for all the stealing, the frauds and deceit, and the years in prison — of which there were plenty and which, to be clearwere very very wrong — he was a great man.

Tweed would know how to get the country moving again in today’s financial mess.  But don’t watch too closely.  Tweed’s methods were not for the squeamish, and “transparency” was not part of his approach. 

For more, see the new Viral History Press edition of Boss Tweed, the Corrupt who Conveived the Soul of Modorn New York.

Welcome Back BOSS TWEED

Do modern politicians give you the creeps, migranes, stomach cramps, and worse?

Are you sick to death of Romney, Perry, Newt, Ron Paul, even Obama — with almost a full year left till Election Day?

Don’t fret. TWEED IS BACK !!

Today, we proudly announce the new Viral History Press LLC edition of BOSS TWEED: the Corrupt Pol who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York.

Tweed counting the votes, according to Thomas Nast, 1871.
Tweed was the baddest, most crooked politician ever to breathe oxygen on American soil.  No contest.  No excuses.  He stole more money, fixed more elections, and paid more bribes than anyone else.  A New York jury convicted him on 204 counts of fraud — and the city still honors him today by putting his name on, of all things, the County Courthouse in lower Manhattan. 
It took Thomas Nast’s brilliant cartoons and a city-wide revolt to drag him from power.  Still, Tweed escaped from prison, fled to Spain, was recaptured and brought back, publicly confessed, died behind bars, and people loved him even more.

Read his incredible story — a New York Times notable book.  (Click here for all the great reviews.) Share it with your political friends.

This year, skip the mealy-mouthed modern mediocrities and give BOSS TWEED for the holidays.

Can’t decide? Read the first chapter right now for free.

Buy it before January 1 and enjoy our big holiday savings.

Boss Tweed: Read the opening chapter

Today, a free peek at the opening chapter of Boss Tweed. We hope you enjoy it.

The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York

• 1 • ALONE

April 12, 1878:
TWEED WAS DYING that morning, locked inside New York City’s Ludlow Street Jail at Grand Street on the lower East Side. At about 11:40 am, he began to whisper; his lawyer William Edelstein had to lean close and place his ear by Tweed’s lips to hear over the noise of horses and people on the street, women haggling at the nearby Essex Street Market. “Well, Tilden and Fairchild have killed me,” he said.  Tweed had saved his last words for his tormentors: Charles Fairchild, the New York State Attorney General who had cheated him, broken his pledge to free him in exchange for a full confession, and Samuel Tilden, the New York Governor who’d built a national political career on Tweed’s downfall and now demanded he die behind bars.

         “I hope they are satisfied now.”  He smiled faintly. A few minutes later, he lost consciousness.

         For two weeks, Tweed had borne a cascade of ailments: fever, bronchitis, pneumonia. Months earlier, he’d suffered a heart attack, aggravated by kidney failure brought on by Bright’s disease. His huge, 300-pound body, once known for its swagger, now sagged on the narrow bed, struggling to breathe; his sporadic coughs hung in the cool, dank air. Hollowed cheeks and a thin ghost-white beard dominated his long face. Blue eyes that once twinkled for friends and glared at enemies seemed vacant, haunted by depression.  At noon, just as mid-day bells sounded from the Essex Street Market tower, Tweed died, prematurely old at 55 years, surrounded by strangers.

         It had been almost five years since Tweed had walked the streets of New York City, his life-long home, as a free man. A year before that, Tweed had stood at the height of power and could laugh at bureaucrats like Fairchild and Tilden who’d begged him for favors like everyone else. He, William M. Tweed, had been the single most influential man in New York City and a rising force on the national stage. Physically imposing and mentally sharp, Tweed reigned supreme. He was more than simply boss of Tammany Hall, commissioner of PublicWorks, and state senator. He controlled judges, mayors, governors, and newspapers. He flaunted his wealth, conspicuous and garish beyond anything supportable by his government salaries or even traditional “honest graft”* as practiced by generations of politicians before and since.
* “Honest graft” was defined by Tammany chief George Washington Plunkitt in 1905 as “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em”—basically exploiting insider influence as opposed to direct stealing from the city treasury. In practice, it amounted to both, but with discretion and moderation.
         Tweed was the third-largest landowner in the city, director of the Erie
Railroad, the Tenth National Bank, and the New-York Printing Company, proprietor of  the Metropolitan Hotel, and president of the Americus Club. He owned two steam-powered yachts, a Fifth Avenue mansion, an estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a shirtfront diamond pin valued at over $15,000. Still, he gloried as friend to the poor, champion of immigrants, builder of a greater New York, and arbiter of influence and patronage. And he stole … on a massive scale.

         Once the proof of Tweed’s thefts from the city exploded in newspaper banner headlines, his house of cards collapsed. City investigators ultimately figured that Tweed and his city “ring,” during a three-year period, had made off with a staggering $60 million from the local treasury—an amount larger than the entire annual U.S. federal budget up until the CivilWar. Even then, political enemies and lawmen couldn’t touch him; it would take a popular uprising to topple Tweed, led by a newspaper, the New-York Times, and a magazine, HarpersWeekly. Only after newspapers had produced the evidence did prosecutors like Tilden and Fairchild dare put Tweed behind bars.

         In December 1873, a jury had convicted Tweed on 204 counts of criminal misdemeanor fraud growing from the famous “Tweed Ring” scandals and Judge Noah Davis had sentenced him to twelve years’ imprisonment on Blackwell’s Island.* Judge Davis had overstepped; the charges each actually
carried a jail term of just a few months and an appeals court had freed Tweed a year later over the discrepancy, but Tilden had intervened again and or-dered Tweed immediately rearrested and Judge Davis had set bail at an impossibly high $3 million.**
*    Located in the middle of the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, it is now called Roosevelt Island.
** About $60 million in modern dollars. Generally, to compare modern dollars with dollars in the 1860s or 1870s, multiply by twenty.      

       Now, six years later, Tweed alone remained in jail. All his friends and fellow thieves, the other Ring fugitives, had fled the country or settled their charges with the government. Tweed alone had become the scapegoat, the face of corruption. Increasingly, reformers criticized the prosecutors themselves for their clumsy handling of the case, running up huge legal costs while failing to recover more than a pittance of stolen city funds.

         Tweed hated prison; it defied him—despite the fact that jailors gave him every comfort money could buy: a private room, hot meals, a bathtub, a window to the street, and friends to visit. He grew impatient at the lawyers’ wrangling. In December 1875, he’d escaped and fled. One night that month, he snuck away from his jail guards and secretly crossed the Hudson River to New Jersey. He later admitted paying $60,000 in bribes to finance the dramatic breakout. Once loose, he traveled in disguise, wearing a wig, clean-shaven face, and workman’s clothes, and using a false name. He reached Cuba and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Spain, but only to face arrest. Spanish authorities had seized him on his arrival at Vigo and handed him back to a United States Navy frigate that returned him to New York City.

         Then, back behind bars, exhausted, destitute, and sick, Tweed tried to surrender: “I am an old man, greatly broken in health, cast down in spirit, and can no longer bear my burden,” he’d written from jail, agreeing with Fairchild and Tilden to throw himself on their mercy. After years of denials,
he now offered them a full confession of his crimes, including names of accomplices, surrender of all his property, and help in any legal steps to recover stolen city funds—all in exchange for his freedom. He wanted to be with his wife and children, he said, to live out his last years.

         He delivered his confession both in writing and through eleven days of riveting public testimony before a committee of city aldermen investigating his crimes.  Newspapers carried full transcripts of the startling disclosures as Tweed appeared day after day in a packed City Hall chamber and unflinchingly poured out his secrets, explaining how he’d bribed the state legislature, fixed elections, skimmed money from city contractors, and systematically diverted public funds. Parts of his story had little or no corroboration, raising suspi-cions he’d exaggerated his own guilt simply to flatter his jailers and help win his release.  He made no excuses, no alibis, and no complaints; sitting in the stuffy room he answered every question, rarely showing temper or impatience.

         New Yorkers who earlier had despised Tweed for his arrogance and greed now grudgingly grew to respect “the old man”—for his terrible mistakes, his punishment, and his apparent atonement. The aldermen who took his testimony supported Tweed’s plea for release from jail, as did old political rivals like “Honest John” Kelly, Tweed’s replacement as leader of Tammany Hall.

         But Tilden and Fairchild, sitting at the state capitol in Albany, were deaf to his pleas. Samuel Tilden had already run for president of the United States in 1876; he’d received more popular votes than Rutherford B. Hayes and lost the presidency by a single electoral vote in a contested outcome. He was considering a second try in 1880. Fairchild too saw higher political office in his future, including a possible run for the New York governor’s mansion. Why should either risk his reputation now over Tweed?

         His last appearance outside Ludlow Street Jail came on March 26, 1878, two weeks before his death. Sheriffs had taken Tweed to the state Supreme Court to testify in one of the many lawsuits resulting from his scandals. As guards led him through the marble courthouse corridors, he eagerly greeted the two or three old-timers who weren’t ashamed to shake his hand, even though he was now the city’s most notorious villain. Newsmen noticed how Tweed now walked with a limp and spoke in a rasping voice. When Tweed took the witness stand, he delivered a prepared statement: “Under promises made to me by the officials of the State and the city, I was induced to give evidence before the Common Council of this city…as to what are called ‘Ring Frauds,’” he read. “I am advised by my counsel not to answer a single question put to me on this case… until the promises made to me… are fulfilled and I am liberated.”

         The judge accepted Tweed’s response at face value and allowed him to leave the court without being cross-examined by any of the lawyers.

         Six days later, Tweed got his answer. Attorney General Fairchild issued a public letter denying he’d made any deals with Tweed—despite contrary statements he’d given earlier to Tweed’s own lawyer and to John Kelly.  Fairchild declared the whole incident a sham and a trick; he never bothered
even to send Tweed a copy of the letter. Tweed read it in the newspapers. When he saw Fairchild’s denial, he knew his game was up. A few days later came the fever, then the cough, then pneumonia.
         John Murray Carnochan, Tweed’s physician at Ludlow Street Jail, didn’t hesitate to pinpoint the cause of death. “Behind all these phases of disease,” he told newspaper writers after the autopsy, “was [Tweed’s] great nervous prostration, brought about by his prolonged confinement in an unhealthful locality”— the moldy jailhouse on Ludlow Street—“and by the unfavorable result of the efforts recently made to effect his release.”

         Tweed’s family had largely abandoned him by the time he died. Public shame had driven them away. Mary Jane, his wife of thirty-three years, had gone to Paris with their grown son William Jr.; she traveled under the false name “Weed” to avoid any connection with her disgraced husband. “My
wife!…She is God’s own workmanship,” he confided to an interviewer. “The only thing against her is that she had such a worthless husband.” Tweed’s two youngest sons, 10-year-old George and 14-year-old Charles, had been kept in a New England boarding school for the past five years and forbidden
to see their father. Tweed’s two oldest daughters, Mary Amelia and Lizzie, both lived with husbands in New Orleans, a thousand miles away, both taking the same married name, Maginnis.

         Of all Tweed’s children, only his daughter Josephine, 24 years old, still lived in New York City. She came frequently to the Ludlow Street Jail to visit her father and always tried to act cheerful around him. She’d come quickly this morning on hearing from the doctors, but had stepped away from her father’s bedside to fetch him his favorite treat of tea and ice cream. She hadn’t come back yet when he died at noon.

         News of Tweed’s death spread quickly through the busy metropolis of 900,000 souls. New Yorkers had known him for twenty-five years as hero, villain, and criminal. Tweed once had counted his friends and colleagues in the thousands. “Nine men out of ten either know me or I know them,” he’d bragged back in the 1860s, when he still commanded the city’s respect, “women and children you may include.”  Now, crowds gathered at newspaper offices and government buildings with public bulletin boards—over a hundred people at City Hall alone. Boys selling extra editions of the New

York Sun, the World, and the Herald made a fast business. The Boss dead? It couldn’t be true! One rumor had it that Tweed had faked his own demise as just another gimmick to win release from jail.

         Most New Yorkers sympathized at the news. “Poor old man, poor man, but perhaps it was best for him,” Judge Van Vorst of the Court of Common Pleas told a reporter.  “Tweed had a great many friends among the poor andfriendless,” added Bernard Reilly, sheriff of New York County. “Other people will regret his death because they think he has been rather harshly dealt with… he cannot be considered wholly as a bad man. He erred deplorably. And he has paid for his errors by dying in prison.”

         But self-styled reformers rejected any pity for Tweed. They’d won a great victory by overthrowing Tweed’s corrupt machine and refused to compromise now over misplaced sentiment for a sick old man. The New-York Times had dramatically unearthed and disclosed the Tweed Ring’s secret accounts—the greatest journalistic scoop to that time, directly leading to Tweed’s demise.
Now it led the assault: “Such talents as [Tweed] had were devoted to cheating the people and robbing the public Treasury,” insisted its lead editorial the next day, adding “his tastes were gross, his life impure, and his influence, both political and personal, more pernicious than that of any other public man of his generation.”

Nast’s final drawing of Tweed before the Boss’s death, Harper’s Weekly, January 26, 1878.

          Thomas Nast, the brilliant young illustrator whose cartoons in Harper’s Weekly had made Tweed a laughingstock to New York’s illiterate masses, still featured the ex-Boss in his weekly drawings. These days he portrayed Tweed as a tiny parakeet—no longer the fierce Tammany Tiger but instead a pathetic “jailbird” with prison stripes on his feathers and a ball and chain locked to his ankle. 

         Nast’s final drawing of Tweed, published in January 1878, had mocked the appeals for Tweed’s release by showing miniature jailbird Tweed gripped in a giant hand called “Prison,” ready to crush him at a whim. “[I]f it be right that men should be punished for great offenses, there was nothing unkind,
unjust, or unreasonable in the punishment of Tweed,” echoed a Harper’sWeekly editorial that week. It was right that Tweed should die in jail a broken man, others said. “Without his boldness and skill the gigantic Ring robberies would not have been committed,” concluded James Gordon Bennett, Jr.’s New York Herald. The “finger of scorn,” as Tom Nast had drawn it, must follow him to the grave.

         William Magear Tweed had left enormous footprints on his city; he had built as grandly as he’d stolen. His monuments dotted every corner of Manhattan— the new Brooklyn Bridge rising across the East River, the opulent new County Courthouse by City Hall, the widened, paved streets up Broadway
and around Central Park. Just as striking were shadows of his crimes — the huge debt and ruined credit that would haunt city finances for a generation, the broken lives and shattered trust of former friends. Tweed had defined a grimy reality of American politics, perfecting forms of graft and voting-box abuse mimicked by political bosses for the next century, but never on so grand a scale. His fall had created a new role for a free press in the public arena, and his legal persecution had set a tone for political scandals lasting generations.

         Fittingly, his most famous quotation is something he never said, at least publicly—“As long as I count the ballots, what are you going to do about it.”  Thomas Nast had put the words in his mouth in a Harper’sWeekly cartoon in 1871.

         The morning after Tweed died in jail, newspapers crammed their front pages with stories of his life and times. Politicians rushed to claim credit for having a hand in his downfall; only a rare friend dared to wax nostalgic for old Tammany Hall. People bought extra copies of the newspapers to save for children and grandchildren; they sensed the passing of a monumental figure. Tweed’s story would dominate church sermons and saloon arguments for weeks. “The career of Tweed was in many respects one of the most remark-able known to our peculiar land of peculiar institutions,”  the Washington Post noted.18 How could one raised so high fall so low?

         History would blacken Tweed’s name, portraying him as the worst municipal thief, the most corrupt politician, the craftiest ballot-box fixer—a stereotype used to tarnish entire generations of American political professionals. Already, he’d become a caricature: More people knew Tweed as the
comical thug in Nast’s Harper’sWeekly cartoons, the shameless villain in the New-York Times exposes, or the legendary wire-puller of Tammany Hall than as the vital flesh and blood person who’d walked the streets of Gotham for fifty-five years. He left a strange puzzle. Except for his stealing, Tweed would have been a great man; but had he been honest, he wouldn’t have been Tweed and would not have left nearly so great a mark.

If you enjoyed the excerpt, please consider buying the full book. Just click here.  Or check out the new eBook edition on Amazon Kindle or Nook.

DEBT CEILING crisis: Thomas Nast – Who drove the country into bankruptcy?

Thomas Nast drew the above cartoon for Harper’s Weekly in August 1871 as a slam against rampant graft by New York City’s political boss William M. Tweed.  Easily the most corrupt politician in American history, Tweed (the big fat man with the huge diamond chest pin in the drawing) and his circle stole an estimated $200 million from the city (billions in modern money) during their brief reign in power, a record that stands even today.  

The New York Times that summer of 1871 got its hands on a stolen copy of the Tweed Ring’s account books, which it published on its front page.  The disclosure — considered the newspaper Scoop of the Century back then –  demonstrated that huge thefts had taken place, but failed to connect them to individual names.  Nast, in his cartoon, simply asks: “Who Stole the People’s Money?” and every member of the Tammany Ring – Tweed, his top henchmen, city contractors, and the rest – points to the one next to him and his “Twas him.”  

Thomas Nast, the brilliant young artist whose Harpers Weekly
cartoons helped do in Boss Tweed’s political machine.

Ultimately, further detective work would trace the stolen money directly to Tweed’s personal bank account, and Tweed would spend much of his final years in various prisons.

All of which brings us to the humiliating spectacle being played out this week in the United States Congress, dragging the US literally to the brink of default by its failure to lift the technical debt ceiling before borrowing authority runs out on August 2.  This remarkable, breath-taking act of political incompetence — the question of who is right or wrong on the underlying policy issues became moot long ago — is a financial crime almost as bad as that of Tweed and his cronies.  A US default or credit downgrade will affect people across the country far more cruelly than anything Tweed did.  

Yet ask any of today’s political leaders about it, and the answer is the same:  Don’t blame me.  Somebody else did it.  It’s not my fault.

I think Tom Nast’s 1871 cartoon perfectly captures the situation in Washington, D.C. today, with a two minor changes:

  1. The caption should be:  “Who drove the country into bankruptcy? — Do tell.”
  2. And instead of Tweed and his Tammany cronies, the faces in the circle should include Obama, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, the Tea Party zealots, the media talking heads, Democrats and Republicans, Wall Street bankers, and don’t forget George W. Bush.

The fact is, today’s political crisis is everybody’s fault. They all did it together.  And now nobody takes responsibility.  (Though, as I write this on Friday morning, July 30, Senate leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) is trying to move a last-minute plan, after the House last night failed to pass Speaker John Boehner’s last attempt.) 

Sorry for the rant.  Hopefully the weekend will bring better news on this front.

Emma Goldman, Part II: The Trial

Emma Goldman, mid-1890s.
[For part I of this post, “Emma Goldman — Speaking out for Free Bread, going to Jail,” clich here.]

The police in Philadelphia held Emma Goldman for almost a week after her arrest in August 1893, before they could arrange extradition to New York City. “I was weighed, measured, and photographed,” she recalled.  On the train ride north, one detective tried to befriend Emma.  He offered to get the criminal charges against her dropped if she would spy on some of her radical friends.  She told him to go to hell.

Emma’s trial began on October 4, 1893, before Judge James Fitzgerald of NY’s Court of General Sessions.  It quickly became a great carnival, drawing packed crowds to the courtroom each day, a combination of radicals, friends, down-and-outs, newspaper writers, and curiosity seekers.  Gun-toting policy guarded every door.  Emma, wanting to make the best impression, wore a dress that one witness described as “neat and most un-anarchistic in its neatness,” her yellow hair “carefully combed.”

Emma had insisted at first on defending herself, but ultimately she accepted the court-appointed lawyer, resulting in one of the strangest combinations imaginable.  The lawyer was A. Oakey Hall, former mayor of New York City under the notoriously corrupt regime of Tammany Hall Boss William M. Tweed.  Tweed had been driven from power in 1872 after he and his Tweed Ring had stolen massive futures from the city treasury.  Oakey Hall, though acquitted of direct graft, had fingerprints on every major decision of Tweed and his Ring.

Emma Goldman – obviously ignorant of the scandal – found Oakey Hall charming, “tall distinguished-looking, vivacious.” She described him as “a great jurist. He had once been mayor of New York, but had proved to be too humane and democratic for the politicians [but] his affair with a young actress made him politically impossible.” [Tweed, dead by them, would have laughed out loud at the whitewash.]

Oakey Hall, Emma’s lawyer, 
as Mayor of NYC in 1870.

In fairness, Oakey Hall, then 67 years old, gave his young client a first-rate defense.  The New York grand jury had indicted Emma Goldman on three counts of incitement to riot, based on her August speech to the unemployed workers at Union Square, her telling them to steal bread from the rich people on Fifth Avenue.  Hall built his defense on three key points: that police detectives had made mistakes in translating Emma’s speech from German to English, that the Union Square meeting itself was perfectly legal, and that her words were protected under the US Constitution as Free Speech.

Emma on the Stand
But the trial’s highlight came on its third day when Emma Goldman herself took the stand to testify.  The chief prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney John F. McIntyre, decided to use his trump card.  He would show the 12-man jury that, no matter what she said in her speech,  this woman was a dangerous radical zealot.  Emma herself was exhausted by this point in the trial.  One reporter described her eyes as being “misty and restless, and there was a tremor in her hands” as she took the stand.  

“Do you believe in a Supreme Being, Miss Goldman,” he said, causing gasps in the packed courtroom.

“No, Sir, I do not,” she said.  What did God have to do with the criminal case?  No matter.  

The prosecutor went on. “Do you believe in the laws of the State?”

“I am an anarchist, and against all laws,” she answered.  “My theory is that the Legislature and the courts are of no use to the mass of the people. The laws passed help the rich and grind the poor.”

“Didn’t you tell your hearers [in Union Square] to take bread by force if they couldn’t get it peaceably?”

“No.  But I think the time will come, judging by what has happened, when they will be compelled to do so. That is what I told them on the night I spoke.”

Then he turned back to anarchy itself, that strange foreign-sounding word.  Anarchists in Europe back in the 1890s threw bombs and assassinated kings.  Even in the US, the Haymarket affair in Chicago — just six years earlier — still scared the socks off most Americans.  The prosecutor asked about one radical recently arrested with a bomb. “What do these anarchists want with dynamite bombs, anyhow!” he asked.

“Why, they want to use them in the great war if the social revolution ever comes,” said Emma Goldman.

“Would you use dynamite?”

“I do not know what I would do. The time may come when it may be necessary to use it.”

The testimony was devastating.  Emma had given the prosecutor all the ammunition he needed to paint her as a violent, godless, unpatriotic  malcontent who deserved prison whether she committed a crime or not.  Oakey Hall, in his final plea to the jury, did his best to put Emma’s words in a positive light.  The anarchist, he explained, “believes in co-operation and the common ownership of property. Anarchy dislikes the rich and the monopolistic, but surely this is no crime.”

The Verdict

Emma Goldman at time of her
depotation from America, in 1919.
The 12-man jury took two full hours — a long time back then – to find her guilty.  “You are a woman of above the ordinary intelligence, yet you have testified that you have no respect for our laws,” Judge Fitzgerald told her on passing sentence.  “There is no room for you in this community.”

Emma Goldman refused to appeal either the verdict and or her sentence of one year’s confinement at the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island in New York’s East River, a spot now called Roosevelt Island.  Wild rumors circulated that radical anarchists might bomb police stations or try to manage her escape, but nothing happened.  Once behind bars, Emma found relief from the prison gloom by working in the hospital, starting a life-long interest in hygiene and medicine. She read books and delighted when radical friends came to visit.

On her release, Emma Goldman would speak loudly as ever, start her magazine Mother Earth, write essays and books by the dozens on topics from politics to labor to feminine hygiene to marriage to war and peace.  She would be jailed many times, including after the assassination of President William McKinley when the shooter, a self-described anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, mentioned he had been inspired hearing her speak.  On American entry into World War I, Emma Goldman spoke out against military conscription and was jailed under the wartime Espionage Act. After the war, she, along with Alexander Berkman, was deported to Russia – one of many abuses from the 1919 Red Scare.  Still, she always considered America her home, and on her death insisted on being buried in Chicago, near the tomb of the Haymarket Anarchists.

Every American political activist today of any stripe — liberal, radical, conservative, tea party, whatever – owes a deep “thanks you” to Emma Goldman for practicing the most basic truth about our rights under the Constitution.  Simply put, it’s this-   Free Speech: Use it, or Lose it.  

If you’ve never heard of Emma Goldman because, like Victoria Woodhull, nobody bothered to mention her in your high school or college history classes, don’t let them get away with it!! Before Women’s History Month is over, check out one of these good books:


Yes, Thomas Nast invented Santa Claus

For Christmas Eve, I give you Santa Claus, as created in America by Thomas Nast, the brilliant, edgy cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly who almost single-handedly created the art of modern visual satire.

Nast’s cartoons of New York City’s untouchable corrupt Boss Tweed made Nast a unique national media star and political terror after they helped force Tweed’s arrest in 1872.   Among other things, Nast created the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant, and pioneered personal attack politics.   But he had a soft side.

Born in 1840 in Alsace, son of an army trombone player, Nast came to New York as an 8 year-old, learned English from scratch, and soon exploded on the scene as an artistic prodigy just as the newest media technology — graphic magazines — was coming of age.  Barely in his 20s, he drew national fame for his sketches of Garibaldi’s march through Italy, American Civil War battlefields, and dazzling sports events like prize fights and horse races.

Nast created the drawing on the right below for Harper’s Weekly in 1863, at the height of the Civil War when thousands of families were split apart and husbands-fathers-brothers were being butchered on faraway battlefields.  It’s simple sentiment made it a sensation and helped boost regular sales of Harper’s into the stratosphere.   People posted copies of Nast sketches in saloons, kitchens, and storefronts.

Around this same time, Nast began making the old German fold legend Saint Nicholas a regular in his Christmas-time fare, gave him a fat belly, beard, sled, and mission to give presents.  Nast drew Santa visiting Civil War soldiers at the front, then on the home front climbing down chimneys, hugging children, stuffing stockings with presents, and the rest.  He made him a household name as well, as in the 1874 Harper’s cover above.

Nast himself would make a fortune as the most famous illustrator in America, but then lose it in 1885 after investing his money in a Wall Street firm run by former President Ulysses Grant (Grant and Ward) that went belly up after being victimized by an embezzler.

Economic Stimulus? Bring back Boss Tweed

Don’t misunderstand. Stealing is wrong. Graft is bad.

Still, watching today’s politicians in Washington tripping over themselves trying to figure out ways to stimulate the economy, I get nostalgic for the master. Bring back Boss Tweed.

William Magear Tweed, Boss of New York’s Tammany Hall machine in the 1860s and 70s, controlled mayors, governors, newspapers, and companies. He kept his power by stealing elections. He used his power to steal from the city and county — for an astounding estimated $100 million (billions of dollars in modern money) during his relatively brief time at the pinnacle.

But Tweed also used his power to build. Talk about infrastructure? Tweed and his Tammany crowd did more to modernize New York and bring immigrants and the working poor into the social mainstream than anyone else in his generation. Tweed didn’t need a “Stimulus Package” to grease the economy. He used the direct way — graft. He spent the city into a $100 million deficit, mostly borrowed from investors in Europe who had no idea they were being bilked. Most of the cash went to pay politicians and hire legions of laborers. But along the way, it helped spark an economic boom.
Boss Tweed knew how to spread the wealth around. The rich, the poor, all prospered. Stock prices and property values both soared. Taxes stayed low. His system collapsed only when the New York Times got its hands on a purloined copy of the Tweed Ring’s secret account books and exposed them on its front pages — the journalistic Scoup of the Nineteenth Century. By then, Tweed had been humiliated by the cartoon satires of Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly (see cartoon above), making him an easy mark for a politically ambitious prosecutor like Samuel Tilden.

A year after Tweed’s fall from power, in 1873, a financial panic threw New York and the country into the worst economic depression ever expeirienced till that time.

Graft aside, Tweed’s regime left the city and country wonderfully enriched: Their fingerprints are on every major NY creation of the Gilded Age: Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Tweed Courthouse, new widened streets and sidewalks, the New York Stock Exchange, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mount Sinai Hospital, and dozens of charities. The list is almost endless. And they left a tradition of political inclusion, a “wide tent” approach as similiar to Barack Obama and John McCain as the stories of foul play.

But for the stealing — which, to be clear, was wrong — he was a great man.
Tweed would know how to get the country moving again in today’s financial mess. Just don’t watch too closely. “Transparency” certainly was never part of his approach. Tweed’s methods were not for the squeamish.