Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club held a conversation on June 22 at the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library with Kenneth Ackerman,who has worked for both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government and is the author of several books, most recently "Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York." An edited transcript appears below:
Kenneth Ackerman(reading from his book): [William Magear] Tweed didn't invent civic corruption or ballot-box stuffing, but he
and his Tammany crowd elevated the techniques to stunning proportions.
They committed frauds gigantic on any scale, even if Tweed was
personally guilty for only a small fraction of the whole. In later years,
estimates of "Tweed Ring" total plunder jumped from the relatively
modest $25 million to $45 million of the 1877 Aldermen's Committee to
fully $200 million ($4 billion in modern dollars), a figure clearly
inflated for dramatic impact but never scrutinized. It became part of
Tweed lived in a corrupt time, the Gilded Age, but he
defined that era and pressed its boundaries. Even by his own day's
standards, to call something "A Worse Fraud than Tweed's" spoke volumes.
Tweed inherited a culture of graft endemic to New York City for
generations and pushed it to its logical extreme, forcing the reformers
to crack down.
After his excesses, no city in America could any longer
tolerate wide-open graft or ballot-box abuse. Urban corruption didn't
disappear, but it evolved and became more subtle. "A villain of more
brains would have had a modest dwelling and would have guzzled in
secret," E.L. Godkin wrote in the aftermath. George W. Plunkett, a
Tammany leader of the next generation, well understood the point. "The
politician who steals is worse than a thief," he'd say in 1905. "He is a
TWEED IN PICTURES
So much of the Tweed story is visual. It is a story about the role of
the media and the role of images, pictures, and cartoons. You can't
really tell the story without the images. Tweed's persona was very much
shaped by cartoonist Thomas Nast. Nast was a little too good at what he
did. He was so clever and so vivid and wrote such funny compelling
cartoon images that it was hard for Tweed, either in his lifetime or for
posterity, to get away from the image Nast had created. I hope I've done
a little bit to free Tweed from that stone around his neck.
Some of the pictures drawn of Tweed hit the nail on the head, and some
This is my personal favorite of the Nast cartoons, and it's one of the
most famous of them. It was drawn just after the New York Times
broke the story and they put out the so-called secret accounts, which
showed the money the city paid for various contracts related to the
Tweed courthouse. They were so big that it was impossible to believe the
stories were true.
One example was the sum that was supposedly spent for chairs. It was
enough to buy something like 315,000 chairs, so that if you lined them
up in a row they would have made a line 17 miles long.
What the New York Times didn't show was who stole the money, or
how the system worked. Even with the disclosures the Tweed ring could
still feel that if they could keep silent they could still get away with
it. Thomas Nast's cartoon, drawn right after that disclosure, shows
this. Tweed himself is Nast's image of the American politician: big,
fat, and arrogant with a silly look on his face, kind of ugly. Nast put
looks on his characters' faces so that you'd always recognize them, kind
of like Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny. They're very distinctive pictures.
The famous diamond that Tweed's friends gave him for a Christmas present
was always on Tweed's chest in the cartoons. It was ten and a half
karats, valued at $15,000 in 1870 money; that would be about $300,000 in
What you see is the Tammany ring, Tweed, Sweeney, Connelly, and the
mayor Okie Hall all standing in a circle with the city contractors. Nash
was notoriously bigoted and prejudiced towards the Irish and Catholics,
and these characters are typical Irishmen for Nast: looking kind of like
a gorilla, big square jaw, smoking a pipe, a whiskey bottle nearby,
looking kind of nefarious. It's labeled: Tammany Ring. The caption says
"Who stole the people's money, do tell." And everyone is pointing to the
guy next to him and is saying 'Twas Him.'
This was drawn by a friendlier artist. It shows a ball thrown by the
Americus Club, which was Tweed's social club. Every year they rented
out the New York Academy of Music on Union Square and threw a big party.
Here you see Tweed looking large but graceful, the center of attention,
with people looking on in admiration. He's dancing a jig; he has a
presence in the room. In real life he was about 300 lbs. Eating was the
one major vice that he admitted to. He didn't smoke and he rarely drank,
although when friends would come to visit he would always be ready with
the cigars and whiskey bottles to give out favors.
Tweed was someone who, when he came into a room would work the crowd,
make sure he got to know everyone. He would go up to you, shake your
hand, tell you a story, share a joke, pat you on the back, and make sure
by the time the night was over he knew your name, your family, what you
did for a living. He would probably find some way to do you a favor,
knowing that in this political world if he did a favor for you, you
would do one back for him. He was the kind of person who if he promised
to do something for you, you could have confidence he would do it; he
had a very good reputation for, of all things, honesty.
That's the image of Tweed that I like in many ways more than Nast's,
though they're both true. Part of the irony of Tweed is that it's wrong
to be an apologist for him. You can't simply minimize what he did, and
say 'everyone stole so it's not a big deal'. He stole much more than
anyone else, but he had a big enough personality that the warm
bloodedness of him, his effort to make right by the people around him,
was just as prominent as the stealing. It may have been manipulative, it
may have been pragmatic, but so what?
This cartoon is from 1875, also by Thomas Nast. It has a picture of an
old brick building that served as the city jail. Tweed is shown as a
giant too big to fit into the building. His head is sticking out one
end and his feet the other. And the caption says "stone walls cannot
imprison me, no prison is big enough to hold the boss, in on one side
and out at the other."
Nast drew this drawing right at the time of Tweed's famous jailbreak. By
1875 Tweed recognized he was never getting out of jail, and he decided
enough was enough. He paid about $60,000 in bribe money and arranged to
sneak away. Ultimately, he made it as far as Cuba and then Spain before
being re-arrested. He was on the run for about 10 months, mostly at
sea. The Spanish authorities used Nast cartoons, including this one, to
make the identification.
John Guzman: Is the implication that [President Ulysses S.] Grant had something to do
with the escape and capture of Tweed correct?
Kenneth Ackerman: Definitely with the capture. The State
Department got wind of where Tweed was when he landed on Cuba. At that
time, early 1876, the presidential election had started. New York
Governor Samuel Tilden was running against Rutherford Hayes, and there
was a hope that if Tweed could somehow be captured and brought back to
New York City he could be used as a weapon against Tilden.
So Grant arranged for Tweed to be captured and brought back
on a very fast ship. Tweed managed to get wind of it and slip away in
Cuba but Grant arranged for the Spanish to hand him over and send him
back. The reason the attempt to use Tweed against Tilden fell through
was that Tweed's trip back across the ocean was plagued by very, very
bad weather and it took them twice as long as they expected.
As far as Grant or others being implicated in the escape itself, this
gets into the realm of the very mysterious. There was clearly a helper,
a man name Hunt, who joined Tweed in Florida and became his personal
guide as they traveled through Cuba and then Spain. Who this Hunt was
is one of the great mysteries of the whole story. When he was arrested
in Spain along with Tweed they were originally both to be extradited to
New York City. But at the last minute instructions came from Washington
through the State Department to the American ministry in Spain saying
"we want Tweed only, we don't want Hunt." So Hunt was let go. And it
has always been a mystery who this person was.
Gotham Gazette: In the title of your book you say that Tweed
"conceived the soul of modern New York." What do you mean by that?
Kenneth Ackerman: I was looking at personality. I saw in Tweed a
person who was bold and smart and brassy. Whatever he did was the
biggest, the most and the boldest, whether it was the way he went about
fixing an election, or the house that he built on 5th Avenue, or the way
he paved the streets, or the wedding he threw for his daughter.
In the State legislature, Tweed was one of 32 members when he joined it
in the late 1860s; within a year he was the most important member. Not
just because he was bribing other members, but because he was chairman
of its two most important committees. He was the person who was involved
in patronage, not just for New York City but for the canal system upstate.
And that's where I come up with the "one who conceived the soul of modern
New York." This is his city. This is the biggest city in America, and
Tweed would be very comfortable with people who say that if it is not in
New York it is not very important.
Gotham Gazette: So by "soul" you mean basically the bigness of
Kenneth Ackerman: The bigness, the personality, the energy, the
confidence, to some extent the arrogance. It's part of our national
persona as well, but New York had it first and demonstrates it the most.
Gotham Gazette: On the front page of the New York Times
today, there is an article about Albany which lists, scandal by scandal,
the corruption that's still going on. It mentions Guy Velella;
it mentions an aide to the governor who gave a contract to a friend
running a non-existent company; it mentions former US Senator Al
D'Amato, who was paid $500,000 to make a simple phone call. Is there
some of Tweed in that as well?
Kenneth Ackerman: There's some of Tweed in that. The political
corruption lives at all levels today as it did then, although not in as
outward form. There are more checks and balances today on corruption
than there were in the 1860s and 1870s, probably because of Tweed.
Today there are ethics committees in legislatures, and law enforcement
is much more developed. The amount of record keeping that goes on for
legislators' gifts, for instance, makes it much more difficult to be
corrupt on that level. The cash accounting in the city government is
worlds more advanced than it was in the 1870s. For someone to try to
steal a billion dollars today from New York City, I'm not going to say
it's impossible, but it would certainly not look like what Tweed did.
The places where you do have corruption on that level is in the
What's similar is that the incentives are still there.
Even though you don't have legislative bribery the way you did during
the Tweed era in the state legislature, the amount of money that today
goes to pay for members of Congress and United States senators and their
campaigns is to some extent outrageous, even though it's legal.
Gotham Gazette: How about for mayor?
Kenneth Ackerman: It's still early in the mayor's race, so we'll
see how that one goes. Mr. Bloomberg is bringing a lot of his own money
What I do think is interesting is how much money city taxpayers pay for
sports stadiums for teams that make tens of millions of dollars a year.
We recently had a discussion about this in Washington D.C. where the
city government is ending up paying $800 million for a new stadium for
the Nationals baseball team. When they tried to fight it, Major League
baseball threatened to pull the team out of town and the city caved.
New York City had a lot more backbone on this than we did.
Gotham Gazette: But are the stadium issues Tweedian in some
Kenneth Ackerman: Well it is and it isn't. When I call
something "Tweed-ish" to me it's not necessarily an insult. Something
like the Jets stadium has Tweed written all over it. Tweed loved big
projects that cost a lot of money, such as the Brooklyn Bridge or a
large new building. He liked things that would employ hundreds or
thousands of people, would send money to dozens of subcontractors and
businesses, and would develop the economy in a part of the city.
Now certainly in Tweed's day there were cuts and padding all along the
way, and jobs could be directed to your friends. Today there are union
contracts and contracting rules that control that to some extent. So I
don't think the dishonesty is there to anywhere near the extent in the
Tweed Era. But the idea of big public works projects designed to keep
people employed worked for Tweed and works today.
A lot of what Tweed built turned out in retrospect to be very useful.
It was basically the infrastructure of the city, the sewer lines, the
bridges, the parks, the sidewalks, things that have a lot of use. The
question, which is a question of judgment, is whether a sports stadium
50 years from now is going to be considered useful.
Martha Soffer: Did Tweed have any influence on Robert
Kenneth Ackerman: There are some similarities to Robert Moses,
caveat the corruption. But large-scale building was Tweed's signature,
as it was later to become Moses' signature. Whether Tweed would have
had the same attitude about breaking up neighborhoods is a whole other
question. Part of the controversy with Robert Moses is that he felt so
strongly about building highways that he was willing to run a path right
through the middle of the South Bronx or right through the middle of
Midtown Manhattan, regardless of the side effects that that would cause.
Whether Tweed would have been more careful is a hypothetical question.
We don't really know the answer. He obviously built a lot of big things
but he was also someone with his ear to the ground in the neighborhoods,
because he knew that was his base of support.
Gotham Gazette: Your book deals mainly with Tweed's crimes. But
Pete Hamill wrote in the New York Times that "One thing
was certain: because of Tweed, New York got better, even for the poor."
You seemed to be alluding to that. Do you agree with that, and what do
you think were Tweed's main tangible accomplishments, aside from getting
Kenneth Ackerman: Well, getting rich is an accomplishment. But
I do agree with Hamill; part of the beauty and the irony of Tweed's
system was that when it was working it did seem to work for everyone.
The Tweed ring, when it ran city government, kept taxes low while
spending lavishly on city improvements. Property values were up all
It was a little like the era of the 1990s: the economy was very good and
the stock market was on a roll. This was the period right after the
Civil War, when railroads were having a boom, and telegraphs and even
agriculture were having a good decade, and all of that money came into
New York City. So there were a lot of factors causing the boom, but
Tweed was encouraging it, he was riding it, and he was spending that
money on the city while keeping taxes down.
As a result the city's wealthy class very much supported him. When he
first got in trouble with the New York Times, he was able to get
a group of city elders led by John Jacob Astor III, one of the
wealthiest men in town, to go and look at the city books and publicly
give them their blessing. At the same time Tweed did a lot of positive
things for the poor, bringing immigrants into the political mainstream.
Even though that may have been a cold-blooded pragmatic deal, it worked
for the benefit of all. He was very loyal in terms of rewarding his
friends, giving jobs to backers of his party.
When people, primarily Irish immigrants, would come out on election day
and vote ten, twenty, thirty times that was not considered something to
be embarrassed about. That was something many were proud of; it was your
way of breaking in as a party worker. That would be a way for you to get
a city job, to put bread on the table for your family, and to be part of
the American mainstream. There are descriptions of these large
demonstrations for Tweed either in Union Square or Tweed Plaza at what
is at Canal St. and East Broadway. People would march behind placards
saying "Tammany repeater."
But the picture is not complete unless you mention that there was a big
crack in the middle of it. A lot of the money that was being spent,
both for good and for bad, came from borrowing. It came from outsiders.
Basically, Comptroller Richard Connolly financed the city by issuing
dozens of kinds of stocks and bonds: park improvement bonds, courthouse
improvement bonds, street improvement bonds, literally dozens of kinds
that were being sold to Wall Street and to investors in Europe. In the
three or four years that Tweed and his group were in control the city
debt rose from about $30 million to close to $100 million. That was the
crack in the system. It's a little bit like a cock-eyed Robin Hood.
Tweed is like Robin Hood, if you assume that Robin Hood steals from the
rich but keeps the first third for himself, gives the next third to the
merry men, gives another cut of four or five percent to the local
newspapers in Sherwood Forest to write good stories about what he does,
encourages the poor to join the merry men so they can get a part of the
take, and then gives the rest to the poor. Assume also that he doesn't
steal from the rich in Sherwood Forest, but from the rich people two
forests over. There you have Tweed.
Joan DeCamp: I'm interested in the stocks as a way to raise
money. Today that would have to be done through public referendum, or by
going through Albany. What was the political structure that would allow
them to do this, and what eventually became of those bonds? I'm assuming
that the robber barons and their friends knew better than to buy these.
Kenneth Ackerman: The way the city government structured itself
was very different. Up through the late 1860s, Albany had gotten very
involved in city government: it controlled the city legislature, it
created a board of supervisors with 12 members (6 Democrats and 6
Republicans) which was supposed to make the city clean. Generally you
could raise bonds almost by fiat if you could get the approval of the
mayor and the comptroller.
The beauty of Tweed's system was that he managed to put allies at each
of the key power points. In 1870 Tweed pushed through the legislature
what was called the Tweed Charter, that solidified the structure and
basically made Tweed, Sweeney, and Connelly un-removable. It gave them
all revolving terms of 6 to 8 years, so their power could not be broken.
For a while the board of alderman had power of the purse, but that was
taken away during this period as well. Chamberlain Peter Sweeney
actually controlled the bank accounts, and was the one who actually had
access to the Treasury.
Under Tweed's system if you were a contactor who supplied anything from
stationery to services to plastering to painting to construction to the
city, you had to submit your bills to the board of supervisors.
Basically Tweed had an arrangement with a few allies that when bills
went through him you had to add 15 percent; that was the gratuity to the
politicians for approving it. Over time they grew bolder: that number
went up to 25, 35, 45, ultimately 65 percent at its height.
As far as what happened to all the bonds, some of them were considered a
good investment for a while. But when the New York Times came out with
its stories that provoked a crisis. The financial community was
apoplectic and European bondholders suddenly cut off money. In August
New York bonds stopped being traded on the Berlin Stock Exchange; that
month there was also a bond offering in August on which the city
received no bids. The Wall Street community realized that if the city
defaulted not only would their own bond portfolios decrease in value but
they would never get another penny from European investors.
The person who saved the day on the bonds was Andrew Green. Andrew
Green was a very prominent reformer. He had been head of the Central
Park committee and a leader of the New York Board of Education. When
Tilden engineered his takeover of the comptroller's office - which was
one of the key turning points of this whole affair - he figured out a
way to get Connolly out. Connolly couldn't be fired, but if they could
get him to appoint a deputy then the deputy couldn't be fired, either.
Connelly went over to the reformers side, and they arranged for Green to
become deputy in the dead of night during the weekend when no one was
It was a very, very gutsy thing for Green to take over. He came in with
about 20 policemen and a squad of clerks and took over the comptroller's
office. Nobody in city government would talk to him. There were threats
that city police would come in with bayonets and kick him out, and he
had to get his own police squad ready to fight for the office. Still,
Green came in and stabilized the city government.
The first thing he did [was take] an inventory of how much actual cash was
on hand, and he applied all of it to the city's next interest payment on
its bonds. There was a period for about four or five weeks where there
was no money to pay the salary of any city workers. Crowds of 40, 50,
60, 100, or 200 hungry, angry city workers - very tough people who had
blood on their hands from recent riots - were threatening Andrew Green
and others to pay their bills. This was the level that politics was on
for a while. It took about two or three months to settle down. It took
several years for Green and William Havemeyer, the next mayor who lasted
only a short while as well, to restore the city's credit. The problem
of these bonds hung over the city for years.
Martha Soffer: Did the police and the fire department became
Irish under Tweed?
Kenneth Ackerman: The Irish immigrants were starting to become
very engaged in politics during this period. The first high profile
Irishmen in Tammany Hall actually came in the 1850s a little bit
earlier. John Kelly, who would later become the Tammany boss, was a
Congressman in the 1850s. There was a guy named Lynch who was the editor
of the Leader, the Tammany newspaper, during the Civil War.
Matthew Brennan is another who was prominent very early on. But during
the Tweed Era the Irish were probably the biggest immigrant group that
Tammany had that kind of close hold over. There was a very large German
immigrant group in New York City as well, although German voters tended
to be more independent politically. Some were Republicans, some were
skeptical of Tweed, and in fact the German newspaper was one of the ones
that questioned Tweed early on.
CHALLENGING THE TWEED LEGEND
Gotham Gazette: Was one of the misconceptions about Tweed that he
was Irish? Is that one of the current misconceptions?
Kenneth Ackerman: He's not Irish. You do see every now and then
a reference to him as being either Irish or Catholic because he was so
tied to them. In fact when Nast and the New York Times were going
after Tweed they tried to tie him to the Irish and the Catholics as a
way of pummeling him publicly. But Tweed's family was Protestant. There
was one time when he was checking in to the Blackwell's Island
Penitentiary on Roosevelt Island in the East River, and Tweed was first
asked "What's your occupation?" and he said "Statesman"; then he was
asked "What's your religion?" and he said "None, my family is Protestant
but for me none."
Gotham Gazette: That was already when he was in jail though. He
might have said something different when he was still running for
Kenneth Ackerman: This was an era when people did actually try to
distance themselves on religious issues. This wasn't an era where you
wore your religion on your sleeve like you do today.
Gotham Gazette: You seem to speak of Tweed with a tone of
sympathy. Did you like him so much when you started, or were there
conceptions that you had of Tweed that changed throughout the time that
you were writing this book?
Kenneth Ackerman: I guess my conception of Tweed did change
while I was writing the book. My original conception of Tweed came from
writing the book The Gold Ring, which I wrote in the late 1980s.
It is about Jay Gould and Jim Fisk and their attempt to corner the gold
market in 1869. In researching that story Tweed is always in the
background, and I got the impression that during that period that
nothing could happen in New York City without Tweed. When he got
involved in something, it might be very crooked and corrupt and shady,
but it always had a certain sense of organization. Tweed was someone
who wouldn't steal something in a sloppy way. If he set about trying to
manipulate an election he would do it in an organized, systematic way,
throwing himself at it totally. He wouldn't do anything half-heartedly.
It is well known that Tweed stole between $40 million and $200 million,
depending on the count. The thing that grabs your attention is that
he wasn't an ignorant man or simply another corrupt politician.
When you write about someone like Boss Tweed you know at the outset that
the man is crooked, that part isn't the surprising part. The thing that
I really wasn't aware of was the extent to which the people who attacked
Tweed stretched the rules to attack him. Most of the time he was being
held in jail, he was being held on a pretext that would be laughed out
of court today. The people attacking him had conflicting interests that
were apparent to people at the time but get lost to us today. Samuel
Tilden was really building a case for himself for the presidency. Then
there was the man who brought Tweed down less directly, the county
sheriff for New York City, Jimmy O'Brien. He managed to get his hands on
the comptroller's office ledgers and give them to the New York
Times; these are what became the secret accounts. O'Brien got his
hands on these books primarily to try to blackmail Tweed for $350,000.
TWEED AND TAMMANY
Book Club Member: What does Tammany stand for?
Kenneth Ackerman: The Tammany Society goes back to the
Revolutionary War. It started as a social club, named after an Indian
chief, Chief Tamanend. It's not clear whether he was real or legendary,
but he's noted for meeting William Penn when he landed in Pennsylvania,
and there are also stories that he fought a great battle against an evil
spirit that resulted in the creation of Niagara Falls. That's why there
are Indian names all through the organization - the leaders are called
"sachems" and the building is called the "wigwam."
Gotham Gazette: Your book is about the rise and fall of Tweed
specifically, but Tammany Hall actually didn't fall with him. Can you
go into what happened to Tammany afterwards? Why didn't it collapse if
Tweed was the driving force behind the whole system?
Kenneth Ackerman: Tammany Hall as an institution remained active
and effective for about 90 years after Tweed. After the Tweed fiasco,
John Kelly became the next boss. His nickname was "Honest John." He
was the sheriff, and he was generally an honest sheriff. When Mayor
Havemeyer once accused him of corruption, Kelley actually brought a
defamation lawsuit against him. (Havemeyer died in office before it
could be litigated). Kelley was a very strong person and he rebuilt the
machine, got it off the floor and got it working again and after that
there were a number of very strong bosses.
Tammany had a very deep base built by Tweed's generation and the
generation before him that could not be easily eliminated. The base
among the immigrant communities, the network of local clubs and
committees, stretched to literally every block in New York City.
The machine also provided services and people were loyal to it. In the
early part of this century, one of the most prominent people it produced
was Alfred Smith, who was eventually nominated for president of the
United States. He had a progressive outlook, which came in part from the
Tammany attitude of trying to deal with the real life problems of the
people that it represented. Smith brought that into the legislative and
political arenas in a way that no one else had up until that time. It
later became the foundation for the New Deal.
Tammany remained strong until the 1930s, and at that point Fiorello
LaGuardia was elected mayor. LaGuardia was a combination
Republican-Fusionist-Liberal - he had several lines on the ballot, but
the Democratic line was not one of them. As a result for a period of
about a dozen years Tammany was cut off from patronage. And that was
when they lost the nice building on Union Square and they moved into an
office suite in an office building. Around that time Tammany and the
Democratic party split.
Tammany Hall had a resurgence in the 1950s under the boss a man name
Carmine De Sapio who became prominent behind a number of leading
politicians. He was knocked down by a group of reformers in the early
1960s. There were corruption charges and he spent a couple of years in
jail. The nice tie-in to modern times is that De Sapio's final defeat
came in a local election in this neighborhood where we're sitting right
now, Greenwich Village. It was over a local leadership position, and he
was defeated by a man named Edward Koch. Koch later went on to become
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