On This Day

boss tweed nast, boss tweed cartoon, thomas nast cartoon, boss tweed prison
Harper’s Weekly
“Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make,” a
cartoon by Thomas Nast, Jan. 6, 1872.

On This Day: Boss Tweed Escapes From Prison

December 04, 2010 07:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Dec. 4, 1875, William “Boss” Tweed, the disgraced leader of New York’s Tammany Hall, escaped from authorities while on a sojourn from prison. He was recaptured in Spain and returned to prison.

Boss Tweed’s Escape From Justice

As the leader of Tammany Hall, New York City’s infamous Democratic political machine, William M. “Boss” Tweed allegedly stole an estimated $20-200 million from the city between 1865 and December 1871, when he was arrested and indicted on fraud charges.

In November 1873, in his second trial, he was convicted on 204 counts of criminal misdemeanor fraud. Though he was given a 13-year prison sentence and a $12,500 fine, the punishment was reduced in January 1875 to one-year in prison a $250 fine, allowing him to go free on time served.

A day after his release, Tweed was re-arrested on the order of New York Gov. Samuel B. Tilden to face a $6 million civil suit. Unable to pay the $3 million bail, Tweed was put in the Ludlow Street Jail on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Due to his status and influence, Tweed enjoyed privileges not afforded to common inmates, such as a private room, hot meals and a bathtub. He was also allowed to receive visitors and take supervised carriage rides outside the prison to visit friends and family.

On Dec. 4, 1875, 11 months into his stay at Ludlow Street, Tweed made a visit to his home near Central Park. As the two accompanying prison officials, Warden Dunham and Sheriff Conner, waited in his parlor, Tweed went upstairs to see his wife, whom he said was sick, and never came back down.

Tweed had escaped to New Jersey; from there, he bribed his way to Cuba. U.S. authorities learned he was there, but he escaped in July aboard a Spanish ship. They alerted Spanish authorities and sent them a cartoon by Thomas Nast depicting Tweed arresting two children. The Spanish—who mistakenly believed that Tweed was a child abductor, according to HarpWeek—arrested him when he reached Spain in September.

Hoping for leniency, he decided to confess all his crimes. “Parts of his story had little or no corroboration, raising suspicions that he'd exaggerated his own guilt simply to flatter his jailers and help win his release, “ writes Kenneth D. Ackerman, author of “Boss Tweed.”

Tweed’s remorse did not help him, however. He remained in Ludlow Street Jail until his death on April 12, 1878.

Background: Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed

Tammany Hall began in the late 18th century as a fraternal organization in New York City. It developed into a political organization in the 19th century, supporting Democratic candidates in New York. Its political influence increased substantially as it attracted the voting support of large numbers of immigrants, primarily the Irish, by helping them find jobs and homes, and obtain citizenship.

By 1854, Tammany was a “political force of hegemonic proportions in New York City, conferring immense power on the society's bosses and allowing them to enrich themselves and their associates through corruption and administrative abuse,’ according to the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project.

William Tweed grew up in a lower-class Scottish-Irish family in the Lower East Side of New York, and entered politics in 1851. After serving one term in the House of Representatives, Tweed returned to New York and joined Tammany Hall, gradually working his way up in power. By 1860, he was head of Tammany and had a large group of political cronies, known as the Tweed Ring.

“The Tweed ring then proceeded to milk the city through such devices as faked leases, padded bills, false vouchers, unnecessary repairs, and overpriced goods and services bought from suppliers controlled by the ring,” writes Encyclopedia Britannica.

In the most famous example of Tweed’s corruption, the city spent nearly $13 million building the New York County Courthouse, known as the Tweed Courthouse. Laborers were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a few days work, and Tweed usually controlled the companies that provided building materials.

Tweed’s downfall was due in large part to The New York Times, Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast and Gov. Tilden. The Times, after receiving tips from two city officials, published exposés of Tweed’s actions beginning in 1871. Nast, a nativist republican, drew many cartoons lampooning Tweed, turning him into the embodiment of corruption.

Tweed is said to have remarked to his aides, “Let's stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers write about—my constituents can't read—but damn it, they can see pictures.”

Tilden, who nearly won the 1876 presidential election, made his political career as a reformer. He was a driving force behind the prosecution of Tweed, ensuring that he would remain locked up until his death.
Some historians believe that Tweed’s corruption was exaggerated, and that he was made a scapegoat for the corruption that existed throughout New York politics. He was never tried for theft and never convicted of any more than misdemeanors. His corrupt image was driven by his political opponents and the press, rather than from hard evidence.

Tweed had a lasting influence on New York City; he oversaw the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, the widening and repaving of streets, and improvement of schools and hospitals. He also left the city in enormous debt and greatly contributed to its corrupt reputation.

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,” writes Ackerman. “His fall had created a new role for a free, skeptical press in the public arena, and his legal persecution had set a tone for political scandals lasting generations.”

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