William M. Tweed (April 3, 1823 – April 12, 1878), sometimes informally called Boss Tweed, was an American politician who was convicted for stealing between 40 million and 200 million dollars from New York City taxpayers through political corruption. Tweed was head of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine that played a major role in the politics of 19th century New York. He died in jail.
William Magear Tweed (the allegation that his middle name was Marcy is an old slur) was born April 3, 1823, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His father was a chair-maker of Scottish-Irish descent. Tweed became a volunteer fireman, and made his entrance into politics when he organized the Americus Fire Company No. 6, which along with its fire truck, became known as the "Big Six". Tweed was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, the New York City Board of Advisors in 1856, and the New York State Senate in 1867. Financiers Jay Gould and Big Jim Fisk made Tweed a director of the Erie Railroad, and Tweed in turn arranged favorable legislation for them. Tweed and Gould became the subjects of political cartoons by Thomas Nast in 1869.
Tweed was accused of defrauding the city by having contractors present excessive bills for work performed—typically ranging from 15 to 65 percent more than the project actually cost. The extra charges were said to have been divided among Tweed, his subordinates and the contractors. The most excessive overcharging came in the form of the Tweed Courthouse, which cost the city $13 million to construct (the actual cost for the courthouse was about $3 million), leaving about $10 million for the pockets of Tweed and others. The city was also billed $3 million for city printing and stationery over a two-year period.
Tweed's downfall came when he refused to authorize the Orange Parade, an annual Protestant celebration. City Sheriff James O'Brien, whose support for Tweed had fluctuated during Tammany's "reign", gave The New York Times evidence of embezzlement in light of the Protestant-Catholic riot that ensued on parade day. The newspaper was reportedly offered $5 million to not publish the evidence. In a subsequent interview, Tweed's only reply was, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" Accounts in The New York Times and political cartoons drawn by Thomas Nast and published in Harper's Weekly resulted in the election of numerous opposition candidates in 1871. Regarding Nast's cartoons, Tweed reportedly said, "Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!
In October 1872, Tweed was arraigned and held on $8 million bail. The efforts of political reformers William H. Wickham (1875 New York City mayor) and Samuel J. Tilden (later the 1876 Democratic presidential nominee) resulted in Tweed's trial and conviction in 1873. Tweed was given a 12-year prison sentence, which was reduced by a higher court and he served one year. He was then re-arrested on civil charges, sued by New York State for $6 million and held in debtor's prison until he could post $3 million as bail. On January 3, 1875, Tweed escaped and fled to Cuba.
His presence in Cuba was discovered by the U.S. government, and he was held by the Cuban government. But before the U.S. government could arrange for his extradition, Tweed bribed his way onto a ship to Spain. The U.S. government discovered his eventual destination of Spain and arranged for his arrest as soon as he reached the Spanish border. He was delivered to authorities in New York City on November 23, 1876, and was returned to prison.
In studies of Tweed and the Tammany Hall organization, historians have emphasized the thievery and conspiratorial nature of Boss Tweed along the Upper West Side, and securing land for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Certain aspects of Tammany Hall's activities (aid to the sick and unemployed, advocacy for tenants and workers) foreshadowed later developments in the U.S. labor movement and Social Security.