Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

13 Facts About Boss Tweed

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Few men are as synonymous with political corruption as William Magear Tweed—“Boss Tweed” as most knew him. The “Grand Sachem” of New York City’s Democratic political machine, Tammany Hall, effectively ran Gotham during the late 1860s and early 1870s, treating its coffers as his personal bank account and its leaders as his errand boys. But his decadent ambitions earned him plenty of enemies, and eventually proved his undoing. Here are a few tidbits about the Boss and some of his more egregious activities.


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Tweed was initially groomed to go into his father’s business as a chair-maker, before going to school for accounting (learning skills that no doubt proved helpful when he was cooking the city budget). But he found his true calling upon joining the volunteer fire company, where he would help form Americus Engine Company No. 6. It was in this world that he learned how to develop alliances and work the system, developing strong-arm tactics to ensure that his engine was the first that made it to a fire. His competitiveness led him to come close to being expelled from the firefighters—but by bribing the right people, he reduced his life sentence to a three-month suspension. All of these skills, and the working class associates he made, helped stoke his interest in politics. It’s appropriate that Engine 6's snarling tiger logo would become the symbol of Tammany. 


One of Tweed's earliest political moves was to help protect the life of a mayor from a different party. During the draft riots of 1863, while Tweed was deputy street commissioner, many of the city’s poor and Irish (Tammany’s core constituency) took to the streets in violent protest against the conscription law that required they pay $300 or die on the battlefield for the Union. Tweed took on the role of peacemaker, urging calm, and was one of those who informed Republican mayor George Opdyke that City Hall was not safe, convincing him to go somewhere he could avoid the anti-draft violence. Never one to miss an opportunity, Tweed leveraged the goodwill he earned for tamping down the riots into a deal that allowed many of the poor to avoid fighting, and paid the $300 conscription exemption cost for others—earning him a major political victory over the Republicans.


Tweed and his cronies stole somewhere between $30 million and $200 million from the city ($365 million to $2.4 billion today). During his glory days, Tweed was the third-largest landowner in New York City, with a mansion on Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street (with a horse stable nearby), a Greenwich estate, and two yachts.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While he is most famous for his position as Grand Sachem (or “Boss”) of Tammany Hall, Tweed used his influence and skill with handing out political favors to land a wide range of titles. He served terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and the New York State Senate, and had himself appointed deputy street commissioner of New York City. He served as director of the Erie Railroad, proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel, and director of the Tenth National Bank. He bought the New-York Printing Company and Manufacturing Stationers’ Company, then saw that they were made the city’s official printer and stationery printer, respectively (and that they overcharged for their services).


Despite never studying as an attorney, Tweed was certified as a lawyer by his friend George Barnard. Opening a law office, he was then able to charge exorbitant fees to individuals and companies seeking his influence, under the catchall “legal services.”


In 1871, Tammany pushed to build a bronze statue in Manhattan in Tweed’s honor (although the project was originally suggested as a spoof by journalists). While this may have seemed perfectly reasonable to Tweed, the press was not so enthusiastic. “Has Tweed gone mad, that he thus challenges public attention to his life and acts?” the Evening Post wrote. Sensing that a statue might be a step too far, Tweed suggested to those behind the campaign: “Statues are not erected to living men … I claim to be a live man, and hope (Divine Providence permitting) to survive in all my vigor, politically and physically, for some years to come.” The plans were scrapped. 


One of Tweed’s greatest skills was getting the men he selected into positions of power. From running the Tammany Hall general committee (which controlled the Democratic Party’s nominations for all city positions) early in his political career, to seeing that former New York City mayor and Tweed protégé John T. Hoffman ascended to the state governorship, Tweed made sure that power and profits were distributed widely among his friends. But while his favors almost always served his own selfish purposes, they could also help the city’s people—if at the expense of the city itself. “Because of Tweed, New York got better, even for the poor,” author and journalist Pete Hamill grants


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Tweed’s most famous accessory may be the huge 10.5-carat diamond stickpin he wore on his shirt front. The gifts one of his daughters received on her wedding day were reported to be worth $14 million in today’s dollars. He feasted on duck, oysters, tenderloin, and excessive amounts of food, as his significant waistline could attest. But he didn’t smoke and barely drank—though he kept plenty of cigars and whisky on hand for any visiting friends. 


Tweed made plenty of enemies, but perhaps his toughest was Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast. The German immigrant vividly conveyed the city’s corruption with images of a bloated Tweed, replacing his head with a bag of money in one famous depiction, and using the snarling visual of a tiger (from Tweed’s own Engine No. 6 mascot) to represent the predatory Tammany Hall.

Tweed recognized the power and danger that Nast’s widely seen illustrations presented: "My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!" As he did with so many others, Tweed attempted to pay for Nast’s acquiescence, sending a crony (pretending to a representative for a European benefactor interested in studying art) to the illustrator’s house with a promise of $500,000—if he would just move to Europe for the foreseeable future. But Nast refused to be bribed, and the attempt only fueled his unkind cartoons, which fueled public outrage about Tweed's acts. 


In 1871, following a devastating series of articles in The New York Times about the corruption in city government, sheriff (and Tammany man) Matthew Brennan placed Tweed under arrest, just a week before voters went to the polls to decide the Boss’s State Senate seat. Brennan quietly accepted a $1 million bond for Tweed’s bail and moved on, and the Grand Sachem defeated his rival days later. 


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In 1873, reform lawyer Samuel J. Tilden convicted Tweed on charges of larceny and forgery, though he was released two years later. He was quickly re-arrested on civil charges, convicted and imprisoned again (since he could not pay the $6.3 million he was judged to owe for his crimes). But life in jail did not suit Tweed, and during one of the home visits he was granted by authorities, he escaped to Cuba, then Spain, working as a seaman for two years before he was spotted by an American who—adding insult to custody—recognized him from Nast's cartoons. He was captured and sent back to the U.S.  


Desperate to get out of prison after his third apprehension, Tweed struck a deal with the state attorney general to confess all he had done, if it would mean release. He revealed all of his crimes (or at least as many as he could remember) in 1877, only to have the lawman back out of his agreement (the attorney general did, after all, work for New York’s governor and Tweed’s old foe Samuel Tilden).


While in prison, Tweed contracted severe pneumonia and died in 1878, reportedly worth not much more than $2,500. It was an ignoble end, and New York City Mayor Smith Ely refused to fly the City Hall flag at half-staff. His daughter was determined to keep the funeral “private and unostentatious,” allowing only close friends and family—with much of his family not even able to make the funeral (his wife and another daughter lived in Paris as invalids and two sons were in Europe). His body was encased in an ice box for funeral services. But despite these efforts to keep Tweed’s passing quiet, large crowds turned out in front of his daughter’s house for the funeral. Even the Times, critical to Tweed’s downfall, reported that “Some were of the opinion that his punishment had been harder than he deserved.”

Bonus Fact: This "Bourbon Ballad" about him is the best:

There was Tweed;
Under his rule the ballot-box was freed!
Six times as big a vote he could record
As there were people living in the ward!

Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol

Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.


While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.


But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.


Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”


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