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The House That Tweed Built

July 2024
13min read

Today among the soaring buildings of lower Manhattan huddles a shabby, squat pile of Massachusetts marble. It is the old New York County courthouse, a forlorn little building just three stories high. Only a few offices within its dirty gray walls are still used. There is nothing about this grotesque relic to suggest a raucous past or a grand scandal. But in its old rooms and along its corridors there is, for the knowledgeable, a roar of history as loud as the sound of the sea in shells.

The courthouse was designed with great expectations. It was to be a heroic example of Renaissance architecture. But by the time the Tweed Ring finished with the building, it was heroic only in the amount of money spent on it, enough money, according to one reformer, to build sixteen courthouses. It cost more than the Erie Canal, said the New York Times. These and other complaints indicate the impact of one of the most brazen and grandiose feats of graft in American municipal history. The house that Tweed built was the Boss’s legacy to New York, an Acropolis of graft, a shrine to boodle.

William Marcy Tweed looked like something that God had hacked out with a dull axe. His craggy hulk weighed nearly three hundred pounds. Everything about him was big: his brood of eight children; his fists; his shoulders; his head, with its reddish-brown hair carved into a mustache and beard; his eyes, foxy or “gritty,” as the reformers called them; his diamond, which glittered like a planet in his shirt front; and, finally, his nose. “His nose is half-Brougham, half-Roman,” said one observer, “and a man with a nose of that sort is not a man to be trifled with.”

Born in New York in 1823, the son of a chairmaker, Tweed began his rise to ill fame in 1851 when he was elected an alderman and became the leader of a corrupt, predatory band of aldermen and assistant aldermen, aptly called the Forty Thieves. After two singularly undistinguished years as a congressman in the mid-fifties, Tweed began a ten-year struggle for power that resulted in making him the first man to bear the title of Boss of New York.

In these years he clawed his way upward until he became both the Grand Sachem of Tammany and the chairman of the powerful New York County Democratic central committee. His growing power was soon felt within the New York city government, and he collected sinecures—school commissioner, deputy street commissioner, supervisor—as a gunslinger would add notches to his gun.

By 1866 Boss Tweed was on the threshold of being the greatest political force in New York. In the same year he formed his notorious Ring by joining forces with three capital rogues: the district attorney, Abraham Oakey Hall, who was to serve as mayor from 1868 to 1872; Peter Barr Sweeny, a lobbyist and ex-district attorney whom Tweed made city chamberlain; and a man later to be city comptroller, Richard Connolly. For the next five years the Tweed Ring smothered New York in its political embrace. Like an invading Attila, Tweed stormed the four fortresses of power in New York State: City Hall, Tammany Hall, the Hall of Justice, and the Capitol in Albany. There were soon 12,000 Tammany men placed in key city jobs. From Tweed’s Town—the lower part of New York, embracing Hell’s Kitchen, Satan’s Circus, the Bowery, Cat Alley, Cockroach Row, and the Five Points, with its spidery streets choked with garbage and the poor--came the votes of the floods of immigrants, in return for the Boss’s bounty of jobs and food. And on election day Tammany braves of the “shiny-hat brigade,” as they styled themselves, swooped down on election booths, early and often, their war whoops enlivened by firewater, to return to the wigwam that night with fresh political scalps. This political machine was run on strings of “wampum,” as the Ring picturesquely called hard cash, and one of the main sources of this much-needed wampum turned out to be the new county courthouse building.

The house that Tweed built was actually begun years before the Ring was formed. In 1858, the distinguished architect John Kellum, who had designed the New York Herald building, completed the plans for the new courthouse amidst a great burst of civic pride. Here was to be a Renaissance marvel proclaiming the greatness of New York and the sanctity of the law. Except for providing a site in City Hall Park, little was done until 1862, when, by no coincidence, William Tweed became president of the Board of Supervisors. There had been a wrangle over who should appropriate funds for the new building, the state’s Board of Commissioners or the city’s Board of Supervisors. Tweed tipped the scale in favor of making the city pay the bill, and suddenly appropriations became brisk.

The enactment law of 1858 stated specifically that the building, with all its furnishings, should not cost more than $250,000. But this was hardly enough, Tweed argued, to build a fitting tribute to the city and to the law. The Board of Supervisors agreed, and $1,000,000 more was authorized. In 1864 an additional $800,000 was granted. But even this was not enough. In 1865, $300,000 more was appropriated, yet the very next year still more money was needed, and Tweed lobbied successfully for an additional $300,000.

When a further half-million dollars was granted in 1866, a reform group sniffed the pungent odor of corruption. It seemed a bit odd that $3,150,000 of the taxpayers’ money had been spent but that the courthouse still was not finished, except for one corner occupied by the court of appeals. The reformers indignantly demanded an investigation. The officials of the city and county of New York were obliging, but their feelings were somewhat ruffled. They pointed out that the Board of Supervisors had already set up a committee to investigate the courthouse contracts. Nevertheless, to serve justice, they established another committee, christening it the Special Committee to Investigate the Courthouse. This committee was to investigate the investigating committee set up by the Board of Supervisors that was investigating the courthouse. The Special Committee took a remarkably short time to declare that the investigating committee, the contracts, and everything else about the courthouse were free from fraud.

The tempo of appropriations for the courthouse increased as the Tweed Ring expanded its power. Boss Tweed demonstrated his unchallenged authority over the state legislature by having it contribute a large amount of money to the courthouse, and he completed a one-two punch by persuading the city at the same time to donate $6,997,893.24 more. “Just imagine,” said a newspaper, “the untiring industry, the wear and tear of muscle, the anxiety of mind, the weary days and sleepless nights, that it must have cost the ‘Boss’ to procure all these sums of money.” Thus, from 1858 to 1871, more than thirteen million dollars had been spent on the new courthouse.

When, in 1871, New Yorkers finally realized that their courthouse had been a gold mine of graft, one of the first questions asked was how this incredible swindle had been perpetrated. Such a colossal steal, it seemed, could be engineered only by a complicated and subtle stratagem. What astonished, angered, and perhaps embarrassed New Yorkers was the revelation that the Ring, confident of its power and contemptuous of detection, had employed such brazen tactics.

The scheme hinged upon each member of the Ring playing a role tailored to his particular talents and office. Boss Tweed’s role was to operate exclusively in the area of top-level decision-making and to exercise his considerable charm—always enhanced by a bulging pocketbook—among his acquaintances in the New York City and State governments. To assist him in the gentle art of political persuasion, Tweed, like most successful executives, had a resourceful and imaginative aide. Peter Barr Sweeny, the city chamberlain. Dark, brooding, mysterious, Sweeny seemed to some to be more shadow than man. Heavy-set, with a jet-black walrus mustache and a large head covered with a mass of thick black hair, he always wore black clothes and a highcrowned black hat. Sweeny, a behind-the-scenes manipulator, was painfully shy in public. In 1857, as district attorney, he broke down in his first speech before a jury and was so humiliated that he resigned and fled to Europe. His forte was to operate as Tweed’s alter ego in party caucuses, private offices, and hotel corridors. This reputation for stealthy astuteness won him many nicknames—Brains Sweeny, Sly Sweeny, Spider Sweeny—but his friends called him Squire. It was Tweed and Sweeny who made all the initial arrangements between the Ring and the hand-picked courthouse contractors.

The third major figure in the operation was the city comptroller, Richard Connolly. His tall stovepipe hat, gold-rimmed spectacles, stately nose, clean-shaven face, and plump belly gave him a distinguished appearance, and he was called the Big Judge by his cronies. Connolly artfully feigned an innocence that led the uninitiated to think of him as a mere child in the game of politics. But the nickname given him by the reformers, Slippery Dick, was proved accurate when in 1871 he was shown to be worth six million dollars, although his salary had been only $3,600 in 1857. It was Connolly’s job as the Ring’s bookkeeper and financial expert to supervise the assault on the soft underbelly of the city treasury. After the contractors submitted the bills for their work, Connolly made certain that the Ring received sixty-five per cent of the amount due as its commission, with the remaining thirty-five per cent going to the contractors. He then drew up payments, or warrants, drawn from the city treasury, approved them as city comptroller, and turned them over to Boss Tweed, who in turn “persuaded” the Board of Supervisors to give its official approval to the warrants. The operation reached its final stage when the padded warrants were placed on the desk of the colorful “Elegant Oakey” Hall, the mayor of New York.

Abraham Oakey Hall, a nervous, sparkling little man who had a pool-shark’s touch with the electorate, delighted New York with his purple rhetoric and his gaudy elegance. He was a politician, playwright (the heart-toaster, Let Me Kiss Him for His Mother , was one of his plays enjoyed by New York theatregoers), journalist, lawyer, poet, clubman, lecturer, humorist, and humbug. Oakey Hall had only one defect as mayor, one newspaper commented, “a lack of ability.” But there was one talent Hall did not lack: he could write his name. When, as the highest city officer, he signed the inflated warrants, the deed was done.

In this fashion, so crude and yet so straightforward, the taxpayers of New York were fleeced of thirteen million dollars. What made the building of the county courthouse a classic in the annals of American graft was the way in which money was spent. As the reformer Robert Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt’s uncle) put it, the bills rendered by the Tweed contractors were not merely monstrous, “they [were] manifestly fabulous.” For just three tables and forty chairs, for example, the city paid $179,729.60. Roscoe Conkling, the Republican senator from New York, complained that the money spent for furnishings was nearly three times as much as it cost the Grant administration to run the entire United States diplomatic corps for two years—and if one recalls the Grant administration, this was quite a feat. Conkling was referring to the cost of furniture, carpets, and shades supplied by a firm headed by an old boyhood chum of Boss Tweed’s, James Ingersoll. The amount spent on these items was “the rather startling sum” of $5,691,144.26. Fascinated by the bill for $350,000 for carpets alone, the New York Times asked Ingersoll for an explanation. “There is one thing you people down in the Times don’t seem to take into account,” was the angry reply. “The carpets in these public buildings need to be changed a great deal oftener than in private houses.” Even after this explanation the Times concluded that the city had been overcharged $336,821.31.

John Keyser, the plumbing contractor for the building, set a record to be envied even by his highly paid colleagues of today. He received nearly a million and a half dollars for “plumbing and gas light fixtures.” It was estimated that in one year alone, Keyser made over a million dollars. Compared to Ingersoll and Keyser, Tweed’s carpenter, “Lucky” George Miller, submitted puny bills. Lumber estimated to be worth not more than $48,000 cost the city only $460,000. As for the building’s marble, it was supplied by a quarry owned by the Boss. The New York Times , always a pesky critic of Tweed, claimed it cost more to quarry the marble than it had cost to build the entire courthouse in Brooklyn.


The prices for safes and awnings suggested an obsession with security and shade. J. McBride Davidson, who maintained a private bar in his office for select politicians, charged over $400,000 for safes. James W. Smith charged $150 apiece for 160 awnings. Considering this, plus the charge for carpentry, a newspaper calculated that each courthouse window cost an astounding $8,000. Smith defended himself by saying that his bill for awnings included taking them down in the fall, putting them up again in the spring, and repairing them. Another manufacturer said that the awnings were worth not more than $12.50 apiece.

When a person is building a house he does not usually expect to receive a huge bill for repairs before the structure is completed. Yet the house that Tweed built cost the taxpayers of New York nearly two million dollars in repairs before it was finished. Here Andrew Garvey, a 240-pound ex-fireman, set a record which won for him the title “Prince of Plasterers.” In one year Garvey charged the city $500,000 for plastering, and $1,000,000 for repairing the same work. His bill for the three-year plastering job in a supposedly marble building was $2,870,464.06—the Times suggested the six cents be donated to charity—and of this, $1,294,684.13 went for repairs! If Garvey was a prince, Tweed’s carpenter rated at least an earldom. For “repairing and altering wood work,” Lucky George was paid nearly $800,000. Compared to his colleagues, however, John Keyser was only a knight in tarnished armor. He received merely $51,481.74 for repairing his plumbing and lighting fixtures.

For all the shocking display of gluttony, there was sprinkled throughout the Ring’s secret account books evidence of good humor, a certain dash, a feeling that here were men who really enjoyed their work. For example, a check was drawn to the order of Fillippo Donnoruma for $66,000. It was endorsed by “Phillip Dummy.” Another check, for $64,000, was made out to “T. C. Cash.” And wedged in among columns of massive figures was this tiny masterpiece of understatement: “Brooms, etc. … $41,190.95.”

Then there was the charge for thermometers, which must be described as flippant. Tweed bought eleven thermometers for the new courthouse, each five feet long and one foot wide and encased in a gaudily carved frame. The faces were made of inexpensive paper, highly varnished and badly painted. Everything about them was cheap. The cost of the eleven thermometers was exactly $7,500. A reporter asked a reputable thermometer manufacturer how many thermometers he could supply for this amount. “For $7,500,” he said, “I could line the courthouse.” The New York Printing Company’s charge of $186,495.61 for stationery was unique. It included the printing of all the reams of contractors’ bills as well as the repair bills.

When the Tweed Ring was exposed in 1871, it became a favorite pastime to calculate how far, placed end to end, the furnishings and materials charged to the city for the courthouse would reach. One newspaper reckoned that there was carpeting enough to reach from New York almost to New Haven, or halfway to Albany. Another wag estimated that since Ingersoll was paid $170,729.60 for chairs alone, if each cost $5, the city had bought 34,145 chairs. Now if they were placed in a straight line, they would reach 85,363 feet, or nearly eighteen miles. What would happen, asked the New York Times, if the sum spent for cabinet work and furniture were spent in furnishing private houses? Allowing $10,000 per house, the paper estimated, it would furnish nearly 3,000 houses.

The revelations of the cost of the building inspired several New Yorkers to visit their new courthouse. Although they realized that corruption had been at work, they expected to see some kind of magnificence for their thirteen million dollars. Instead they found an unfinished waste of masonry—gloomy rooms, dark halls, and ugly, fake marble walls—resembling more an ancient tenement than a new public building. In 1871, after thirteen years of construction work, not all of the floors were occupied. One of the largest rooms, the Bureau of Arrears of Taxes, had no roof. The county clerk’s office, sheriff’s office, and office of the surrogate were not carpeted but were covered with oilcloth and grimy matting. The walls were filthy, and in many places large chunks of plaster had peeled off, leaving ugly blotches—a fitting tribute to the Prince of Plasterer’s repair bills. One visitor counted 164 windows and shuddered at the cost of awnings and curtains, many of which had not yet been delivered. When the prominent reformer George C. Barrett made his pilgrimage, he came away shocked. His impression left no doubt that the city must long endure a reminder of the most audacious swindle in its history. “It might be considered,” he said, “that the cornerstone of the temple was conceived in sin, and its dome, if ever finished, will be glazed all over with iniquity. The whole atmosphere was corrupt. You look up at its ceilings and find gaudy decorations; you wonder which is the greatest, the vulgarity or the corruptness of the place.” As a final irony, the grand dome which had been planned to crown the county’s temple of justice was never completed.

Boss Tweed and his friends reached the zenith of their power in July, 1871. On July 4, Tammany wildly celebrated the glories of Independence Day and the beneficent leadership of Grand Sachem William Marcy Tweed. Four days later came the beginning of the end. The New York Times, leading one of the greatest crusades against civic corruption in American history, began publishing the facts and figures on the Ring’s adventures in graft. The Times was aided by Harper’s Weekly with its acerbic cartoons by Thomas Nast, who drew the courthouse with “Thou Shalt Steal As Much As Thou Canst” over its portal. The evidence was turned over to the newspaper by an unhappy Tammany warrior, ex-Sheriff James O’Brien. Furious because Tweed had not paid a fraudulent claim he had made against the city, O’Brien had hired a spy in Connolly’s office to copy entries out of the Ring’s secret account books.

While it was estimated that the Ring in all its various operations had stolen anywhere from twenty million to two hundred million dollars from the city and state, it was the courthouse that captured New York’s attention and ignited its wrath. At first the Boss had magnificent poise. “Well,” he said, “what are you going to do about it?” And Mayor Hall—or “Mayor Haul,” as Nast labelled him—quipped, “Who’s going to sue?” But as the Times, day by day, week by week, revealed the enormity of the courthouse scandal—the plaster, the carpets, the repair bills, the thermometers —the Forty Thieves panicked and Oakey Hall became a prophet: “We are likely to have what befell Adam,” he said, “an early Fall.” Tweed tried to bribe the Times into silence and failed, while Nast refused an offer of $500,000 to study art abroad rather than corruption at home. The Boss said of Thomas Nast, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.” By the fall of 1871, the Ring was on the threshold of collapse. As new evidence of wrongdoing accumulated, a mass meeting of outraged New Yorkers was held at Cooper Union and a committee of seventy leading citizens was organized to bring about the fall of Tweed. Under the leadership of Samuel J. Tilden, who later became governor of New York and the Democratic nominee for President in 1876, a civil suit to recover the stolen money was brought against the Ring’s leaders. In the November, 1871, election, one of the most exciting in New York history, the Ring was smashed when Tammany was crushed at the polls. New York now awaited expectantly the trials of all the culprits who had so boldly picked the civic purse, but the city was to be denied that satisfaction.

When Tweed was arrested in December, Connolly, Sweeny, and most of the other leading members of the Ring fled to Europe or to Canada and were never punished. Connolly wandered about Europe and died there, a man without a country, while Sweeny returned to New York in the eighteen eighties and lived out his years there in quiet respectability. One who did not flee was Mayor Oakey Hall. At his trial it was asked how the Mayor could have signed hundreds of padded courthouse warrants and not been aware of it. His attorney explained that the Elegant Oakey had “an ineradicable aversion to details.” Hall was acquitted.

Only the Boss paid a price, a small price considering the crime. Tweed spent less than half his remaining years—from his downfall in 1871 until his death in 1878—in jail. In 1873 he was sentenced to twelve years in prison for fraud, but the court of appeals reduced the sentence to a year on a legal technicality. After his release in 1875 Tweed was arrested as the result of action brought by the state of New York to recover six million dollars he was accused of having stolen. While in prison awaiting trial the Boss was often allowed to visit his home under guard. During one such visit, in December of 1875, Tweed escaped to Cuba and then to Spain, only to be recognized from a Nast caricature. He was returned to New York in November, 1876, and was confined to the Ludlow Street Jail to await trial. He died there on April 12, 1878, at the age of fifty-five.

In the years after Tweed’s death the horrendous scandals of his Ring softened into just another memory of old New York, but one which Tweed had made certain would not be forgotten. The shabby little building in City Hall Park, the house that Tweed built, was as unforgettable a memorial as a statue in Times Square. And Tweed had provided his own epitaph. When he arrived at the Blackwell’s Island prison to begin his one-year sentence, the warden asked him what his profession was. The Boss, in a clear, strong voice, answered, “Statesman!”

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