Boss Tweed Biography ID 21

To many late nineteenth century Americans, he personified public corruption. In the late 1860s, William M. Tweed was the New York City's political boss. His headquarters, located on East 14th Street, was known as Tammany Hall. He wore a diamond, orchestrated elections, controlled the city's mayor, and rewarded political supporters. His primary source of funds came from the bribes and kickbacks that he demanded in exchange of city contracts. The most notorious example of urban corruption was the construction of the New York County Courthouse, begun in 1861 on the site of a former almshouse.

Officially, the city wound up spending nearly $13 million - roughly $178 million in today's dollars - on a building that should have cost several times less. Its construction cost nearly twice as much as the purchase of Alaska in 1867.

The corruption was breathtaking in its breadth and baldness. A carpenter was paid $360,751 ($4.9 million) for one month's labor in a building with very little woodwork. A furniture contractor received $179,729 ($2.5 million) for three tables and 40 chairs. And the plasterer, A tammy functionary, Andrew J. Garvey, got $133,187 ($1.82 million) for two days' work; his business acumen earned him the sobriquet "The Prince of Plasterers." Tweed personally profited from a financial interest in a Massachusetts quarry that provided the courthouse's marble. When a committee investigated why it took so long to build the courthouse, it spent $7,718 (roughly $105,000 today) to print its report. The printing company was owned by Tweed.

In July 1871, two low-level city officials with a grudge against the Tweed Ring provided The New York Times with reams of documentation that detailed the corruption at the courthouse and other city projects. The newspaper published a string of articles. Those articles, coupled with the political cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly, created a national outcry, and soon Tweed and many of his cronies were facing criminal charges and political oblivion. Tweed died in prison in 1878.

The Tweed courthouse was not completed until 1880, two decades after ground was broken. By then, the courthouse had become a symbol of public corruption. "The whole atmosphere is corrupt," said a reformer from the time. "You look up at its ceilings and find gaudy decorations; you wonder which is the greatest, the vulgarity or the corruptness of the place."

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