The Tammany Hall Corruption Cartoons of Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was one of the most talented cartoonists of the Nineteenth Century.  Beginning in 1869, he began a series of cartoons in Harper's Weekly magazine attacking the Tammany Hall political machine which then ran New York City.  Nast and an alliance of local reform groups worked for three years to expose the corrupt practices of the Tammany Hall machine.  In 1871 outraged voters ousted almost all of the politicians associated with Tammany Hall, and Nast went on to produce cartoons on national and international politics for nearly 20 years.  Nast was later named US Consul in Guayaquil, Mexico, and died there in 1902.

Nast's cartoon campaign against Tammany Hall is well worth considering today.  Not only are the cartoons exceptional works of art and conceptual ingenuity, but the corrupt methods depicted in the cartoons have hardly changed after more than 130 years.  These cartoons are reproduced from Albert Bigelow Paine's work Th. Nast, His Period and His Pictures, The MacMillan Company, New York & London: 1904.

In 1869, when Nast began his cartoon campaign, New York City was under the control of William Marcy Tweed (1823-1878).  Tweed, a bookkeeper and volunteer fireman, began his career in politics when he was elected alderman in 1852.  He then was elected to Congress for one term as a member of the US House of Representatives.  He then became active in Tammany Hall, a social organization which was highly influential in the New York State Democratic Party.  Tammany Hall controlled both the Democratic nominations for office and the distribution of "patronage" -- jobs, contracts, etc. -- from Democrats who had been elected in the state.  In 1868, Tammany began to spread its influence to the Republican Party as well, creating a bipartisan political machine. 

This machine was extraordinarily powerful.  In an editorial published February 24, 1871, the New York Times commented: "There is absolutely nothing -- nothing in the city which is beyond the reach of the insatiable gang who have obtained possession of it.  They can get a grand jury dismissed at any time, and, as we have seen, the Legislature is completely at their disposal."

When Nast began his anti-corruption campaign in 1869, Tweed was a New York State Senator.  Tweed's principal allies were former New York City Mayor and then State Governor John T. Hoffman (1828-1888), New York City Mayor A. Oakey Hall (1826-1898; renamed "OK Haul" by Nast), New York City chamberlain Peter Sweeny, and city comptroller Richard B. "Slippery Dick" Connolly, caricatures of whom appear in many of the following cartoons.      

One of the bases of Tammany power in New York City was block voting, usually accompanied by various forms of fraud -- repeat voting, "graveyard votes," purchased votes, voter intimidation and corrupt counts.  When anyone complained about these practices, Tweed was brazen, and his characteristic response was "What are you going to do about it?" 

This cartoon contrasts police inactivity in countering the electoral fraud of the Tammany machine with police activity in voter intimidation.

"The Tammany Lords and Their Constituents:  The Bed of Roses and the Bed of Thorns."  After purchasing the votes necessary to stay in office, the Tammany politicians increased taxes, which of course were passed on in the form of increased costs to consumers.  The proceeds of the higher taxes were then wasted in "sweetheart contracts" for repairs and supposed improvements, which cost far more than if they had been granted in open bidding processes, "featherbedding" jobs for in-laws and favorites, etc.  This cartoon shows (at top) Connolly, Hall, Tweed and Sweeny in an impeccably manicured garden adorned with a statue of a golden calf, cavorting and drinking a toast to the voters.  The lower cartoon shows the constituents, hitting bottom from having to pay ruinous rent increases, being presented with a small part of the bill for Tammany corruption.  The mother, who did not have the right to vote in 1869, gets to hear that her mate's vote for Tammany nominees is the cause of her family's unenviable situation.   


In this cartoon, Nast shows Tweed and Sweeny taking bags of cash for themselves, while handing out small amounts to the public.  Tweed used well-publicized charitable gifts, amounting to a mere fraction of the estimated $30 million dollar loss to the City of New York, to maintain his personal popularity. This same technique is often employed today.

This Nast cartoon contrasts the treatment afforded to high and low-level thieves.  The high-level thieves (Hall, Connolly, Tweed and Sweeny) are saluted by the police as they walk out of the New York City Treasury, while police with nightsticks beat a low-level thief -- a man who has shoplifted a loaf of bread for his family.

This Nast cartoon, in which "Boss" Tweed's face has been replaced by a bulging moneybag but his signature $15,500 diamond stickpin is still in place, illustrates an eternal truism about corruption and political machines.

At the beginning of Nast's anti-corruption campaign, there were doubts about whether or not Tweed and his friends were "too big for the law."  This cartoon expresses those doubts, raising a question about political influence which is still valid today. 

As the campaign to oust Tweed and his cronies grew in strength, the New York Times published a series of articles based on the revelations of a county bookkeeper, which exposed a series of corrupt Tammany transactions.  In this Nast cartoon, Sweeny and Tweed are trying to figure out how to explain one of the transactions -- a crooked street construction contract -- while New York City Mayor A. Oakey Hall stands by with a broom to clean up after them.  Watson, the Tammany auditor who was supposed to "cook the books" on this job, was killed in a sleighing accident, leaving the task of covering up the gross irregularities to Tweed and Sweeny.

Of course, Tweed and his accomplices were not in any hurry to leave their lucrative positions, so their first reaction to the scandal and resulting public outcry was simply to try and "wait it out."  New York City Mayor A. Oakey Hall was quoted as saying:  "It will all blow over.  These gusts of reform are all wind and clatter.  Next year we shall be in Washington," believing that New York Governor and Tammany candidate John T. Hoffman would be elected President in 1872. 

In the spring of 1871, the Tammany machine seemed invincible.  However, things were about to change.  Two bookkeepers had collected evidence on corrupt overpayments on city contracting jobs.  The two bookkeepers turned the the information over to the editor of the New York Times, who refused an offer of $5 million from city comptroller "Slippery Dick" Connolly to suppress it.  On July 8, 1871, the New York Times began publishing the documents.  They showed that the city had been charged $85,000 to rent ten lofts, mostly located over old stables, and the city had been charged $463,064 for repairs on the rental.  The upper floor of Tammany Hall had been rented to the city for nine times its market value, and over a 9 month period, the city had been billed nearly a million dollars to repair ten "armories."  The Times demanded that the city administration produce its books to refute the allegations of gross overcharges.

Further articles showed the payment of millions of dollars from the city treasury with no tangible return.  A group of contractors, selected by the ring, had grossly overcharged the city for every sort of supply, purchase and repairs.  A new courthouse, still in the middling phases on construction, was found to have already cost $11 million dollars, when the most liberal appraisal put the value of the fully completed and furnished building at just $3 million.  A plasterer charged the City of New York $2.9 million over a nine month period of time, during which a comfortable daily working wage in the city was $3-$4.

One of the heavy beneficiaries of these municipal contracts was the firm of Ingersoll & Company, which is the subject of the next cartoon.  Ingersoll & Co. received payments of $5.6 million.  Conservative estimates of the loss to the City began at $30 million, and increased from there.  A subsequent study showed that when the vast issues of fraudulent bonds, underpayments of taxes by Tammany favorites, and corrupt franchises and favors were calculated, the loss to the city was at least $200 million over a period of thirty months.  

At this point, outraged citizens formed a "Committee of 70" to investigate the irregularities.  Faced with this crisis, Tweed, Sweeny and Hall decided Connolly would have to become the scapegoat.  Mayor Hall appointed the 8-man "Booth Committee" to undertake an official investigation.

 On Saturday, September 9, 1871, the Booth Committee ordered Connolly to produce his vouchers on Monday.  However, when it came time to produce the documents, Connolly announced that they had been stolen over the weekend.  This announcement produced the following cartoon from Nast.

Needless to say, Connolly's announcement was met with disbelief and outrage from the public.  Mayor Hall demanded that Connolly resign.  Connolly refused, saying in essence that the Mayor was as implicated as he was.  In the meantime, a court injunction blocking further payments from the city treasury by Connolly pending the results of the investigation nearly caused a riot on September 13, 1871.  Unpaid city workers gathered outside Connolly's office and tried to force their way in, resulting in this Nast cartoon showing the New York City Treasury emptied, with only municipal debts remaining for ordinary citizens to pay, while Connolly, Tweed, Sweeny and Hall drink champagne from a Tammany cooler and enjoy a bounteous, multi-course repast.


By this point, the reputable newspapers in the city were demanding that something be done.  The next cartoon, published October 1, 1871, shows how Nast felt about the subject.

After the near riot on September 13, 1871, Connolly's friends advised him to flee the country.  Instead, Connolly decided to turn on his former cronies.  He resigned his position as city comptroller, under promise of protection, and began to cooperate with the investigation.

These events brought about a general outcry against Tweed, Hall, Sweeny and other corruptionists, who started accusing others around them of being the main culprits.  The above cartoon was published on October 7, 1871, with the election only a month away.

The Booth Committee then issued a damning report on the extent of the corruption, showing multi-million dollar profits for Tweed and his friends.  Tweed was arrested, but promptly released on $1 million bail.

On account of the public outrage over the corrupt condition of New York City, dissention in the two political parties increased as well.  This cartoon, published the week immediately preceding the 1871 election, shows Tweed at the reins, trying to lash his bipartisan machine into line, while Hall and Sweeny ride in the back of the coach.

Two days before the election, Harper's Weekly published this double-page masterpiece.  Justice is already dead in this cartoon, which depicts the Tammany Tiger mauling the republic in a Roman Empire style public arena.  A shattered ballot box lies broken on the sand, while Sweeny, Tweed (as Caesar), Connolly, Hall, and the directors of the Erie Railroad Company look on.


Public attention thwarted the plans of the Tammany Ring to steal the election.  While Tweed was re-elected State Senator by his district and Mayor Hall's term was unexpired, the results were a resounding defeat for Tammany candidates.  The following two Nast cartoons appeared in Harper's Weekly immediately after the election.

Hall remained in office and served out his term as Mayor.  As Hall's term was about to expire, Nast published this cartoon, depicting him as the "Last Thorn of Summer":

There still remained the matter of criminal prosecutions against the remaining members of Tweed's Ring..  These prosecutions are the subject of the remaining Nast cartoons.  


During the inquiry into the corrupt transactions, there was a question as to whether the real culprits would ever be found.  In this cartoon, Nast shows blindfolded justice stumbling over an obstacle (labeled "Tricks of Law") as she tries to lay hands on Sweeny and Tweed.  In the background lurk members of the Erie Railroad ring and the Canal ring, the latter of which has a paper captioned "Verdict of the Jury" stuffed into his pants.

Shortly after the election, "Slippery Dick" Connolly was jailed.  He was subsequently released on bail in January, 1872, at which time he promptly fled to Europe.  City chamberlain Peter Sweeny resigned from office, declaring that his official duties henceforth would consist solely in the act of voting.  He and his brother both left the country and moved to France.  In 1877 Sweeny repaid $400,000 to the City of New York, claiming that his brother, who had since died, had the money all along.

Former New York City Mayor A. Oakey Hall was put on trial for embezzlement, but a jury acquitted him.       

In this cartoon, Nast depicts a scene which today's viewers may recognize:  A fox, depicted here as a well-dressed attorney, gets his client off by distracting the jurors (the geese) by throwing dust into their eyes.

Multiple indictments were returned against Tweed by New York grand juries, but in his first trial, he was acquitted on felony charges and only convicted of a misdemeanor.  At that point, Nast began drawing Tweed in a striped prison suit.  In this two panel cartoon, the first illustration shows the hound of justice entangled in red tape and tripping over law books, one of which is titled "Contempt of Court," while trying to get at evidence.  In the second panel, Tweed with a $6 million bag of cash is sitting atop the overturned "bench of justice," renamed "Politics." 

Tweed was placed on trial a second time and convicted of felony offenses.  He was sentenced to twelve years' imprisonment, but the sentence was reduced by an appellate court and he only served one year.


Tweed attempted to make a political comeback, depicted below.  However, he was again arrested on other charges stemming from his plundering of the New York City Treasury.  Released on $3 million bail, he fled the country.  While abroad, Tweed was recognized by this cartoon and extraidited back to New York.  He died in prison in 1878.  

That left only the job of trying to reform New York City's politics -- a job which is still going on today.