Vol. 2,  No. 9          Mar. 1, 2005

Nevada's Online State News Journal



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Related Feature: Donald A. Ritchie, Political Cartoons and Caricatures (US Library of Congress, 26 MB pdf file)


The Tammany Hall Corruption Cartoons of Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was one of the most talented cartoonists of the Nineteenth Century.  Starting 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's drawings helped create an alliance of local reform groups who worked for three years to expose the corrupt practices of the Tammany Hall machine.  In 1871 outraged New York City voters ousted almost all of the politicians associated with Tammany Hall, and Nast continued 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 viewing.  Not only are the cartoons exceptional works of art and conceptual ingenuity, but the corrupt methods depicted in the cartoons are still being used more than 130 years later.  These cartoons are reproduced from Albert Bigelow Paine's work Th. Nast, His Period and His Pictures, The MacMillan Company, New York & London: 1904.  To see a larger version of the cartoons, click on the blue-bordered "thumbnail" illustration.

In 1869 New York City was under the control of William Marcy Tweed (1823-1878.  Tweed, a chair-maker and popular volunteer fireman, began his career in politics when he unsuccessfully ran for New York City assistant alderman in 1850.  He ran again in 1851, and was elected.  In 1852 he was elected to the US Congress. When Tweed was defeated in his bid for re-election he then became a leader (Sachem) of Tammany Hall, a social organization which was highly influential in the New York State Democratic Party.  In 1857 he became a member of the New York County Board of Supervisors and in 1868, while still holding that position, he was elected to the state senate. 

When Nast began his anti-corruption campaign in 1869, Tweed's principal allies were former New York City Mayor and then State Governor John T. Hoffman (1828-1888), New York City Mayor Abraham Oakey Hall (1826-1898) who was renamed "OK Haul" by Nast's cartoons, New York City Chamberlain Peter Barr Sweeny, and City Controller Richard B. "Slippery Dick" Connolly. Caricatures of these men appear frequently in Nast's anti-corruption cartoons.

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.  The Tammany politicians required bribes and kickback commitments as a pre-condition to awarding municipal contracts or nominate a candidate for office.  Beginning in 1867, Tweed began to turn Tammany Hall's practices into a unified system.  He increased Tammany's kickback requirement for granting state contracts from 10 to 35 percent.  The proceeds of these extortions were used to bribe other public officers and purchase votes, so these self-financing corrupt practices spread and became general throughout New York City.

Because Tammany support all but guaranteed success in an election, candidates for office had to pay and promise in order to run for office.  Once elected, the officials recouped their expenses by collecting bribes, kickbacks and illegal fees.  In 1866, before the Tammany system became institutionalized in New York City, the offices of County Sheriff and Clerk were reckoned to be worth $40,000 a year each.  The office of City Register was worth between $60,000 and $70,000 a year, based in part on the collection of illegal fees.  Tammany Hall also controlled the nomination and election of judges below the appellate court level.  Tammany based its judicial selections partly with a view to the amount that the candidates could “put up,” and partly with a view to their future decisions which might affect the political machine and its favorites

In 1868, the New York State Legislature passed the  “Adjusted Claims” act, giving the City Controller power to adjust claims then existing against the city, and to obtain money by the issue of bonds.  Payouts began in July, 1868, and continued to January, 1869. During this time, the Tammany Ring required claimants to pay them a kickback of 55 percent of each claim.  Of this, 25 percent went to Tweed, 20 percent to Connolly and 10 percent to Sweeny.  In July, 1869, Tammany increased the percentage of their take to 60 percent, and after November, 1869, to 65 percent.  When Tammany increased the kickback rate, they began giving 2 1/2 percent share each to the County Auditor, the clerk of the Board of Supervisors, and selected "go-betweens."

The situation was just as bad in the state capitol.  According to Gustavus Myers, in his History of Tammany Hall (1917):

"Tweed soon reached a position of general control in the State Legislature. But it cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Often he had to pay for what he wanted quite as heavily as did the corporations who maintained lobbies there. “It was impossible to do anything there without paying for it,” were his own words; “money had to be raised for the passing of bills.”  A well-known lobbyist of the time stated that for a favorable report on a certain bill before the Senate $5,000 apiece was paid to four members of the committee having it in charge. On the passage of the bill a further $5,000 apiece, with contingent expenses, was to be paid. In another instance, when but one vote was needed to pass a bill, three Republicans put their figures up to $25,000 each. One of them, it is needless to say, was secured. A band of about thirty Republicans and Democrats, shortly afterwards becoming known as the “Black Horse Cavalry,” organized themselves under the leadership of an energetic lobbyist, with a mutual pledge to vote as directed.  Naturally their action exercised a strong “ bull” influence on the market for votes; and the sums paid by Tweed and other “promoters” grew to an enormous aggregate.

"Honesty among legislators was at a discount. There were some honest men in both houses who voted for several of the bills alluded to, on their merits. The lobbyists entered these men in their memoranda to their corporations as having been “fixed,” put the money in their own pockets and allowed the honest members to suffer under the imputation of having been bribed. Any corporation, however extensive and comprehensive the privileges it asked, and however much oppression it sought to impose upon the people in the line of unjust grants, extortionate rates or monopoly, could convince the Legislature of the righteousness of its requests upon “producing” the proper sum. The testimony before the Select Committee of the New York Senate, appointed April 10, 1868, showed that at least $500,000 was expended to get legislation legalizing fraudulent Erie Railway stock issues."

In exchange for services rendered, the Erie Railroad company made Tweed a member of the corporate board of directors.  Tweed once bragged that this position netted him $650,000 every three months.

In 1870, Tweed took $1 million to the State Legislature and got that body to grant a new charter to the City of New York.  The charter abolished the State commissions which had "oversight" powers over municipal operations, and placed nearly all power in a Board of Special Audit, consisting of Tweed, City Controller Connolly and Mayor Hall. No money could be drawn from the city without the permission of this board, and the City Board of Aldermen was stripped of its supervisory powers.

That session of the legislature also passed the City and County Tax Levy bill of 1870.  Once these two bills were enacted, Tweed and his cronies began stealing on a massive scale.  On May 5, 1870, the New York City Board of Special Audit ordered payment of $6,312,500 for the costs of building the new County Court House, only 10 percent of which represented legitimate expenses. 

At the end of 1869, Tweed increased the 65 percent kickback rate on supplies to 85 percent, and began to ruthlessly exploit city contracts for every dollar which could be drained from them. As Gustavus Myers put it:  A" frequent practise of Tweed was to create on paper a fictitious institution, jot down three or four of his friends as officers, put a large amount for that institution in the tax levy and pocket the money.  Asylums, hospitals and dispensaries that were never heard of, and never existed except on paper, were put down as beneficiaries of State and city.  The thefts were concealed in the main by means of issues of stocks and bonds and the creation of a floating debt, which the Controller never let appear in his statements."

By 1870, the Tammany Ring extended its corrupt influence to the Republican Party in New York City, creating a bipartisan political machine.  Tammany control over contracts, taxes and voting made this step relatively easy.  The extension made Tammany's operations more difficult to detect, and served as a block against the formation of any opposition political movement.  The New York Times later charged that sixty-nine members of the Republican General Committee in New York were "stipendiaries" of Tweed and Sweeny.  One of the members was quoted as saying, “I go up to headquarters the first of every month and get a hundred dollars, but I don’t hold no office and don’t do no work.”

Even newspapers were corrupted under Tweed's system. According to Gustavus Myers:  " . . . it was in his tender providence over the newspapers that his greatest success in averting public clamor was shown.  Both in Albany and in this city he showered largess upon the press.  One paper at the Capital received, through his efforts, a legislative appropriation of $207,900 for one year’s printing, whereas $10,000 would have overpaid it for the service rendered.  The proprietor of an Albany journal which was for many years the Republican organ of the State, made it a practice to submit to Tweed’s personal censorship the most violently abusive articles.  On the payment of large sums, sometimes as much as $5,000, Tweed was permitted to make such alterations as he chose.  Here, in the city, the owner of one subservient newspaper received $80,000 a year for “city advertising,” and to some other newspapers large subsidies were paid in the same guise.  Under the head of “city contingencies,” reporters for the city newspapers, Democratic and Republican, received Christmas presents of $200 each.  This particular practice had begun before Tweed’s time, but in line with the expansive manner of the “ring,” the plan was elaborated by subsidizing six or eight men on nearly all the city newspapers, crediting each of them with $2,000 or $2,500 a year for “services.”     

With its massive revenues and control over elections, patronage and the courts, the Tammany machine soon became 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."

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.  One productive source of  putrchased votes was newly-arrived emigrants.  Tammany politicians and judges expedited their naturalization proceedings, and in return, an estimated 85% of them voted the Tammany ticket.  Observers estimated that, in the 1868 elections, at least one-sixth of the votes cast in New York City were fraudulent. 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 his estimated wealth, to maintain his personal popularity. From Gustavus Myers' History of Tammany Hall:

"Partly to quiet his conscience, it was suspected, and in part to make himself appear in the light of a generously impulsive man, Tweed gave, in the Winter of 1870-71, $1,000 to each of the Aldermen of the various wards to buy coal for the poor.  To the needy of his native ward he gave $50,000.  By these acts he succeeded in deluding the needier part of the population to the enormity of his crimes.  Abstractly, these beneficiaries of his bounty knew he had not amassed his millions by honest means.  But when, in the midst of a severe Winter, they were gladdened by presents of coal and provisions, they did not stop to moralize, but blessed the man who could be so good to them.  Even persons beyond the range of his bounty have hailed him as a great philanthropist;  and the expression, “Well, if Tweed stole, he was at least good to the poor,” is still repeated, and furnished, in its tacit exoneration, the prompting for like conduct, both thieving and giving, on the part of his successors."

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 fellow who has shoplifted a loaf of bread for his family.  Largely as the result of corruption, the municipal debt of New York City increased from about $86,000,000 in 1868 to over $186,000,000 at the close of 1870.

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. 

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.  A picture of New York Governor John T. Hoffman looks down on the scene.  Watson, the Tammany auditor who was supposed to "cook the books" on this job, was killed in a sleighing accident in December, 1870.  The New York County Bookkeeper, Stephen C. Lyons, Jr., succeeded Watson, and Matthew J. O’Rourke took Lyons' place as County Bookkeeper. 

O’Rourke was honest, and began to uncover evidence of the enormous robberies.  In the Summer of 1871, O’Rourke presented his evidence to the New York Times.  The editor of the New York Times reportedly refused an offer of $5 million from city comptroller "Slippery Dick" Connolly to suppress the information.  On July 8, 1871, the New York Times began publishing the documents in a series of daily articles.    

The reports 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 stories showed that over $10 million had been squandered in padded bills for County printing and for the construction and repair of the County Court House.  Tweed had purchased an obscure newspaper -- the Transcript -- and awarded the paper the city and county advertising contracts.  Tweed also owned the New York Printing Company, which did the city's printing jobs, and "claimed the custom of many persons and corporations whom he was in a position either to aid or injure."  The figures published by the New York Times showed that nearly $3 million had been spent on unnecessary county printing, stationery and advertising in 1869-1871.

The reaction of Tweed and his accomplices 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.  When asked about the revelations, Tweed responded, "What are you going to do about it?" 

The New York Times continued its series of reportsFurther 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.  The new courthouse, still in the middle phase of construction, had already cost $11 million dollars. The most generous appraisal estimated the value of the fully completed and furnished building at only $3 million.  The furnishing, repair and decoration of this building cost $7 million.  One plasterer had 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 received, over a two year period, $5.6 million “for supplying the County Court House with furniture and carpets.”  The Times demanded that the city administration produce its books to refute the allegations of gross overcharges.  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.  On reading of the revelations, Nast produced one of his best-known cartoons:

Reformers called for a mass meeting of concerned citizens, which was held held in Cooper Union, September 4, 1871.  Former New York City Mayor William F. Havemeyer presided over the meeting, at which 227 vice-presidents and 15 secretaries were chosen from many prominent citizens in the community.  The meeting adopted Resolutions stating that "the acknowledged funded and bonded debt of the city and county was upward of $113,000,000 — over $63,000,000 more than it was when Mayor Hall took office — and that there was reason to believe that there were floating, contingent or pretended debts and claims against the city and county which would amount to many more millions of dollars, and which would be paid out of the city treasury unless the fiscal officers were removed and their proceedings arrested."  The meeting further resolved to appoint an Executive Committee of Seventy, whose purpose was "to overthrow the “ring,” abolish abuses, secure better laws, and by united effort, without reference to party, obtain a good government and honest officers to administer it."

The Committee of Seventy demanded a thorough examination of the city accounts.  On Saturday, September 9, 1871, the Committee ordered Connolly to produce his vouchers on Monday.  On Monday morning, September 11, Connolly announced that the Controller’s office in City Hall had been broken into on the previous night and the 8,500 vouchers were all stolen from a glass case in which they had been kept.  Outraged reformers pointed out that the city had spent $400,000 to buy safes in which such records were to be stored. The charred remains of these vouchers were later discovered in an ash-heap in the City Hall attic.  The announcement of the theft produced the following cartoon from Nast.

Connolly's statement was received with public disbelief and outrage.  Mayor Hall demanded that City Controller Connolly resign.  Connolly refused, saying that such a step without impeachment and conviction on trial would be equal to a confession of guilt.  This nearly caused a riot on September 13, 1871, when unpaid city workers gathered outside Connolly's office and tried to force their way in.  In response, Nast drew a 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, Connolly's friends advised him to flee the country.  Instead, Connolly, fearing he was about to be made a scapegoat, decided to turn on his former cronies.  He appointed a very reputable citizen, Andrew H. Green, as his deputy City Controller and allowed Green and a sub-committee of the Committee of Seventy to examine the municipal accounts. 

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

In October the sub-committee reported their preliminary findings after examining the remaining City accounts: "that the debt of the city was doubling every two years;  that $3,200,000 had been paid for repairs on armories and drill rooms, the actual cost of which was less than $250,000;  that over $11,000,000 had been charged for outlays on the unfinished County Court House, the entire cost of building which, on an honest estimate, would be less than $3,000,000;  that safes, carpets, furniture, cabinet-work, painting, plumbing, gas and plastering, had cost $7,289,466, the real value of which was found to be only $624,180;  that $460,000 had been paid for $48,000 worth of lumber;  that the printing, advertising, stationery, etc., of the city and county had cost in two years and eight months, $7,168,212;  that a large number of persons were on the payrolls of the city whose services were neither rendered nor needed;  and that figures upon warrants and vouchers had been altered fraudulently and payments made repeatedly on forged endorsements."

The Committee of Seventy promptly obtained a court injunction blocking further payments from the city treasury by Connolly pending further results of the investigation.  The order was subsequently modified to allow necessary payments, but the New York City treasury had been so completely plundered that the City had to borrow nearly a million dollars from the banks to pay the claims.

The Committee of Seventy petitioned the New York County Grand Jury for the indictment of Mayor A. Oakey Hall.    Sensing the level of public  The Tammany Ring ordinarily "packed" the grand jury with their supporters to thwart attempts to prosecute them or their favorites, but when the public found out the presiding judge was forced to dismiss the current grand jury and empanel a new one. The second jury, however, did not indict the Mayor, reporting that there was a lack of conclusive evidence that Hall had committed any crimes.  The Committee of Seventy then successfully petitioned the New York Attorney General to appoint a group of four diligent and experienced special prosecutors to investigate the Tammany cases.  Tweed was arrested on October 26, 1871, and then freed 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 remained unexpired, the results were a resounding defeat for Tammany candidates.  Of the anti-Tammany candidates, all of the Judges, four of the five Senators, 15 of the 21 Assemblymen, and all but two of the Aldermen were elected, and a majority of the Assistant Aldermen had given pledges for reforms.  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.

On November 20, 1871, "Slippery Dick" Connolly resigned as Controller, and was replaced by Andrew H. Green.  Connolly was arrested five days later, and held on $1 million bail, which he was unable to post until January of 1872.  Once he was released, Connolly promptly fled to Europe. 

On December 16, 1871, Tweed was indicted on felony charges and arrested, but while he was being taken to the Tombs prison a Tammany judge issued a writ of habeas corpus, and Tweed was released on only $5,000 bail.  

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 later indicted and put on trial for embezzlement, but got a "hung jury.".

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

Multiple indictments were returned against Tweed by New York grand juries, but at his first trial on January 30, 1873, he got a "hung jury" on the felony charges.  Scheduled for retrial, he fled to California, but against the advice of his friends, he voluntarily returned to New York City. 

On November 19, 1873, Tweed was convicted of 90 out of the 120 felony offenses charged against him.  He was sentenced to twelve years' imprisonment and a $12,000 fine, but after serving one year in prison Tweed's sentence was reduced by an appellate court to time served. 

In the two panel cartoon above, 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," marked with dollar and cent signs and renamed "Politics."  The eagle of justice is portrayed as a blindfolded chicken, and the horizontal line across the bench bears the label "Above This Line Criticism Stops."

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.  At Vigo, Spain, Tweed was recognized by this cartoon and extradited back to New York.  He died in the Ludlow Street Jail on April 12, 1878.

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


Related Feature: Donald A. Ritchie, Political Cartoons and Caricatures (US Library of Congress, 26 MB pdf file)