The Tweed Ring was a small group of people lead by William Marcy “Boss” Tweed who briefly ruled the Gilded Age of New York, through Tammany Hall until the 1870’s. The Tweed Ring controlled New York City using fraud, bribery, and kickbacks to pocket massive amounts of New York’s budget, estimated to be between $40 million to $200 million (or $1.5 billion to $4 billion in todays money).

The Tweed Ring was largely made up of William Tweed, Peter B. Sweeney who was head of the Department of Parks, Comptroller Richard “Slippery Dick” Connolly, Mayor A. Oakey Hall, a few key judges and legislators and various contractors.

Tweed was elected to the board of supervisors of Tammany Hall, by 1860 Boss Tweed would become the head of the central committee, becoming the Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall a couple of months later. Around this time despite having no legal qualifications he became a lawyer and opened an office where he would collect legal fees, which were essentially just bribes and kickbacks.
Mayor Oakey Hall, known as “Elegant Oakey” was considered to be the worst of the Tweed Ring because of his high standing, education and open presidential ambitions. In November 1868 Hall was elected Mayor of New York City supported by Tammany Hall.
Richard B. Connolly or Slippery Dick Connolly was born Dunmanway, County Cork, Ireland and emigrated to the U.S in 1826. He was elected to be a member of the New York State Senate from 1860 to 1863. He was appointed New York City Comptroller in 1867, and became a member of the Tweed Ring. 
Peter Sweeny or known as ‘Brains’ Sweeny was a central figure in the Tweed Ring, Sweeny was the City Chamberlain and Park Commissioner and also the director of the Erie Railroad and Tenth National Bank, the same bank that the City deposits its funds. Sweeny would become one of the prime targets of Thomas Nast, along with Boss Tweed, they were known as “Tweeny and Sweed”
Together they controlled the appointments & nominations to every office in the city and had all of their people elected as mayor, governor and speaker of the state assembly. In 1870 they forced the passage of a new city charter, known as the “Tweed Charter” creating a Board of Audit by means of which he and his associates could control the city treasury.

Contractors that worked for the Tweed Ring, favorites, friends and family were told to multiply the amount of each bill by five, or ten, or a hundred, after which, with Mayor Hall’s ‘O. K.’ and Connolly’s endorsement, it was paid through a go-between who would bill the them for work not done or would overcharge for work they did, and the kickbacks would be divided between Tweed and his cronies.

Those companies, under city contracts, would also do substandard work that would soon require repair, which would then be done by other Tweed Ring-cronies.

One example of how the operation worked was during the construction of the New York State Courthouse, a project that ballooned to $13 Million (roughly $178 Million today). “A carpenter was paid $360,751 (roughly $4.9 million today) for one month’s labor, a plasterer received $133,187 ($1.82 million) for two days’ work”

According to Tweed biographer Kenneth D. Ackerman:

“their methods were curiously simple and primitive. There were no skilful manipulations of figures, making detection difficult … Connolly, as Controller, had charge of the books, and declined to show them. With his fellows, he also ‘controlled’ the courts and most of the bar.”

Although the Tweed Ring were lining their own pockets they did provided funding for the development of the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan, but even then they bought up chunks of land from City funds and sold it back at huge profits, while also lining their pockets from the contractors they handed contracts too. Tweed facilitated the founding of the New York Public Library and secured land for Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There were positive contributions made by Tweed and his cronies, even though their corruption overshadowed the positives. Tweed realized that in order to stay in power that he must look after his constituents, who were mainly poor, money he siphoned from the city treasury went to needy constituents who appreciated the free food at Christmas time and remembered it at the next election. As a politician he worked to expand welfare programs, especially those by private charities, schools, and hospitals, building more orphanages, almshouses and public baths. From 1869 to 1871 New York spent more on charities than for the entire period between 1852 to 1868 combined. Tweed also pushed through funding for a teachers college and prohibition of corporal punishment in schools, as well as salary increases for school teachers.

However, the Tweed Ring were eventually taken down because of investigative journalism by the New York Times and by the political cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly. Tweed reportedly said to Nast, “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!” That campaign from Nast and the New York Times had a limited effect.

It wasnt until the Orange riot of 1871 that the downfall of the Tweed Ring and didnt help Mayor Hall in the slightest. The riot was prompted after Tammany Hall banned the Orange parade because of a riot the previous year in which eight people died. The Governor John T. Hoffman, a Tweed appointee, over-ruled Mayor Hall and allowed the Orange parade to go ahead, the result was an even larger riot in which over 60 people were killed and more than 150 injured. In the end the Orange riots severely damaged Mayor Hall and Governor Hoffman.

After the riots, the New York Times got hold of of their financial records and published them, Thomas Nast again lead his assault with his cartoons. Boss Tweed was arrested and a bail of $1 million was placed.

Tweed was tried and convicted of forgery and larceny in 1873 and given a 12-year sentence. He was released after only one year but was soon arrested again and sued by New York City in a $6 million civil suit. In 1875, he fled to Cuba and then to Spain, but authorities were waiting for him there, and he was extradited back to New York. He died in prison in 1878.

Hall was tried three times and finally acquitted of all charges on the third trial. Slippery Dick Connolly remained in office until his resignation in 1871. A week later, he was arrested and indicted on 15 counts of misdemeanors. On New Year’s Day, 1872, he was released on bail and went abroad, never to return to the United States. He died from Bright’s disease in Marseille, France, while being a fugitive from justice. Peter Sweeny resigned from public life, in February 1872, he was indicted but the D.A.’s office decided not to prosecute him, and Sweeny went to Canada. In 1877, Sweeny paid $400,000 to New York City in exchange for forgiveness.

Herbert Asbury – The Gangs of New York

Owen Forsyth

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