Boss Tweed and National Tweed Day

Well, at least it’s original.  Although I could talk about the Pony Express in 1860, or the fall of Richmond in 1865, the beginning of the Marshall Plan in 1948 or the arrest of the Unabomber in 1996, today I talk about political corruption and clothing material. Why not?

William Magear Tweed was born on 3 April 1823 in New York City, son of a Scottish chair-maker on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In time he became a volunteer fireman a, a Mason and an Odd Fellow.  In the mid-19th century, volunteer firemen were…different… from what they would become when they professionalized in the early 20th century.  The were highly competitive, often associated with street gangs and the violence that came with them.  They were also hotbeds of political coercion.  Tweed became an alderman in 1851 and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1852 but served a single, undistinguished term.  But in 1858, Tweed was appointed to the New York City Board of Supervisors, while he ran the Seventh Ward as a ward heeler for the Democratic political machine called Tammany Hall.  He became Boss Tweed in April 1864 when he was elected Grand Sachem of Tammany.

Starting in 1858, Tweed was getting kickbacks from those he helped get city jobs, buy land, start businesses, or in some cases even stay in business.  His income was prodigious, even for a plutocrat: at its peak his net worth was probably about $10 million 1870 dollars, and he probably skimmed at least $100 million from his various corrupt dealings over a span of ten years. By the time he was elected to the State Senate in 1868 he was one of the largest landowners in the city, and was taking rents from over a thousand families and businesses.  He also owned–literally–New York City government.  The New York City Courthouse was built by Tweed’s Tammany friends starting in 1861, and cost nearly twice as much as the purchase of Alaska by they time it was done.  Among many examples of corruption, a plasterer was supposedly paid nearly $2 million 21st century dollars for two day’s work.

After the Orange Riots in 1871 and repeated attacks by The New York Times and Thomas Nast at Harper’s Weekly, poplar opinion turned against Tweed and his friends…and his friends started fleeing the country. Even after his arrest Tweed was re-elected, but it wouldn’t be long before his many fugitive friends started taking to the press and law enforcement. There were trials, convictions, and flight to Spain, but in the end Tweed was locked up in the Ludlow Street Jail in New York, where he died of pneumonia on 12 April 1878, two wees after his 55th birthday: the mayor would not allow the city’s flags to fly at half-staff.

So, it is thought by some, that National Tweed Day is celebrated on 3 April because it was Boss Tweed’s birthday.  The beginnings of the National Day are obscure.  The Scottish fabric originally known as “tweel,” but because of a misreading of a bill of lading it was popularized as tweed, perhaps after the Scottish River Tweed that powers many of the early 19th century mills that made the rough woolen fabric.  It seems appropriate, though that we should celebrate tweeds in the early spring, when the open weave is more salubrious for walks in the spring sunshine than the dense nylons that many wear against the winter wind.

That or celebrate the poster child for political corruption.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s