"January 1, 1873"

January 4, 1873

Thomas Nast

"January 1, 1873"

New York City, Government/Politics; New York City, Mayors; Public Health; Tammany Hall, Tweed Ring;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

The last of the Mare Disease with which this City has been so much afflicted.

This Thomas Nast cartoon in the January 4, 1873, issue of Harper’s Weekly humorously observes the end of Abraham Oakey Hall’s term as mayor of New York. Hall had served previously for many years as the city’s successful district attorney. In 1868, William Tweed, boss of the Tammany Hall Democratic political machine, hand-picked Hall to be Tammany’s mayoral candidate. He won by a landslide, and was reelected in 1869 and 1870 (to a two-year term in the latter election).

In 1871, the New York Times broke a news story alleging massive corruption by members of the “Tweed Ring” in the form of inflated payments to contractors, kickbacks to government officials, and other malfeasance. The estimated total stolen from the public treasury was set at $6 million, but is today thought to have been between $30 and $200 million. Harper’s Weekly and other newspapers soon joined the Times in exposing the scandals.

Of critical importance in generating popular sentiment against the Tweed Ring were the Harper’s Weekly cartoons of Thomas Nast, who relentlessly and vividly caricatured the perpetrators as vultures and thieves. The artist focused his attention on four Tammany Hall leaders: Tweed, Hall (always with his trademark eyeglasses prominent), city comptroller Richard Connolly, and county treasurer Peter Sweeny.

Hall was tried three times (1871-1873) for malfeasance, but it could not be proved that he intended to defraud the public nor that he benefited financially from approving monetarily-bloated contracts. The first case against him was ruled a mistrial, the second ended with a hung jury, and the third in acquittal. His mayoral term ended on January 1, 1873, and he thereafter sank into political oblivion. After a stint as a prolific though unsuccessful playwright, Hall returned to his legal practice.

In this cartoon, Nast offers a visual image of a play on words by taking a colloquial, one-syllable pronunciation of mayor and transforming Hall into a mare (female horse). From Nast’s perspective, dumping the politically dead mayor/mare into the East River is a fitting end for the Tweed Ring conspirator. The joke here is also predicated on a “horse plague” that afflicted the equine population of New York City during the last months of 1872.

Considered to be a type of influenza, the malady originated in Canada and spread quickly throughout northern American cities. Some horses died, but most recovered after being incapacitated for a week or two. Because nineteenth-century urban transportation was so reliant on horses, merchandise piled up at docks, businesses came to a standstill, and streets were virtually deserted. People made do with wheelbarrows and pushcarts, while teams of oxen brought in from the countryside excited the curiosity of onlookers. Henry Bergh, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, used the occasion to urge that healthy horses not be overworked and to call for improved treatment of horses generally.

Robert C. Kennedy

"January 1, 1873"
April 19, 2024

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