“He Tries to Steal Away”

July 17, 1875

Charles S. Reinhart

“He Tries to Steal Away”

Crime and Punishment; Symbols, Justice; Tammany Hall, Tweed Ring; Women, Symbolic;

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This cartoon depicts the extraordinary liberty of movement that William Tweed, the notoriously corrupt boss of Tammany Hall, was given by his jailer, Warden Dunham.  Here, Tweed has snatched Justice's sword of "punishment" away from her, as he absconds with money from the public treasury.  Justice blindly reaches for the fugitive and his loot.  Behind her, symbolic (jail) birds fly from their open-door cage, while the jailer, dressed in colonial era attire, gasps in mock surprise at the scene.

In the 1860s and early 1870s, William Tweed ran Tammany Hall, the powerful Democratic political machine in New York City, and served as the city’s public works commissioner and as a state senator (1867-1871).  Tweed used his formal and informal authority to gain financial profit for himself and his Tammany Hall cohorts.  The Tweed Ring, as they became known, extorted a reported $6 million from the public treasury, although more recent estimates put the figure between $30 and $200 million. 

The downfall of the Tweed Ring came when disgruntled Tammany Hall members leaked incriminating evidence to the New York Times, which published a series of exposés beginning in July 1871.  Harper’s Weekly and other newspapers joined the Times to reveal the scandal, and Tweed allegedly most feared “those damned pictures” by Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast.  The name of Boss Tweed and his bulky visual caricature became synonymous with political corruption and greed, an association that remains potent even today, thanks in large part to Nast's cartoons. 

In December 1871, Tweed was indicted and arrested on fraud charges, and forced to resign as public works commissioner, state senator, and head of Tammany Hall.  In a January 6, 1872, cartoon Harper’s Weekly, Nast accurately predicted that the legal authorities of New York City would not be able to keep Tweed in jail.

The first criminal trial against Tweed, in January 1873, resulted in a hung jury, as rumors circulated (never proved) of bribed jury members.  The second trial, in November 1873, ended with a conviction on 204 of the 220 counts of the indictment, and a sentence of a $12,500 fine and 13 years in jail.  In January 1875, an appeals court reduced his sentence to a $250 fine and a one-year term.  Since Tweed had already served 19 months in the city jail on Blackwell’s Island, he was released.  The next day, however, the police rearrested Tweed to stand trial on the civil charges.

Unable to raise the $3 million bail, Tweed ended up in Ludlow Street jail.  Warden Durham granted him privileges and liberties not allowed to other inmates, including carriage rides outside prison grounds, and visits to his home and those of his adult children.  In this cartoon, C. S. Reinhart, like Nast years before, correctly warns that someday Tweed will not return to his cell.  On December 4, 1875, the former Tammany boss did escape while on such a sojourn, and hid out in New Jersey. 

In March 1876, the civil jury found Tweed guilty (in absentia) and liable for over $6 million.  Learning of the judgment, he fled to Cuba, and then Spain.  In September, Spanish officials arrested and deported him, mistakenly identifying him (through a Nast cartoon) as a child abductor.  Back in New York by late November 1876, he was placed in the Ludlow Street jail again. 

In poor health, Tweed gave the attorney general, Charles Fairchild, a full confession as part of a deal for his release.  Fairchild, however, changed his mind and Tweed remained in prison.  The former political boss later testified before a Board of Aldermen investigation, detailing how the ring operated, but he received no pardon for his cooperation.  In April 1878, he died in Ludlow Street jail of heart failure caused by pneumonia. 

Robert C. Kennedy

“He Tries to Steal Away”
July 14, 2024

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