"Justice on the Rail - Erie Railroad (Ring) Smash Up"

March 30, 1872

Thomas Nast

"Justice on the Rail - Erie Railroad (Ring) Smash Up"

Business Scandals; Business, Railroads; New York State, Government/Politics; Symbols, Justice; Tammany Hall, Tweed Ring; Transportation, Railroads; Women, Symbolic;

Field, David Dudley; Gould, Jay;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast dramatizes the crash of the "Erie Ring," which ended financier Jay Gould’s control of the Erie Railroad Company.

During the Civil War, Gould traded in government bonds and gold, using his profits after the war to buy and sell railroad companies. Gould, Jim Fisk, and Daniel Drew, became controlling shareholders in the Erie Railroad Company. In the so-called "Erie War" of 1867-1868, they sought to deflect a hostile takeover effort by Cornelius Vanderbilt, owner of the New York Central Railroad, by flooding the market illegally with 50,000 shares of Erie stock. Gould, Fisk, and Drew hired over forty lawyers to represent them in court, primarily relying on the law firm of Field & Shearman. Vanderbilt likewise hired an army of attorneys. After Judge George G. Barnard issued an arrest warrant for Gould and his cohorts because of their violation of a court injunction, they fled across the Hudson River to Jersey City, New Jersey.

The "Erie Ring," as Gould and his associates were known, soon relocated to Albany, New York, where they brazenly bribed New York state legislators to pass laws making their previous stock issues legal and barring the merger of the Erie and New York Central Railroads. A key element in winning the favorable legislation was convincing William Tweed, boss of the Tammany Hall Democratic political machine and a state senator, to switch sides from Vanderbilt to Gould. After receiving stock, cash payments, and a seat on the Erie Railroad board of directors, Tweed steered the legislation through the state assembly.

Following Tweed’s conversion, Judge Barnard, a Tweed lackey, began treating Gould and his associates favorably in his courtroom. However, in the fall of 1871, Judge Barnard surprised nearly everyone by turning against Boss Tweed, thereby opening the way for effective prosecution of the Tweed Ring. Nevertheless, for his past actions, the New York Bar Association secured Barnard’s impeachment and conviction on various corruption charges, most of which were related to the Erie Ring. His removal helped precipitate the fall of the Erie Ring in early 1872. In this cartoon, Judge Barnard is the highest figure toppling over the rail into the chasm.

On March 11, 1872, the Erie Ring was broken and a new board of directors took over the Erie Railroad Company, with Gould formally resigning as president the next day. In the cartoon’s background, the new board of directors takes the form of an incoming train whose path has been cleared by Justice at the switch. General John Dix (the engine), is the new president; S. L. M. Barlow (second car), the new counselor; William Watts Sherman (fifth car), the new treasurer; and, O. H. P. Arches (sixth car), who spearheaded the takeover, was reelected vice-president. H. M. Otis was re-appointed secretary.

Below Judge Barnard in the cartoon, is David Dudley Field, chief counsel for both the Erie Ring and the Tweed Ring. Although vilified because of such unsavory clients, Field’s legal writings were highly influential in the United States and England, inspiring judicial reforms and codification of civil and criminal procedures. To the left of Field is his law partner, Thomas G. Shearman, whose upper body is obscured by the smoke and dust of the crash. In 1873, Shearman left Field to partner with John Sterling, and in 1875 counseled Gould on the financier's attempted takeover of the Union Pacific Railroad. Today, Shearman & Sterling is a prestigious, international law firm, with one of the largest staffs (950 lawyers) in New York City. Plummeting upside-down at the bottom of the picture is Jay Gould.

Robert C. Kennedy

"Justice on the Rail - Erie Railroad (Ring) Smash Up"
March 4, 2024

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