“Two Great Questions”

August 19, 1871

Thomas Nast

“Two Great Questions”

Crime and Punishment; Journalists/Journalism; Tammany Hall, Tweed Ring;

Greeley, Horace;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

"Who is Ingersoll's CO?" N. Y. Tribune

Mr. Ingersoll: "Allow me to introduce you to my CO"

"Who Stole the People's Money?"--Do Tell. N. Y. Times.

'Twas Him.

These twin cartoons are two of Thomas Nast's most famous anti-Tweed Ring satires, and the latter--"Who Stole the People's Money?"--is among the most reproduced, mimicked, and well known of all American political cartoons.

In July 1871, The New York Times ran a series of news stories exposing massive corruption by members of Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine in New York City run by William "Boss" Tweed.  The Times had obtained evidence that the Tweed Ring had pilfered the public's money in the form of inflated payments to government contractors, kickbacks to government officials, extortion, and other malfeasance.  The estimated sum stolen 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 memorably caricatured the perpetrators as vultures and thieves.  Nast had been assailing the Tweed Ring for years through his creative and powerful images, but intensified his assault in the summer and fall of 1871.  Boss Tweed reportedly exclaimed,  “I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!" 

In fact, the Tweed Ring tried to bribe Nast into taking a European vacation, which the artist resolutely refused.  The contact may have been James H. Ingersoll, the focus of the top cartoon, who was the principal Tweed Ring bagman through whose hands much of the missing public money passed.  Most of the fraudulent vouchers uncovered by The Times were made out to "Ingersoll & Co." and signed by Mayor Abraham Oakey Hall and Richard Connolly, the city comptroller.  Both Nast and Ingersoll were members of the New York National Guard's 7th Regiment, and in early August 1871, Ingersoll reportedly told the cartoonist, "Tommy, if you will take a trip to Europe for a year, you can have your expenses paid, and a new house will be built ready for your return, without your paying a cent for it."

In the top cartoon, Horace Greeley (right), editor of the New York Tribune, has been studying the Times' detailed “Secret Accounts/Frauds of the Tammany Ring” as he confronts Ingersoll, who introduces the editor to an oversized Tweed.  The Boss bows courteously, shielding his cowardly colleagues, especially Mayor Hall under his hat.  Beneath the boss's coat on the right is Nathaniel Sands, a tax commissioner and Republican associate of the ring.  Peter Sweeny, head of the Public Parks Department, grasps the boss's coat on the left, while Richard Connolly stands behind Sweeney. Tilting his glasses upward to command a sharper view, Greeley rephrases the question he addressed to the Mayor in a Tribune editorial of July 25:  “Who is his [Ingersoll’s] 'CO'?” (i.e., Who does he work with?)

In the bottom cartoon, Tweed and his cohorts are positioned appropriately in a ring (circle), with each member denying blame by pointing an incriminating finger at the next man.  The four leaders, according to Nast, are in front (left-right):  Tweed, Sweeny, Connolly, and Hall.  Tweed is pointing at Ingersoll, whose hatband reads “Chairs,” in reference to his chair-making trade. The unanimous refusal to take personal responsibility is emphasized by the nondescript figure behind Hall who is labeled “Tom, Dick & Harry." Nast's inspiration for this cartoon may have come from a headline on the July 28 editorial page of Greeley’s Tribune, which read:  “Widening The Circle--Fixing The Responsibility.”  Nast’s famous "Who Stole the People's Money?" became a classic visual metaphor for public figures "passing the buck."

In late 1872, James Ingersoll was convicted on two counts of forgery, and served two-and-a-half years in jail.  He was pardoned in April 1875 on the condition that he turn state's evidence for a new trial against Tweed.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Two Great Questions”
April 19, 2024

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