Boss Tweed’s House of Corruption: A Tale of Crooked Schemes and Unchecked Power

PODCAST: How the Tweed Courthouse became a symbol for everything rotten about 19th century American politics.

The roots of modern American corruption traces themselves back to a handsome — but not necessarily revolutionary — historic structure sitting behind New York City Hall.

The Tweed Courthouse is more than a mere landmark. Once called the New York County Courthouse, the Courthouse is better known for many traits that the concepts of law and order normally detest — greed, bribery, kickbacks and graft.

But Tammany Hall, the oft-maligned Democratic political machine, served a unique purpose in New York City in the 1850s and 60s, tending to the needs of newly arrived Irish immigrants who were being ignored by inadequate city services. But they required certain favors like the support of political candidates.

And that is how William ‘Boss’ Tweed rose through the ranks of city politics to become the most powerful man in New York City. And it was Tweed, through various government organizations and his trusty Tweed Ring, who transformed this new courthouse project into a cash cow for the greediest of the Gilded Age.

How did the graft function during the construction of the Tweed Courthouse? What led to Tweed’s downfall? And how did this literal temple to corruption become a beloved landmark in the 1980s?

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We’d like to thank Mary Beth Betts of the NYC Public Design Commission for giving us a tour of the Tweed Courthouse. Tours are not currently available of the courthouse, but Betts and her docents lead tours of New York City Hall next door. Visit their website to book a free tour.

Some images from our visit —

Leopold Eidlitz brought a million arches into the courthouse, his medieval inspirations playing an interesting contrast to the Romanesque Revival of architect John Kellum.
Roy Lichtenstein’s Element E now dominates the interior of the courthouse. Students, teachers and administrators work in the spaces surrounding the sculpture.
The infamous rotunda roof which remained incomplete even when courts began convening in the courthouse in the 1870s.
The sumptuous staircases are all made of cast iron.
The courthouse has many curious staircases, leading to smaller spaces on the upper floors.
You can actually view the two competing architectural styles on the exterior facades facing into City Hall Park. (Hint: Arches vs. no arches)

The Tweed Courthouse under construction, date unknown
Image taken from page 269 of ‘King’s Handbook of New York City. An outline history and description of the American metropolis. With … illustrations, etc. (Second edition.)’ Courtesy the British Library
A view of the Tweed Courthouse as seen from the City Hall elevated train station, 1915. The brownstone structure to the right of the courthouse is no longer there.
In 1915 the city planned to actually get rid of the Tweed Courthouse. This rendering creates a large park space surrounding City Hall.

H.M. Pettit. Department of Bridges/Plant & Structures collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

For an excellent look at Tweed’s 20th century fight for survival, read Kenneth R. Cobb’s excellent article (with tons of archival photography) on the Department of Records and Information Services website.

The courthouse in 1979 — in shoddy condition and without its famous staircase! Photo by Walter Snalling, Jr., Library of Congress
“Can the law reach him?–The dwarf and the giant thief.”
Thomas Nast/New York Public Library Digital Collection
Agroup of vultures waiting for the storm to “blow over.”–“Let us prey.”
Thomas Nast/New York Public Library Digital Collection
Something that did blow over–November 7, 1871.
Thomas Nast/New York Public Library Digital Collection

FURTHER READING:

Boss Tweed’s New York by Seymour J. Mandelbaum

Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York by Kenneth D. Ackerman

Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics by Terry Golway

The Tweed Ring by Alexander B. Callow Jr.

The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall by Oliver E. Allen

FURTHER LISTENING:

Our original Boss Tweed show from 2009 — with a big news reference at the very beginning that echoes the story we’re about to tell

The massive waves of Irish immigrants who arrived in this country starting in the 1830s and 40s changed New York City forever. Here’s their story:

Fernando Wood was another major power broker in New York City politics in the 1860s.