Several years earlier, Tweed and his right-hand men, Peter Sweeny and Richard Connolly, had guided their political organization, Tammany Hall, to power and in the process gained access to enormous amounts of graft. But now in the summer of 1871, the details of their corrupt schemes were being splashed across the front page of the New York Times on a daily basis. Would the Grand Sachem, wondered both his friends and enemies, save himself and Tammany?
The answer was not long in coming. Horrified by Tweed’s rise to power largely on the basis of the Irish Catholic vote, the city’s Protestant elites seized upon the scandal as an opportunity to topple the Ring and regain power. By August — a Committee of Seventy, comprised largely of the city’s leading businessmen, lawyers and clergy — had been formed to investigate the charges printed in the Times. Among them was a wealthy Irish American and pen manufacturer named John Foley who, at the committee’s urging, lodged a taxpayers’ suit against the city government, a move designed to freeze municipal finances to prevent any further looting. Heading the committee was Samuel J. Tilden, one of the state’s leading Democrats whose subsequent star role in bringing down the Ring paved the way for his rise to governor and then his party’s nomination for president in 1876.
To make matters worse for Tweed and his friends, just days after the scandal broke on the pages of the Times, the city erupted in bloody violence. For the second consecutive year, the city’s Orange Order, comprising Protestant Irishmen, had staged a parade on July 12, the anniversary of King William of Orange’s late-17th century victory over King James II and the subsequent imposition of the draconian Penal Laws in Ireland. Enraged Irish Catholics attacked a post-parade celebration in 1870 resulting in eight deaths. That violence was overshadowed in 1871 when, for reasons still unclear, the militia escort for the parade opened fire on the angry crowd, killing 67 and wounding 150. These bloody events horrified Tweed’s enemies and convinced them that the Ring and its Irish-Catholic power base must be destroyed at all costs.
Tweed fought, with good lawyers and copious amounts of cash, to stave off the onslaught, but soon the Ring began to collapse. The first pillar to crumble was Richard “Slippery Dick” Connolly. Shocked to learn that Sweeny and Tweed planned to make him — the city’s chief of finances — the fall guy for all the crimes of the Ring, Connolly made a pre-emptive defection. He sought out Tilden and struck a deal: He would tell all in exchange for avoiding prison.
Helped by Connolly’s information, the Committee of Seventy began to build the case against Tweed and company. By the early fall Tilden had named well-known lawyer Charles O’Connor (son of United Irishman exile Thomas O’Connor) as the lead prosecutor. He had Tweed arrested on Oct. 26, 1871, but Tweed posted the $1 million bail on the spot and remained a free man. It was a harbinger of the difficulties that lay ahead for the prosecution.
In December 1871, Tweed, Connolly and Sweeny were stripped of their titles and expelled from Tammany Hall, which by then was in the control of a group of nominal reformers. Nonetheless, all remained free. Endless legal wrangling and maneuvers, expertly facilitated by Tweed’s all-star legal team, delayed the anticipated trials. By the time Tweed’s trial began, on Jan. 7, 1873, fully 18 months after the scandal broke, Connolly, Sweeny and a host of other figures connected to the Ring, like plasterer Andrew Garvey, had fled the country — with the millions they’d accumulated during the Ring’s heyday.
To Tweed’s delight, the first trial ended with a hung jury. “I am tired of the whole farce,” he told reporters with an air of arrogance and self-pity. “No jury will ever convict me.” A second trial in November 1873 resulted in conviction on 204 of 220 counts and a sentence of 12 years in prison. When this verdict was overturned on appeal, Tweed was released, immediately rearrested on new charges and sent back to jail to await his third trial scheduled for early 1876.
The “Boss” still had influence, however, and managed to get liberal privileges that allowed him occasional outings from jail accompanied by a guard. On one such occasion, in December 1875, Tweed gave his guard the slip, stepped into a waiting coach and commenced a journey that took him to Florida, Cuba and, eventually, Spain. The story caused an international sensation, not to mention intense embarrassment on the part of Tweed’s prosecutors. To Tweed’s chagrin, however, he was recognized in Spain (courtesy of Thomas Nast’s cartoons) and returned to the U.S. He died in prison on April 12, 1878, at the age of 55.
By then, the enemies of Tweed had become aware of just how fleeting their victory over Tammany and its Irish Catholic base had been. Six years earlier, when the scandal was still unfolding, the Republican party demolished the Democrats in the city and state elections of 1872. The New York Times, a staunchly Republican newspaper that had long exhibited hostility toward Tammany and its Irish supporters, published the following exultant editorial on Nov. 7, 1872: “[T]he rule of one class, and that the most ignorant class in the community, is over. The ignorant, unthinking, bigoted hordes which Tammany brought up to its support year after year are hopelessly scattered. Americans — truly so-called — are now determined to have some share in the government of this City, and will no longer leave it to be tyrannized over by our esteemed friends from the Emerald Isle. This is going to be an American city once more — not simply a larger kind of Dublin. The iron rod of our ‘oppressed’ friend is broken.”
The Times and those whose views it represented were wrong. Tammany and the Irish were down, but far from out. Under the leadership of Tweed’s successor, “Honest” John Kelly, the first of 10 consecutive Irish-Catholic bosses, Tammany emerged from the wreckage of the Tweed scandals a stronger and more influential force not just in city politics, but state and national as well. Kelly and those who followed learned from Tweed’s mistakes and transformed Tammany into an organization that truly merited the label “machine.”
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
July 9, 1973: Clarence Kelley appointed director of FBI, successor to J. Edgar Hoover.
July 12, 1862: Congress establishes the Medal of Honor, an award subsequently won by more Irish-born soldiers than any other immigrant group — not to mention a great many Irish Americans as well.
July 13, 1896: Philadelphia’s Ed Delahanty became only the second major-league player to hit four home runs in a single game.
July 10, 1867: Finley Peter Dunne, journalist, humorist, and creator of “Mr. Dooley,” is born in Chicago.
July 13, 1827: Hugh O’Brien, the first Irish mayor of Boston, is born in Ireland.
July 15, 1899: Sean Lemass born in Ballybrack, Co Dublin.