Boss Tweed Trials: 1873
Reformers Fight Back
By the early 1870s, reform politicians determined to end urban corruption had risen to power. New York State Governor Samuel Tilden and state Attorney General Charles Fairchild went after Tweed. They were supported by influential elements of the New York City press, led by political commentator and cartoonist Thomas Nast of the New York Times. Nast had grown up in Tweed's neighborhood, and as a child lived with the fear of Tweed's random beatings. Nast's personal vendetta against Tweed took the form of scathing cartoons depicting Tweed as a fat and corrupt Tammany boss. Other papers, such as Harper's Weekly, joined the Times in exposing Tweed's abuse of power and in calling for his prosecution.
Nast's Times and the other papers successfully stirred New Yorkers out of their apathy toward Tweed. On September 4, 1871, an enormous crowd went to hear various influential reformers speak out against Tweed. Bolstered by the crowd's enthusiasm for their cause, the reformers, led by Tilden and Fairchild, sought an injunction against Tweed and his Ring preventing them from using any more public funds. Probably because Tilden promised him protection, Judge Barnard turned against Tweed and granted the injunction on September 7.
Once Tweed was prevented from plundering the city treasury, his organization began to fall apart. On October 27, 1871, Tilden had Tweed arrested and charged with 55 criminal offenses relating to embezzlement of public funds. Because each alleged offense involved several counts, or multiple incidents, Tweed was actually prosecuted for several hundred crimes. Tweed's lawyers were David Dudley Field, John Graham and Elihu Root. The chief prosecutors were Wheeler H. Peckham, Benjamin K. Phelps and Lyman Tremain. On January 7, 1873, the trial began before Judge Noah Davis.
The proceedings began badly for the prosecution when their poor choice of witnesses caused a mistrial. Tweed bragged that no jury could ever convict him and took a vacation in California. Tweed's second trial began November 5, 1873. This time, the prosecution conducted its case more carefully, and after only a minimal amount of evidence was presented the jury found Tweed guilty on November 19, 1873.