3 minute read

Boss Tweed Trials: 1873

Tweed Fights Verdict

Of the several hundred counts contained within the 55 charges against Tweed, the jury found him guilty of 102 crimes. Each crime was punishable by a year in prison and a nominal $250 fine, and so the prosecutors sought a conviction totaling 102 years and a fine of $25,500. On Tweed's behalf, Graham pleaded for mercy:

Your honor, we are taught, from the time we enter this world, to ask for mercy; and those prayers which we put up in our own behalf must teach us to render deeds of mercy to.…

Graham, either genuinely upset or putting on a superb act, could not continue and broke down in tears. Prosecutor Tremain retorted:

I cannot but feel, and I am sure my associates feel with me, indeed, all must feel, how terrible is the position of this man, who has been so high and who has fallen so low. He is now drinking the bitter waters of humiliation. The spell is broken.

Tremain turned to Judge Davis, and reminded him of the notoriety of the case:

The law has placed in your hands the responsibility of the matter. The case is one of international interest and attracts the attention of the whole world. We now leave to you the question of what shall be meted out to the prisoner as an impartial and just penalty.

Judge Davis sentenced Tweed to 12 years in prison and a $12,750 fine. Tweed's attorneys appealed the verdict to the New York Court of Appeals, which ruled that despite the multiple offenses Tweed could not be sentenced for more than the punishment applicable to just one crime. Therefore, Tweed served just one year in prison, paid his $250 fine, and on January 15, 1875, was released from prison.

However, Tilden had anticipated Tweed's release. Tilden had Tweed arrested again, this time to recover the millions Tweed stole from the treasury. Unable to make the $3,000,000 bail, Tweed sat in prison awaiting his next trial. Although greatly diminished, Tweed's influence was still strong enough to enable him to circumvent most of the restrictions of his confinement. The prison warden allowed him to take carriage drives throughout the city, and dine at Tweed's own home if he wished. On December 4, 1875, Tweed took advantage of the warden's laxity and never returned from one of his afternoon drives.

Tweed stayed in various hideouts in Staten Island and New Jersey until he was able to obtain a boat to take him to Florida. From Florida he fled to Cuba and from there on to Spain, which was then a notorious haven for refugees. The Spanish authorities, however, would not tolerate Tweed's presence, and arrested him when he arrived in Vigo, Spain. Spain turned Tweed over to the United States and the naval vessel U.S.S. Franklin brought Tweed back to New York.

Tweed returned to prison, having now committed the additional offense of attempted escape. He confessed to the charges against him, and what was left of the Tweed Ring was either arrested or, if they returned their share of the stolen money, allowed to fade into obscurity. Of the tens of millions of dollars embezzled over the decades, however, the city recovered only a fraction. The rest had been frittered away in high living by Tweed and his cronies, spent in maintaining the Tammany Hall organization, or lost to the gangs and criminals affiliated with the Ring.

In 1871, when Tweed was still firmly in power and the public and press had just begun to challenge him, a reporter confronted Tweed and asked him about the charges against him. Tweed answered arrogantly, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" Thanks to the efforts of a new breed of reform politicians, supported by the demands of the public and the press for efficient and honest urban administration, Tweed found out just what could be done about it. Tweed's power was forever broken, and he died in prison on April 12, 1878.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bales, William Alan. Tiger in the Streets. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1962.

Clinton, Henry Lauren. Celebrated Trials. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1897.

Gustaitis, Joseph. "'Boss' Tweed: Colossus of Corruption?" American History Illustrated (November 1988): 34-35.

Lynch, Denis Tilden. Boss Tweed: The Story of a Grim Generation. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927.

Mandelbaum, Seymour J. Boss Tweed's New York. Chicago: I.R. Dee, 1990.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Boss Tweed Trials: 1873 - Reformers Fight Back, Tweed Fights Verdict, Suggestions For Further Reading