Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 15

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 15


This is the grave of William “Boss” Tweed


I hardly need to provide a biography of the man whose name is synonymous throughout the United States with political corruption. Tweed, the child of Quakers like another paragon of virtue in American history named Richard Nixon, became a machine man from a youth, where he became a volunteer firefighter known for his ax-wielding violence against competing firefighting companies. He rose fast in the Democratic machine in New York and served a term in Congress in the 1850s. Then he realized where real power was located. By 1863, he controlled Tammany Hall and used it for massive personal profit, patronage, and corruption. Of course, as the U.S. was preparing for the Gilded Age with all its corruption, Tweed worked with men such as Jay Gould and Jim Fiske to rip off Cornelius Vanderbilt through the law, for which Tweed was repaid with massive amounts of stock. After 1869, Tweed controlled all politics in New York and stole left and right from every public project he approved, at least $25 million and probably significantly more. His downfall was quite swift; by 1871, he was out of power, he was on trial in 1873, and he died in prison in 1878, after once escaping to Spain aboard a Spanish ship and after he agreed to reveal the inner workings of his ring to his old enemy and now New York governor Samuel Tilden in exchange for release, which Tilden immediately reneged upon.

There is a small bar surrounding the gravesite. There is a gate in the front. I did what any visitor should do. I opened the gate, walked in, and left a nickel on Tweed’s tombstone.

Boss Tweed is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

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  • Murc

    The Drunk History segment featuring his escape to Spain was pretty awesome.

    • I really need to sit down and systematically watch all of those.

      • DrS

        We should note which ones contain vodka content so you can skip or at least avert your eyes.

    • Woodrowfan

      I talked about Robert Smalls in class this week and several students knew about him from “Drunk History”

  • Rich C

    When are you going to visit Samuel Tilden’s grave? Tilden has always seemed like an interesting figure to me: he was a Democrat, but supported Van Buren’s Free Soil Party in the 1840’s, and supported the US during the civil war. It was his election victory, and the GOPs desire not to lose the white house, that was the proximate cause of the end of Reconstruction, but I don’t really have a sense of how the late 19th century might have unfolded differently if he’d been president. Interested to hear your take.

    • I don’t think a Tilden victory changes much of anything. Maybe the army wouldn’t have been sent to crush the Railroad Strike, as Democrats were usually pro-white working class and pro-immigrant.

      • Rich C

        To say nothing of pro-silver! Milton Friedman at least argued that if the US had adopted silver-backed currency in the 1870s-early 1880s, it would have avoided the frequent contractions and deflations of the 1873-1896 era. Also, I could see civil service reform arriving a few years earlier. Tilden was pretty vigorous is confronting corruption. Its not really clear to me that this amounts to much, but a less draconian resolution of the 1877 strike might have been a big deal.

  • CP

    Oh, Boss Tweed.

    People talk a lot about the new Gilded Age in terms of economics, with modern day robber barons above the system or modern day trusts. What about political machines and bosses? Are think tanks like the Heritage Foundation or the Koch brothers’ machine that was getting some attention a few days ago the modern (and larger scale) version of Tammany Hall? Are there modern versions of Boss Tweed (Karl Rove certainly wishes he were, the Republican Kingmaker/Man Behind The Man in chief, though I don’t know how successful he’s been beyond his one big success)?

    • twbb

      Nah; the sheer vertical integration of Tweed’s corruption is probably just impossible in this country right now.

  • Vance Maverick

    There is a small bar surrounding the gravesite. There is a gate in the front. I did what any visitor should do. I opened the gate, walked in, and

    ordered a Scotch.

    • The Temporary Name

      Guy walks into a bar and falls down beside a gravestone. “Could the symbolism here be toned down a little?”

  • N__B

    I walked by A. Oakey Hall’s mausoleum the other day. It’s big, but not big enough to hold Tweed’s ego.

  • Todd

    What happened to all his stolen money? Did other Tammany guys who knew where it all was just steal it while he was an inmate/fugitive?

    • Scott P.

      It ended up inside Al Capone’s vault.

      • twbb

        Weird, I was just talking to my girlfriend about that incident yesterday…

  • Dennis Orphen

    Your nickel pales in comparison to the offerings left at the site of a notable grave in the highlands of Renton. Supposedly one can become intoxicated for a day just by licking the tombstone, especially after one of the frequent light rains.

  • Matt_L

    What a knucklehead, why did he leave Spain? Sure, it was kind of a backwater in the late nineteenth century, but rustic boredom sure beats jail time. He could have moved to Paris. $25 million would have gone a long ways and the pols of the Third Republic were aficionados of corruption.

    never mind, I read more. I get it. But still, skip town while the getting is good.

    • N__B

      The story told at the time is that he was arrested by the Spanish police on the basis of a Nast cartoon: here.

      One of my favorite, even if not entirely believable, historical anecdotes.

  • rea

    He was a bad man, but I always rather liked his sportscoats

  • Woodrowfan

    God, nothing beats Tammany just pure entertaining history. I always liked “Silent Charlie” Murphy. When someone asked why he wasn’t singing during the National Anthem an aide supposedly replied “perhaps he doesn’t want to commit himself.” Besides, Hearst hated him.

    • Woodrowfan

      Except it wasn’t “The National Anthem” until after Murphy had died. so just a legend.

  • Mike in DC

    Where’s John D. Rockefeller buried?

    • Cleveland. Under a very large obelisk. I have been there before but I don’t have a picture. It was some years ago.

      • N__B

        Under a very large obelisk.

        Well, of course. Can you imagine the havoc he’d cause if he got out?

    • Mike in DC

      Cleveland. I should have known that.

  • Hallen

    Nice slam on Quakers, Erik. Have you uncovered evidence of the unspoken truth–that all of America’s ills were wrought upon us by the International Quaker Conspiracy? Out of sight indeed!

    • Hallen

      P.S. I’m teasing, in case that wasn’t too clear. Although you do mention Richard Nixon, like, a *lot.*

    • Honoré De Ballsack

      Have you uncovered evidence of the unspoken truth–that all of America’s ills were wrought upon us by the International Quaker Conspiracy?

      Big Oatmeal controls everything in this world.

    • Thom

      Herman Melville was on to the evil Quakers.

  • bad Jim

    Left a nickel? You should have spent a penny.

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