EARLY YEARS AND CRIME
One of the most interesting - and corrupt characters - to ever live in Greenwich was no doubt William "Boss" Tweed. While he was well-known as a corrupt politician in New York City, some may consider him a model citizen here in Greenwich! Tweed was responsible for opening Greenwich up as a vacation spot, and implemented some useful services here in town. And from everything I've read, the residents had a "love-hate" relationship with him!
William M. Tweed was born on April 12, 1823, in New York City. He grew up on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His father was third-generation Scotch-Irish, and worked as a chair maker. William quit school at age 11 to train in the craft. Unfortunately, he failed and his father arranged an apprenticeship for him with a saddle maker. He trained as a bookkeeper (which would aid him with embezzlement later in his life!). At one point, he became a brush maker; but politics became his chief interest in the 1840s.
Tweed took an interest in several fraternal organizations including the Odd Fellows, the Masons and a volunteer fire company. His association with the fire company actually enhanced his reputation. In 1848, he helped organize a new fire company known as the Americus Fire Company, better known as the"Big Six" Fire Company. Competition was stiff amongst the fire companies in New York City, and violence was commonplace as many were staffed by street gangs. On several occasions, buildings burned to the ground as firefighters engaged in violent fights! Tweed - who was the Foreman at the time - was known for literally carrying (and using) a big stick! His underlings started calling him "Boss".
The Democratic Party in New York heard about Tweed's exploits. Democrats made up the majority of the membership of the Tammany Society - a secret association of politicians out for personal gain. Their headquarters was built in 1868 and was called Tammany Hall. Through recent years, they had been responsible for electing their choice for Mayor through fraud, intimidation and violence. In 1850, Tammany Hall arranged for Tweed to be elected Alderman, and in 1852 had him elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. His term was unremarkable, and he decided he wasn't cut out for national office, so he returned to New York and became Public School Commissioner and later State Senator. Tweed also had himself elected to a new Board of Suprevisors, which had great power over budgets. Fraud became rampant, and Tweed was able to pad his, as well as his friends, pockets.
At one point he was serving as a State Senator, President of the Board of Supervisors and Deputy Street Commissioner. He was able to appoint over 1,000 office holders who did nothing but work for him, while they double-dipped form public funds. Tweed also recieved kickbacks from contractors for public works projects. He bought a stationery company, which held the contract for printing government forms, documents, etc. One of the most outrageous frauds involved the remodelling of the County Court House. Although the original estimate was quoted at $250,000, when all was said and done, the project cost the taxpayers $8-million!
As legend has it, three of Tweed's "cronies" hired a sailboat out of City Island to sail Long island Sound around 1861. Once they passed Execution Light, the weather changed dramatically, and they sought refuge near Round Island. (Execution Light is a lighthouse near New Rochelle. Legend has it that the British would tie people to the rocks during the Revolutionary War so that they would be drown by rising tides.) A tender took them ashore, where they pitched tents for the night. The following day, they were taken back by the beauty of Greenwich. At this point the area was still pristine. The next day, they returned to the city.
As "Boss" Tweed sat around the Americus Fire House on the Bowery, he began to hear stories of the beauty in Greenwich. Finally, he decided to check it out himself. This time, he took a wood-burning train from 27th Street to Greenwich. He got permission from Oliver Mead to camp out on Round island. Tweed and friends spent time there bathing, fishing and sailing. They spent a lot of time on Rocky Neck (Steamboat Road area) at the local tavern, exchanging sea tales, discussing boats and befriending local sailors.
In 1862, Tweed arranged to have the "Americus Club of New York" built in Indian Harbor. It was named after his fire company in New York. The two-story building was 100-feet wide and contained a spacious reception hall, dining room and kitchen on the first floor. It was located near the present location of E.C. Benedict's current home. (The Morton House and the Indian Harbor Hotel were eventually opened there.) It was later removed to Chimney Corner where Benedict used it as a boathouse for a while, then as servant's quarters until it was demolished in 1892.
A new club house was built in 1871. It was 3 stories high with mansard roof, tall tower and 2 wings. ( Rumor has it that the architect filed a lawsuit to collect fees he was owed for the building's design). The building was painted white and served as a prominent landmark for sailors. Tweed had it furnished with expensive pieces. The carpet had been woven abroad in one piece one-hundred feet long. A tiger's head served as the Club's symbol and was placed on the carpet and all pieces of furniture.
The Tweed family became regular visitors to Greenwich. They were very recognizable. Some loathed them, some were in awe and some became friends. Oldest son, William M. Tweed Jr, married a Greenwich girl, whom he had met in Manhattan. She was the daughter of Silas Davis, a wealthy partner of Davis & Benson, a company which primarily manufactured flour. William Jr. died unexpectedly in 1901. Younger brother Richard, known for racing horses from Maple Avenue to Put's Hill, travelled to Europe and died there in 1879. Two daughters (who's names are not available) married the wealthy McGuinness brothers and moved to New Orleans. Younger daughter Josephine was known for handling horses. She married a wealthy business man named Frederick Douglas of New York. Three other children died very young - Jennie, Charlie and George.
"Boss" Tweed - for all his other faults - was a very generous man. Most of the money he embezzled through city contracts was passed along to his friends. These were the same friends who eventually turned against him after he was charged with fraud!
When the econony turned in the 1870s, Tweed bought several mortgages when foreclosure by the banks threatened. He then sold them back to the owners, taking whatever interest they could afford to pay - in many instances this turned out to be nothing. When people couldn't sell land, he would buy it. Starting in 1868, he used to invite orphans from the city to come out to his Linwood estate on Milbank Avenue to stay for the weekend. Tweed gave loans to oyster men and mechanics, but never collected on the promissory notes. He was approached by Solomon Mead from the Board of Burgesses to sell a small triangle of land to straighten Milbank Avenue to eliminate a safety hazard. He refused to sell it, but donated it to the Town!
In 1870, when Frederick Mead refused to sell 18-acres to Tweed, the "Boss" offered to pay the "Tweed Price". This was usually an outrageous price (well above a reasonable price) that Tweed would offer to pay to help someone out.
More and more people from the city started coming out to Greenwich on the weekends. Tweed came up with the idea of setting up steamboat service from New York to Greenwich. In 1861, his corporation bought the steamboat "John Romer" and started passenger service between the two towns. Unfortunately, it wasn't profitable, and the service was discontinued the next year.
Tweed was also responsible for setting up telegraph service between Greenwich and New York City. This way he could monitor business affairs from his Linwood estate on Milbank Avenue. He employed several stone masons to build a gateway and wall around his estate. The work was greatly appreciated during hard times.
It wasn't long before word of Tweed's role in the corruption of New York City government was uncovered. Artist Thomas Nast began publishing political cartoons depicting Tweed as a crook in Harper's Bazaar. This caught the attention of local law officials.
In June 1870, a Miss Lydia G. McMullen bought 24-acres and a farm house north of Cos Cob. She was said to be "Boss" Tweed's niece. Tweed decided to have the building remodeled. It was reported that Andrew J. Garvey, a NY City plasterer and member of The Americus Club would travel to Greenwich to give the family money to pay for repairs. In a later corruption trial of Tweed cronies in the New York Supreme Court, it was reported that the work done at the farmhouse was paid for with city funds! Tweed was indicted by a Grand Jury and then convicted of 50 of 55 charges. He tried to have the judge removed from the case since he was not one of Tweed's "appointees", but this backfired. Tweed was sentenced to 12 years. He could have been sentenced to 60 years, but the judge determined Tweed's share was very small compared to the total amount embezzled (only about 20%). So the judge reduced his sentence to a smaller sentence.
Tweed was sent to Blackwell's Island on the Brooklyn side of the East River. This was anything but inconvenient. He had a luxuriously furnished double room, and he was waited on hand-and-foot by officers he helped get appointed!
Tweed appealed his conviction to an appellate court. The first time the
appeal was turned down, but later another court ruled it was unlawful to tack multiple terms together. Although released, he was quickly re-arrested to await trial for a civil suit filed by the City to recover an estimated 6-million dollars in damages. Tweed was then incarcerated in the Ludlow Street Jail. Once again his accomodations were
anything but wanting. He had a large reception room, a dining room and a large kitchen! It wasn't long before one of his appointees took him out for a carriage ride (not normal procedure for a prisoner), and left him alone to escape!
Now, when Tweed decided to remodel his niece's farmhouse, he had befriended the Cos Cob Station Agent. The agent handled the freight deliveries for the McMullens. Being courteous and prompt, he was rewarded generously by Tweed. He quickly became a family favorite. This would turn out to be very fortuitous for Tweed in his escape.
In the early winter of 1875 when Tweed made his escape, a strange thing happened. The 9:15 pm train from New York stopped short of Cos Cob station.
One of the conductors had a habit of stopping the train to getting off and grab a drink from a local tavern. He had been caught once before by the agent. So, quite annoyed, the Station Agent grabbed a lamp to investigate. As he was walking along the side of the train, the side door to the baggage car suddenly opened
just in front of him. A woman snuck up behind him and broke his lantern. Groping in the dark, the Agent grabbed for a man he recognized as Tweed! It's later reported that Tweed, a man and woman leaped over a ditch along the tracks, and jumped into a horse and wagon waiting for them. They were transported to the McMullen's for a final meal. Afterwards, Tweed was driven to Tarrytown, where he boarded a tug. The tug took him to lower New York Bay, where he boarded a freighter bound for Cuba. He is then transferred to another steamer bound for Spain. The Station Agent could have turned Tweed in for a handsome reward, but didn't! Perhaps he felt loyalty to the family.
I don't know how or why (maybe it was the $50,000 reward) but Tweed was captured in Vigo, Spain, and transported back to the Ludlow Street Jail. This is where he finally died on April 12, 1878, at the age of 55 years.
It should be remembered that news from the City didn't travel as fast as it does today. There were no Internet or cellphones. Newspapers travelled by train to the suburbs, but it took a while for details of "Boss" Tweed's crimes to come out in trials at a later date. You could say there was a "news gap". Residents could only judge Tweed by their personal interactions with the man. Regardless, no one can dispute that William "Boss" Tweed left his mark on the Burrough of Greenwich.
Other Days in Greenwich; Hubbard, F.; Taply, NY. 1913.