Monday, January 17, 2011
After an extended hiatus from posting here I've decided it was high time to get back into writing for Old Smoke Bio on a much more regular basis. While away, I have been working on the actual book fairly regularly, but with a year that included the death of my father, moving my mother across the country and a thousand other things pulling me in other directions, it's been a challenge. I've begun doing a radio show on oral history, Difficult Histories, plus two other blogs,the true sentence, and look,read,listen, not to mention holding down my regular job as a crime reporter. Anyhow, I'm including a teaser for a piece I wrote for a local magazine called "Columbia County History & Heritage," about Morrissey's role in bringing down William "Boss" Tweed. The article also includes the part played by Samuel Tilden, the man who should have been America's 19th president, but was cheated out of the job in a back-room deal. The magazine can be purchased for $5.00 U.S. here, or if you can stand the wait, it is supposed to be archived on the site for a free download, but it may be awhile before that happens.
On October 28, 1871 William “Boss” Tweed sat behind his desk in New York City waiting for the sheriff to arrest him. Once Tweed was one of the most powerful men in America, his office the epicenter of a vast political network, the tendrils—and associated earnings—of which always led back to Tweed. But now he was about to be arrested like a common thief. It seemed that the city which was once his personal fiefdom now assailed him from all sides, starting with the newspapers and the cartoonist Thomas Nast, with his “damned pictures.” But of all his enemies Tweed had special enmity for John Morrissey, his former compatriot.
Born on February 12, 1831, John was the only son of Julia and Timothy Morrissey. The couple was of the poorer classes of Templemore, a town of about 5,000 souls in County Tipperary, Ireland. Poverty and a feeling of being hobbled in their own country may have helped in the Morrissey’s decision to immigrate to Troy, New York three years after John was born.
Morrissey began working full-time at age twelve. His father was a poor laborer and he needed John to help feed the family that included seven sisters. The boy’s many jobs included one where he transferred red-hot iron from the fire to a water trough at Burden’s Iron Works. He would make a name for himself as a local brawler, which he would eventually parlay into a career as a boxer. He won the title of “Champion of America” in 1853 in a 37-round fight that took place on a tiny triangle of land known as “Hell’s Acres."
Morrissey held on to his title for six years and went out on top, beating John C. Heenan, known as the Benicia Boy, in 11 rounds that took just under 30 minutes on a marshy point of land jutting into Lake Erie called Long Point in Ontario, Canada. It was Morrissey’s last fight; his wife, Susie, finally won out. She had bigger plans for John. It was time for him to parlay his fighting career into a political one. Morrissey the politician was born.
Morrissey’s relationship with Tammany and Tweed stretched back to before his boxing career had begun, to the late 1840s when he had come from Troy to seek his fortune. He became a “shoulder hitter” for the political organization, dragging voters to the polls to ensure that the Tammany Democrats won the day. He moved up in the organization and was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1866 with Tammany’s backing, which, according to him, he paid for handsomely. But, said Morrissey, he did not have to buy the voters, telling a reporter years later that except for drinks he did not spend a penny. Instead he won the electorate over by meeting as many of them as humanly possible. If he encountered a man who was not planning on voting for him he would continue visiting him until he would. One can imagine the effect on wavering voters of being stalked by a well-known boxer, whose first job in New York City was a shoulder–hitter.
Reelected in 1868, he had by then earned the respect of his fellow House members who found him considerate, keenly interested in the important issues of the day, and, above all, honest. He was well regarded within in his own party as well as by Republicans. It was at this time that Morrissey’s relationship with Tammany, and more specifically with Tweed’s ring, began to falter.
William Maeger Tweed was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Scotch Irish parents in 1823. Tweed was an apprentice in his father’s chair factory before joining the Americus, also known as the Big 6, volunteer Fire Company, eventually becoming its foreman. In nineteenth-century New York one could not even consider a career in politics without ties to the volunteer fireman who held the power of preserving a city filled with wooden structures that were always one matchstick away from conflagration.
Tweed held some fairly important political posts in the 1850s—He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1852 and the New York City Board of Advisors in 1856. However, it was being named the "Grand Sachem" of Tammany Hall in 1858 that opened the floodgates of power and wealth for him. In his position as Grand Sachem he could name whom he wanted to positions in the city government, for which many were willing to pay handsomely. He thus began to build upon the already well-established practice of patronage.
The Sons of St. Tammany was born of fellowship and patriotism in 1786 but soon found a new reason for being: politics. By 1798 Tammany was aligned with the Jeffersonians, under the leadership of Aaron Burr. Its true power and longevity developed through patronage, which Tweed perfected. Tammany’s political ideology was simple; keep politics friendly and provide jobs, patronage, and even citizenship to those willing to vote “early and often.” Their courting of newly arrived immigrants, especially the Irish, who were pouring in starting in the 1840s due to the potato famine, gave them a huge electoral power base. If that did not work they could always stuff the ballots.
With Tweed at its helm Tammany and the city government was soon populated with a number of men willing to break the law for personal gain on a level that had not been seen before. Among these were New York City Comptroller, Richard "Slippery Dick" Connolly, Mayor Abraham Oakey Hall, known as "Elegant Oakey,” and Peter B. Sweeny, the city’s corporation counsel. From 1854 to 1871 it is estimated that between $30 and $200 million was sucked out of the city’s coffers by Tweed and his ring, which in today’s terms would mean over a billion dollars. Their main scam was quite simple. They would overpay by up to 10 times on goods and services with companies that were in on it and take their cut from the inflated portion of the bill. Their crowning achievement may have been the county courthouse, which cost twelve million to build, with two-thirds of that cost being fraudulent.
In April 1870 the New York City charter was pushed through Albany giving Tweed and his gang full control of the city’s treasury. It allowed Mayor Hall to appoint all city officials as well. The charter also made it possible for Tammany to reduce the city taxes by 2 percent of assessed property value. As a result this move doubled the city’s debt to $90 million in a two-year period, between 1869 and 1871. Tilden said that the New York City Charter was sprung upon him but that he was virulently against it. He gave a speech in front of Tweed, by then a state senator, and the rest of the Senate before the bill’s passage, in which he railed against the charter’s potential abuses. But still he did not act.
Morrissey was one of the first Tammany politicians to break with Tweed, splitting in 1868 during his second term in Congress, helping to form a new group of New York Democrats called the Young Democracy. They had plans to ouster Tweed from Tammany Hall but Tweed learned of the plan and used policemen to prevent Young Democracy members from entering the building on the night of the planned coup in March 1870. While the political coup was unsuccessful, pressures from other corners would soon assist in the Ring’s unraveling. Among these was a German-born cartoonist named Thomas Nast. He was born in Landau, Germany in 1840, the son of an army trombonist. He immigrated to New York City with his family six years later. He would become the most celebrated, and influential, cartoonist of his day through his association with Harper's Weekly, where he worked from 1859 to 1860 and from 1862 until 1886. The stalwart Republican tended to see everything in stark black or white and around 1869 he turned his gaze, and pen, toward Tweed and his ring. With the onslaught of satirical cartoons and anti-Tammany editorials from New York City papers the tide was beginning to turn.
On October 28, 1871, it was Tweed’s turn to be brought to bear for his past misdeeds. At 12:30 PM Wheeler Hazard Peckham, a special prosecutor for the state, walked into the sheriff’s office and handed a deputy the arrest order for Tweed on charges filed by Marshall Champlain, New York State Attorney General. An hour later Sheriff Matthew Brennan, who had replaced O’Brian, walked into Tweed’s office at the Public Works building—Tweed had been appointed commissioner by Mayor Hall the year before—and served the papers. “Good morning, Mr. Tweed,” he said pleasantly.
“Good morning,” Tweed replied softly. “Mr. Tweed, I have an order for your arrest,” the sheriff told him. “I expected it,” Tweed replied, “but not quite so soon.”
Convicted in December 1873 on 204 charges of misdemeanor criminal fraud , Tweed served one year of a 12-year prison sentence and was immediately rearrested on civil charges upon his release. In 1875 Tweed fled to Cuba and eventually Spain. He was caught, due, in part, to his being recognized through one of Nast’s cartoons featuring Tweed. The cartoon showed Tweed holding two boys by the collar with one hand, and holding a billy club in the other and stating: "If all the people want is to have somebody arrested, I'll have you plunderers convicted. You will be allowed to escape; nobody will be hurt; and then Tilden will go to the White House, and I to Albany as Governor." A Spanish official, unable to read English, apparently thought Tweed was a child kidnapper.
By this time Morrissey had been elected to the New York State Senate in 1875, running on an anti-Tammany platform, known as the “Irving Hall Democracy.” After Tweed’s downfall Morrissey shared power with ”Honest” John Kelly, but was eventually ousted in a power play by his former political ally. Morrissey fought back, winning Tweed’s old district and helping to break Tammany’s hold on the city, at least for a few years.
Morrissey won a second term in the state senate but practically killed himself in the process. He went down south for several months, hoping that the balmier weather would improve his health but it did not. During this same time Tweed, back in jail after his Spanish adventure, was also close to death. Tweed died in the Ludlow Street prison in Manhattan on April 18, 1878. Although he had severe pneumonia, as did Morrissey, it was his heart that killed him. His family had practically abandoned him by now but one of his daughters, Elizabeth, was by his side. He mumbled out a number of his enemy’s names and said that they would probably be happy now that he was dead. Morrissey died shortly thereafter. On May 1, 1878, Morrissey’s wife, Susie, and a few of their servants stood nearby. When Morrissey finally succumbed, the entire state mourned his death. Tammany, however, continued to maintain a stranglehold on New York City until the 1960s.