Boss Tweed’s brazen escape from a city jail

TweedportraitNew York has had its share of corrupt politicians. But few cast as depraved a shadow as William M. “Boss” Tweed.

How brazen was Tweed? As head of Democratic political organization Tammany Hall, he passed a new city charter in 1870 that gave him control of the city treasury.

That allowed Tweed and his cronies to embezzle tens of millions of dollars, mostly by creating fake contracts, padding bills, and invoicing the city for services never rendered.

After an outcry on the part of The New York Times and Harper’s cartoonist Thomas Nast (below, one of his infamous illustrations of Tweed), he was tried and convicted of fraud and larceny charges in 1873.

TweedprisoncartoonnastHe should have been locked up for life. But a year later, his sentence was reduced from 12 years to one.

After his release from prison on Blackwell’s Island, he was rearrested on civil charges and sent to the Ludlow Street Jail—a relatively cushy prison for white-collar criminals.

Now here’s the really ballsy part. Because the Ludlow Street Jail was so accommodating, they allowed Tweed to take carriage rides in Central Park and visit his family at their Madison Avenue mansion (with a prison guard in tow).

TweedludlowstjailnytDuring one visit in December 1875, Tweed disappeared. He took off and fled the city.

Where did he go? First to New Jersey, then Florida, and then to Cuba. From there he made his way to Vigo, Spain.

However, the Spanish recognized him from a Nast cartoon and notified New York officials—who had offered a $10,000 reward for information about his whereabouts.

“When asked about his flight, Tweed said that some friends urged him to go to Turkey or to Egypt, where the telegraph could not so easily locate him,” wrote The New York Times, “but he finally picked Spain, hoping that in the absence of an extradition treaty the Spanish authorities would not surrender him.”

NY3dBookIntCoverNo such luck. He was sent back to the city, and a year later, in 1876, was again incarcerated on Ludlow Street.

This time, he wasn’t allowed daily family visits. He confessed his crimes in an attempt to win freedom, but he was convicted of nonpayment of a civil judgment and kept in jail.

He died there, on Ludlow Street, at age 55 in 1878.

Read more about Tweed’s crazy web of corruption in New York City in the Gilded Age, in bookstores and on Amazon starting on June 3. [Ludlow Street prison photo: New York Times]

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5 Responses to “Boss Tweed’s brazen escape from a city jail”

  1. Mer Says:

    I assume you mean he died there in 1886, not 1868?

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    No, 1878 he died–he was in bad health (as you can see, he was hugely overweight). But thanks for the catch!

  3. P. Gavan Says:

    I never knew Tweed had escaped — interesting story. My research shows that he was arrested in 1871, though — by a fascinating man named Marty Keese, who was then deputy sheriff. He was arrested at a suite at the Metropolitan Hotel on December 16 of that year, from what I discovered. Marty Keese went on to be the most famous of all City Hall custodians. Here is his amazing story, and some photos, too.

    http://frenchhatchingcat.com/2014/01/03/tom-cat-pet-of-city-hall/

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Wonderful story…not just about Marty but Tom, the “king of the sparrows” too.

  5. The lost dinosaurs buried under Central Park | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Hawkins’ work and the entire idea of a Paeozoic museum came to a halt thanks to William “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt Tammany Hall political chief who took control of the park in 1870 and had no interest in building anything […]

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