William "Boss" Tweed began his rise to influence in the late 1840s as a volunteer fireman in New York City. From this inauspicious beginning, Tweed managed to build a power base in his ward. He served as an alderman in 1852-53 and then was elected to a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1853-55. State and local affairs were his prime concern and he remained active in Tammany Hall, the organizational force of the Democratic Party in New York. Tweed emerged as the focal point of patronage decisions, giving him immense power.
Boss Tweed gathered a small group of men who controlled New York City's finances. They dispensed jobs and contracts in return for political support and bribes. Historians have never been able to tabulate the full extent to which the city's resources were drained. The amount was no less than $30 million and may have been as much as $200 million.
On January 1, 1869, Boss Tweed's man, John T. Hoffman, was inaugurated governor New York state. In New York City itself, Tweed reigned supreme. He controlled the district attorney, the police, the courts, and most of the newspapers. Although a Democrat, he defused criticism from Republican by putting scores of them on the payroll.
The inner circle of the Tweed Ring were Mayor A. Oakey Hall, city comptroller Richard B. "Slippery Dick" Connolly, city chamberlain Peter Barr "Bismarck" Sweeny, and William M. Tweed himself, president of the Board of Supervisors.
The Tweed Ring and Tammany Hall were not necessarily two sides of the same coin. Despite some overlapping membership, there was a constant battle between these forces. Tweed won an important victory in the state legislature in 1870 when a new city charter was approved. This change vastly increased the power of Tweed's small group as they submitted billings for city work that was never performed, concocted phony legal agreements and a variety of kickback schemes to line their pockets. Popular support of the Ring was maintained with charity and other gifts to the voters.
The tide began to turn against the ring by the efforts of the following:
The New York Times did a superb job of investigative journalism, laying out for the public many of the Ring's corrupt practices
Thomas Nast, the most prominent cartoonist of his era, targeted Tweed and his cronies, using a format understandable to recent immigrants and those who could not read
Good government groups ("goo-goos") sponsored reform political candidates who unseated corrupt officeholders
Samuel J. Tilden, a noted attorney and later a presidential candidate, managed to win a conviction of Tweed.
Tweed was tried, convicted of forgery and larceny, then sentenced to a 12-year prison term. He was released after serving only one year, but was quickly arrested on another corruption charge. He escaped, fled to Cuba and eventually Spain; he was extradited back to the United States in 1876 and died later in a New York City jail cell on Ludlow Street.