The “Boss” Comes to Wheeling
The notorious William Magear “Boss” Tweed visited Wheeling 143 years ago today on September 6, 1873, but the reason for his visit was then, and remains today, a mystery.
Who’s the Boss?
Tweed was a Democratic politician and the “Boss” (circa 1858-1871) of New York City’s infamous Tammany Hall, one of the most overtly corrupt political machines in the nation’s history. Tweed used a system of cronyism to make sure members of his inner circle, the “Tweed Ring,” were appointed to positions of power in city government; he essentially controlled city elections by awarding jobs to mostly Irish immigrant constituents in return for votes, as well as through outright fraud; and he used inflated building contracts, bribery, and kickbacks to embezzle tens of millions (hundreds of millions in today’s money) of taxpayer dollars. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast launched a relentless crusade against Tweed, principally in the pages of Harper’s Weekly.
According to legend, the power of Nast’s satirical depictions of Tweed caused the latter to despair, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles, my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”
His corruption fully exposed, and his support badly eroded, Tweed was arrested in 1871. The jury at his first trial deadlocked in January 1873, but Tweed would be tried again in November of that same year, and this time, he was convicted.
It was during the period between trials, in September of 1873, that Tweed, for some still unknown reason, visited Wheeling.
“Boss Tweed,” The Daily Intelligencer reported on September 6, “arrived in town yesterday evening, and took rooms at the McLure House.”
The town’s Republican newspaper gleefully floated sarcastic solutions to the Tweed visitation mystery, taking a jab at their Democratic rival newspaper, The Wheeling Register, in the process:
“Wherefore Tweed?–The city has been filled with surmises for a couple of days over the mysterious visit of Boss Tweed. There are dark hints that it was not wholly disconnected with the public affairs of this State, particularly it is thought the printing. One rumor was that he came here to enter suit against the late P.P. [Public Printer] for an infringement in the unauthorized use of his methods for absorbing the public funds; another that he wanted to join the Camden Ring, with a view of applying the Tweed centripetal motor to the machinery of the West Virginia treasury, but learning that Walker had been there before him, he abandoned the idea in disgust. The latest and probably most reliable story is that he came down here, out of a chronic inclination to finger large funds, to see if he could not secure an interest in the Register’s lottery in the capacity of treasurer, but that he found the place already suitably filled.” –Daily Intelligencer, Sept. 8, 1873
The “Camden Ring” refers to West Virginia Sen. Johnson Newlon Camden, who helped Rockefeller’s Standard Oil secure a nationwide oil monopoly. According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia,”He exploited his Senate position for personal and business advantage…one of the first of West Virginia’s political leaders to use his public position to serve his industry, a prototype of some who followed.” So “Camden Ring” is the West Virginia version of the “Tweed Ring,” or “Tammany Ring,” the Boss’s notorious engine of corruption and embezzlement. West Virginia was, at the time, experiencing a printing scandal similar to one of Boss Tweed’s notorious bilking schemes (he was director of the NY Printing Company and may have overcharged a time or two). The scandal involved Henry S. Walker and the printing of legislative materials and (over) payment by the state treasury.
In the same edition, the Intelligencer ran a satirical letter to the editor signed by “Solum,” who claimed to have called upon Tweed in his rooms at the McLure.
“Boss Tweed in Town.
To the Editors of the Intelligencer:
Learning that the Boss was in town we were filled with curiosity to see so remarkable a character, the champion regular Democrat of the nation, one who never bolted regular nominations and always stuck to the nominees; whose fame and renown had excited the emulation of our ring politicians and stimulated them to acts of repeated rascality. He was their divinity, at whose feet they knelt with the adoration of an Eastern Idolator. –But alas, In a momentary virtuous spasm the iconoclasts of New York destroyed their Idol, and now few so poor as to do him reverence, and he wanders like old Lear woefully wailing and inveigling against the degeneracy and absence of spinal marrow of the straight out democracy; the ingratitude of men who owed their all to his addition, division and silence; who, when the storms of adversity and popular wrath encompassed him about were the first to desert and leave to him naked to his former victims.
In company with several others we wended our way to the McLure House, sent in our cards and were admitted to an interview. We had hardly introduced ourselves when we were interrupted by a delegation of Straight Bourbon Democrats [essentially conservative, pro-Confederate], one of whom was mistaken by the Boss for an old friend of his and rushing incontinently from us he placed a hand on each of his shoulders and ejaculated: “What! it cannot be. Those eyes. Those mouth. Those nose. My old friend, Ben Butler!” The Boss was chagrined at discovering his mistake but recovered his good humor when he discovered that though mistaken in the personality of the individual, there were so many points of resemblance to his friend, outside of an accidental likeness, as to furnish a passport to his confidence and admiration. He was introduced to the balance of the party. Conspicuous among them was a statesman of the ring-tail squealer genus [pretentious, braggart]. He was not a member of the Americus Club [Tweed’s political and social organization]. He carries his like a Pike county Missourian does his bowie knife–in his boot. He amused the Boss by informing him that he weighed nine hundred and smelled like a wolf; that he shot, cut, and played cards; was not now nor ever had been a member of the Young Men’s Christian Association; was a Bourbon Straight, personified, and that he and his distinguished friends were running the machine in this State. He gave the Boss a history of the packed Parkersburg Convention, and the intrigues of the ring in the Legislature; how they had condoned and virtually acquitted the Public Printer by a packed committee; circumvented the Governor–In fact, gave him a full history of the conspiracy from the moment of its inception to its grand culmination in the Court of Appeals.
‘Twas glorious to watch the gleam of exultant satisfaction that illuminated the countenance of this Sultan of Straightouts during the recital, occasionally interrupting the narrator with ejaculations such as “Good Boy,” “Bully, “Shake,” “Put it there,” and other manifestations of his approval. The Boss said that they had done very well considering the circumstances. The management of that Printing Committee and the subsequent action of the Legislature was splendid; that he had given some attention to our affairs, and expressed his unqualified admiration of the late decision. None of Judge Barnard’s was deuce high to it; that the case was managed in a most masterly manner; that the irrelevant citations and confused sophistries was a Lethean legal lake [a river in Hades whose water caused forgetfulness of the past in those who drank of it] where facts, reason, and truth were drowned in oblivion; that the author was a bully boy; and that it was a pity to contract such peculiar powers in a pent up Utica like West Virginia and for such a miserable pittance as four thousand a year. No language can express his look of scorn and contempt when he referred to the small salary; said he had his eye on the organ here[The Register]; that there was not enough elan in it. Its editor, he thought, was too old to conduct a live newspaper, as senility smiled serenely and somnolently [drowsily or sleepily] in its editorials; that its lucubrations [pedantic writing] smote the ear like the heavy rumbling of a night cart over cobble stone pavement; and turning to a member eagerly remarked “that to make rascality respectable, you must mix it with brains.” As there was some curiosity to find out what brought him here, he said that he was recruiting a brigade of professional politicians of bourbon proclivities, entirely destitute of principle; that he was sure he could raise at least a regiment here, and that be intended to make Henry Walker Colonel.
There are some people who think that there is some significance to be attached to the coincidence of the Boss visiting our State just at the time when our Bourbon politicians are so active holding conferences in different parts of the State. As it was getting late, we rose to take our leave. The Boss insisted on our taking a drink, and the company were requested to indicate their poison. They all responded ‘Straight Bourbon.’ One indiscreet fellow who attempted to dilate his’n with water, was discovered, denounced as a Bolter, and kicked downstairs. Having business elsewhere, we left the Boss in close consultation with several prominent professionals. Thus ended our interview with the most remarkable living Straight-out.”
But What About the Register?
Despite being poked hard in the ribs, the Register had surprisingly little to say about the Tweed visit. In a small entry dated September 8 and titled, “A Conundrum,” they too professed to be in the dark regarding Tweed’s motives.
“Below we clip an article from the Pittsburgh Dispatch which says ‘Boss’ Tweed’s visit to this city was on ‘private business of an important nature.’ The question that is now troubling us, among others, is what that important business is.
‘The city [Pittsburgh] had a distinguished visitor in the person of the famous ‘Boss Tweed’ of New York. He was on his way to Wheeling on private business of an important nature…The Boss appears to enjoy good health and judging from ‘surface indications’ we should say that he takes his victuals as usual and rests well o’nights. William is callous alike to shame or public opinion, and were he charged with crimes ten times more serious than those alleged against him, it wouldn’t affect him a bit. He made a good thing of it while he had the opportunity, and having salted down ducats enough to keep him in princely style the balance of his days, he don’t appear to trouble himself much about what people say or think of him. Happy William.'”
Two Big Bills?
Although this was Tweed’s only known visit to Wheeling, it was not his first encounter with citizens of the Nail City, as we shall see.
And much like Wheeling’s own 300 plus pound “Boss Bill,” William “Big Bill” Lias, whose reign would start a few decades later, Boss Tweed had a complex relationship with his constituency, colored in large part by his acts of kindness on behalf of the poor and powerless. Like Lias, who was known for distributing free turkeys to those in need at Thanksgiving, Tweed played both the villain and the folk hero with equal aplomb and did it well enough to convince the Sisters of Visitation that he was a kind and generous gentleman, after all.
And lest we forget, Tammany and its Boss did help level the playing field for newly arrived, poor, and powerless immigrants facing nativist hostility and a stacked system with little in the way of public welfare protection (see for example, Machine Made by Terry Golway).
But First, Wheeling Went to the Boss: The Southern Fund Heads North
In November 1900, Sister Mary Baptista Linton of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, wrote an account of the October 1866 ‘begging tour’ for the Southern Fund, an effort by the Visitation Nuns to raise money for the nascent school and especially its southern patrons, whose fortunes had been drained by the just ended Civil War.
“Coming again in close contact with what is termed the ‘Upper Ten of Society,’ & witnessing at matured age some of the follies & vanities of a deluded world, our love for our priceless vocation seemed intensified a hundred fold. Just before we left Mt. de Chantal, we had read a newspaper account of an entertainment given to a large number of poor children by a Mr. Tweed of New York. To that gentleman we addressed one of our circular letters, soliciting a contribution to our ‘Southern Fund.’ By return mail he sent us a lovely letter, enclosing his check for $100. As we had not had time to acknowledge in a suitable way, this great kindness, we did so after we were installed in Mr. Stevin’s magnificent mansion. Mr. Tweed, responding to our invitation, called upon us. Being struck by the elegance of our surroundings & realizing that we two poor nuns were hardly equal to the usual mode of begging from door to door, he suggested that we should write request an interview with prominent rich men in New York, adding that an invitation emanating from such a princely mansion as was Mr. Stevin’s, would be responded to. He himself made out a list of parties to whom we were to write, & daily sent his orderly to get our letters & deliver them himself. Mr. Oakey Hall, Mayor of New York, was among the first of our callers. Handing us a Hundred Dollar greenback, he apologized for the smallness of the amount. Mr. Tweed had suggested that if the Mayor called, we should ask him to deliver a lecture for our cause. ‘He is a fine orator & will be flattered by your request,’ said Mr. Tweed. You may be sure we followed up this suggestion. The lecture was given ‘Prism of Charity,’ from which we realized $1,000. A few years ago, I heard that Mr. Hall & his wife had been received into the church! I could not resist writing to them my heartfelt congratulations. You have, I think, the touching reply he sent me. Now that he is in the enjoyment of his home above, I feel sure he prays for the success of the Mount.
Pray for poor Mr. Tweed. He, too, is in eternity & may need prayers. At the close of his first visit, he gave us a check for $1,000, and later on, an order for a livery stable near us, for their best coach, best span of horses & most reliable driver, to be used daily as long as we should need it. By this order the boss of the stable secured $700, so freely had we availed ourselves of the order.”
This rather interesting, handwritten account resides in the collections of the Archives of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, and appears here courtesy Jon-Erik Gilot, the Archivist of the Diocese. Tweed’s signature appears at the top of a donation book (also in the collection) that the sisters carried around with them while on their “begging tour.” Each donor signed their name and the amount they were pledging to the Southern Fund for Mount de Chantal. The list includes New York Mayor A. Oakey Hall’s signature as well as those of Tammany regulars like Andrew Garvey, Daniel Sweeney, George Barnard, and Peter B. Sweeney, among others. In the front of the book is an imprimatur from Bishop Richard Whelan explaining that the sisters were out collecting money with his blessing. The Sisters went to New York in October 1866, and Tweed visited them immediately after they arrived.
What became of Boss Tweed? After stints in prison, a civil suit by the state of New York, and flight to Spain where he worked aboard a boat, Tweed was captured, returned to the U.S., and sent to jail, where he died from pneumonia on April 12, 1878.