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William Magear "Boss" Tweed (April 3, 1823 - April 12, 1878) was an American politician and head of Tammany Hall, the name given to the Democratic Party political machine that played a major role in the history of 19th century New York City politics. He was convicted and eventually imprisoned for stealing millions of dollars from the city through political corruption. He was of Scottish-Irish descent.
Tweed had started his ascent as a volunteer fireman, which in 1840s New York City was often considered the first stepping stone into New York City politics. Tweed himself was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, the New York City Board of Advisors in 1856, and the New York State Senate in 1867.
Financiers Jay Gould and Big Jim Fisk made Boss Tweed a director of the Erie Railroad, and Tweed in turn arranged favorable legislation for them. Tweed and Gould became the subjects of political cartoons by Thomas Nast in 1869.
In April 1870 Tweed secured the passage of a city charter putting the control of the city into the hands of the mayor (A. Oakey Hall), the comptroller, and the commissioners of parks and public works. He then set about to plunder the city. The total amount of money stolen was never known, but has been estimated from $75 million to $200 million. Over a period of two years and eight months, New York City's debts increased from $36 million in 1868 to about $136 million by 1870, with little costs or expenditures to show for the debt.
Tweed defrauded the city by having contractors present excessive bills for work performed-typically ranging from 15 to 65 percent more than the project actually cost. This extra money was divided among Tweed, his subordinates and his cronies. The most excessive overcharging came in the form of the famous Tweed Courthouse, which cost the city $13 million to construct (the actual cost for the courthouse was about $3 million), leaving about $10 million for the pockets of Tweed and his gang. The city was also billed $3 million for city printing and stationery over a two-year period.
While he was known primarily for the vast corrupt empire, Tweed was also responsible for building hospitals and orphanages, widening Broadway along the Upper West Side, and securing the land for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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