Historical Highlights

The Prison Escape of Former Representative William “Boss” Tweed of New York

December 04, 1875
The Prison Escape of Former Representative William “Boss” Tweed of New York Image courtesy of Library of Congress Former Representative William M. “Boss” Tweed eventually ran the Tammany Hall political machine, which controlled New York Democratic politics.
On this date, former Congressman William M. Tweed of New York escaped from prison in New York City. With an assignment on the Committee on Invalid Pensions, Tweed served one lackluster term as a Representative from a Bronx-based district in the 33rd Congress (1853–1855), voting in favor of the Kansas–Nebraska Act. He then devoted himself to New York politics, holding numerous offices including a stint in the state senate and on the New York City board of supervisors. “Boss” Tweed acquired most of his power in the 1860s and 1870s by running Tammany Hall, the New York organization that controlled Democratic nominations. In 1874, he was found guilty of embezzling millions of dollars from state and city government contracts to line his pockets and those of his supporters. Sentenced to 12 years imprisonment, Tweed was incarcerated at the Blackwell Island prison. By prison standards, he maintained the lavish lifestyle to which he had become accustomed as the city’s most powerful political figure: resting on a spring board mattress and adorning his cell with a velvet sofa and library books. Tweed’s sentence was subsequently reduced. Freed after one year, he was immediately re-arrested to face civil charges. During this second incarceration at the Ludlow Jail—while on a supervised visit to the home of a family member—Tweed escaped. He fled to Cuba and then sailed to Spain, where authorities arrested him as he disembarked and returned him to New York City. Tweed spent his final years in jail. Shortly before his death in 1878 he reportedly said, “My imprisonment will have a moral effect.”

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