In 1871 the New York Times published a series of articles about William Magear "Boss" Tweed and his ring. The articles exposed theft on a grand scale. Boss Tweed didn’t care.
"My constituents can’t read," he said.
At the same time, on the pages of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast was attempting to destroy Tweed with his pen: no words, just pictures. Nast was a cartoonist and caricaturist. Tweed was stung by Nast as he had not been by The Times.
"Stop them damn pictures." He cried.
Nast drew a roly-poly Tweed with a headlight-sized diamond in his cravat looking clueless and pointing his finger at everyone else. The images proved it is far worse to be made a laughingstock than a knave.
Still Harper’s was no more successful in bringing Tweed down than The Times. Tweed explained, "As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?"
He might have added as long as he owned a fair number of elected officials who was going to do anything about it? What it took, in addition to exposés and caricatures, to tip the scales were a parade, a riot, 60 dead bodies, and 150 wounded citizens of New York City.
The Orange Riot of 1871 cast doubt on Tammany Hall’s ability to keep the peace and maintain order on the streets of New York. Popularity for Tweed tumbled and popularity for The Times articles and Harper’s cartoons grew exponentially.
In the river of ink, the most blatant was Tweed charging the city of New York $13 million ($178 million today) to build the county courthouse. What made it stand out in a career of corruption was that this apparently indefensible cost was defended by Tweed. Tweed kept books, and in order to make it all add up to the bottom line, there were interesting entries.
Line item: for a month’s work one carpenter was paid $360,751 ($4.9 million); for two days work, a plasterer was paid $133,000 ($1.8 million). Of course neither the carpenter nor the plasterer saw that money; it went into Tweed’s pocket. The immigrant boy with an elementary school education had a lot of expenses: a mansion and staff, a stable with horses, carriages, sleighs, chauffeurs and grooms, not to mention paying the members of his ring.
In 1873 Tweed was tried for theft on a grand scale. He was convicted of stealing from the taxpayers of New York an amount estimated between $45 and $200 million.
Tweed escaped from prison once, giving Nast the undisputed last laugh. Tweed took a job as an able seaman on a Spanish trawler. It was the worldwide familiarity of Nast’s images of Tweed that led to his identification, detention, and return to a New York City prison where he died. He was 54-years-old.
What might any of this have to do with the Berkshires? Boss Tweed’s attorney was the Berkshires’ own David Dudley Field, Esquire.
Field was born in Connecticut in 1805. When he was 14, he moved to Stockbridge when his father was named reverend of the Stockbridge Congregational Church. The Reverend Field remained in Stockbridge until 1837. David Dudley’s early education was in Stockbridge followed by a degree from Williams College.
All the Field brothers, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field, the man who laid the first trans-Atlantic cable Cyrus Field, the Reverend Henry Martyn Field, and Stockbridge attorney Jonathan Field maintained ties with Stockbridge. David Dudley built two summer houses in Stockbridge (Laurel Cottage and Eden Hill). It was David Dudley who introduced Melville to Hawthorne on that famous day in 1850.
In his private life David Dudley was erudite, gentle, and well-loved. In his professional life, he defied labeling. A lifelong Democrat, he switched parties to publicly support Abraham Lincoln. He was a Northerner and an abolitionist who defended the rights of Southerners in court after the Civil War.
He codified the New York penal code "to bring justice within the reach of all men." He built a reputation as a legal wizard and defender of the best principles. He then threatened his entire reputation by defending the most unpopular "robber barons" of the day, Jay Gould and James Fisk.
He faced bad press, threats of punitive action by the New York Bar, and accusations of corruption. Far from retreating to higher (and safer) ground, David Dudley followed defense of Gould and Fisk by defending Boss Tweed.
The trial in which Field defended Tweed against accusations of corruption ended with a hung jury. The next time Tweed was not so lucky. In the end, David Dudley emerged relatively unscathed.
Our Berkshires raised, educated, and sent out into the world a great legal mind and a courageous fellow who lived up to his principle. He put "justice within the reach of all men" -- even when they were generally and genuinely disliked.
A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.