three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
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The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York

A-BossTweedWilliam Marcy Tweed ("Boss Tweed") was the consummate Gilded Age politician. As leader of Tammany Hall’s patronage machine in New York City in the 1860s, he fixed elections; ensconced henchman into office; controlled the courts, governor, and legislature; "borrowed" from the city treasury; and skimmed the cream off his great public works. In playing Robin Hood to the city’s working-class and immigrant neighborhoods, he championed the poor—and amassed a huge fortune in the process. Boss Tweed, which recounts Tweed’s legendary rise and fall, reconstructs the life of this ruthless, highly skilled man. Except "for his stealing," Ackerman concludes, Tweed "would have been a great man; but then had he been honest, he wouldn’t have been Tweed and would not have left nearly so great a mark."
Carroll & Graf. 438 pages. $27.
ISBN: 0786714352

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[An] absorbing account of Tweed’s rise and fall. … [His life] may be ‘mythical,’ as Ackerman describes it, but it bears remembering as long as there is a politician on the take, a building inspector looking the other way, a trustee pilfering a trust’s accounts, a corporate CEO juggling the books." Michael Kenney

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Condemned for my sins to an ocean cruise, I’d rather share a cabin with Tweed than any evangelist, reformer, or improver of public morals, dead or alive. … Ackerman is superb on the creation of the Tweed system and its expansion from acceptable petty skimming to the glittering fellowship of the ring."
Pete Hamill

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Focusing on the years after 1871, when Tweed was either in court or jail, the book is based upon solid research in the available primary and secondary sources, and is replete with rich biographical details and colorful anecdotes that bring the period to life. … Boss Tweed is a pleasure to read, but it has a few faults." Kenneth T. Jackson

NY Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Boss Tweed, although erratically narrated and poorly organized, manages to get the job done, in large part because Mr. Ackerman has his hands on a terrific story with compelling characters." William Grimes

Providence Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"Ackerman tends to flood you with details, as if his reading of old newspapers gives him material he hates to keep to himself. Thus we learn too much about the elaborate wedding of Tweed’s daughter and about how Tweed looked in his coffin. But it’s good reading and, no, it didn’t really make me think about our former mayor [Buddy Cianci]." Donald D. Breed

Critical Summary

For historians, Tweed "is worth his weight in gold" (New York Times). Ackerman, who has written previous books on Gilded Age excesses, focuses on the years after 1870 when Tweed hopscotched between court and jail. Critics agree that Tweed, his cronies, and the crusading journalists responsible for his spectacular downfall come alive. Colorful details and a clear-eyed approach to both Tweed’s great leadership and even greater crimes highlight his opportunist philosophy and antics, though his formative years remain a mystery. A poor sense of chronology, combined with failures to address revisionist claims that Tweed was an "honest grafter" and examine his effect on the "soul of modern New York," weaken the book. Despite these flaws, Boss Tweed is an excellent history with modern-day parables.