William “Boss” Tweed, notorious New York politician, built the Americus Club in Greenwich, Conn., as a summer retreat.
From the 1850s to the 1870s, Tweed managed a political empire that controlled much of New York politics. It awarded contracts to friendly businesses who, in turn, paid off the politicians. Tweed engaged in rigging elections, over-charging for work, demanding payments for phony legal services and more. When the dust settled in 1878 with Tweed’s death, it seemed the Boss Tweed ring hadn’t missed a single trick when it came to fleecing the taxpayers, managing to skim somewhere between $35 million and $200 million from New York budgets.
Tweed succeeded largely by sharing the wealth. While he personally benefitted from his government posts, investing heavily in Manhattan real estate, his friends did as well, as did the poor residents from the neighborhoods he represented. He dispensed loans, jobs and sometimes just plain old cash to those who needed his help, ensuring his hold on power. And he championed popular projects, like New York’s Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Americus Club’s roots go back to around 1860, when some of Tweed’s friends hauled their boats ashore near Greenwich’s Round Island in bad weather. They returned and erected tents for a seaside holiday at the island and at Rocky Point.
From that humble beginning, grew the Americus Club. The club featured a building that stood six stories high, with a mansard roof, turrets and sweeping porches that overlooked Long Island Sound. The club could accommodate 500 guests. All summer long it teemed with New York politicians and businessmen – all affiliated with Tweed’s Ring.
Tweed brought that same generosity of spirit to Greenwich and the Americus Club that he exhibited in New York, and it may be why many in Greenwich remembered Tweed quite fondly even after his arrest in 1871 and eventual disgrace.
Here then are seven scenes from Tweed’s Americus Club and his time in Connecticut:
Opulence at the Americus Club
No one has ever fully accounted for how much money Tweed and his compatriots stole from New York. Much of it he invested in Manhattan real estate, but he also lived a lavish lifestyle. He wore a 10-carat diamond on his chest, and naturally his summer digs were opulent.
Though the Americus Club started out as a small enterprise, over time it grew to become an enormous yacht club and a clubhouse as big as a hotel. Many New York public projects during Tweed’s reign were larded with expenses that could be syphoned off by Tweed and his cronies. Undoubtedly New York taxpayers provided much of the cost of building the Americus Club into a grand sight on the shore of Greenwich. One particularly prized rug was said to have been specially woven at a cost of more than $20,000. Tweed capped membership at 100 people. Initiation cost $1,000 and dues cost $250 per month,
Guests and members at the Americus Club dined on exorbitantly expensive meals with champagne served at every meal. The beds featured blue silk and white lace sheets, and black Italian marble mantels bore imported bronze statues. The club boasted all sorts of amenities and diversions. A barbershop, billiard rooms, pool rooms, library and bar all maintained by a staff of more than 100 servants. A stay there represented, one writer commented, the “ultimate in gaudy luxury.”
A tiger became the symbol of Boss Tweed, and Tammany Hall leaders in general. It’s remembered today mostly because cartoonists critical of Tweed used the tiger to represent him in their drawings and ridicule him as he fell from power. But the tiger symbol actually came from Tweed himself.
Tweed chose the tiger as the emblem of his Americus Engine Company – a volunteer fire department company that he founded as a young man – and he never got rid of it. At the Americus Club at Greenwich, the tiger appeared woven into rugs and upholstery, stamped into glassware. printed on programs and notices and emblazoned on the badges members wore.
One Tweed biographer reported that Tweed chose the tiger symbol from the label on a coffee can that he fancied.
Kindness to Children
One hallmark of Tweed’s character was unflinching kindness to those less fortunate. He approved 99-year leases at $1 per year to children’s hospitals and orphanages. The move infuriated his critics who claimed they violated New York City laws. But these decisions made him a hero to many of the city’s poor.
And his charity didn’t end at the city limits. Tweed hosted outings at his Greenwich Americus Club for orphans and sick children, with games and sailing and lavish barbecues. Likewise, he welcomed the children of Greenwich to the Americus Club for outings, including a grand Fourth of July party. Youngsters would recall Tweed himself urging them to be sure to eat their fill of sandwiches and ice cream.
Lover of Horses
Another of Tweed’s passions were his horses, He traveled the streets of Greenwich in a carriage pulled by teams of mixed black and white horses – checkerboard teams – using a four-in-hand hitch.
His stables in Greenwich reportedly cost a fortune to build – one report said $40,000, another $122,000. His critics sniffed, “Better to be one of Mr. Tweed’s horses than a taxpayer in New York.” And In Greenwich, people slyly noted that when Tweed went out in his carriage, seated on one side with a guest beside him, the carriage noticeably leaned in his direction, weighed down by his 300 pounds.
The First Ferry
In the 1800s, every robber baron and thief worth his salt had a private yacht to ferry him up and down the coast, and Tweed was no different. He had his own vessel moored in Connecticut. However, he determined he wanted to go one better to promote the town of Greenwich: a ferry.
In 1866, Tweed purchased the ferry John Romer from her owners who were in financial distress. Built in 1863, the sidewheel steamer operated as a ferry to Greenwich in 1866 and 1867. Despite warnings that the ferry would prove unprofitable, Tweed pushed ahead with the project. After two years he threw in the towel and the steamer made her way to other lines, eventually ending her life renamed as the Louise in Newport News, Virginia around 1905.
The Jury is Out
You never knew where a member of the Americus Club might turn up. It took multiple efforts to convict Tweed of any wrongdoing. His arrest in 1871 led to a first trial that, his critics complained, stunk of political tampering.
A Tweed ally decided what people to call as potential jurors. Two shady characters found their way on to the jury. And a third juror turned out to be a member of Tweed’s Greenwich Americus Club.
Unfriendly newspapers howled for the prosecutors to oppose the juror, but to no avail. The juror took his place on the panel and the jury declared that it could not reach a decision at the end of the trial. It deadlocked. A second trial, in which Tweed cronies had less of a hand, convicted Tweed.
Escape To Greenwich
A local legend holds that the last time Boss Tweed set foot in Greenwich, he was outrunning the law. Prosecutors tried Tweed twice, convicted him once and arrested him again to face yet another trial for corruption. In December of 1875 he was imprisoned in New York, awaiting trial. The jailer, a friend of Tweed’s, allowed him to leave the jail occasionally to go to his home for dinner.
On one of these trips, Tweed absconded and left through a rear door of his home. Unmissed for several hours, Tweed’s critics quickly raised an offer of a $50,000 reward for his return. The prosecutors would eventually learn that he had departed Cuba for Spain by boat. They had the Navy arrest him when he arrived.
But how did Tweed get to Cuba? Well, Greenwich locals recalled that near the time of his escape, a strange occurrence happened at the train station. A train stopped a bit short of the station at Cos Cob one night. When the station agent went down the tracks to investigate, he arrived in time to see William Tweed walking away from the train and boarding a waiting carriage, driven by a son of one of the Americus Club members.
When asked why he didn’t turn Tweed in for the reward, the station agent apparently contemplated all the jobs that Tweed had given to locals and all the money he had donated to the area. “I thought of it, but how could I?” he said.
Predicting the Future
Tweed had a keen eye for real estate, and he believed Greenwich would become extremely popular. Its days as a quiet little Connecticut town were numbered, he said.
In his book, Other days in Greenwich, or, Tales and reminiscences of an old New England town, Frederick Hubbard recalled Tweed pulling him aside and explaining his vision of Greenwich’s future:
“I shall not live to see the day, but possibly you, and certainly your children, will see all this land occupied by the fine estates of New York businessmen,” Tweed said. And his prediction came true, sooner than he probably expected.
After Tweed’s demise, the Americus Club operated for several years as the Indian Harbor Hotel. E. C. Benedict, a Wall Street investor, purchased the property and tore down the hotel in 1895 to build aa home on the land. The neighbors did not take to him. Newspapers noted he quickly got involved in a protracted dispute with an inn near his property over boundary lines and infuriated fishermen by trying to prevent clammers from harvesting clams in front of his estate.
The Tweed Ring by Alexander B. Callow
Americus Club line drawing, Harper’s Magazine
Tiger Head, painting by Joseph Hoffman Johnson, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of CIGNA Museum and Art Collection.
“Boss” Tweed in court yesterday, Digital Collections, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.