Gilded Age New York’s “King of Diamonds”

In an episode that predated the Watergate break-in by 100 years, thieves broke into the New York City Comptroller’s office on September 10, 1871, and stole records that threatened to end the corrupt reign of Boss Tweed over the Tammany Hall political machine. Fittingly, the thieves used a symbol of the Tweed Ring – a diamond – to cut a hole in the glass office door. This is the story of Boss Tweed and the diamonds of Tammany Hall.

By Victoria Martínez

“Boss” William M. Tweed (1823-1878) in 1870 (Wikimedia Commons)

The thieves were either very stupid or very clever in using a diamond to break into the office of Richard B. “Slippery Dick” Connolly, New York City Comptroller, at the New York County Courthouse[1] that night in 1871. Whether they stupidly failed to consider how using a diamond would identify it as an inside job of William M. Tweed himself, or they cleverly chose a tool that was both quietly efficient and readily available to them, isn’t clear. But, like everyone else in New York, they would have been keenly aware of how closely associated diamonds were with the public image of corrupt “man of the people” Boss Tweed and the Tammany Hall political machine under his rule.

This was the beginning of America’s Gilded Age, and Tweed and his coterie of nouveau riche cronies used their ill-gotten gains with alacrity to set a standard of vulgar excess that included LOTS of diamonds. Before the early 1870s, diamonds were still relatively rare, a true luxury for the richest of the rich, and usually associated primarily with royalty and aristocracy.[2] Although he was a poorly-educated thug from New York’s Lower East Side, Tweed placed himself among this elite group by defrauding New York taxpayers to the tune of about $4 billion in today’s money.

A political cartoon titled, “Tweedledee and Sweedledum,” by Thomas Nast, that appeared in Harper’s Weekly on January 14, 1871, lampooning Boss Tweed and his new diamond. (Princeton University Library collection)

One of Tweed’s contemporaries remarked that Tweed “owns the only historical diamond in this country.”[3] He was referring to Tweed’s signature 10.5-carat diamond solitaire stickpin that perpetually adorned his ample chest. A Christmas gift from his “friends,” the diamond was worth $15,000 in 1870 (about $300,000 in today’s terms).[4] As one newspaper breathlessly reported in March 1871:

“This diamond… is no modern shoddy stone from the diamond fields of Brazil, or the new diggings of the African Cape. It is a diamond with a history. Torn from its ancient bed no one knows how many generations before the Mohammedan conquerors poured down upon the Peninsula, it graced the State of Rajah and Maharaja until toward the close of the fifteenth century it was brought to Europe by the agent of a great crown jeweler.”[5]

As the “boss” of Tammany, this provenance was an important part of setting him apart from – and prominently above – his own diamond-bedecked cronies. And bedecked they were. A January 1870 feature on the front page of New York newspaper The Sun about the annual ball of the Americus Club, describes 26 “Tammany Tigers” and what they were wearing as if they were debutantes (though clearly with a certain amount of satire intended).

Mayor Abraham Oakey Hall, for instance, was “faultlessly attired” in what sounds like head-to-toe green, including “a bottle-green fly-tail coat with half sovereigns of pure guinea gold for buttons” and a “shirt front… embroidered with shamrocks in green floss silk and immense emeralds [that] winked in its buttonholes.”

Surrogate Robert C. Hutchings’ “diamond [shirt] studs sparkled like fire-flies on a balmy night in June,” while Alderman Thomas Coman “was neatly dressed, but his brilliant diamonds were nearly hidden by a high-cut vest.”

Elsewhere, someone made the unpardonable error of mistaking Justice Victor J. Dowling for someone else “until the beams of the Justice’s remarkable diamond pin were thrown into his eyes.”

State Senator Michael Norton was one of the diamond-bedazzled “Tammany Tigers” featured in The Sun in January 1870.

Out of all these meticulously-dressed fellows, however, Tweed may have been particularly impressed with – or, rather, envious of – the diamond worn by his frenemy, State Senator Michael Norton. The Sun reported, “From his embroidered shirt bosom shone a huge solitaire which shone like the headlight of a locomotive.”[6] That Christmas, Tweed received his own undoubtedly superior diamond to shine like an even brighter locomotive headlight from his shirt bosom.

It would all be much funnier if most of these men had not been complicit in some way with the monumental fraud of the Tweed Ring.

With Tweed and Tammany, money greased a lot of wheels, and Tweed himself further rewarded compliance in the entire scheme with – what else? – diamonds. In 1870, for instance, one retiring official was presented with “a magnificent diamond stud, the largest ever purchased out of the contingency fund. It cost $1,500 [about $29,000 today], and was environed by a filigreed ring of twenty-two carat gold.”[7]

While Tweed must have felt at least some pressure to refrain from exceeding a suitably masculine display of more “restrained” and “simple” pieces of jewelry – such as diamond cufflinks, shirt studs, enormous stickpins, diamond-handled horsewhips, etc. – there was no need for such restraint when it came to the women in his life. For all their splendor, neither Tweed nor any of his cohorts could equal the blinding display of diamonds associated with the wedding of Tweed’s daughter, Mary Amelia, in May 1871.

“On the bride’s bosom flashed a brooch of immense diamonds, and long pendants, set with three large solitaire diamonds, sparkled in her ears… Her shoes were of white satin with diamond buttons.” The bride’s mother “wore splendid diamonds,”[8] – so many, in fact, that according to one modern description, “she threatened to take attention away from the bride.” Tweed, of course, wore his enormous diamond stickpin. All in all, “The Tweed family seemed to be a Christmas tree of diamonds.”[9]

Among the newlyweds’ – or, rather, the bride’s – wedding gifts were reportedly “forty pieces of jewelry, of which fifteen were diamond sets. A single one of the latter is known to have cost $45,000. It contained diamonds as big as filberts. A cross of eleven diamonds, pea size… A pin of sixty diamonds, representing a sickle and sheaves of wheat…”[10] All of the gifts, said to be worth $700,000 (about $14 million today), were described editorially in The New York Herald as:

“…a display of wedding presents unsurpassed by the collection of the celebrated Oviedo diamond wedding[11], or of any occasion of the kind, we dare say, since the marriage, two or three years ago, of a daughter of the Khedive of Egypt, and completely eclipsing the jewelry presents to the British Princess Louise, on the occasion of her union with the heir of the great Scottish Duke of Argyll.”[12]

The Herald editorial proclaimed, with irony:

“Seven hundred thousand dollars! What a testimony of the loyalty, the royalty, and the abounding East Indian resources of Tammany Hall! Was there any Democracy to compare with thy Democracy, in glory, power, and equal rights, under the sun? Never! Don’t talk of Jeff Davis and his absurd Democracy; don’t mention the Democracy of the Paris Commune, as representing true Democratic principles; but come to the fountainhead of Democracy, the old Wigwam, and you will get it there—if you get within the lucky circle of the ‘magic’ Ring.”[13]

Whether the Tweed ladies considered themselves “lucky” to be caught up in the Tweed Ring is not clear. Perhaps they enjoyed being walking, sparkling Christmas trees of diamonds. Tweed the vulgarian peacock certainly did, though undoubtedly not for their pleasure or benefit. For him, using his wife and daughter as evidence of his status and wealth was pure self-aggrandizement. As Thorstein Veblen, the man who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” wrote, women like Mrs. and Miss Tweed were “useless and expensive, and… consequently valuable as evidence of pecuniary strength.”[14]

In the end, both women abandoned him when his downfall came. Most everybody did, in fact.

Another Nast cartoon, “Stop Thief!”, that appeared in Harper’s Weekly on Oct. 7, 1871, depicting Tweed and his cronies panicking following the discovery of the Sept. 10 break-in. (Princeton University Library collection)

Tweed did manage to hold on to his diamonds, however. At least for a while. Considering that the bail for his first arrest in late October 1871 was $1,000,000, it’s not surprising that the first diamond to go appears to have been his enormous stickpin. At a court appearance in November 1872, “his historic diamond breast pin was absent,” according to The Boston Globe.[15] At another court appearance in January 1873, however, “he wore his well-known white silk necktie, [and] third-sized diamond studs…”[16].

Diamonds were of little help to Tweed when he died in Ludlow Street Jail – New York City’s federal prison – on April 12, 1878, alone, emaciated and friendless. “All his friends and fellow thieves, the other Ring fugitives, had fled the country or settled their charges with the government. Tweed alone had become the scapegoat, the face of corruption.”[17] The man who had worn the biggest, flashiest, most expensive diamond-with-a-history, had also taken the biggest fall.

“Tammany’s Four Knaves,” a later (1890) drawing by Nast, featuring Tweed as the King of Diamonds. (Library of Congress)

Years later, in 1907, The Mineral Collector reported on a necklace made of, among other gems, 700 diamonds weighing a total of 375 carats. It called it “one of the most ornate, elaborate and expensive jeweled necklaces seen for some time.” Several of the diamonds had a distinguished provenance, including “two… diamonds which once formed the chief stones in a pair of link cuff-buttons that belonged to Boss Tweed. These two weigh 45 carats.” They were among the largest diamonds in the necklace.[18]

In the years between Tweed’s death and this repurposing of his former diamonds, the Gilded Age had proved to the world that America could rival the crowned heads of Europe in sheer wealth and extravagance, and diamonds flooded the market like never before. Even so, it was the diamonds of a man whose pinnacle predated all of this, a so-called populist whose lackeys famously used a diamond to attempt to obscure his crimes, a man considered even today as the most corrupt politician in American history, that still loomed the largest.

A note to readers: I highly recommend John Adler’s excellent book, “Doomed by Cartoon: How Cartoonist Thomas Nast and The New-York Times Brought down Boss Tweed and His Ring of Thieves” (2008).


Main image: Detail of a cartoon by Thomas Nast that appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly on Nov. 25, 1871, featuring Tweed, still bedecked in his diamonds, sitting like a defeated emperor on the ruins of Tammany Hall (Princeton University Library collection).

[1] Now known as The Old New York County Courthouse, it was brand new – and not even fully completed – at the time of the break-in. Tweed enriched himself greatly in the building of the courthouse, but was also put on trial there. Today, it is more familiarly known as the Tweed Courthouse.

[2] In 1871, annual global diamond production exceeded 1 million carats for the first time (source: “Diamonds: A History” on CBS/60 Minutes). See also: “Diamond History and Lore” from the GIA.

[3] Fairfield, Francis Gerry. The Clubs of New York. New York: Henry L. Hinton, 1873, p 150. (The essay cited was originally published in 1871 in Home Journal).

[4] A transcript of a discussion with author Kenneth Ackerman, who wrote “Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York” (2005), can be found on the Gotham Gazette website.

[5] “Boss Tweed’s Diamond. From the Sacramento Daily Union, March 4.” The New York Times 15 Mar. 1871.

[6] “The Tammany Tigers.” The Sun (New York, New York) 7 Jan. 1870.

[7] “A Magnificent Present to the Hon. James Monaghan, Ex-President of the Board of Assistant Aldermen.” The Sun (New York, New York) 1 Jan. 1870. (Also, the connection to Tweed is noted in M.R. Werner’s 1928 book, “Tammany Hall,” p. 170 (see full citation in note 12).

[8] “From Poverty to Splendor: A Grand Wedding.” The New York Times 2 June 1871.

[9] Callow, Alexander B. Jr. The Tweed Ring. New York: Oxford University Press: 1969, p. 250.

[10] “Miss Tweed’s Marriage: A Retrospective Glimpse.” The Sullivan Democrat (Sullivan, Indiana) 17 Dec. 1873.

[11] A pre-Civil War wedding in New York that was so extravagant it drew intense criticism. See “A Diamond Wedding, and a Nasty Poem,” in The New York Times.

[12] Werner, M.R. Tammany Hall. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1928, p. 192.

[13] ibid 193

[14] Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. 1899. New York: Dover, 1994, p. 90

[15] “Boss Tweed in Court.” The Boston Daily Globe 19 Nov. 1872.

[16] “Another Day in the New Trial of Boss Tweed.” The Boston Daily Globe 9 Jan. 1873.

[17] “Boss Tweed.” The New York Times 27 Mar. 2005.

[18] Chamberlain, Arthur, Ed. The Mineral Collector: A Monthly Magazine. Mar. 1907: 4.


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