The Impact of Images: Nast vs. Tweed

A good image tells an entire story with a single stroke. It ignites the imagination in a redetermined direction. Their comes from the fact that the viewers own imagination helps create that story. What do they imagine came before, what do they imagine comes after? And because they help create it, they are less likely to doubt when a contradiction to their own thoughts is presented.

In the mid-1800s, William Tweed rose to political power in the state of New York. There were long-standing jokes about ‘Boss Tweed,’ and his corruption told all throughout the state for years, but it wasn’t until cartoonist Thomas Nast aimed at the politician that his empire of corruption began to crumble.

Nast Drew cartoons of Tweed and his people taking part in various criminal activities, and abusing their power. In reaction, European investors panicked, withdrew and demanded payment on investments creating a financial crisis in the state. The images portrayed embezzlement, political corruption and intimidation.

At the time Nast had no proof and was creating cartoons based on rumors. The truth would eventually come out that he was right. But what if he had been wrong? None the less they still sparked investigations into the affairs of the politician.

In response to the political cartoons Tweed said, "Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!"

As investigations revealed the truth and depth of Tweed’s corruption, he fled to Spain. Based on what the Spanish had seen of Nast’s cartoons they arrested Tweed, not because they knew his crimes, but because they believed Nast’s images.

Perhaps a similar thing can be said today in the tide of fake news. “My constituents don’t read the papers or watch the news, but they can’t help seeing them damn pictures, and headlines.”