This week, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was convicted of seven corruption charges, which complicates his bid for reelection next week. But as this list of crooked leaders proves, power and corruption are old friends.
The undisputed poster child for graft and greed in American politics, Boss William Tweed raised corruption to an art form. As a member of New York’s Tammany Hall, Tweed and his cronies, including Mayor Fernando Wood, ran New York in the Civil War era as their own private money factory. Tweed once bought 300 benches for $5 each, then sold them to the city for $600 a pop. And that’s just the tip of it.
The building of City Hall was a clinic in graft: the city was charged $7,500 for every thermometer, $41,190 for each broom, and $5.7 million for furniture and carpets. One carpenter even received almost $361,000 for a single month’s work. And although he was crooked as a dog’s hind leg, Tweed does get a bit of credit from some historians for under taking many important projects that improved life in New York (albeit at enormous financial gain to himself). Tweed’s illicit profits were said to be in the range of $200 million, and that was in the 1860s! The law eventually caught up with the Boss, though, and he died in prison in 1878.
The 18th president of the United States was a great war general. But he was less skilled at avoiding scandal. To be fair, it wasn’t so much Grant himself as the cast of characters around him that caused all the trouble. Grant’s period in office (1869–1877) was marred by four major scandals: Crédit Mobilier, a railroad construction scandal during which the federal government and Union Pacific stockholders were bilked out of some $20 million; the Whiskey Ring, wherein over 100 Treasury Department officials were convicted of taking bribes and cutting deals for distillers; the Indian Ring, another scandal of bribes from companies licensed to trade on Indian reservations; and Black Friday, a scheme involving Grant’s brother-in-law that attempted to artificially inflate the price of gold. So, what’s buried in Grant’s Tomb? Let’s just say a lot of dirty laundry.
Well, you have to be the best at something. The non-government watchdog group Transparency International repeatedly ranks Bangladesh near the top of the list of the world’s most corrupt nations. You can barely walk a block in the capital of Dhakar without coming face-to-face with graft: you have to pay the postman to get your mail; bus drivers pay cops to let them drive their routes; victims of crime have to pay the cops to have someone arrested; doctors take bribes to dispense medicine; even meter readers get their palms greased for keeping energy bills low. It’s estimated that 6% of the nation’s GNP is spent on corruption. Not surprising in a place where the unemployment rate hovers around 70%.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the Cook County Circuit Court system based in Chicago was so corrupt and dirty that two federal investigations, Operations Greylord and Gambat, were undertaken to expose it. Lots of judges went to jail for their underhanded dealings, but the worst of the worst was the not-so-honorable Thomas J. Maloney. During the 13 years he spent on the bench (1977 to 1990), Maloney “fixed” as many as six murder trials, taking bribes from $10,000 to $100,000 from gangs to convict members of other gangs of murder or manslaughter. Eventually, the justice got his own justice as he was indicted and sentenced to 15 years and 9 months in prison. The fact is he’s the only judge in Illinois history to be convicted of fixing a trial. Of course, there would have been another in the same Greylord operation, Judge Frank J. Wilson, but he blew his own brains out just before the Feds came a-knocking.
Sure, there have been some bad popes. With a list numbering 262 and counting, there are bound to be a few bad apples, right? But Alexander VI (reigned 1492–1503) was the baddest apple of ’em all. A member of the Spanish branch of the powerful and corrupt Borgia family, Alexander bought and bribed his way onto the papal throne, and used it to gather wealth and women for himself and influence for his children. By some accounts he had as many as seven illegitimate children and carried on with numerous mistresses while he was pope. Alexander also made a fortune selling indulgences, and married off his beautiful fairhaired daughter Lucrezia three times, each time to someone richer and more powerful. When the pope finally checked out, he was left to rot and turn purple in the Sistine Chapel, until his bloated corpse had to be stuffed and crammed into his coffin—a suitably rotten ending for a very rotten man.
This article was excerpted from Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History’s Naughtiest Bits. You can pick up a copy in the mental_floss store.