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James Michael Curley

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Preceded by
Preceded by
John F. Fitzgerald

Preceded by
James Curley

I'd do it again

Preceded by
Gertrude Curley (m. 1937)

James Michael Curley 92825841jpgv8CC82CDAE0C1010

November 12, 1958, Boston, Massachusetts, United States

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The colorful politician james michael curley

James Michael Curley (November 20, 1874 – November 12, 1958) was an American Democratic Party politician from Boston, Massachusetts. One of the most colorful figures in Massachusetts politics in the first half of the 20th century, Curley served four terms as Democratic Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, including part of one while in prison. He also served a single term as Governor of Massachusetts, characterized by one biographer as "a disaster mitigated only by moments of farce", for its free spending and corruption.


James Michael Curley httpsuploadwikimediaorgwikipediacommonsthu

Curley was immensely popular with working-class Roman Catholic Irish Americans in Boston, among whom he grew up and became active in ward politics. During the Great Depression, he enlarged Boston City Hospital, expanded the city's public transit system (now the MBTA), funded projects to improve the roads and bridges, and improved the neighborhoods with beaches and bathhouses, playgrounds and parks, public schools and libraries, all the while collecting graft and raising taxes. He became a leading and at times divisive force in the state's Democratic Party, contesting for power with its White Anglo-Saxon Protestant leadership at the local and state levels, and with Boston's ward bosses. He served two terms in the United States Congress, and was regularly a candidate for a variety of local and state offices for half a century. He was twice convicted of crimes, and notably served time for a felony conviction related to earlier corruption during his last term as mayor.

James michael curley himself

Early life

James Michael Curley James Michael Curley Irish Catholic Massachusetts

James Michael Curley was born in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood in 1874. Curley's father Michael left Oughterard, County Galway, Ireland, at the age of 14, and settled in Roxbury, where he met Curley's mother, Sarah Clancy, also from County Galway. Roxbury, originally an independent city, was annexed to Boston in 1868, and Michael Curley worked as a day laborer and foot soldier for ward boss P. James "Pea-Jacket" Maguire.

James Michael Curley Walsh makes use of the infamous Curley desk The Boston Globe

Michael Curley died in 1884, when James was ten. James and his brother John worked to supplement the meager family income, while James took classes at the local public school. His mother is likely responsible for instilling in him the strain of generosity that would make up a significant part of his public personality. He left school at fifteen, beginning a series of jobs, including factory work and delivery jobs, the latter of which exposed him to large parts of the growing city. He sought to pass the civil service exam to become a fire fighter, but was too young to take the job. Curley's mother continually intervened to turn him away from his father's unsavory associates while working at a job scrubbing floors in offices and churches all over Boston.

James Michael Curley James Michael Curley American politician Britannicacom

The combination of his mother instilling good hard working values, while he watched his mother's back-breaking work and struggle against a backdrop of semi-criminal political graft in ward politics, influenced Curley's attitude toward the poor and the utility of political organizing for the rest of his life.

Political rise

As Curley came of age, Boston's politics was one of growing Irish power, a trend that was opposed by existing Yankee Protestant powers. Curley involved himself in both the local Roman Catholic church, and in the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal benefit society that assisted Irish immigrants and poor, and acquired a reputation as a hustler who was willing to help others get ahead. His entrance into politics included the traditional practice of ward politics such as knocking on doors, drumming up votes, and taking complaints. He first ran for the city common council in 1897 and 1898, failing to make the cutoff for a Democratic nomination in ward caucuses each year. Curley claimed because he was at the time outside the political machine, he was denied victory by corrupt counting of the votes. Curley was successful in 1899, by joining the machine faction controlled by Charles I. Quirk. He won election to the state legislature in 1901, and rose in the Democratic organization of Ward 17 to become its chairman. He established the Tammanny Club (named in a nod to the New York City Tammany Hall political club) as a platform for his personal political activities, including speechmaking and assisting needy constituents. Curley would recount stories of the ward's poor and needy lining up outside the club to ask for assistance in securing work or assistance. In his first two years on the common council, Curley placed roughly 700 people into what were essentially patronage positions. His reputation as an urban populist earned him the unofficial title, "Mayor of the Poor". According to the Harvard Crimson:

In his debut, Curley swept the city with a wave of reform that left his critics gasping. He built schools, playgrounds and beaches; he hired new doctors for the city hospital; he extended the transit systems and pulled down old elevated lines, making thousands of jobs. When the banks in Boston refused to lend him money for this spending spree, he bolted traditions and borrowed from banks all over the country.

Curley's first public notoriety came when he was elected to Boston's board of aldermen in 1904 while in prison on a fraud conviction. Curley and an associate, Thomas Curley (no relation), took the civil service exams for postmen in place of two men in their district to help them get the jobs with the federal government. Though the incident gave him a dark reputation in Boston's non-Irish circles, it aided his image among the Irish American working class and poor because they saw him as a man willing to stick his neck out to help those in need. During that election, his campaign slogan was, "he did it for a friend." He would also quickly gain a reputation for taking kickbacks in exchange for his support.

In 1910, while a member of Boston's board of aldermen, Curley decided to run for the 10th District U.S. congressional seat then occupied by Joseph F. O'Connell. He made this run even though he actually wanted to be mayor, because John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald wanted to reclaim that seat. In exchange, Fitzgerald promised not to run for reelection after a single four-year term. In the previous election for the seat, O'Connell won by a four-vote margin over his Republican opponent, ex-City Clerk J. Mitchell Galvin. In a three-way primary among O'Connell, Curley, and O'Connell's predecessor William S. McNary, Curley defeated O'Connell and McNary. After winning the nomination of the Democratic Party Curley went on to win the general election by a substantial plurality over Galvin, who was again the Republican nominee.

Mayor of Boston

Curley's election as Mayor of Boston in 1913 marked his consolidation of control over the city's politics, which he would retain until 1950, serving four separate terms (1914–1918, 1922–1926, 1930–1934 and 1946–1950), and always having influence even when he wasn't in that office. His first election was marked by a battle against Honey Fitz, who had opted to run for reelection despite his earlier promise not to. Curley secured Fitzgerald's exit from the race by threatening to expose a dalliance the older man had had with a cigarette girl in a Boston gambling den. Curley's role in this was abetted by Daniel H. Coakley, a lawyer of dubious morals whose specialties included extortion and buying off prosecutors to bury criminal charges against his clients.

Curley's first term included his family moving into a luxurious house in Jamaica Plain, which was plainly beyond the means of a typical civil servant's salary. Begun in 1915, the twenty-plus room mansion was apparently built by contractors seeking favors from Curley, the work frequently recorded as "no charge". Curley's finances were regularly investigated by the Boston Finance Commission, a body dominated by hostile Protestant Republicans, but he eluded legal charges in part through the intervention of Coakley. He was also able to effectively muzzle investigations by the local press by threatening libel charges against offending media. In one notable incident, he also physically assaulted the publisher of the Boston Telegraph for publishing unflattering articles.

In his first term Curley embarked on a series of public improvements, a practice he continued in his later terms as mayor. Projects included the development of recreational facilities throughout the poorer parts of the city, expansion of its public transit systems, and an enlargement of Boston City Hospital. He accomplished this with little regard to city finances, raising property taxes and securing loans from city banks, sometimes by threatening city inspectional actions against bank facilities. He deliberately tweaked the sensibilities of the Protestant "good government" advocates, suggesting that the Boston Public Garden be sold off, and that the Shirley-Eustis House be razed for failing to meet modern codes.

Curley's attempt at reelection was foiled by Martin Lomasney, the boss of Boston's West End. Lomasney, a longtime opposition figure to Curley in the city, orchestrated the entry of an Irish-American candidate into the 1917 mayoral race, who successfully siphoned enough votes away from Curley to hand victory to Republican Andrew J. Peters.

Governor of Massachusetts

When Curley was denied by a place in the Massachusetts delegation to the 1932 Democratic National Convention by Governor Joseph B. Ely, Curley engineered his selection as a delegate from Puerto Rico (under the alias of Alcalde Jaime Curleo). Some say his support was instrumental in winning the presidential nomination for Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he broke with Roosevelt after the president refused to appoint him Ambassador to Ireland.

In 1924, when he was Mayor of Boston, Curley ran for Governor of Massachusetts, but was defeated by then Republican Lieutenant Governor Alvan T. Fuller. In 1934, Curley tried again. This time he defeated Republican Lieutenant Governor Gaspar G. Bacon, an opponent of Roosevelt's New Deal, by more than 100,000.

Curley's single term as governor was described by one commentator as "ludicrous part of the time, shocking most of the time, and tawdry all of the time." It began with a shoving match with outgoing Governor Joseph B. Ely, and descended into bare-knuckle politics. Curley expended significant political capital seeking to defang the Boston Finance Commission, which was closing in on the financial malfeasance of his mayoral terms. Committee members were accused of failing to do their jobs and impeached, and investigators were fired. Curley was eventually able to install a more pliant commission membership, under which its attention turned instead to his political opponents. The negative press surrounding these actions ensured a loss of public popularity, as did his failure to significantly address widespread unemployment. His administration embarked on one major public works project, the Quabbin Reservoir, whose construction contracts were issued in signature Curley style.

Rather than seeking reelection as governor, Curley opted to run for the United States Senate in 1936. He lost against a moderate Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., in a general election that was otherwise a Democratic landslide. He was twice defeated, in 1937 and 1941, for the Boston mayoralty by one of his closest former political confidants, Maurice J. Tobin. In 1938 he made another try for the governorship, defeating incumbent Democrat Charles F. Hurley in a bruising party primary fight. He lost the general election to moderate Republican Leverett Saltonstall. Curley would take his revenge against Tobin later, supporting Republican Robert F. Bradford when Tobin sought reelection as Governor in 1946.

After leaving the office of governor, Curley squandered a substantial sum of his money in unsuccessful investments in Nevada gold mines; then he lost a civil suit brought by the Suffolk County prosecutor that forced him to forfeit to the city of Boston the $40,000 he received from General Equipment Company for "fixing" a damage claim settlement.

Second Congressional term

In 1942, Curley managed to revive his faltering career by returning to Congress, serving from 1943 to 1947, this time in the 11th district. He defeated his liberal opponent Thomas H. Eliot, a former New Deal attorney with an exemplary voting record on behalf of the Roosevelt administration, in the Democratic primary. Eliot was the son of a Unitarian minister and grandson of Harvard president Charles Eliot. Curley campaigned largely on appeals to working class anger toward the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Yankee upper class. Ultimately, Curley saw an opening in breaking the lock of ethnic politics in the state with the spectre of growing Communist influence. In a quote from a campaign speech which has famously entered Boston political lore, Curley raised the specter of Communist leanings in his opponent saying, "There is more Americanism in one half of Jim Curley's ass than in that pink body of Tom Eliot." Thus, despite his long-proven corrupting influence and antagonism toward the state's native Yankee population, Curley managed to win over substantial numbers of them, winning the election easily.

Last term as mayor

As a result of the extensive corruption in city politics, numerous investigations were conducted against Curley's machine. After several campaigns involving bribery, Curley finally faced felony indictments brought by federal prosecutors. Nonetheless, Curley's popularity with the Irish American community in Boston remained so high that even in the face of this indictment he was re-elected on the slogan "Curley Gets Things Done", winning an unprecedented fourth term as mayor of Boston in 1945. A second indictment by a federal grand jury, for mail fraud, did not harm his campaign, and Curley won the election with 45% of the vote. In June 1947, he was sentenced to 6–18 months on the mail fraud conviction and spent five months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. His sentence was commuted by President Truman, under pressure from the Massachusetts congressional delegation. City Clerk John B. Hynes served as acting mayor during his absence. Truman gave Curley a full pardon in 1950 for both his 1904 and 1947 convictions.

A crowd of thousands greeted Curley upon his return to Boston, with a brass band playing "Hail to the Chief". In a fit of hubris after his first day back in office, Curley told reporters, "I have accomplished more in one day than has been done in the five months of my absence."

Curley's bid for reelection in 1949 was squelched by Hynes, who took Curley's public comments as a personal affront, and marshaled support to defeat him in the Democratic primary. While Curley argued Hynes lacked experience, Hynes responded that the city could not "afford the city bosses anymore", and tapped into widespread dissatisfaction with the city's high tax rate to defeat Curley in the primary. During the lame duck period, Curley granted a large number of tax abatements, further hampering the city's finances, and granted exorbitant city contracts to cronies.

Hynes was again victorious in a 1951 rematch, and Curley's career in elective politics was over. He was financially supported by a state-granted pension ushered through the legislature by Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. Curley continued to support other candidates and remained active within the Democratic Party after his defeats. His death in Boston in 1958 was followed by one of the largest funerals in the city's history.

Personal life

James had two brothers: John J. (1872–1944) and Michael (born 1879), who died at 2½. Curley married twice, first to Mary Emelda Herlihy (1884–1930) in 1906 and then to Gertrude Casey Dennis, widowed mother of two boys, George and Richard. This marriage, on January 7, 1937, was on his last day as governor. George died at the age of 74 while Richard still lives in Massachusetts. Richard has 5 children and 1 grandchild.

Curley's personal life was unusually tragic. He outlived his first wife Mary Emelda (née Herlihy) and seven of his nine children. His wife died in 1930 after a long battle with cancer. Twin sons John and Joseph died in infancy. Daughter Dorothea died of pneumonia as a teenager. His namesake, James Jr., who was being groomed as Curley's political successor, died in 1931 at age 21 following an operation to remove a gallstone. Son Paul, who was an alcoholic, died while Curley ran for mayor in 1945. His remaining daughter Mary died of a stroke in February 1950 and when her brother Leo was called to the scene, he became so distraught that he, too, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died the same day, at age 34. Two remaining sons, George (1919–1983) and Francis X. (1923–1992), a Jesuit priest, outlived Curley.

Curley is honored with two statues at Faneuil Hall, across from Boston's new City Hall. One shows him seated on a park bench, the other shows him standing, as if giving a speech, a campaign button on his lapel. A few feet away was a bar named for one of his symbols, The Purple Shamrock.

His house, known in his time as "the house with the shamrock shutters," located at 350 Jamaicaway, is now a city historical site. His former summer home in Scituate also has shamrock shutters.

  • Curley is considered the inspiration for the protagonist Frank Skeffington in the novel The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor, on which director John Ford based his film with the same title. Curley, initially considering legal action, changed his mind, and upon meeting O'Connor, he told him he enjoyed the book, the passage he enjoyed most being: "The part where I die." He did successfully sue the film's producers.
  • Curley was the inspiration for the song "The Rascal King" on the album Let's Face It by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
  • Since Curley, every Boston mayor has been driven in a car with the license registration 576—which were the number of letters in his first, middle, and last name. James (5) Michael (7) Curley (6).
  • The Curley family still holds Massachusetts auto registration number 5. It is owned by his step-son Richard.
  • In a tweak at the state's WASP elite's rupture with its own constituency and origins, Curley appeared at the Harvard University commencement ceremony in 1935 in his role as governor wearing silk stockings, knee britches, a powdered wig, and a three-cornered hat with flowing plume. When University marshals objected to his costume, the story goes, Curley whipped out a copy of the Statutes of the Massachusetts Bay Colony which prescribed proper dress for the occasion and claimed that he was the only person at the ceremony properly dressed, thereby endearing him to many working and middle class Yankees.
  • A paper by Harvard economists Andrei Shleifer and Edward Glaeser, 'The Curley Effect: The Economics of Shaping the Electorate', describes the strategy used by Curley and other political leaders of increasing their political base by using distortionary economic policies to cause groups which tend to oppose them to emigrate as 'The Curley Effect'.
  • In the final Southern Victory Series novel Settling Accounts: In at the Death by Harry Turtledove, Jim Curley is a candidate for Vice President of the United States.
  • References

    James Michael Curley Wikipedia

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