...in 1929, James Michael Curley, heavily favored to win his third term as mayor of Boston, used a radio appearance to defame a school committee member who had spoken out against him. The savage, and ungrounded, attack was unprecedented: his adversary was a woman, a wife, a mother, and popular civic volunteer. Curley's tactic of "do unto others before they do you" backfired, and he barely squeaked out a victory in the election two days later. One local newspaper would call it "one of the most dramatic incidents in the whole history of Boston politics." Between 1914 and 1950, the charismatic and resilient Irishman served four terms as Boston's mayor, one term as Massachusetts governor, and two terms in jail.
Few political figures of the twentieth century would be as controversial or as colorful as James Michael Curley. He employed a combination of cronyism, chicanery, and political patronage to dominate the Massachusetts political scene for more than three decades. His defenders note the progressive social legislation he championed and call him "Boston's Robin Hood." His critics point to the underhanded and illegal political tactics he condoned.
James Michael Curley was born in Boston in 1874, ten years after his parents emigrated from Galway, Ireland. The family lived in Ward Seventeen, an overcrowded slum. His father was a poorly paid unskilled laborer; his mother worked as a scrubwoman. His father died when he was 12, forcing him to leave school. The rest of his education was acquired in public libraries. In time, he would become a well-informed and eloquent public speaker.
The young man held a variety of jobs, but his true calling was politics. Although he would later sell insurance to support his family, by the time he was eligible to vote in 1896, he had decided that politics would be his chosen career. Two years later, James Michael Curley won his first elected office, a seat on Boston's Common Council. He would remain a force on the political scene for the next 50 years.
Curley had strong support among Boston's ethnic minorities, especially the Irish who made up about 40 percent of the city's population. His motto "Work harder than anyone else, preserve your self-respect and keep your word" earned him the loyalty of working-class voters. He was less concerned with ideas than with results: getting things done for those who needed it most. He was determined to improve the lot of Boston's poor and believed the end justified questionable means.
His first brush with the law came in 1903 when he was running for alderman. He impersonated a constituent who wanted a post office job and took the civil service exam for him. Curley was recognized and prosecuted; he served 90 days in jail. But his slogan, "He did it for a friend," aroused public sympathy. Curley won the election in a landslide.
During four years in the U.S. Congress, he focused on fighting immigration restrictions. Never comfortable in the Washington milieu, he returned to Boston in 1914 and mounted a successful campaign for mayor. He would serve a total of four terms.
He consolidated patronage under his personal control and then used his power to secure economic benefits and social amenities for Boston's working classes. He spent part of every day meeting with needy constituents and helping them find jobs, fuel, or food, or help with creditors, the police, or the courts.
He implemented a master plan based on the idea that the Yankee establishment could afford to finance uplift for the poor. He raised taxes and valuations to pay for massive public works projects, including libraries, health centers, improved roads, bridges, tunnels, subway stations, municipal buildings, parks, public beaches, bathhouses, and playgrounds. Many of Curley's programs foreshadowed Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. (To the surprise of many people and to the ire of Boston's Irish Curley supported and campaigned for Roosevelt rather than his fellow Catholic Al Smith.)
Curley made many enemies in his long career. He enjoyed verbally attacking the Boston Brahmins, and he encouraged his Irish constituents to blame their woes on the Yankees. Many of the people who had long dominated the city came to feel unwelcome in Boston. The exodus of Protestants to the suburbs that took place during the Curley era left a lasting legacy.
The anti-Curley forces played a large role in bringing corruption charges against him in 1937 and again in 1946. At the first trial he was convicted on questionable testimony of receiving a bribe. Unable to pay the $42,629 fine, he avoided jail only when thousands of Bostonians contributed to a fund to cover his expenses. He was elected to his final term as mayor (while a member of Congress) in 1945. The next year, he was convicted on a somewhat spurious mail fraud charge; he served five months before President Truman commuted the sentence. On Thanksgiving Day, Curley returned to Boston to finish his term as mayor.
When Curley died in 1958, his body lay in state in the rotunda of the State House while faithful supporters filed by to pay their respects to the man his biographer would dub "the Rascal King." Even a longtime opponent conceded, "The city would be a shabby place today without having had him."
Dictionary of American Biography, "James Michael Curley," Supplement VII.
Massachusetts: A Concise History, by Richard D. Brown and Jack Tager (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).
The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1874-1958), by Jack Beatty (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1992).
The Boston Globe, March 15, 1981.