James Michael Curley
|41st, 43rd, 45th, and 48th Mayor of Boston|
January 7, 1946 – January 2, 1950
|Preceded by||John E. Kerrigan (acting)|
|Succeeded by||John Hynes|
January 6, 1930 – January 1, 1934
|Preceded by||Malcolm Nichols|
|Succeeded by||Frederick Mansfield|
February 6, 1922 – January 4, 1926
|Preceded by||Andrew James Peters|
|Succeeded by||Malcolm Nichols|
February 2, 1914 – February 4, 1918
|Preceded by||John F. Fitzgerald|
|Succeeded by||Andrew James Peters|
|Member of the|
U.S. House of Representatives
January 3, 1943 – January 3, 1947
|Preceded by||Thomas A. Flaherty|
|Succeeded by||John F. Kennedy|
|Constituency||11th district (1943–47)|
March 4, 1911 – February 4, 1914
|Preceded by||Joseph F. O'Connell|
|Succeeded by||James A. Gallivan|
|Constituency||10th district (1911–13)|
12th district (1913–14)
|53rd Governor of Massachusetts|
January 3, 1935 – January 7, 1937
|Lieutenant||Joseph L. Hurley|
|Preceded by||Joseph B. Ely|
|Succeeded by||Charles F. Hurley|
|Member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives|
from the 4th Suffolk district
|Born||November 20, 1874|
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Died||November 12, 1958 (aged 83)|
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Mary Emelda Herlihy
(m. 1906; died 1930)
James Michael Curley (November 20, 1874 – November 12, 1958) was an American Democratic politician from Boston, Massachusetts. He served four terms as Mayor of Boston. 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. He also served two terms, separated by 30 years, in the United States Congress and was a frequent candidate for other state and national offices. He was twice convicted of criminal behavior and notably served time in prison during his last term as mayor. He is remembered as one of the most colorful figures in Massachusetts politics.
Curley was immensely popular with his fellow working-class Roman Catholic Irish Americans. During the Great Depression, he enlarged Boston City Hospital, expanded the city's public transit system, funded projects to improve 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 was a leading and at times divisive force in the Massachusetts Democratic Party, challenging Boston's ward bosses and the party's White Anglo-Saxon Protestant leadership at the local and state level.
His political tactics, which tended to drive businesses and economically successful people from the city, damaging the local economy, have become a source of study for economists and political scientists.
James Michael Curley was born in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood in 1874 to Michael and Sarah Curley (née Clancy).
Curley's father Michael immigrated from Oughterard, County Galway, Ireland and settled in Roxbury, where he met Curley's mother, also from County Galway. Michael Curley worked as a day laborer and foot soldier for Democratic ward boss P. James "Pea-Jacket" Maguire.
Michael Curley died in 1884, when his son James was ten.
James and his brother John worked to supplement the meager family income, while James took classes at the local public school. Curley left school at fifteen and took jobs in factory work and delivery which exposed him to much of the growing industrial city of Boston. He sought to become a fire fighter but was too young to take the job.
His mother is likely responsible for instilling in him the strain of generosity that would make up a significant part of his public personality. 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. His mother's influence and her back-breaking labor, along with a backdrop of semi-criminal political graft in ward politics, influenced Curley's attitude on poverty and political organizing for the rest of his life.
As Curley came of age, Boston politics were marked by growing Irish political power in opposition to traditional Yankee Protestantism. Curley involved himself in the local Roman Catholic church and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal benefit society that assisted Irish immigrants. He acquired a reputation as a hustler who was willing to help others get ahead.
Curley gained experience in the traditional practices of ward politics such as knocking on doors, drumming up votes, and taking complaints. He ran for a seat on the Boston Common Council in 1897 and 1898, but failed to achieve the Democratic nomination in ward caucuses each year. Curley claimed he was denied victory by corrupt vote counting, rigged against him because he was outside the political machine.
Curley was successful in 1899 by joining the machine faction controlled by Charles I. Quirk. In his first two years on the Council, Curley placed roughly 700 people into patronage positions. His reputation as an urban populist earned him the unofficial title "Mayor of the Poor."
Curley won election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1901 and became the chair of the Ward 17 Democratic organization. He established the Tammany 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 later recounted stories of the ward's poor and needy lining up outside the club's office to ask for work or subsistence.
Curley's first public notoriety came when he was elected to Boston's board of aldermen in 1904 while imprisoned on a fraud conviction. Curley and an associate, Thomas Curley (no relation), had taken the federal civil service exams for postmen in place of two men in their district. 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 also quickly gained a reputation for taking kickbacks in exchange for his support.
In 1910, while a member of Boston's board of aldermen, Curley challenged U.S. Representative Joseph F. O'Connell, a fellow Democrat.
His first preference was to run for Mayor of Boston, but former Mayor (and czar of Boston Irish politics) John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald ran for the office. In exchange for Curley staying out of the mayoral race, Fitzgerald promised not to run for re-election 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. Mitchel 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.
Despite his deal with Curley, Mayor Fitzgerald did run for re-election in January 1914. Curley secured Fitzgerald's exit from the race by threatening to expose a dalliance the older man had with a cigarette girl in a Boston gambling den. Curley was aided by Daniel H. Coakley, a lawyer whose specialties included extortion and bribing prosecutors to bury criminal charges against his clients. Fitzgerald withdrew, and Curley won the election over City Council president Thomas Kenny.
Curley's victory marked his consolidation of control over Boston politics, which he would retain until 1950. He served four separate terms as Mayor (1914–1918, 1922–1926, 1930–1934 and 1946–1950) and always held influence even when he wasn't in that office.
In his first term, Curley embarked on a series of public improvements, a practice he continued in his later terms as mayor. His projects included the development of recreational facilities in the poorer parts of the city, expansion of public transit, and an enlargement of Boston City Hospital. He accomplished this with little regard for 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 historic Shirley-Eustis House be razed for failing to meet modern codes.
During his first term, Curley moved his family into a luxurious mansion in Jamaica Plain, one plainly beyond the means of a typical civil servant's salary. Begun in 1915, the twenty-plus room house was apparently built for little or no charge by contractors seeking favors from Curley. 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 Coakley's intervention. Curley also effectively muzzled press investigations 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.
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. In 1918, the state legislature dealt Curley a further blow by enacting legislation forbidding Boston mayors from holding consecutive terms.
Pursuant to the new one-term restriction, Curley was elected Mayor in 1921 but was not able to run for re-election in 1925.
In 1924, while serving as Mayor, Curley ran for Governor of Massachusetts. He was defeated by Republican Lieutenant Governor Alvan T. Fuller.
In 1929, Curley won a third non-consecutive term as Mayor.
In 1932, Curley was denied by a place in the Massachusetts delegation to the 1932 Democratic National Convention by Governor Joseph B. Ely. Instead, Curley engineered his selection as a delegate from Puerto Rico under the alias of Alcalde (Spanish for "Mayor") Jaime Curleo. Some say his support was instrumental in Franklin D. Roosevelt's nomination at the Convention, but he broke with Roosevelt after the president refused to appoint him Ambassador to Ireland.
See also: 1935–1936 Massachusetts legislature
In 1934, amid a more favorable national and statewide environment for Democrats, Curley ran for Governor again. This time, he defeated Republican Lieutenant Governor Gaspar 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 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 administrations. 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 and turned its attention 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.
In 1935, in a tweak at the state's WASP elite, Curley appeared at Harvard's commencement (a traditional ceremonial function of the Governor) wearing silk stockings, knee britches, a powdered wig, and a three-cornered hat with flowing plume. When University marshals objected, the story goes, Curley reportedly 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.
In 1936, instead of seeking reelection, Curley ran for the United States Senate. He lost the race to State Representative Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a moderate Republican, despite a national landslide in favor of Democrats.
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.
Curley was twice defeated, in November 1937 and November 1941, for the Boston mayoralty by one of his former political confidants, Maurice J. Tobin. Curley took his revenge against Tobin later, supporting Republican Robert F. Bradford for Governor against Tobin in 1946.
In 1938, he made another try for the governorship, defeating incumbent Democrat Governor Charles F. Hurley in a close primary. He would go on to lose the general election to Republican Leverett Saltonstall, the former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
In 1942, Curley managed to revive his faltering career by returning to Congress, challenging Democratic incumbent Thomas H. Eliot.
Eliot was a former New Deal attorney with an exemplary voting record on behalf of the Roosevelt administration, but was also the son of a Unitarian minister and grandson of Harvard president Charles William Eliot. Curley exploited Eliot's background to appeal to working class anger against the Yankee upper class and, in a campaign speech which has entered Boston political lore, suggested Eliot had Communist leanings: "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 corruption and antagonism against the Yankee population, Curley managed to win them over in substantial numbers. He won the primarily easily and was re-elected in 1944.
In 1945, Curley opted to vacate his seat in Congress to run for a fourth non-consecutive term as Mayor of Boston. Curley appears[vague] to have been paid off by Joseph P. Kennedy (who supposedly agreed to pay off some of Curley's debt and may have helped fund his 1949 run for reelection) to vacate the seat so that Kennedy's son John could run for Congress in 1946 without significant Democratic opposition.
However, numerous investigations had been conducted against Curley's machine during his time in Congress, and he now faced felony indictments for bribery brought by federal prosecutors. Nonetheless, Curley's popularity with the Irish American community in Boston remained incredibly high in the face of his indictment. He campaigned on the slogan "Curley Gets Things Done." A second indictment by a federal grand jury, for mail fraud, did not harm his campaign either, and Curley won the election with 45% of the vote.
In June 1947, Curley was accused of accepting $60,000 from the Engineers Group, a firm Curley headed which was under investigation for war profiteering. He was found guilty of mail fraud and sentenced to 6–18 months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. Under pressure from the Massachusetts congressional delegation and in consideration of Curley's poor health, President Truman commuted his sentence after only five months. City Clerk John B. Hynes served as acting mayor during Curley's time in prison.
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."
In 1949, Curley was opposed for re-election by Hynes, who took Curley's public comments as a personal affront and marshaled support to defeat him. 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 his lame duck period, Curley granted a large number of tax abatements and granted exorbitant city contracts to cronies, further hampering the city's finances.
Hynes was again victorious in a November 1951 rematch, ending Curley's half-century career in elective politics.
In retirement, he was financially supported by a state-granted pension ushered through the legislature by 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.
James had two brothers: John J. (1872–1944) and Michael (born 1879), who died at 2½.
Curley married Mary Emelda (née Herlihy) (1884–1930). After her death, he re-married to Gertrude Casey Dennis, widowed mother of two boys, George and Richard.
Curley's personal life was unusually tragic. He outlived his first wife and seven of his nine children.
Mary Emelda 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., a Harvard Law student groomed as Curley's political successor, died in 1931 at age 23 following an operation to remove a gallstone. His son Paul, who was an alcoholic, died during Curley's 1945 mayoral run. 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 35.
Two remaining sons, George (1919–1983) and Francis X. (1923–1992), a Jesuit priest, outlived Curley.
Historian James M. O'Toole has argued:
Urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson has argued that:
The Curley House at 350 Jamaicaway, Jamaica Plain was designated a landmark by the Boston Landmarks Commission in 1989.
Curley is honored with two statues at Faneuil Hall. One shows him seated on a park bench. The other shows him standing, as if giving a speech, with a campaign button on his lapel. A few feet away was a bar named for one of his symbols, The Purple Shamrock.
Curley’ strategy of driving opponents outside of the city, described by Harvard economists Andrei Shleifer and Edward Glaeser in "The Curley Effect: The Economics of Shaping the Electorate," increased his political base by using distortionary economic policies, leading to long-term economic stagnation.