Boston's Powerful Rogue
James Curley dominated Hub politics for decades - even from jail
JAMES MICHAEL CURLEY was a politician's politician: Over a 50-year period, he served as mayor of Boston four times and governor of Massachusetts once, and he was a congressman for two four-year stints more than 30 years apart. He was a city alderman, councilman, state representative, and unsuccessful United States Senate candidate.Skip to next paragraph
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But the man had a serious flaw: He was unabashedly corrupt. During his first term as mayor, he built an opulent neo-Georgian mansion on Boston's Jamaicaway while earning a mere $10,000 mayoral salary. As a state representative in 1903, he was convicted of fraud for impersonating a member of his staff in a civil-service examination. He spent 60 days in jail. After another mayoral stint, Curley was charged with theft from the city, and after 34 continuances in the legal proceeding, he was finally ordered t o pay back $42,000. In 1947, while mayor again, he served five months of an 18-month jail sentence for mail fraud.
Curley's remarkable story is told in "The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley," by Jack Beatty, a senior editor of The Atlantic. It is not the first telling of the tale: Curley was the model for Mayor Frank Skeffington in Edwin O'Connor's novel "The Last Hurrah," which was later made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy. But Beatty does an exemplary job of stripping away the many Curley myths that still abound in Boston. Using a multitude of sources, he reveals the complexity and contr adictions of the man as he really was.
It's impossible to understand Curley without understanding Boston, and vice versa. The Puritan Commonwealth of Massachusetts had, by the 1840s, become a prosperous, self-satisfied Yankee stronghold dominated by its own aristocracy, the famous Brahmins, almost all of whom were Unitarians, Congregationalists, or Episcopalians. Into this society poured tens of thousands of poor, Roman Catholic Irish immigrants escaping the death wrought by the potato famine.
The Irish in Boston ran smack into what many historians agree was the most inhospitable welcome ever granted white immigrants in this country. The influx gave birth to the anti-Catholic "Know-Nothing" movement; "No Irish need apply" was a common caveat in help-wanted ads.
Boston's Irish had no means to move on, and in many cases they settled into deplorable slums in the city. As Boston began a long decline after the Civil War, the Irish found upward mobility denied them by both discrimination and the decaying economy. Not until after World War II did many break free of poverty.
Boston's perennial politician came from the same social background that was to produce two Speakers of the House of Representatives (John W. McCormack and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr.), the Kennedys, and a host of other Massachusetts politicians of Irish descent who have served the nation with distinction.
While most of them tried to build coalitions that reached beyond an ethnic and religious base, Curley's strategy was to play on the traditional fears and pent-up frustrations of his people.