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.
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. 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. 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 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.
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.
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. Thus, James Curley embarked on a career in politics. His early political career included service in various municipal offices and one term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives (1902–1903).
Early 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, 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.
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 for 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 kept that reputation for the rest of his life and it was known all over the city that the poor and unemployed often lined up outside his house in the mornings to speak with him about getting a job or to get a handout of a few dollars to get them through the week.
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. (In the previous general election 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.
Mayorships and legal troubles
With the city of Boston turning increasingly Irish American, resulting in the departure of a large number of the city's Protestant American Yankee working and middle class to the suburbs, Curley was able to win four terms as Mayor of Boston: 1914–1918, 1922–1926, 1930–1934 and 1946–1950.
As a result of the extensive corruption in city politics, several investigations were finally conducted against Curley's machine. After several campaigns involving bribery, Curley finally faced felony indictment. 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.
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.
Having successfully fought through to influence the defense industry, Curley finally managed to gain influence on national politics. 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, before 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." John Hynes, the city clerk and acting mayor, had intentionally held many important agenda items back until Curley's release from prison so the mayor could handle them himself. Angered and insulted by Curley's remark, Hynes ran against him for mayor in the 1949 election, defeating Curley and essentially ending Curley's long political career.
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.
In the late 1930s Curley's political fortunes began to ebb. Denied Roosevelt's endorsement in the 1936 senatorial election, he lost against a moderate Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. He was twice defeated, in 1937 and 1940, for the Boston mayoralty by one of his closest former political confidants, Maurice J. Tobin, and in 1938 Leverett Saltonstall turned back Curley's attempt to recapture the Massachusetts governorship. After leaving the office of governor, he 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.
In 1942, however, 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 against 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.
With the end of the war, a growing cynicism among his traditional Catholic Irish American constituency, and a loss of Yankee electoral support, Curley's electoral chances fell. A failed mayoral bid in 1951 marked the end of his serious political career, although he continued to support other candidates and remained active within the Democratic Party. He ran for mayor one last time in 1955, his 10th time running for the office. His death in Boston in 1958 led to 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 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.
In popular culture
- 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.
- Duffy, Charles F. (2003). A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O'Connor. The Catholic University of America Press. pp. 192–193. ISBN 0-8132-1337-1.
- Burke, Gerald F. (November 2006). "James Michael Curley; A Lasting Hurrah". Jamaica Plains Bulletin. Retrieved August 27, 2012.
- Nelson, Chris (1997-08-29). "Crooked Boston Mayor Inspires Bosstones' New Hit". MTV News. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
- "Facts about Massachusetts". thingstodo.com.
- "Massachusetts - Fun Facts and Information". funtrivia.com.
- "'People' Editor - James Michael Curley and the #5 License Plate". Jamaica Plain Historical Society.
- "The Harvard History of James M. Curley". The Crimson. November 22, 1958.