James Michael Curley

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James Michael Curley
James Michael Curley.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 10th district
In office
March 4, 1911 – March 4, 1913
Preceded by Joseph F. O'Connell
Succeeded by William Francis Murray
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 12th district
In office
March 4, 1913 – February 4, 1914
Preceded by John W. Weeks
Succeeded by James A. Gallivan
53rd Governor of Massachusetts
In office
January 3, 1935 – January 7, 1937
Lieutenant Joseph L. Hurley
Preceded by Joseph B. Ely
Succeeded by Charles F. Hurley
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 11th district
In office
January 3, 1943 – January 3, 1947
Preceded by Thomas A. Flaherty
Succeeded by John F. Kennedy
41st Mayor of Boston
In office
Preceded by John F. Fitzgerald
Succeeded by Andrew James Peters
43rd Mayor of Boston
In office
Preceded by Andrew James Peters
Succeeded by Malcolm Nichols
Majority 2,315[1]
45th Mayor of Boston
In office
Preceded by Malcolm Nichols
Succeeded by Frederick Mansfield
48th Mayor of Boston
In office
Preceded by John E. Kerrigan
Succeeded by John Hynes
Member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born (1874-11-20)November 20, 1874
Boston, Massachusetts
Died November 12, 1958(1958-11-12) (aged 83)
Boston, Massachusetts
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Mary Curley
Gertrude Curley
Religion Roman Catholic[2]

James Michael Curley (November 20, 1874 – November 12, 1958) was an American politician famous for his four terms as Democratic Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, and one term as Governor of Massachusetts. He also served twice in the United States House of Representatives. He was as well known for his popularity in Boston, particularly with Irish Americans. During his 4th and final term as Mayor of Boston, he served time in Danbury Prison for a felony conviction.

Early life

Curley's father, Michael Curley, a juvenile petty criminal, left Oughterard,[3] County Galway, Ireland, at the age of 14. He settled in Roxbury, an Irish immigrant neighborhood in Boston, where he met Sarah Clancy, also from County Galway. They married, and in 1874, their second son, James Michael Curley, was born.[4]

Michael Curley turned away from a possible criminal career and into working. However, his early criminal connections remained intact. Consequently, when Michael Curley died when his young boy was just 10 years old, leaving the boy's mother a young widow forced to support her children on her own, James was soon enticed into the underworld of Irish politico-crime.[5]

However, his mother continually intervened to turn James away from his father's associates while working at a job scrubbing floors in offices and churches all over Boston.[6]

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).

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.

1st prison term

Curley's entrance into politics included the traditional practice of Ward politics such as knocking on doors, drumming up votes, and taking complaints. His easy affability combined with his connections quickly allowed him to use city services to solve constituent problems. Consequently, Curley rose rapidly through the Democratic Party's machine politics.

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." [7] 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.

First election to the U.S. House

James Michael Curley in his first term as a Member of Congress in 1912.

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,[8] ex-City Clerk J. Mitchell Galvin.)[9] In a three-way primary among O'Connell, Curley, and O'Connell's predecessor William S. McNary, Curley defeated O'Connell[10] 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.[8]

Mayor of Boston

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, allowing him to win four terms as Mayor of Boston: 1914–1918, 1922–1926, 1930–1934 and 1946–1950.[11]

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.[12]

His reputation as an urban populist earned him the unofficial title, "Mayor of the Poor".[13] 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.[14]

Second prison term

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.

Return to office

A crowd of thousands greeted Curley upon his return to Boston, with a brass band playing "Hail to the Chief".[12] 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."[12] 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.[12]

The 1932 Democratic National Convention

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.[15]

Governor of Massachusetts

James Michael Curley in his second term as Mayor of Boston, in 1922.

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.[citation needed]

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.

Return to Congress

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.

End of career

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.

Curley's personal life was unusually tragic. He outlived his first wife Mary Emelda (née Herlihy), who died in 1930 after a long battle with cancer, and seven of his nine children. 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."[16] He did successfully sue the film's producers.[17]
  • Curley was the inspiration for the song "The Rascal King" on the album Let's Face It by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.[18]
  • 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).[19][20]
  • The Curley family still holds Massachusetts auto registration number 5. It is owned by his step-son Richard.[21]
  • 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.[22]
  • 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'.[23]
  • 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.

See also


  1. The Hartford Courant (December 14, 1921), CURLEY WINS CLOSE BOSTON ELECTION Defeats Murphy For Mayor By 2,315 Plurality OTHER CANDIDATES RAN FAR BEHIND Mayor-Elect Was Opposed By Good Government Association, Hartford, Connecticut: The Hartford Courant, p. 19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Lawrence Kestenbaum. "The Political Graveyard: Index to Politicians: Cunnle to Curnutt". politicalgraveyard.com.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Beatty, Jack (2000), The rascal king: the life and times of James Michael Curley, 1874-1958, Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, p. 293, ISBN 978-0-306-81002-2<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Russell, Francis (June 1959). "The Last of the Bosses". AmericanHeritage.com. American Heritage Publishing. Retrieved 15 Sep 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Curley, James Michael (1976), I'd do it again, New York: Arno Press, p. 34, ISBN 978-0-405-09329-6<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "A Look at James Michael Curley in Power". Boston Irish Reporter. Boston Neighborhood News, Inc. 1 Nov 2009. Retrieved 17 Sep 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Who's Who in State Politics, 1912, Boston, MA: Practical Politics, 1912, p. 17<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 Foss Wins By 22,000 In Massachusetts; But the Rest of the Democratic State Ticket Has Probably Been Defeated., New York, NY: The New York Times, November 9, 1910, p. 2<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Galvin May Contest It; Recount Shows O'Connell Elected by Four Votes. Appeal to Congress Suggested By Republican's Lieutenants. McGonagle Displaces Pettiti as Representative in Ward 6. ORIGINAL RECPOUT Contest May Go to Congress. Tie Feared Till the Last. Down to Last Precinct, Boston, MA: The Boston Globe, November 11, 1908, p. 11. |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Both Lose Renomination: Keliher and O'Connell Defeated in Massachusetts Primaries. Majority of the Delegates to Democratic State Convention Will Go Uninstructed., Washington, DC: The Washington Post, September 28, 1910, p. 3. |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Municipal Register For 1922, Boston, MA: City of Boston Printing Department, 1922, p. frontispiece<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 O'Connor, T.H. (1997). Boston Irish: A Political History. New York: Back Bay Books.
  13. Nath, V. (November 1997). "Review: Redefining Urban Politics". Economic and Political Weekly. 32 (44): 2864.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Haley, Edward C. (October 29, 1949). "Colorful Mayor Dominates Boston Political Operations". The Harvard Crimson.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404701607.html
  16. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Burke, Gerald F. (November 2006). "James Michael Curley; A Lasting Hurrah". Jamaica Plains Bulletin. Retrieved August 27, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Nelson, Chris (1997-08-29). "Crooked Boston Mayor Inspires Bosstones' New Hit". MTV News. Retrieved 2015-10-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "Facts about Massachusetts". thingstodo.com.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Massachusetts - Fun Facts and Information". funtrivia.com.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Jamaica Plain Historical Society - 'People' Editor - - James Michael Curley and the #5 License Plate". jphs.org.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "The Harvard History of James M. Curley". thecrimson.com.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/glaeser/files/curley_effect_1.pdf


  • Bulger, William M. "James Michael Curley: A Short Biography with Personal Reminiscences." Commonwealth Editions 2009.
  • Beatty, Jack. The Rascal King: the Life and Times of James Michael Curley. 1992. ISBN 978-0-201-17599-8
  • City of Boston Statistics Department Municipal Register for 1922 (1922) Frontispiece.
  • Connolly, Michael C. "The First Hurrah: James Michael Curley Versus the 'Goo-goos' in the Boston Mayoralty Election of 1914." Historical Journal of Massachusetts 2002 30(1): 50-74. ISSN 0276-8313.
  • Connolly, James J. "Reconstituting Ethnic Politics: Boston, 1909-1925." Social Science History (1995) 19(4): 479-509. ISSN 0145-5532.
  • Dineen, Joseph F., The Purple Shamrock (1949), an authorized biography
  • Kenneally, James. "Prelude to the Last Hurrah: the Massachusetts Senatorial Election of 1936." Mid-America 1980 62(1): 3-20. ISSN 0026-2927.
  • Lapomarda, Vincent A. "Maurice Joseph Tobin: the Decline of Bossism in Boston." New England Quarterly (1970) 43(3): 355-381. ISSN 0028-4866.
  • Lennon, Thomas, producer, Scandalous Mayor. Film. 58 min.; Thomas Lennon Productions, 1991. Distrib. by PBS Video, Alexandria
  • Luthin, Reinhard H., American Demagogues: Twentieth Century (1954) ch. 2.
  • Piehler, G. Kurt. "Curley, James Michael" in American National Biography, 2000, American Council of Learned Societies.
  • Steinberg, Alfred. The Bosses: Frank Hague, James Curley, Ed Crump, Huey Long, Gene Talmadge, Tom Pendergast - The Story of the Ruthless Men who Forged the American Political Machines that Dominated the Twenties and Thirties Macmillan, 1972.
  • Trout, Charles H., Boston, the Great Depression, and the Ne Deal NY: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Who's who in State Politics, 1912 Practical Politics (1912)
  • Zolot, Herbert Marshall. "The Issue of Good Government and James Michael Curley: Curley and the Boston Scene from 1897-1918" Ph.D. dissertation, State University of New York, Stony Brook, 1975. Citation: DAI 1975 36(2): 1053-A.

External links

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Joseph F. O'Connell
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 10th congressional district

March 4, 1911 – March 4, 1913
Succeeded by
William Francis Murray
Preceded by
John W. Weeks
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 12th congressional district

March 4, 1913 – February 4, 1914
Succeeded by
James A. Gallivan
Preceded by
Thomas A. Flaherty
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 11th congressional district

January 3, 1943 – January 3, 1947
Succeeded by
John F. Kennedy
Political offices
Preceded by
John F. Fitzgerald
Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts
Succeeded by
Andrew J. Peters
Preceded by
Andrew J. Peters
Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts
Succeeded by
Malcolm Nichols
Preceded by
Malcolm Nichols
Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts
Succeeded by
Frederick Mansfield
Preceded by
Joseph B. Ely
Governor of Massachusetts
Succeeded by
Charles F. Hurley
Preceded by
John E. Kerrigan
Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts
Succeeded by
John Hynes