James Michael Curley, Governor

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James Michael Curley

Birthdate: (84)
Death: 1958 (84)
Immediate Family:

Son of Thomas Michael Curley, Sr. and Sarah J. Curley
Husband of Gertrude Marion Curley and Mary Emelda Curley

Managed by: Private User
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About James Michael Curley, Governor


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, as well as his connections to the Irish Mob and corrupt practices. His popularity was such that he was on one occasion reelected mayor while serving time in prison for a felony conviction.

Early life

Curley's father, Michael Curley, a juvenile petty criminal, left Oughterard, 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.

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.

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.

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 in 1937, on his last day as governor.

1st prison term

Curley's entrance into the politico-criminal world of Irish mob politics included the usual legitimate duty of Ward politics such as knocking on doors, drumming up votes, and taking complaints. His easy affability combined with his connections in the underworld quickly allowed him to use graft and corruption in the city services to solve constituent problems. Consequently, Curley rose rapidly through the Democratic Party's corrupt 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. 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

In 1910 while a member of the Boston 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. Despite the majority of the electorate being opposed to the growing Irish-American power in the district, the Irish Mob had extended its criminal corruption throughout the state and executed a major campaign at intimidating voters in marginal wards, stuffing ballot boxes, and other electoral corruption. After winning the nomination of the Democratic party Curley went on to win the general election, despite the actual number of voters, by a substantial plurality over Galvin, who was again the Republican nominee.

Mayor of Boston

With the city of Boston turning increasingly Irish American the power of the Irish mob also increased, resulting in the departure of a large number of the city's Protestant American Yankee working and middle class to the suburbs. In turn, Curley's reign as kingpin of the Boston Irish Mob allowed him 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, and as part of federal and state government efforts to curb the mob, several investigations were finally conducted against Curley's machine. As World War II got underway, Curley saw an opportunity to expand the Irish mob's influence in the defense industry. 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.

2nd 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". 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.

The 1932 Democratic National Convention

During the 1920s and 1930s, ethnic criminal syndicates rooted among America's large immigration population started infiltrating politics in a number of Caribbean and Central American states. Particularly easy prey were Cuba and Puerto Rico. Curley's criminal associates managed to obtain influence in the latter by importing Puerto Rican cheap labor, thereby doing an end run around America's newly enacted Immigration Restriction Act 1925. With this, Curley's Irish mob associates brought new influence to Curley in Puerto Rico.

Consequently, 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.

Governor of Massachusetts


Curley ran for Governor of Massachusetts in 1934, and this time he won, having lost in 1924. Over the course of his term, Curley's mob associations, graft, extravagant personal spending, expensive vacations, and generally decadent behavior drew criticism and a series of scandals rocked his administration. Curley was fond of call girls and chorus girls, frequented speakeasies and brothels, and in the process of his partying was involved in a number of traffic accidents which left several people injured. These accidents were eventually publicized and tarnished his office. Ultimately, these incidents, as well as his past associations, led to increased vulnerability to mob influence, and he was alleged to have sold pardons to state convicts and appointed poorly qualified individuals, including his brother John, to public offices.

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. In defeating 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 party primary. Eliot was the son of a Unitarian minister and grandson of Harvard president Charles Eliot and Curley based his campaign on appeals to ethnic, class and religious bigotry against the well to do White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Yankee Eliot. 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. During the term he compiled a voting record that matched his former opponent's in support of the Roosevelt administration's social agenda.

Return to the mayorality and prison

in 1947, Curley was reelected mayor yet again. During that term, he was charged with corruption and convicted. This did not stop him from being re-elected while being incarcerated, a rarity in political elections.

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 is 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 The 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 and film The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor. Curley himself thought so; initially considering legal action, he 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 corresponding numbers for his first, middle, and last name. James (5) Michael (7) Curley (6).
The Curley family still holds Massachusetts auto registration number 5.
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'.
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James Michael Curley, Governor's Timeline

Age 84