- Historic Sites
The Knave Of Boston
IN ALL THE PACK, DAN COAKLEY DESERVED TO BE CALLED
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
They are all gone now—those vivid, venal characters who for a half century up to World War IIAC moved with insouciant relentlessness across the spotted field of Boston politics. One could scarcely forget Honey Fitz Fitzgerald jigging on the top of a cab on Election Eve as he sang “Sweet Adeline,” or Jim Curley at a rally, mellifluously reciting the Lord’s Prayer and pausing to whisper to an aide: “Get the son of a bitch that’s heisting my coat.” But the lesser figures are recalled only by old men turning over memories of the gaslit polling places of their youth—Martin Lomasney, for instance, the lantern-jawed mahatma of Ward 8, who commandeered such loyalty in his ward that the dead annually rose from their graves to vote for him; or blue-eyed Pat Kennedy, behind his East Boston bar, explaining in a proper brogue why the spalpeens deserved the spoils.
Such men were indeed a splash of color in the drab Puritan city. There was something to be said for them even in their roguery—although the retreating old-line Yankees were not the ones to say it. Their reputations are generally mottled. Only one emerges in consistently dark shades, though he was one of the cleverest- Daniel Coakley. If the others could have reached their goals on the straight path, they might even have preferred it. Dan found the devious route more interesting, more varied, more exciting, better suited to his restless, malicious temperament. Clever enough to have made an honest fortune, he preferred trickery, the double deal, turning the tables.
Coakley’s early years ran in the normal success-story pattern of such contemporaries as Jim Curley and Honey Fitz. He was born in Charlestown on December 10, 1865. At fourteen he quit school to work as a teamster. Later he spent a few months at Boston College, but ran out of money and took a job as a conductor for the Cambridge Street Railway Company. Evenings he filled in as a bartender in Haymarket Square. After he was caught repeatedly stealing carfares, the company discharged him for “negligence.” He moved on to New York, where he picked up shorthand and went to work as a reporter for the Sun . The following year he returned to Boston as sports reporter for the Herald and soon grew noted for his pungent vocabulary. He also made a local name for himself as a boxing referee.
He was then only twenty-one, a slight, easy-featured young man with cold blue eyes and wavy black hair, a polysyllabic vocabulary, and a voice that could be as sonorous as a church organ or as sharp as chalk on slate. But he could see no power to be had for the grasping in the newspaper world. His brother Timothy had become a lawyer, and Dan now set out to read law on his own in Timothy’s office. It did not take the activeminded young man long to pass his bar examination, and almost at once he developed a reputation as an “injurycase” lawyer. His experience as a conductor had taught him all the ins, and more particularly the outs, of streetcars. Anyone who tripped, fell, or stumbled on public transportation soon learned to come to Coakley. Not many months after he had set up practice, he was winning more and larger damages against the Boston Elevated Railway Company than any other lawyer in the city.
With his brother—whom he would later have put away as an alcoholic—he set up the firm of Coakley, Coakley, Dennison and Sherman, the last two names being merely Anglo-Saxon window-dressing. When he was twentynine, he moved to Brighton, a saloon ward near the abattoir, and in the next ten years proceeded to make it into his political bailiwick. (Boston, although in the power of the Irish Democrats, never produced an allcontrolling boss like Tammany’s Croker. Instead there were district and ward bosses.) When Honey Fitz was elected mayor in 1905, he rewarded Coakley for his support with the unpaid but patronage-weighty post of park commissioner. After Honey Fitz’s enemy Curley became mayor in 1914, Coakley resigned as commissioner, which Curley declared “relieved me of the task of removing him.” Yet Dan remained a potent political force, and at a dinner given him on his fiftieth birthday a year later at the Exchange Club it was Mayor Curley who made the speech presenting him with a thousanddollar hall clock, to the applause of assembled congressmen, former mayors including Honey Fitz, district attorneys, sheriffs, and judges.
As he approached middle age Coakley had turned from tort cases to criminal law and the larger civil suits. Notoriety dogged his footsteps. He defended Big Bill Kelliher, who had been caught looting the National City Bank of Cambridge. Even Coakley could do little for Big Bill, who was sentenced to eighteen years. For his defense he had given Coakley some twenty-three thousand dollars in tainted money, and he claimed from prison that he had paid his lawyer to bribe the United States district attorney and the jury. A sensational charge, but who could disbelieve Coakley’s eloquent defense of his own integrity? Certainly not his friend District Attorney Joseph Pelletier of Suffolk County, for whom he had once acted as campaign manager.