The Knave Of Boston


Coakley, Pelletier, and District Attorney William Corcoran of Middlesex County formed a smoothly operating triumvirate. Those who feared that they might be prosecuted for some previous delinquency found that the district attorneys concerned could be “reasonable” if approached by Coakley. It was soon noised about among the more knowledgeable in Suffolk and Middlesex counties that Pelletier and Corcoran would understandingly nol-pros cases brought to their attention by that champion of the people Dan Coakley. The understanding, however, was expensive. Some of the less sympathetic would even call it bribery. Coakley considered it more a matter of oiling the wheels of justice.

His most publicized case in the years before the entry of the United States into World War i was the breach-ofpromise suit brought in 1915 by Elizabeth “Toodles” Ryan against Henry Mansfield, the proprietor of the Ferncroft Inn, a roadhouse and gambling joint on the Newburyport Turnpike.

Toodles, a blonde, full-bosomed woman in the overblown style of the period, had lived from 1910 to 1914 at the Ferncroft, where Mansfield taught her how to read marked cards, to operate a rigged roulette wheel, and to perform other gamblers’ tricks. Her boss paid Toodles seventy-five dollars a week plus her keep. He also gave her presents and took her to Bermuda and Europe, signing her into hotels as his wife. In 1914 she suggested to him that a more substantial financial arrangement would not be amiss. When he demurred she packed her bags, reportedly shouting at him that “as a grandfather you’re fine, but as a man you’re rotten. I’ve got you now on gambling, I’ve got you on white slavery!”

Using Coakley, possibly on the advice of her friend Honey Fitz, Toodles then brought a breach-ofpromise suit against Mansfield. The Mansfield-Ryan case exercised all of Coakley’s formidable histrionic talents. Toodles and Henry he referred to as Beauty and the Beast. Mansfield was a “card cheat, guller of his friends, liar and piece of gross flesh.” Walking up to the quivering defendant and shaking his finger under his fleshy nose, Coakley declaimed: “Oh, the dog! Oh, the dog!” After hours of deliberation the jury failed to agree. Rather than face another such trial, Mansfield made a settlement with Toodles through Coakley. She had the last word. “I wouldn’t marry that fat old slob anyway,” she told reporters.

When Coakley waved his wand over the two district attorneys’ offices, indictments vanished and prosecutions were stopped in their tracks. Even after Corcoran was succeeded by a born-in-the-wool Yankee, Nathaniel Tufts, the new district attorney proved no less amenable than his predecessor. A call from Coakley’s office, a quick conference, and charges of larceny, fraud, theft, practicing medicine without a license, abortion, adultery, assault, receiving stolen goods, running a disorderly house, vanished like snow in April.

From this rewarding field it was only a step further for the triumvirate to create charges, concoct compromising situations. Here Coakley refined the old technique of the badger game, in which a man is maneuvered into the arms of a woman and then blackmailed. Dan developed his own squad of manipulable young women, ostensible husbands, and ostensible detectives to appear at the climactic moment, and real photographers to record that moment. As early as 1915 he had shaken down Hollis Hunnewell, of the wealthy Wellesley family. Hunnewell had kept a woman as his mistress for some years in Cambridge and had paid her regularly. As his affections waned so did his payments, and when they stopped she turned to Coakley, who wrote to Hunnewell at the Somerset Club. A few days later Coakley and Pelletier arranged to meet Hunnewell at the Parker House. There Hunnewell agreed to a ten-thousand-dollar settlement for the lady and five thousand dollars for a suddenly materialized husband. But this was by no means the end. Coakley had got hold of Hunnewell’s love letters, and before the cooled lover could reclaim them he was forced to hand over to Coakley an additional hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

There were a number of other incidents of like gender, involving such distinguished Boston names as Bigelow, Fiske, and Searles. Coakley’s most profitable coup, and one of the more pathetic, was his shakedown of an elderly Beacon Street bachelor, Edmund Barbour. In 1906, when Barbour was sixty-five, he had somehow made the acquaintance of sixteenyear-old Mae DaIy. Over a period of years she would visit him at his office, or sometimes on Sundays in his Beacon Street town house, sit on his lap, and let him “pet” her. As she herself admitted later, he never went any further than that. From time to time he gave her expensive presents.