The Knave Of Boston


Then on an afternoon in 1918 when he was sitting in his swivel chair in his State Street office with Mae on his lap, Barbour suddenly saw two faces appear over the transom and heard a gruff voice call out: “Ah, now we’ve got you!” Two men then burst into his office to identify themselves as officers of the law representing District Attorney Corcoran. As soon as they had left, Mae suggested that she and Barbour had better see a lawyer and took him to Coakley’s office. Coakley told the humiliated Barbour that it would take a great deal of money to resolve his dilemma, and suggested a down payment of seventyfive thousand dollars plus a fee of twenty-five thousand dollars. In the next few years the bearded old man, in failing health and going deaf and blind, paid Coakley almost three hundred thousand dollars.


Whatever the triumvirate’s victims paid, most of them preferred to keep their mouths shut. Coakley’s most notorious case, the one with the most extensive ramifications, concerned Mishawum Manor, an inn of dubious reputation in Woburn run by one Brownie Kennedy. One day early in 1917 a group of moving-picture magnates—among them Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky, and Hiram Abrams—gave a dinner for the film star Fatty Arbuckle at Boston’s Copley Plaza. After the dinner the others left Arbuckle, and a party of about fifteen headed for the Manor, where Brownie and her girls were awaiting them. Brownie was understanding, and the girls, between trips upstairs, were accommodating enough to take off their clothes. Somehow a photographer happened to be present. What followed, in the prim language of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, was “an orgy of drink and lust… a debauch in a bawdy house … a stench in the nostrils of common decency.” When the movie men left the following morning, they gave Brownie a check for twelve hundred dollars and thought that was the end of the party. In a few days they learned otherwise: they were informed that they might be indicted on a series of morals charges. Coakley had the bad news relayed to them by Mayor Curley, who personally put through the fateful telephone call. Lawyers for the movie men met with Coakley and finally agreed to pay a hundred thousand dollars to have the party forgotten.

Coakley and Pelletier, with Corcoran and Tufts in tow, had come to think of themselves as impregnable. Most Bostonians aware of the triumvirate’s activities were inclined to agree with them. One who stubbornly did not was Godfrey Lowell Cabot, treasurer of the New England Watch and Ward Society. Cabot, one of Boston’s wealthiest men, was a Brahmin of Brahmins, being not only a Cabot but also a first cousin and college classmate of Harvard’s President A. Lawrence Lowell, a cousin of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and a double third cousin of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

That singular Yankee institution the Watch and Ward Society had been founded in 1878 to watch over the morals of the once-Puritan city and to ward off influences—mostly sexual—detrimental to it, particularly in the fields of literature and the theatre. Once Cabot had set out in self-righteous indignation to destroy Pelletier and Coakley, he was able to utilize the Watch and Ward’s well-endowed facilities in the pursuit. He was quite prepared to use his own resources as well, and the more he unearthed about his quarry, the more determined he became to bring them down, regardless of cost. As word spread that Cabot was out to get Pelletier, numerous informative letters, some anonymous, began to arrive at his command post. All of them he investigated. Much to his surprise he found difficulty in engaging lawyers. None of the proper Boston law firms, all of whom should have been happy to represent a LowellCabot, showed any desire to tangle with a politician of Pelletier’s power and influence. “You can go out to kill a lion and get lots of people to help you,” Cabot reminisced long afterward, “but when you go out to kill a skunk you’ve got to do it yourself.”

Wary of their implacable antagonist, Coakley and Pelletier took countermeasures. One of Cabot’s detectives turned out to be a secret Coakley agent. Pelletier even attempted to trap Cabot with a prostitute. Cabot spent three years and over a hundred thousand dollars of his own money before he felt ready to act. In the welter of moves and countermoves, threats and counterthreats, he had come to fear for his life. (In fact, he was to live to be 101.) In 1917 he finally persuaded two sympathetic Republican senators to introduce a bill in the Massachusetts senate calling for an investigation of District Attorney Pelletier’s office by a governor’s commission. Somehow, for all its Republicanism, the senate remained immobile. That same year Cabot petitioned the supreme judicial court for the impeachment of Pelletier.

When the supreme judicial court in turn declined to act, Cabot took his documents to the Boston Bar Association, which had stood by impotently for years but now felt compelled to deal with the massive evidences of corruption he had brought to light. In 1918 the association, with Cabot at its elbow, began a three-year inquiry into the activities of Pelletier, Coakley, Corcoran, and Tufts. They struck back, securing an indictment for larceny against Cabot and two of his lawyers after Cabot had been found in possession of documents stolen from Coakley’s office, among them Hunnewell’s love letters.