The Knave Of Boston


Like a cuttlefish squirting clouds of ink to cover his trail, Coakley inserted an advertisement on the front pages of the Boston papers in the form of an open letter denouncing his enemies and defending himself and Pelletier. In December, 1920, a month after the advertisement had appeared and Cabot’s trial had begun, the court ruled that Coakley’s open letter had made it impossible for the defendants to receive a fair trial from jurors who had read it, and ordered the case taken from the jury. Adroitly, Cabot’s lawyer managed to obtain a not-guilty verdict for him on a technicality.

Several months later the bar association filed petitions in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for the removal from office and disbarment of Tufts and Pelletier, and the disbarment of Corcoran and Coakley on grounds of “deceit, malpractice and other gross misconduct.” Attorney General J. Weston Alien led the court battle for the disbarment of the four. Tufts’ case was the first to be heard. He was refereeing a football game between Princeton and Swarthmore in September, 1921, when the news came that he had been ousted from office.

The trial of Pelletier and Coakley was still to come. For them Boston’s mayoralty election in November seemed a way to avoid Tufts’ fate. If the popular Pelletier could get himself elected mayor with energetic help from Coakley, he could then thumb his nose at the bar association. Against this hope, Curley now came forward to announce that he would again be a candidate. With Curley and Pelletier splitting the vote, the odds were that the reformist John R. Murphy, brother-in-law of John Boyle O’Reilly, would be elected. Somehow Curley was able to apply enough pressure to persuade Pelletier to withdraw. But though re-elected, Curley did not forgive Coakley’s desertion.

Even under the shadow of the bar association’s inquiry, Coakley remained undaunted. The Watch and Ward Society he characterized as “the gang of hounds that have been chasing me for years.” He, Pelletier, and Corcoran appeared before the supreme judicial court in 1922. Corcoran confessed to various offenses, after which Coakley and Pelletier declined to offer any defense. Found guilty of conspiracy and gross misconduct, they were disbarred, Pelletier being removed from office. This still left them open to criminal prosecution, something they finally faced in 1924. Rather than subject himself to this, Pelletier committed suicide, although it was given out that he had died of a broken heart.

Corcoran and Coakley were tried. A sympathetic jury promptly acquitted them on all charges. Crowds of Coakley’s supporters surrounded the courthouse to cheer him as he emerged after shaking hands with each juror. He then announced that he would be the next mayor of Boston. Although he could not officially practice law, business in his office still hummed; nine or ten lawyers worked for him. Thanks to the trial publicity, however, the Internal Revenue Service was becoming interested in the mention of large fees apparently not accounted for in his tax returns. In 1928 the service notified him that he owed over four million dollars in back taxes from 1915 to 1922, plus interest of $680,629.36. He finally reached some settlement with the government; what it was has never been revealed.

In 1925 Coakley did indeed run for mayor. Curley could not be a candidate, since the law forbade a mayor to succeed himself. Coakley’s main issue was the downfall and death of Pelletier, whom he accused the other politicians of crucifying. In a field of ten he finished fourth, which was about what he had expected.’ At least he had ruined the chances of Curley’s candidate, Theodore Glynn. Four years later the flamboyant Curley was himself eligible. He was opposed this time by Frederick W. Mansfield, a man of somewhat dull integrity, more noted as a labor lawyer and past president of the Massachusetts Bar Association than as a politician. Coakley, too, ran again, not with any thought of winning but with the hope of garnering enough votes to defeat Curley. Night after night over the radio he begged Curley to release him from his oath as a lawyer “so that I can tell the people the truth about you.” “Dapper Dan,” Curley taunted him in reply, “you know the person responsible for the ruin of Pelletier. It was you, Dapper Dan!” This time Coakley received only a few thousand votes, failing to carry even his own Brighton ward, and Curley defeated Mansfield by a comfortable margin.

By 1930 the oncoming Depression had begun to take its political toll in Massachusetts. The Democrats had not elected a governor since 1914, but now the smooth-running Republican escalator that had carried so many politicians to the governor’s chair was beginning to clank. All signs pointed to 1930 as a Democratic year. The two leading candidates for governor were Boston’s Honey Fitz and Joseph B. Ely, a Democratic old-line Yankee from the western part of the state. The odd permutations of Massachusetts politics found Curley supporting Honey Fitz and denouncing Ely as an enemy of the Irish, for whom “no one with a drop of Irish blood in his veins” could vote. Supporting Ely, Coakley devoted his vituperative talents to attacking Curley in a series of radio addresses over a Boston radio station. Never in Massachusetts, possibly never before in the country, had anyone been attacked on the air with the invective Coakley now unleashed on Curley. Technicians stood by during the broadcasts, ready to cut off Coakley if he forgot himself to the point of delivering obscenities.