The Knave Of Boston


His attacks on Curley—“C UR -ley,” he always called him, stressing the first syllable—reached a climax the night before the primaries in a midnight broadcast. Trembling with hate, Coakley told his audience:

Since I last talked to you, two hours ago, my young son, Gael Coakley, a boy of 130 pounds, has been brutally assaulted by that masquerading thug who, God save the mark, is Mayor of Boston. In this WNAC studio, two hours ago, Jim Curley, the bully, the bravo, surrounded by a band of twenty blackguards, dashed into the broadcasting room where Chairman Frank Donahue of the State Committee had just finished giving a truthful talk about this marauding mayor.


In language unprintable, the guttersnipe language of his old jailbird days, this blackleg mayor, backed by his brigands, rushed at Donahue. “I’ll get you, you son of a bitch, if it’s the last thing I ever do.” My young son, alone with Donahue in the room, stepped before him. “Don’t, Mr. Mayor,” said he. “Get out of the way, you little son of a bitch!” shrieked the Mayor as, grabbing him by the arm, he held him close and, lifting his leg, “kneed” him in the groin. Then the gunmen companions of the Mayor struck the boy twice from behind. “Give it to him again,” said their gunman leader. … Tonight he uncovered himself in public. After tonight you don’t need anyone to tell you he’s a thug. Tomorrow you will see him in the dust.

Several weeks before the primaries Honey Fitz announced that he was no longer an active candidate, and Ely won the nomination easily. At a rally just before the election, the audience tittered slightly as Mayor Curley, presiding, introduced Ely as “the clean, able, brilliant leader of Democracy from western Massachusetts.” And among those cheering Curley in the balcony, sitting indeed in the front row, was none other than Dapper Dan Coakley. “Why not?” Coakley replied affably to an inquiring reporter. “We’re all good Democrats out to win.”

Ely defeated Republican Governor Frank Alien by only 16,000 votes in over a million cast, but his election was to mark the end of Massachusetts as a solidly Republican state. In 1932 he was re-elected by a 122,000-vote margin. During Ely’s two terms Coakley was a frequent visitor to the executive chambers. Whatever hold the disbarred lawyer had over the governor, Coakley could get what he wanted in the way of favors and appointments during the Ely administration.

In 1932 Coakley scored a vindication by winning nomination to the governor’s council from the Fourth District. Although not even a resident of the district, and unaided by Democratic party leaders, he received 37,000 votes to 19,000 for his nearest opponent. In that solidly Democratic section nomination was the equivalent of election.

The governor’s council, composed of eight members plus the lieutenant governor, is a curiously anachronistic survival from the pre-Revolution days of the royal governors. Until its wings were finally clipped after World War n, it had the veto power over all the governor’s appointments, pardons, etc. Though a councilor’s pay was small, he held great strategic power, since governors were forced to deal with him and consider his patronage and other demands. (Such blatant wheeling and dealing went on in the council chambers that at one point five of the councilors were under indictment.) It was a position made to order for Coakley.

As a councilor Coakley felt that the time had now arrived for his legal rehabilitation. In September, 1933, he petitioned the supreme judicial court for readmission to the practice of law, presenting over four hundred endorsers of his petition. They included dozens of Catholic priests, two bishops, the Jesuit presidents of Boston College and Holy Cross, former district attorneys, a United States district court judge, and even Al Smith.

When the hearing on the petition opened before Supreme Judicial Court Judge Fred T. Field, Coakley produced more character witnesses, including such prominent political figures as Senator David I. Walsh; former Assistant U.S. Attorney General William A. Lewis, a Negro and former all-American Harvard football star; Congressman John W. McCormack; Governor Ely; and James Roosevelt. Ely assured Coakley that if he were reinstated, “there will never be cause to criticize you again.” James Roosevelt wrote that he had found Coakley’s attitude “to have been on the highest plane at all times … an example which any citizen might choose to follow.” Finally Coakley appended endorsements from 3,740 Massachusetts lawyers and 63 district court judges and associate judges.

Coakley then grew so eloquent in his own defense that it was difficult to say whether he was asserting his innocence or expressing contrition. Judge Field finally asked him to make up his mind. Coakley decided that he was contrite. His petition was opposed by the crusty, white-haired president of the bar association, Robert Dodge, who maintained that Coakley had shown no real sense of penitence or guilt, and that many of his recent public statements had been manifest lies. Judge Field agreed. On March 29, 1934, he denied the petition.