The Knave Of Boston


That November, Coakley was a successful candidate for re-election to the council at the same time that Curley was elected governor. But the archenemies now discovered themselves strangely compatible. Within weeks of Curley’s inauguration he and Coakley were meeting like old friends. The councilor and the governor needed each other. Curley’s single term was the most flamboyantly corrupt since that of the cynical, droop-eyed Ben Butler a half century before. During those hectic two years Coakley helped organize the governor’s purge of officeholders and was the prosecutor in a number of removal proceedings. What Curley wanted in and through the council Coakley saw that he got, and the governor returned the favors. In November, 1935, speaking at a Parker House luncheon with Curley present, Coakley hailed the “bully and blackleg” of only four years before as “the greatest governor the Commonwealth has had in fifty years.”

Coakley was now seventy, but not about to retire. He successfully ran for councilor in 1936, and again in 1938 and 1940. With each election his influence expanded, extending beyond party lines, mysterious and potent. No one could ever quite explain why former Governor Allen, that sterling Republican, should approach the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to ask diffidently if there was any chance of Coakley’s being reinstated at the bar. But much about Coakley could not be explained. During the Curley and Ely administrations the quality of Massachusetts mercy grew so strained that more convicts seemed to be leaving prison than entering—not only the misadventured amateurs but notorious professionals as well. Without the consent of the council no pardon could be granted, and most of the pardon petitions emanated from Councilor Coakley.

After one term as governor Curley was nominated for the United States Senate, only to be defeated in the election by the grandson and namesake of old Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. He was succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Charles “Chowderhead” Hurley, who had campaigned vaguely as a reformer. For a time under Hurley the pardon stream diminished, only to increase to torrent force in his last weeks. The difficulty with pardons, though, was that they were so apparent. Indictments might be quashed, prosecutions dropped, with no one the wiser. But a released convict became an all too obvious presence, particularly if he happened to get into further difficulties with the law. Publicity was unavoidable, and this would in the end prove Coakley’s undoing.

In December, 1938, shortly before leaving office, Hurley signed a Coakley-endorsed pardon petition for Raymond Patriarca, a Providence hoodlum already on his way to becoming New England’s Mafia chief. Patriarca had been pardoned after serving only eighty-four days of three concurrent three-to-five year sentences for armed robbery in Massachusetts. With his release the long-simmering pardon scandal at last boiled over.

Although by this time Massachusetts was becoming a Democratic state, reaction against the Curley-Hurley years was so sharp that in November, 1938, Massachusetts voters elected Republican Leverett Saltonstall governor, and a Republican legislature as well. After taking office Saltonstall appointed a special commission to investigate pardons and paroles over the previous ten years. Following some nineteen months of investigation the commission concluded that pardons and paroles had been freely granted to notorious criminals and that “substantial sums of money have been paid out for the procurement of certain pardons.” Without accusing Coakley directly of taking bribes, the commission nevertheless charged that he had delayed and hindered its probe and had been involved in most of the pardons it had condemned. The members felt that he should be charged by the legislature with “misconduct and maladministration because of his improper activities.”

Following the commission’s report the speaker of the house of representatives, Christian Herter, appointed a committee of three Republicans and two Democrats to study its recommendations. After some weeks the committee—with one Democrat and one Republican dissenting—reported that Coakley should be impeached. According to the Massachusetts constitution, “the House of Representatives shall be the grand inquest of this commonwealth; and all impeachments made by them shall be heard and tried in the Senate.” Under this article Coakley was charged on fourteen counts of official misconduct and malfeasance that included acceptance of bribes, the sale of pardons to felons, and acting “for his own profit and gain in violation of his oath of office.”

The house inquest was scheduled for June 13, 1941. Several days before this Coakley sent a four-page letter to each representative, deftly presenting his version of the pardon controversy and assuring the legislators that “when the truth is known, I am sure that ultimately I will be as pure as snow.” At the opening session the gallery was jammed. Coakley, with a son and daughter, was there. The accused councilor seemed grimly confident as he sat back and listened to Speaker Herter appeal to the legislators not to make their vote a party matter. In spite of the speaker’s plea the voting followed party lines. After three hours of debate 130 Republicans and 14 Democrats voted for the impeachment resolution, while 70 Democrats and 5 Republicans were opposed.