The Knave Of Boston

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They are all gone now—those vivid, venal characters who for a half century up to World War IIAC moved with insouciant relentlessness across the spotted field of Boston politics. One could scarcely forget Honey Fitz Fitzgerald jigging on the top of a cab on Election Eve as he sang “Sweet Adeline,” or Jim Curley at a rally, mellifluously reciting the Lord’s Prayer and pausing to whisper to an aide: “Get the son of a bitch that’s heisting my coat.” But the lesser figures are recalled only by old men turning over memories of the gaslit polling places of their youth—Martin Lomasney, for instance, the lantern-jawed mahatma of Ward 8, who commandeered such loyalty in his ward that the dead annually rose from their graves to vote for him; or blue-eyed Pat Kennedy, behind his East Boston bar, explaining in a proper brogue why the spalpeens deserved the spoils.

Such men were indeed a splash of color in the drab Puritan city. There was something to be said for them even in their roguery—although the retreating old-line Yankees were not the ones to say it. Their reputations are generally mottled. Only one emerges in consistently dark shades, though he was one of the cleverest- Daniel Coakley. If the others could have reached their goals on the straight path, they might even have preferred it. Dan found the devious route more interesting, more varied, more exciting, better suited to his restless, malicious temperament. Clever enough to have made an honest fortune, he preferred trickery, the double deal, turning the tables.

Coakley’s early years ran in the normal success-story pattern of such contemporaries as Jim Curley and Honey Fitz. He was born in Charlestown on December 10, 1865. At fourteen he quit school to work as a teamster. Later he spent a few months at Boston College, but ran out of money and took a job as a conductor for the Cambridge Street Railway Company. Evenings he filled in as a bartender in Haymarket Square. After he was caught repeatedly stealing carfares, the company discharged him for “negligence.” He moved on to New York, where he picked up shorthand and went to work as a reporter for the Sun . The following year he returned to Boston as sports reporter for the Herald and soon grew noted for his pungent vocabulary. He also made a local name for himself as a boxing referee.

He was then only twenty-one, a slight, easy-featured young man with cold blue eyes and wavy black hair, a polysyllabic vocabulary, and a voice that could be as sonorous as a church organ or as sharp as chalk on slate. But he could see no power to be had for the grasping in the newspaper world. His brother Timothy had become a lawyer, and Dan now set out to read law on his own in Timothy’s office. It did not take the activeminded young man long to pass his bar examination, and almost at once he developed a reputation as an “injurycase” lawyer. His experience as a conductor had taught him all the ins, and more particularly the outs, of streetcars. Anyone who tripped, fell, or stumbled on public transportation soon learned to come to Coakley. Not many months after he had set up practice, he was winning more and larger damages against the Boston Elevated Railway Company than any other lawyer in the city.

With his brother—whom he would later have put away as an alcoholic—he set up the firm of Coakley, Coakley, Dennison and Sherman, the last two names being merely Anglo-Saxon window-dressing. When he was twentynine, he moved to Brighton, a saloon ward near the abattoir, and in the next ten years proceeded to make it into his political bailiwick. (Boston, although in the power of the Irish Democrats, never produced an allcontrolling boss like Tammany’s Croker. Instead there were district and ward bosses.) When Honey Fitz was elected mayor in 1905, he rewarded Coakley for his support with the unpaid but patronage-weighty post of park commissioner. After Honey Fitz’s enemy Curley became mayor in 1914, Coakley resigned as commissioner, which Curley declared “relieved me of the task of removing him.” Yet Dan remained a potent political force, and at a dinner given him on his fiftieth birthday a year later at the Exchange Club it was Mayor Curley who made the speech presenting him with a thousanddollar hall clock, to the applause of assembled congressmen, former mayors including Honey Fitz, district attorneys, sheriffs, and judges.

As he approached middle age Coakley had turned from tort cases to criminal law and the larger civil suits. Notoriety dogged his footsteps. He defended Big Bill Kelliher, who had been caught looting the National City Bank of Cambridge. Even Coakley could do little for Big Bill, who was sentenced to eighteen years. For his defense he had given Coakley some twenty-three thousand dollars in tainted money, and he claimed from prison that he had paid his lawyer to bribe the United States district attorney and the jury. A sensational charge, but who could disbelieve Coakley’s eloquent defense of his own integrity? Certainly not his friend District Attorney Joseph Pelletier of Suffolk County, for whom he had once acted as campaign manager.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

As soon as the result was announced, reporters flocked around Coakley to ask if he planned to resign. “Of course I don’t,” he snapped at them. “I intend to fight these impeachment charges to the end, because I am not guilty. I’ve been indicted before,” he added pugnaciously, “but I’ve never been convicted.” He announced that he would try his own case.

Knowing politicians labeled the forthcoming senate trial “the Mud Bath.” It was an apt designation for the first trial held in the senate in a hundred and twenty years. On August 23 it opened in the sedate eighteenthcentury senate chamber under the Wedgwood-blue and white lining of the State House’s gilt dome, with twenty-four Republican senators and fifteen Democrats ranged in a circle to decide Coakley’s fate. The proper Yankee and proper Republican Attorney General Robert Bushnell, a stocky man with thick reddish hair, a thin mustache, a long nose, and a slow but aggressive voice, was in charge of the prosecution.

In his opening statement Bushnell declared that he would prove Coakley guilty of fraud, falsehoods, and “tissues of lies” in obtaining pardons. The most telling evidence would be Patriarca’s pardon petition, drafted personally by Coakley, in which he had called the Providence gangster “a virtuous young man eager to be released from prison so that he might go home to his mother.”

Of fourteen articles of impeachment seven were concerned with the Patriarca pardon. In his petition Coakley had clipped eight years from the thirty-year-old Patriarca, making him a youth of twenty-two who had erred chiefly through inexperience and bad company, and naming three priests allegedly eager to endorse Patriarca’s petition: a Father Garneri of Quincy; Patriarca’s Providence pastor, Father Fagen; and Father Sextus Brambilla of East Boston.

The trial, roiled and vituperative as only Coakley could make it, lasted all September. Bushnell presented Patriarca’s record going back to 1926, showing him to be a gunman, thief, bootlegger, hijacker, gambler, pimp, racketeer, and murder suspect. The attorney general then revealed that Father Garneri—actually the Reverend Philip Guarino of Waverly —never knew Patriarca. In a deposition Father Guarino denied that he had ever talked with anyone about Patriarca’s pardon, or ever authorized the use of his name. Father Brambilla deposed that his signature had been obtained by fraud, since he had been told that Patriarca’s record consisted merely of minor juvenile delinquencies. Father Fagen turned out to be completely nonexistent.

Former Governor Hurley appeared among the witnesses, moon-faced, cautiously defensive. He could not explain why he had given Patriarca’s pardon such high priority. Coakley, he said, had presented the petition to him personally, stating that Patriarca had been persecuted by the Providence police.

At times Coakley and Bushnell seemed on the verge of blows. Taking the stand in his own defense, Coakley denied he had ever received money or anything of value to help Massachusetts convicts obtain pardons. In a voice that trembled, he told the senators that any charge that he knew the Patriarca petition contained untruths was “false as hell.” He admitted he had invented the name Fagen, but this was only because he could not recall the actual name of Patriarca’s pastor. In any case the whole episode was “trivial and insignificant,” and he accused Bushnell of attempting to torture him. Bushnell took two hours for his summing-up, his voice at times rising in shrill anger. While he was speaking Coakley sat twiddling his thumbs.

After the dragging weeks of trial the senators reached their verdict in only three hours. By a vote of thirty-three to six they found the Brighton councilor guilty on ten of the fourteen impeachment articles. As the voting progressed, the quiet of the otherwise almost silent chamber was broken by the sobbing of Coakley’s daughter Eileen; he himself remained impassive. At the session’s end he stood defiantly outside the chamber door to greet the die-hard six and glare silently at the others. Afterward he issued a statement to reporters, referring to himself—as he customarily did—in the third person. “Men are attacking Dan Coakley who know nothing of his good qualities,” he lamented. “I can say ‘forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’”

Disbarred, forbidden to hold office, Coakley nonetheless continued to appear on the well-trodden path between City Hall and State House as jaunty, brash, and conspicuous as ever. Weekly he attended the Parker House luncheons of the Councilors Club, where present and former members of the council ate with the governor after each Wednesday morning council meeting. His finances remained mysterious. He claimed that he had used up all his funds and was now dependent on his children, yet he still kept his suite in the Parker House, his town house in Brighton, and a country estate at Buzzards Bay on Cape Cod.

In 1942 Coakley appeared at the State House to take out nomination papers as a candidate for the United States Senate. Several pals came up to congratulate him on his healthy appearance. “It’s because I have a clear and good conscience,” he told them. But his career was over. He dropped out of the Senate race—young Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, overseas in a major’s uniform, was in any case undefeatable.

By the war’s end Coakley had given up his Brighton house and was spending most of his time at Buzzards Bay. When he was eighty-one, he announced that he was writing his memoirs, “The Sparkling Past,” and had already signed a contract with a well-known publisher. He was setting down the unvarnished truth about Massachusetts leaders “from the Supreme Court down, in all their stark nakedness and Jacob’s robes—the most famous and infamous in the long and glorious history of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” According to Coakley, prominent national, state, county, and city officials had already read extracts and had “predicted this book will be the classic of the century.” It would, he said, enable him to move for reinstatement to the bar. He did not plan to practice again, “but reinstatement will mean exoneration for me, and I want that before I reach the end of my road.”

“The Sparkling Past” never did appear. Nor did Coakley realize his dream of reinstatement. He lived on in his Cape Cod quiet for another five years, dying in 1952 at the age of eighty-six. If he did not die in the odor of sanctity, he at least died in the bosom of the church, being buried from St. Margaret’s, Buzzards Bay. In him the Boston Irish were dealt their knave. This would probably have amused him as an epitaph.