The Last Of The Bosses
Part hero, part rogue, Boston’s Jim Curley triumphed over the Brahmins in his heyday, but became in the end a figure of pity.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
The boy’s horizon was the water-front slum. By the time he was five he ran with an urchin gang, pilfering, dodging the cops, wandering along the edge of the Roxbury flats while the herring gulls wheeled overhead, scaling stones at the wharf rats that scuttled across the dumps, selling old whiskey bottles they found there to Jakie the Junkie. Daily they would see the angular masts and spars of the cargo schooners coming up the Fort Hill channel from far off places like Maine or Nova Scotia. In the summer they played about the old Roxbury canal or swam in the murky South Bay. Evenings as they lay in bed they could hear the bullfrogs croaking from the marshes. Sometimes, very rarely, in the heat-struck weather they wandered outside the ward. Only a little over a mile to the north was the newly filled area of the Back Bay with its wide avenues and brownstone-front town houses. To tenement boys these opulent mansions with their turrets and gablings seemed like castles.
By the time Jim readied grammar school he was peddling papers. Afternoons he worked as a bundle and delivery boy at the Washington Market. When he was ten his father died. Mike Curley had always been proud of his own strength. One of the workmen challenged him to lilt a 400-pound edgestone onto a wagon. He managed to raise it but then collapsed. Three days later he was dead.
The Curleys were then living in an alley tenement in Fellows Court. Pea-Jacket’s point of view was limited—no votes, no help. And there was no help for the Curleys.
Sarah kept the family together by scrubbing doors in a downtown office building. Jim and his brother John, two years older, wrapped bundles and served customers at the Washington Market in their free time until the end of grammar school—their last schooling. At twelve, Jim was working in Gale’s drugstore an hour and a half before he went to school, and from half past four until eleven after school.
Reared in poverty, alienated from any sense of community, young Jim Curley formed his hard, unwavering, egocentric determination to succeed. Success, the road up from the Fellows Court flat to the imagined great house, was through politics. He knew that when he was still in short trousers. There was no other road for an Irish slum boy. Politics, then, was a game he would take as he found it, not to change the game or reform it, but to win. In the harshness of his own few years he grasped instinctively Boss Martin Lomasney’s Neoplatonic axiom that politically speaking the mass of people are interested mainly in food, clothing, and shelter. For these they would barter their votes.
At fifteen, after a series of small jobs, he settled for the next eight years as a deliveryman driving a wagon for C.S. Johnson, Grocers. He was strong like his father, wily and wiry, and except for his somewhat vulpine nose, handsome. He had a resonant voice and soon learned to modify the harshness of his gutter speech. From time to time he would drop in at Curran’s livery stable, where the wardheelers gathered, or at One-Armed Peter Whalen’s tobacco store, the political hangout of the district.
Meanwhile, he enrolled two nights a week at the Boston Evening High School. In the public library he read Dickens and Thackeray and Shakespeare, and the Boston Transcript. He taught Sunday school, ushered and passed the plate at St. Philip’s on Harrison Avenue, and joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians. He became chairman of committees for picnics, outings, minstrel shows, and church supper dances. For his straight purpose, games and girls and conviviality had no meaning. Time was too short, life too dear.
He knew the families on his grocery route as if they were his own family; he talked with people—after church, at the Hibernians, at Whalen’s, on committees. Always he was obliging and always available. By the time he reached his majority he showed the indefinable air of future success that a sixth-sense “pol” like Whalen could spot at once. In 1898 One-Armed Peter tipped him to run for the Boston Common Council against Pea-jacket’s organization, and staked him to his first contribution. Curley won by several hundred votes, but by the time Pea-Jacket’s henchmen had finished with the ballot boxes, he found himself counted out. The next year, organizing his own strong-arms and after weeks of pre-election gang fights and corner brawls, he won—too handily for Pea-jacket to challenge him. So at 26 he formally entered political life as one of the three council members from Ward 17.
With his defeat of the aging Pea-Jacket, Curley consolidated himself as the new ward boss, organizing Ward 17 on the Tammany model of tribute and social services and even calling his organization the Tammany Club. There was, however, this difference: Curley’s organization was personal rather than self-perpetuating. In politics he would always be a lone wolf.