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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
Fitzgerald’s first thought that year was to run again for mayor, but young Jim Curley—back from Washington, aggressive and dominating—was like a tidal wave. Honey Fitz’s second thought was to retire. The ward bosses finally fixed on an opponent, a Fitzgerald nonentity named Thomas J. Kenny.
Curley’s campaign for mayor dwarfed his congressional one of four years before. He stormed the autumn city in raccoon coat, “iron mike” on his head and the gilded voice booming. He promised to clean out City Hall and give it back to the people—whatever that might mean. He savaged the ward bosses and invited the voters to call on him personally at City Hall. He promised more schools and playgrounds and beaches and parks and jobs. Politicians can hear the grass grow, and there was the underground feeling that he was unbeatable.
Incongruous as it might seem in later years, or even months, Curley was first hailed as a reform mayor. Hundreds of Honey Fitz’s officeholders were ousted. True to his promise, Curley opened up City Hall. Those who wanted to see him about jobs, favors, or assistance, he received without appointment. A squad of secretaries catalogued each visitor before he was taken to the Mayor. Decisions were made on the spot. If a request could not be granted, Curley said so and why. He was the super-boss. Ward bosses became obsolete: Curley had destroyed their power, even in Ward 17. He talked to an average of 200 persons a day, 50,000 in a year.
The financial and business community’s satisfaction with the new mayor was brutally short-lived. Curley, they would soon discover, had lost none of his old resentments. Assessments were raised all round. A vast construction program such as Boston had never seen before was begun. Streets were ripped up, transit lines extended, beaches and playgrounds laid out, hospitals built, and services expanded. There was a job for every jobless man in the city. Here lay Curley’s basic formula, then and in all his administrations: a juggler’s act of public works without regard for cost. When the city treasury was empty he would borrow. The outraged Yankees could pay for it all through taxes.
Yet, much of what he did needed to be done. The cost would be excessive, the payrolls padded, a percentage of the contractors’ fees would always find its way into Curley’s pocket—yet without him most of these projects would never have been undertaken. By the end of his first term he had altered the face of the city; by the end of his fourth term the tax rate had quintupled.
Though with him money went as easily as it came, though he liked to be known as the mayor of the poor, he enjoyed lush living. Midway in his first term he built himself the house overlooking Jamaica Pond that would be known as the House with the Shamrock Shutters. It was better than anything on Beacon Street. Some of the trimmings, including the mahogany-paneled dining room and the winding staircase, came from the Fairhaven house of Henry H. Rogers, the Standard Oil executive. The Finance Commission and others were to ask vainly how anyone could build a $60,000 house on a $15,000 lot on a salary of $10,000 a year. Such questions never bothered Curley. In his autobiography he maintained—archly and without expecting to be believed—that he had made the money for his house on a stock market tip given him by a since-deceased wool merchant. Almost everyone in Boston knew that the house had been a donation from a contractor. The Curley wards felt he deserved it.
In 1917, when Curley ran for re-election, a curious amalgam of businessmen and bosses took the field against him. Martin Lomasney, the old Ward 8 mahatma and the only ward boss to survive unscathed, entered two congressmen with Celtic names as pseudocandidates to cut into Curley’s Irish-Democratic vote. It was an old gambit, used many times by Curley himself, and it worked well enough to defeat Curley.
After several ludicrously unfortunate business ventures—in such matters Curley would always be both gullible and inept—he became president of the Hibernia National Bank, within wistful sight of City Hall. But this was for him only an interlude. His real life was always politics.
The 1921 mayoralty campaign was one of the closest and meanest in the history of Boston, and Curley fought alone. No political pro in the city was for him, and the betting against him ran over two to one. But his opponent, a respected Catholic lawyer named John R. Murphy, was not prepared for what he now had to face—too much of a gentleman, it was said commiseratingly of him afterward. Among other things, Curley sent some of his workers to Charlestown dressed in clerical black and carrying prayer books. There they let it be known that turncoat Murphy had joined the Masons and that he was divorcing his wife to marry a sixteen-year-old girl. Other Curley supporters rang doorbells through Catholic South Boston posing as members of the Hawes Baptist Club and soliciting votes for John R. Murphy. Curley even gave a Ku Klux Klan organizer known as the Black Pope $2,000 to campaign against him.
Against all odds and predictions Curley won, with 74,200 votes to Murphy’s 71,800. For the first time in a Boston election women could vote, and it was generally felt that Mary Curley’s “Personal Appeal to Women Voters,” an open letter circulated at the last minute, gave her husband the extra votes that elected him.