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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
Before anyone quite knew what was happening—anyone except Curley—there were $24,000,000 worth of building projects under way. Several times the city treasury gave out, and Curley merely borrowed more money against future taxes. If a banker showed reluctance to lend, Curley would threaten to start a run on his bank “a mile long.” Taxes and assessments as well as buildings went up.
During Curley’s second administration, and with Curley pointedly in mind, the Republican state legislature passed a law that no mayor of Boston might succeed himself. Instead, in 1924 Curley ran as Democratic candidate for governor against Alvan T. Fuller, who would later become so widely known in connection with the Sacco-Vanzetti case. It was a Republican year, and in any case, Massachusetts would not be ready for Curley until after the transvaluations of the depression. Curley tried to make an issue of the Ku Klux Klan and his own opposition to it. Wherever he spoke in the rural sections of the state, fiery crosses would suddenly blaze out on nearby hills just in time for him to point to them and say, voice resonant with emotion: “There it burns, the cross of hatred upon which Our Lord, Jesus Christ, was crucified.” Later he admitted that the crosses had been touched off by his boys. Fuller won—but the size of Curley’s vote gave the state party leaders, whose enthusiasm for Curley was at best limited, something to think about.
In the presidential election of 1928 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was one of the eight states carried by Al Smith. To the Irish Democrats of the Commonwealth, Smith was the most creditable man from Irish ranks who had yet appeared in politics. Before the national convention the Massachusetts leaders were solidly for Smith. All of them were at odds with Curley, and they took care that the ex-mayor would have no part in the convention or in the subsequent Smith campaign. They reckoned, however, without Curley.
Shortly after Smith’s nomination, Curley opened what he called his Bull Pen in the vacant Young’s Hotel near City Hall. He had the walls plastered with Smith signs and photographs. There were loudspeakers in the windows blaring a steady raucous mixture of speeches and music. Every day was open house in the Bull Pen. Inside it was like an amateur night. Anyone who felt like walking in and speaking his piece about Smith was welcome to use the microphone. And when Al Smith arrived in Boston to ride through the city in a whirl of ticker tape, the excluded Curley was somehow there in the car beside him, to the chagrin of the official members of the party. Yet in the election, when Smith was trailing Hoover by 83,000 votes outside Boston, and the city’s roaring majority gave him the state by 17,000, it was Curley’s desperate drumming up of the last few thousand votes that made the difference.
After the Hoover sweep Curley was astute enough to realize that Smith would not have another chance, no matter what Massachusetts Democrats thought. Four years later Curley was the first and in fact the only politician in the state to come out for Franklin Roosevelt before the convention. Massachusetts Democrats, still solidly and emotionally for Smith, were shocked and furious. Curley was a traitor. The wilderness was where he belonged.
The Massachusetts delegation to the 1932 Democratic Convention was headed by Governor Joseph B. Ely, an old Curley enemy. Curley would not be a delegate to this convention; in fact if Ely had anything to say about it he would not even be a spectator. But, as the event again showed, one had better not count Curley out too soon. For directly behind the Massachusetts delegation in the convention hall sat the Puerto Ricans with their chairman—none other than Alcalde Jaime Miguel Curleo. The Alcalde, in a familiarly florid accent, cast the six Puerto Rican votes for Roosevelt, though even after the Roosevelt stampede the Massachusetts delegation glumly and stubbornly held out to the end for Smith. Behind the scenes, Curley had helped arrange with Hearst and Garner the deal that finally gave Roosevelt the nomination.
Public opinion in Massachusetts veered quickly. The emotions that for four years had been bound up with the fortunes of Al Smith were transferred overnight to Roosevelt. Having left Boston as an outcast, Curley came back from Chicago a hero. He arrived in North Station to find that a crowd of 250,000 had turned out to meet him. Streets were jammed all the way to the Common. Inside the station 21 bands were blaring at one another. It took 100 reserve policemen to clear a path for Curley to his car.
From that night until the election all Curley’s efforts went into the campaign. He reopened his “Bull Pen,” and re-decorated it with large Roosevelt motifs. He mortgaged the House with the Shamrock Shutters. He traveled 10,000 miles through 23 western and midwestern states to deliver 140 speeches. For the election he spent a quarter of a million dollars of his own money. With James Roosevelt as an assistant, he was the Roosevelt ringmaster in Massachusetts.