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
In 1938 Curley was strong enough to take the nomination away from the Democratic governor, but he was still unable to win the election. His opponent was the long-jawed speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Leverett Saltonstall, who as a Republican, a Harvard man, and a Brahmin combined the three things that Curley was best at excoriating. Yet Saltonstall was a new type of Old Yankee who represented a rapprochement with what Curley liked to call “the newer races.” The growing numbers of middle-class Irish liked him. In later years when he and young Senator Kennedy were colleagues in Washington, they became so friendly that Kennedy refused to endorse Saltonstall’s next Democratic opponent. Saltonstall also had the advantage of owning one of the most agreeably ugly mugs in politics. Curley made the mistake of quipping that Saltonstall might have a South Boston face but he would never dare show it in South Boston. Of course, Saltonstall walked through the South Boston streets the next day, talking with everyone he met and dropping in at the innumerable bars. He overwhelmed Curley at the polls.
By the time of Boston’s next municipal election Mayor Tobin had built a tight political machine of his own. Curley ran against him nevertheless and suffered his fourth defeat in a row. At 67, after a generation in politics, it looked as if he had come to the end of the road. But that was not the way Curley saw it. He turned again to his solid core of supporters in the close wards of Roxbury and South Boston and Charlestown. As if he were now going down the ladder he had once climbed, he turned to them to send him back to Congress in 1942.
These days he was short of funds, and every week there was the $500 installment on the $42,629 he had been ordered to pay the city. A few months before Pearl Harbor, unlucky as usual in his private ventures, he had run into a Washington promoter named James G. Fuller, who was organizing a five-percenter corporation to mediate between manufacturers looking for war contracts and the appropriate heads of government agencies. Fuller offered to make Curley president of this organization, to be known as the Engineers’ Group, Inc. Later, Fuller was shown to be a confidence man and ex-convict. Curley, in spite of his title, had little to do with Fuller’s group except to appear on the letterhead, and before he became a congressman he had resigned.
Two years later, however, the Engineers’ Group was one of those investigated by the Truman Committee, and sometime afterward Curley was indicted because of his connection with it. He always maintained that the case against him was directed from the White House. His trial was postponed, however, to allow him to run for mayor of Boston in November, 1945.
Tobin had moved on to become governor. The acting mayor was an obscurity, as were the other four candidates. Postwar Boston itself seemed derelict, a fading seaport as drab as the blackout paint that covered the gilt dome of the State House. So much needed doing, from street repairs to veterans’ housing, and “Curley gets things done.” That at least was the campaign slogan spread casually in public by his paid workers and taken up by others. Looking back to the prewar days, it seemed true enough. What if Curley was under indictment for some contract swindle? If he was guilty he hadn’t done very much, no more than the rest of them. Anyhow, he got things done!
On election day Curley beat his closest opponent by two to one. For the fourth time he became mayor of Boston, 31 years after his first inaugural. Two months later he was convicted by a Washington jury of using the mails to defraud.
His final appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected in 1947. As the date neared for his sentencing he took to his bed. He received the last rites, and then unexpectedly his health picked up. Finally, the postponed but inevitable day came when he appeared in court, in a wheel chair and wearing a collar a size too large. His lawyer produced a certified list of nine ailments from which he was suffering, any one of which might prove fatal. Unimpressed, the judge sentenced him to six to eighteen months at the Federal Correctional Institute at Danbury, Connecticut. “You are sentencing me to die,” Curley told him as they wheeled him away. Democratic House Leader John W. McCormack circulated a petition for Curley’s release signed by all the Massachusetts delegation in Washington except Senator Kennedy. Finally after five months President Truman pardoned Curley—because, the President said later, “he was innocent.”
Although it was not known at the time, or even later, Curley was shattered by his Danbury experience. There was nothing left of the young man who could shrug off a few months behind bars by reading all the books in the prison library. He now felt his age and a sense of failure, and for the first time he knew self-doubt. On his release, according to his daughter, he was hesitant about facing people again.
It warmed him to be met by a great milling crowd in front of the House with the Shamrock Shutters welcoming him with “Hail to the Chief.” Inside he found familiar faces and a huge cake inscribed “Happy Birthday to Our Beloved Boss.” In a few days he was back at City Hall at his old desk, looking fifteen years younger and running the city in his old way.