Curley, James Michael, 1874-1958
One of the most colorful and prominent figures in Boston's political history was James Michael Curley, who was elected to the office of Mayor of Boston four times.
James Michael Curley was born on November 20, 1874, the second surviving son of his Irish immigrant parents. Their home was at 28 Northampton Street, Boston, which at that time fringed Boston Harbor.
His father, Michael Curley, and mother, then Sarah Clancy, had both arrived on Boston's shores from County Galway, Ireland, in 1864, though they were on separate ships, and not acquainted with each other at the time. By that time, the immigrants escaping the potato famine in their native Ireland numbered 50,000 of Boston's total population of 310,000, and accounted for a third of the City of Boston's registered voters. The ward boss was firmly established along the waterfront, and Michael Curley, father of James, obtained work as a hod carrier for the rising boss of Ward 17, P. J. (known as Pea Jacket) Maguire.
Michael Curley remained a hod carrier for Maguire, and he and Sarah Clancy were married in 1871.
When James Michael Curley was old enough, he attended public school, along with his older brother John. At the age of ten, he went to work selling papers, and soon afterward, his father died, at the age of thirty-four.
The period following his father's death left a deep impression on him. His mother was forced to work as a scrubwoman, working nights in office buildings, to support him and his brother, though they both obtained part-time work to contribute money to maintain their household.
When James graduated from school, he went to work for a grocer, C. S. Johnson, delivering groceries in a horse-drawn cart. He spent his free evenings at "One-Arm" Peter Whalen's cigar store, which had become a regular stop on every politician's list. It was there he became indoctrinated into ward politics. From the store he was petitioned to canvas for various officeholders as he delivered Johnson's groceries. His politics began to interfere with his job, so he decided to give up the grocery business.
He reached voting age in 1895, and in 1896 campaigned against the ward boss's choice for mayor, Thomas Hart, and worked for the election of Owen Galvin instead. Though Galvin lost the election, young James M. Curley became a figure to be reckoned with in Ward 17.
When the next election time arrived, James Michael Curley ran for Common Council. Opposed by ward boss Pea Jacket Maguire, he lost that bid. Undaunted, he ran for Common Council a second time, and won a seat for the 1900-1901 term. As a freshman councillor, he was responsible for the order to provide a permanent half-holiday on Saturdays to city employees. He began to establish his reputation as a friend of the workingman.
In 1900, still serving as councillor, he ran for chairman of the Ward 17 Democratic Committee. Running against his old adversary, P. J. Maguire, he found the contest vicious. When the votes were counted, though, James M. Curley, twenty-six, was boss of Ward 17.
Politics became his full-time job. He formed the Tammany Club in Roxbury, a group of loyal political supporters he carried with him throughout his political career. In 1901, when his term as councillor ended, he took the next political step, and won the contest as state representative for the 1902-1903 term. In the legislature he concentrated on labor measures and furthered his political education, developing his art of public speaking. Even his enemies concurred that as an orator James Michael had no peer.
After his term as state representative, he was successful in his bid for the Board of Aldermen, the higher body of Boston's bicameral government. Curley was a member of the Board of Aldermen from 1904, to 1909.
Alderman Curley met Mary E. Herlihy at St. Philip Church, on Harrison Avenue, at a minstrel show, and after a steady courtship, they were married on June 27, 1906.
When James Michael Curley returned to the City Council in 1910, he was under great expense and, since a councillor was poorly compensated then, he decided to try for the higher salary and position of Congressman.
Boston had never seen such showmanship in a political campaign. Candidate Curley gathered more publicity than any other political candidate in the city's history. In 1911, James Michael Curley's family joined him in Washington, where he served two terms as a Congressman, until 1914.
Mr. Curley wasn't happy in Congress. It was too far away from his ward and his city. In 1914, he returned to Boston and announced his candidacy for Mayor. He ran against the popular John F. Fitzgerald, who was running for reelection. Congressman Curley had consulted none of the ward bosses about his candidacy, a great break in tradition, and a battle was brewing. Mr. Fitzgerald dropped out of the election, and the panicked city committee chose a scholarly lawyer, Thomas Kenny, as James Curley's opponent, but since Mr. Curley's showmanship improved with each campaign, the outcome was no surprise. James Michael Curley began his first term as Mayor of Boston in 1914.
As Mayor of Boston, he reshuffled 600 city employees. It was no coincidence that most of those who were transferred had worked for Thomas Kenny. Mayor Curley plainly declared: "Mr. Fitzgerald has left in office a number of people who are hostile to me, and as I have no desire to be ambushed in my own camp, I am removing them. Every time I drop a friend of his from the payroll, I substitute an equally competent citizen, who has the additional advantage of being a friend of mine."
Mayor Curley's first term established the Curley machine and what became known as "Curleyism" in Boston politics. Because of his policy of personally seeing any citizen who came to his office, he eliminated the ward boss system, and ward boundary lines were never again important in mayoral campaigns. He started Boston on a spending spree, and reconstruction of the city was prolific. Many jobless persons in the city gained employment.
During the first year of his mayoral term, the United States was at war, which kept business booming. Unemployment was not an issue. The ward bosses were hungry for control of the city again, and the bankers and financiers had become angry and frightened by the rise in taxation caused by Mayor Curley's spending. Andrew J. Peters, a Republican of unquestionable integrity, defeated Mr. Curley for mayor, and started his term in 1918. James Michael Curley became politically unemployed for the first time in eighteen years.
James Michael Curley returned as Mayor of Boston for his second term in 1922, successfully defeating John R. Murphy. He embarked once again on reconstruction of the city, wiping out slums, building roads, and expanding City Hospital.
While serving this second term, Mayor Curley made an unsuccessful attempt to become governor of Massachusetts. He was defeated by Alvan T. Fuller, who had been the Republican lieutenant governor.
Mayor Curley returned to City Hall, and one of his accomplishments during his second administration was the establishment of the George Robert White fund for the administration of seven new health units.
Since a statute had been added to the city charter to prevent a mayor from succeeding himself, Mr. Curley did not serve his third term until 1930. Within months after his election, bulldozers were knocking down buildings. He revitalized all of Boston's beaches, including the now world-famous L Street bathhouse.
His personal life was one of great tragedy during this period. His beloved wife died, and six months later his son James Michael, Jr., died also. Five of his family members were now dead, including the twins, and his daughter Dorothea, who had died six years earlier.
From his position as Mayor of Boston, he again ran for governor of Massachusetts, this time against Republican Gaspar G. Bacon. Mayor Curley's record in Boston was good. He kept the people working. On his second try, James Michael became governor of Massachusetts.
His two years as governor have been chronicled as having produced some phenomenal successes. One of his better legacies as governor was the establishment of one of the most efficient tax departments in the country.
In 1936, James Michael Curley was defeated for the United States Senate seat by Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.
In 1937, prior to leaving the governor's office, James M. Curley married Gertrude Casey Dennis. That same year, 1937, he was defeated in his next bid for Mayor of Boston by young Maurice J. Tobin of Mission Hill, Roxbury. The defeat was bitter, for Maurice Tobin had learned the art of politics from the great James Michael.
Mr. Curley gained the Democratic nomination for governor in 1938, but lost the election to Republican Leverett Saltonstall. He later ran for Congress and won, serving from 1943 to 1946.
Again he returned to Boston as mayor in 19,15, with the great support of Boston's voters.
James Michael Curley died on November 12, 1958. His body was viewed by thousands in the rotunda of the State House. His final resting place is in Calvary Cemetery, Dorchester, Mass.
CURLEY, James Michael, ex-governor, ex-mayor, 4 times, ex-congressman, Boston, Massachusetts, November 20, 1874. Michael and Sarah (Clancy); public grammar and high schools, Boston. Mary E. Herlihy, June 27, 1906, second, Mrs. Gertrude M. Dennis, January 7, 1937. Real estate and insurance business since 1902. Member Curley Brothers, Trustee, Hibernian Savings Bank President, 1919-1938. Curley Luck Gold Mining Company.
Member, Boston Common Council, 1900-1901; Massachusetts House of Representatives, 1902- 1903; Board of Aldermen, 1904- 1909; member, Boston City Council, 1910-1911; member Sixty-second and Sixty-third Congresses, 1911-1915, Twelfth District. Resigned February 2, 1914, after assuming office as mayor of Boston. Mayor of Boston, 1914-1917; reelected for terms 1922-1925, and 1930-1933. Governor of Commonwealth of Massachusetts for term 1935-1936; member of Seventy-eighth and Seventy-ninth Congresses, 1943- 1945, Eleventh Massachusetts District. Elected mayor of Boston, 1945, for term 1946-1949.
Honorary LL.D. from Suffolk Law School, 1935; decorated with Order of Rising Sun, Japan; Order of St. Sophia (Serbia) ; Order of the Commendator of Crown of Italy; recipient of Medal of Gratitude (France).
President of United States Conference of Mayors, 1932-1933; honorary member, University Club; Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company; Board of Governors, Boston City Club; member, Knights of Columbus, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Loyal Order of Moose, Ancient Order of Hibernians, Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters, Fraternal Order of Eagles.
Democratic National Commiteeman, 1938-1958.
Taken from "Boston's 45 Mayors from John Phillips to Kevin H. White," City Record, Boston, 1979.
Found in 14 Collections and/or Records:
"Boston Salutes the American Legion: Addresses by Honorable James Michael Curley, Mayor of Boston", 1930
Photographs and other images collected by the Boston Landmarks Commission for reference use and for publications as well as photographs taken by the Landmarks Commission documenting their work and city neighborhoods.
Includes two compilation volumes of addresses from 1822-1867 and printed copies of annual and inaugural addresses of the Mayor from 1824-1980 with gaps.