James Michael Curley (November 20, 1874 – November 12, 1958) was an American politician famous for his four terms as Democratic Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, and one term as Governor of Massachusetts. He also served twice in the United States House of Representatives.
He was as well known for his popularity in Boston, particularly with Irish Americans.
During his 4th and final term as Mayor of Boston, he served time in Danbury Prison for a felony conviction.
Curley’s father, Michael Curley, a juvenile petty criminal, left Oughterard, County Galway, Ireland, at the age of 14. He settled in Roxbury, an Irish immigrant neighborhood in Boston, where he met Sarah Clancy, also from County Galway. They married, and in 1874, their second son, James Michael Curley, was born.
Michael Curley turned away from a possible criminal career and into working. However, his early criminal connections remained intact.
Consequently, when Michael Curley died when his young boy was just 10 years old, leaving the boy’s mother a young widow forced to support her children on her own, James was soon enticed into the underworld of Irish politico-crime.
However, his mother continually intervened to turn James away from his father’s associates while working at a job scrubbing floors in offices and churches all over Boston.
The combination of his mother instilling good hard working values, while he watched his mother’s back-breaking work and struggle against a backdrop of semi-criminal political graft in ward politics, influenced Curley’s attitude toward the poor and the utility of political organizing for the rest of his life.
Thus, James Curley embarked on a career in politics. His early political career included service in various municipal offices and one term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives (1902–1903).
James had two brothers: John J. (1872–1944) and Michael (born 1879), who died at 2½. Curley married twice, first to Mary Emelda Herlihy (1884–1930) in 1906 and then to Gertrude Casey Dennis,widowed mother of two boys, George and Richard. This marriage, on January 7, 1937, was on his last day as governor.
George died at the age of 74 while Richard still lives in Massachusetts. Richard has 5 children and 1 grandchild.
Curley’s entrance into politics included the traditional practice of Ward politics such as knocking on doors, drumming up votes, and taking complaints. His easy affability combined with his connections quickly allowed him to use city services to solve constituent problems. Consequently, Curley rose rapidly through the Democratic Party’s machine politics.
Curley’s first public notoriety came when he was elected to Boston’s Board of Aldermen in 1904 while in prison on a fraud conviction. Curley and an associate, Thomas Curley (no relation), took the civil service exams for postmen for two men in their district to help them get the jobs with the federal government. T
hough the incident gave him a dark reputation in Boston’s non-Irish circles, it aided his image among the Irish American working class and poor because they saw him as a man willing to stick his neck out to help those in need.
During that election, his campaign slogan was, “he did it for a friend.” He kept that reputation for the rest of his life and it was known all over the city that the poor and unemployed often lined up outside his house in the mornings to speak with him about getting a job or to get a handout of a few dollars to get them through the week.
In 1910 while a member of the Boston Board of Aldermen, Curley decided to run for the 10th District U.S. congressional seat then occupied by Joseph F. O’Connell.
(In the previous general election O’Connell won by a four-vote margin over his Republican opponent, ex-City Clerk J. Mitchell Galvin.) In a three-way primary among O’Connell, Curley, and O’Connell’s predecessor William S. McNary, Curley defeated O’Connell and McNary.
After winning the nomination of the Democratic party Curley went on to win the general election by a substantial plurality over Galvin, who was again the Republican nominee.
When Curley was denied by a place in the Massachusetts delegation to the 1932 Democratic National Convention by Governor Joseph B. Ely, Curley engineered his selection as a delegate from Puerto Rico (under the alias of Alcalde Jaime Curleo). Some say his support was instrumental in winning the presidential nomination for Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he broke with Roosevelt after the president refused to appoint him Ambassador to Ireland.
In 1924, when he was Mayor of Boston, Curley ran for Governor of Massachusetts, but was defeated by then Republican Lieutenant Governor Alvan T. Fuller. In 1934, Curley tried again. This time he defeated Republican Lieutenant Governor Gaspar G. Bacon.
In the late 1930s Curley’s political fortunes began to ebb. Denied Roosevelt’s endorsement in the 1936 senatorial election, he lost against a moderate Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. He was twice defeated, in 1937 and 1940, for the Boston mayoralty by one of his closest former political confidants, Maurice J. Tobin, and in 1938 Leverett Saltonstall turned back Curley’s attempt to recapture the Massachusetts governorship.
After leaving the office of governor, he squandered a substantial sum of his money in unsuccessful investments in Nevada gold mines; then he lost a civil suit brought by the Suffolk County prosecutor that forced him to forfeit to the city of Boston the $40,000 he received from General Equipment Company for “fixing” a damage claim settlement.
With the end of the war, a growing cynicism among his traditional Catholic Irish American constituency, and a loss of Yankee electoral support, Curley’s electoral chances fell. A failed mayoral bid in 1951 marked the end of his serious political career, although he continued to support other candidates and remained active within the Democratic Party. He ran for mayor one last time in 1955, his 10th time running for the office. His death in Boston in 1958 led to one of the largest funerals in the city’s history.
Curley’s personal life was unusually tragic. He outlived his first wife Mary Emelda (née Herlihy), who died in 1930 after a long battle with cancer, and seven of his nine children. Twin sons John and Joseph died in infancy. Daughter Dorothea died of pneumonia as a teenager.
His namesake, James Jr., who was being groomed as Curley’s political successor, died in 1931 at age 21 following an operation to remove a gallstone. Son Paul, who was an alcoholic, died while Curley ran for mayor in 1945.
His remaining daughter Mary died of a stroke in February 1950 and when her brother Leo was called to the scene, he became so distraught that he, too, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died the same day, at age 34. Two remaining sons, George (1919–1983) and Francis X. (1923–1992), a Jesuit priest, outlived Curley.
Curley is honored with two statues at Faneuil Hall, across from Boston’s new City Hall. One shows him seated on a park bench, the other shows him standing, as if giving a speech, a campaign button on his lapel. A few feet away was a bar named for one of his symbols, The Purple Shamrock.
His house, known in his time as “the house with the shamrock shutters,” located at 350 The Jamaicaway, is now a city historical site. His former summer home in Scituate also has shamrock shutters.