San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

James Michael Curley,
a Political Boss of Boston

Although in some ways James Michael Curley was similar to other machine bosses in others he was quite different. In particular he had a great deal more personal charm than most political bosses. This was his public personality; in private he was said to be more of an introverted loner and quite suspicious. A movie, entitled The Last Hurrah, was based upon his life.

Curley was the son of refugees from the famine in Ireland in the 1840's that resulted from the potato blight. He lived as a child in Roxbury (part of the metropolitan Boston area), and left school before high school to work in several unpromising jobs, including nine years as a grocery delivery boy. Curley developed an interest in politics and began to hang out at the cigar store which served as a meeting place for local politicians.

James Michael Curley was quite exemplary in his personal life as a young man. He did not drink nor did he date because he was quite shy with women. At political functions he was the organizer and he was the one who cleaned up after the event. He volunteered for charity work.

Curley was urged to run for the Common Council of Boston. The Common Council had relatively little power but it provided political exposure for politicians who wished to go on to more important offices. Despite great obstacles placed in his way by the Democrat ward captain who was his political enemy Curley ran an effective race and probably won, but was denied a victory by ballot box irregularities by his political enemies. This made him determined to beat those politicians, especially after they got him fired from his job as grocery delivery boy. While working as a traveling salesmen he worked on his speech-making techniques and eventually became a great orator.

In his next run for Common Council Curley combined effective campaigning with a tough resistance to the strong-arm tactics of his opponents. For example, a candidate's place on the ballot was based upon the order in which the candidates registered. Curley camped out at the registration office the night before the start of registration in order to be first in line. His enemy sent thugs to evict him from his place in line but Curley and the supporters he brought along fought the toughs and held their place. At a speech Curley dealt with one heckler who was too tough a brawler for Curley's supporters to deal with by knocking him out with a punch to his face. Curley made sure the ballot count was honest and he won the election.

Many city jobs had been given to supporters of his political opponents. Instead of trying to fire them, Curley shrewdly took steps to win them over to be his supporters, for example, by advocating that the city give its employees Saturday afternoons off. Curley also advocated an eight hour work day for city employees. This was Curley's style, championing benefit programs for voters (without much consideration of costs).

Before the election Curley got into a legal difficulty for taking a post office exam in the name of a supporter. Curley and one of his political associates, also named Curley but of no relation, were spotted at the exam illegally taking the exam in the place of two supporters who feared they could not pass it on their own. Curley ended up spending two months in jail over the episode but it did not really hurt his political career in as much as everyone knew he was doing it for a man who needed a job.

Curley went on to a variety of political posts. He was elected to the Massachesetts State Legislature. He was an alderman and a city councilman of Boston before becoming mayor in 1914. Curley served several terms as the mayor of Boston although some of those terms were widely separated. He lost his re-election bid in 1918 but won the office in 1922. He failed to be re-elected in 1926 but won in 1930. In office he promoted programs to bring benefits to his constituents but these programs were costly and created budget problems in his administration. He was Governor of Massachusetts from 1935 to 1937. The New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt provided vast funds to Curley for public projects.

During the period of 1938 to 1942 he unsuccessfully ran for governor, U.S. senator and mayor of Boston. In 1942 he succeeded in being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was re-elected to this office in 1944. In 1947 he was again elected as mayor of Boston. During his term he allowed his name to used in a business venture that turned out to be fraudulent. It is not clear that Curley knew the full nature of the operation but because the business venture used the U.S. mails he was found guilty of mail fraud and sentenced to Federal prison. Curley continued to run the government of Boston from his prison cell. He only served five months before President Harry Truman arranged his release and later gave Curley a full pardon. Curley tried to be elected mayor of Boston in 1950 and failed. After failing once again in 1954 he retired. In 1958 he died.

For the story of other political bosses and their machines click on Bosses

HOME PAGE OF applet-magic
HOME PAGE OF Thayer Watkins