Part Five Of “Catholic Power: Irish American Politics” Series
During World War I, a British officer arrived in Boston, Massachusetts. He asked Mayor James Michael Curley for permission to sign up soldiers from people of British nationality living in the city.
The Mayor smiled and replied, “Go ahead Colonel, take every damn one of them.”
Curley served four terms as Mayor of Boston and was once re-elected while he was in prison. After he was released, a crowd of thousands greeted him as he returned to the city and a brass band played “Hail to the Chief” as he returned to Boston.
After his first day back in office, Curley told reporters “I have accomplished more in one day than has been done in the five months of my absence.”
James was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1874. His father Michael Curley came to America from Oughterard, Ireland at the age of 14. He settled in Roxbury, an Irish immigrant neighborhood in Boston and where he met his future wife, Sarah Clancy from County Galway, Ireland.
After his father died when he ten years old, his mother worked a job scrubbing floors in offices and churches all over Boston. Her back-breaking work and struggle instilled ethnic Catholic working values into her son.
Curley’s began his career in politics with the typical duty of “machine politics”, which included knocking on doors, registering voters, and taking complaints.
His friendliness combined with his political connections allowed him to use the city services to help his constituents. Curley quickly advanced through the “machine politics” system.
Later, Curley tried to help a postman in his district get a job with the federal government but was caught illegally taking a civil service exam for him.
Curley was sentenced to prison, but the incident boosted his reputation among the ethnic Catholics because he proved himself as a man willing to stick his neck out to help those in need.
Curley 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 a few dollars to get them through the week.
Curley was elected Mayor of Boston in 1914 and served during the era when ethnic Catholics took over Boston. Later, much of the Boston’s Protestant “Yankee” class admitted defeat and moved into the suburbs.
Curley represented the beliefs and views of his city and its people. In 1924, Curley famously claimed “the only Jews who entered politics were those who lacked the capacity to succeed in the business world“.
In 1932, Curley was denied a place in the Massachusetts delegation to the 1932 Democratic National Convention. However, he registered as a delegate from Puerto Rico under the alias of “Alcalde Jaime Curleo”. He supported FDR at the convention, but later turned against him when the president refused to appoint him as the Ambassador to Ireland.
In his 2000 book, The Rascal King, American journalist Jack Beatty claimed that FDR used several Irish Catholic politicians to get elected but later dropped them as if they didn’t matter. People including Curley, Al Smith, Joe Kennedy, and Father Chares Coughlin all felt deeply betrayed by FDR and the broken promises he had personally made to each of them.
In 1934, Curley was elected as the Governor of Massachusetts. From his new position, Curley mocked Harvard University, the training ground of American’s Protestant ruling class.
As Governor, Curley was obligated to attend the Harvard University graduation ceremony. In 1935, he appeared wearing silk stockings, knee britches, a powdered wig, and a three-cornered hat with flowing plume.
When Harvard University marshals objected to his costume, Curley showed them a copy of the Statutes of the Massachusetts Bay Colony which prescribed proper dress for the occasion and claimed that he was the only person at the ceremony properly dressed.
Curley also enjoyed scoffing at the Jews. In 1942, rumors had spread that Jews were dodging the draft to avoid World War II. One night Curley and his friends spent the evening “in the bar and dining rooms of the Mayflower Hotel, getting the bellhops to continually page Colonel Finkelstein, Major Cohen“, and other Jewish sounding names.
Later that year, Curley ran for Congress against Thomas H. Eliot, the grandson of Harvard University President Charles Eliot. Curley’s campaign gained support from ethnic Catholics when he attacked Eliot for being a member of the Protestant elite.
Curley famously declared, “There is more Americanism in one half of Jim Curley’s ass than in that pink body of Tom Eliot.”
Curley won the election, but critics began to claim he was corrupt. Later, several investigations were launched against Curley and his “machine” that eventually led to his downfall.
Curley’s personal life was unusually tragic. His wife, Mary Emelda Herlihydied in 1930, after a long battle with cancer. He also outlived seven of his nine children.
When Curley died in 1958, his funeral was one of the largest in Boston history.
In “The Rascal King”, Jack Beatty wrote:
“James Michael Curley had suffered faith-challenging afflictions in the deaths of his first wife and seven of his nine children. And he suffered them in public, where flinching can be seen, despair witnessed. Yet in a proof of the power of faith that amounted to a kind of existential service to his constituents… he had not despaired. He died believing in a Catholic God Who had tried him sorely. That he could still believe tended to vindicate belief. The thousands filing past his casket and lining the streets for a final look at James Michael Curley were thus responding to impulses as much spiritual as political.”
This article is part four of the “Catholic Power: Irish American Politics” series:
Introduction: Jett and Jahn Media Presents “Catholic Power: Irish American Politics”
Al Smith: New York Governor
Father Charles Coughlin: Catholic Fascism?
John Fitzgerald: Boston Mayor
Joe Kennedy: America’s Royal Family?
James Michael Curley: Massachusetts Governor
Frank Hague: Jersey City Mayor
Joe McCarthy: Wisconsin Senator
John F. Kennedy: United States President
Richard J. Daley: Chicago Mayor
Martin P. Mullen: Pennsylvania State Congressman
Conclusion: Modern Catholics & Politics