This a picture of the writer of this essay/article…..Courtney Duncan a handsome black fellow.




The term “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” seems appropriate as a depiction of James Curley. The people of Boston desired change in the early twentieth century, but the nature of that change differed depending on whom one spoke to. The Irish poor wanted a politician who could represent their interests and provide them with jobs and important social welfare services. [I] The Yankee sentiment wanted a government that was

“honest”, efficient, and could preserve their ‘Brahmin heritage’. By the nineteen hundreds these conflicting aspirations could be linked to ‘Irish Democratic-poor, versus the ‘Republican Yankee-rich. Curley, the son of Irish immigrants from County Galway, was born in Boston on the twentieth of November eighteen seventy four. James Micheal Curley

   The family lived in an overcrowded slum known as “ward seventeen”. [II] His father died when he was twelve years old, forcing him to leave school. He held a variety of jobs but his true calling was politics. For that reason, the essay examines his terms as Mayor of Boston, in particular the effect on “Democrats” and characterization of him as villain or hero. Any examination of these issues finds answers mired in political mobilization, deception and intimidation.   

   In nineteen fourteen James Curley served his first of four terms as mayor. He was colorful, and an out-spoken hero to the poor ethnic minorities, which at this time could now identify with the mayor’s lower-class upbringing. The other popular Irish-American candidates were the stock of ‘upper-middle class Irish-democrats’. The Fitzgerald’s and Kennedy’s were uniting Irish gentry with the Anglo-Saxon elite and making their brand of politics more alluring to the upper-class. James Curley then became the favorite of roughly seventy percent of the ethnics living in Boston. This group was a representative of the middle to lower income families in the city of Boston. The other 30 per cent which, could be identified as Yankee-Elite, considered this man a criminal who would steal, lie and use any tactics to manipulate things in his favor.                      

   In the early nineteen hundreds the city of Boston consisted of variousethnic groups, which were almost tribal in behavior. The dominant group was the “Irish”, who clung fiercely to the power they had secured from the old “Yankee” establishment. The Irish-Americans were well represented in the political scene around

Boston. The most influential political figures were Thomas “Tip” O’Neill and mayors John “Honey” Fitzgerald  and James Curley. The last mentioned, James Curley has been credited with engineering the scheme of political mobilization of the ethnic people of Boston.  With so many distinguished and better- educated “democrats” in Boston, why did James Curley become so powerful? This ambitious man understood the pluralist theory. [III]  In the early part of the century, the elite members of the ‘Democratic-Party believed in superior education and the social grooming of party members. They believed that they could obtain respect and achieve recognition if the party could be more palatable for the  Anglo-Saxon elite.          

   James Curley who always identified himself with the struggles of the poor, very quickly took control of the affairs of the lower-class people in the city. This man was a brilliant public speaker who stirred deep emotions in the blue collared workers. When he lectured he reminded his own people of their rough past. He spoke of the days when the British rulers had enforced illiteracy through the penal laws, which denied Catholics the right to attend certain schools. He also promised the poor economic benefits and social amenities, to be financed with heavy taxes from the rich living in Boston. [IV] SaccoVanzettiDemo1

  The political mobilization engineered by Curley, took on the characteristics of “nationalism and fascism”. This new found nationalism could be felt in all the neighborhoods of Boston. James Curley’s main target was the snobbish upper-class from the area known as “The Back Bay”. As described in the novel “Rascal Kings” he describes them as having maids, kitchenettes, dogs and no children. This was a reminder that his people were beating the blue bloods in the population race. [V] The mayor wasinstilling value in numbers, as opposed to wealth. This ploy was successful in achieving political power for the mayor but it also gave the poor and middle-class hope for the future.  

   Political mobilization did have its downside, in that it resembled fascism. The Italian fascist leader Mussolini was a friend of the mayor. Moreover,political mobilization and the hatred of the Republicans, very quickly formed segregated neighborhoods, which fueled various forms of racism. The mayor’s attack on the rich “Democrats  and Republicans” also had the effect of splitting the Irish people into various groups.                          

James Honey Fitzgerald Kennedy's Grandfather former Mayor Boston
Honey Bun as the ladies called him withdrew from race in 1914 and James Micheal Curley became mayor for first of 4 terms..1914-18. 22-26, 30-34 and a final term 1946-50….James Honey Fitz…was mayor 1906-08, 1910-14

   The political mobilization of the ethnic dwellers in Boston enabled the“Mayor” to gain power, but his deceptive character belied his good name. This is personified in lies, insolence and theft The year “Curley” won his first term as mayor, the very popular John “Honey” Fitzgerald was forced out of the running. The year was 1914 and Fitzgerald was convinced not to run for governor of the state of Massachusetts, but rather for the office of “Mayor of Boston.” This infuriated “Curley” who was a very good friend of “Fitzgerald” .[VI] James Curley decided to leak information tothe press about “Fitzgerald” and a cigarette girl. Furthermore he sent letters to his opponent’s wife and gave a speech exposing the old mayor’s affair. In the end “Fitzgerald” decided to drop out of the race and “Curley” became mayor for the first time.                     


    The new mayor did a lot for the community but he also did a lot for himself. On numerous occasions the city council investigated the private dealings of the new mayor. In the historical novel titled, “The A Boston Political Irish History” the author “Thomas H O’Connor” states that, “contractors who wanted lucrative city public works project had to pay mayor” He also discusses the mayor financing his new mansion built in “Jamaica Boston,” [VII] with funds diverted from his post. The finance commission also found out about land deeds written by the mayor and his yacht was owned by Edmund C Dolan. In this century, these would be the actions of a very corrupt mob boss.

     The Yankee Republicans who feared the mayor, quickly decided to passlegislation to keep his power in check. The most important law passed by the Republicans was that any mayor of the city could not serve more than four successive terms. The upper-class gentries of catholic and protestant heritage were embarrassed that a poor criminal could become the leader of this beautiful city. They quickly came to realize how deceptive and cunning this man could be. He would hire the poor people to shovel snow and he would hire blacks to work in some government positions around the city. On the other side of the card, he would refuse to back Irish-Democrats  in the city. He often supported Republicans  for certain nominations. This tactic always kept his enemies off- guard and gave him time to plan the next move. The mayor had respect of the poor but he will always be scrutinized by the upper-class for his deceptive and intimidating character. Middleborough Police



     This intimidating nature, which seemed very cruel at times, very nearlylost him an election in 1929. He was heavily favored to win his third term as mayor of the city, but he decided to use a radio appearance to defame a school committee member who had spoken out against him. This tactic was savage and cruel, because his adversary was a popular civic volunteer and mother. [VIII] The reporters and politicians spoke of hishumble birth and lack of class. They claimed he could never act like a gentlemen. This was the beginning of the 1930s and the ‘Irish people were now characterized as Americans’. The 1930s would produce the first Irish candidate for president of this beautiful country. The ethnic bashing of the early 1900s was a thing of the past, but the mayor evidently was proving that good breeding is inherited, not learned.                     


     The mayor was a tough and out-spoken man who resembled and actedlike a mob boss. This man was from another era and he brought that hatred of the rich to the table. Moreover he could be characterized as a 20th century “Robin Hood”. He was a very intimidating figure in Boston politics. Many people he hired feared for their jobs if they did not follow his instructions. For example the policemen he hired could have lost their jobs, if they did not support his social gatherings or dances.  It is also recorded that the mayor ordered voters to vote early and often. On a few occasions votes for the deceased were submitted. [IX] Many of the poor voted out of fear, because James Curley recruited some of the toughest men from the slums to back him up or do his dirty work. He was also known for throwing a good left hook at political opponents and people who just got in his way. The intimidation was an excellent ploy in the early years but it really tarnished his image in the twilight of his career.                      


       This was never more evident than during his last term as ‘mayor in1949, when he was jailed for mail fraud. While he was in jail, city clerk “John Hynes” took over for him as a temporary mayor. On his early release from jail, his response was ‘I have accomplished more in one day than the five months of my absence! This was the inconsiderate man the poor to middle-class Irish had come to live with. He did not care whom he hurt. That year he lost a friend and an election to the same man he insulted.                     

      James Curley was the prototypical “snake in the grass”. He was extremely intimidating because he had city funds at his disposal, to hurt his enemies and to make himself look good. This man routinely paid out bribes to newspaper writers to write stories in his favor, or to hurt an opponent. These actions only proved that the man needed to be replaced very quickly.                        

      As the modern era of baby-boomers evolved, people like Curley became obsolete. The country of America was a Democratic power, with Irish people in full control of the city of Boston. The days of the un-educated catholic were a thing of the past. This group was now competing for white collared work. The colorful and handsome John F Kennedy with his impeccable education was a leader for all people and causes. Thus the country was growing tired of political mobsters like “James Curley” and the ‘Irish population had branched out to other parts of America.’ Also, this great city was no longer the city for immigrants to call home. That title was now bestowed on places such as “Los Angeles  and New York”. The legend and all he stood for, had sucked the blood out of every immigrant in the city. The ones he had helped were now the middle and upper class citizens who had grown tired of the old “man” tactics.                       

     As we have seeing James Curley’s political style, which he never changed to accommodate the masses will always be a thorn in his side. He often would not support popular democrats such as {Morice} Tobin, Al Smith and later John Kennedy. As stated in Jack Beatty “The Rascal Kings”. James Curley would never support fellow Irish candidates. This resulted in Massachusetts democrats being stunted in their development in the 1930s. James Curley was not educated or refined. The political battlefield was his only chance to succeed. Moreover he used the support of the poor to become rich and successful. Many politicians of his era and ethnicity eventually became more suitable and honorable men in the early 1900s Democratic movement.                    

“who stole people’s money” politics during the early 20th century politicans were the most corrupt of any era in American History

     To sum up would I consider James Curley, “The Good, the Bad or the Ugly”? He could be called The Good for securing jobs for the poor Irish population of Boston, although this was not done out of altruism. The poor votes were his meal ticket to a position from which he chose to steal. He could be considered the Bad for his shady, left hook and two jail terms. Finally he could be termed the Ugly for his dirty politics, his moral shortcomings and his destructive attitude toward the people he represented, the fledging Democratic Party and the Irish community of Boston itself.   



Written by

Courtney Duncan.




[I]Boston, Historical Journals of Massachusetts, winter 2004 , pg#10,www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3837/is_200401/ai_n939301


[IV] Jack Beatty, The Rascal King (Don Mills Ontario,1992),p.24

[V] Jack Beatty, The Rascal King (Don Mills Ontario, 1992)

[VII] Thomas H. O’Connor, The A Boston Political Irish History(Northeastern University Press 1995),p.192-94

[IX] Joseph F. Dinneen, The Purple Shamrock(New York 1944) pg 165