Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. is not the only twice-convicted felon to “throw his hat in the ring” for mayor of a capital city. I give you the story of James Michael Curley of Boston. This comparison is all the more interesting to me as I recalled a family story which follows in due course.
Curley’s career of political machinations and corruption is ably cataloged in Jack Beatty’s Rascal King: the life and times of James Michael Curley, 1874-1958. That book and Mike Stanton’s 2003 exposé on Buddy Cianci, The Prince of Providence, made my summer reading list!
During his six decades at the public trough, James Michael Curley was a four-term mayor of Boston, a congressman twice, governor, state representative and city alderman. He was known for his glib tongue, barbed ripostes and ostentatious lifestyle. Like Cianci, he used the power of the office to settle personal scores and enrich himself.
As to Curley’s felonies, unlike Cianci, they were not committed while serving as mayor. Curley’s long political career was book-ended with criminal convictions and curiously, the Kennedy family. In 1904, while serving as a Boston alderman, Curley was convicted of mail fraud when he took and passed a postal examination for a friend. Seemingly harmless, it was indeed a federal crime; and he served two months in the Charles Street jail.
Curley’s political star soared and he was elected to Congress in 1910. While still in Congress, he ran for mayor of Boston in 1914 against the incumbent John Fitzgerald, ''Honey Fitz, '' the maternal grandfather of John F. Kennedy. It was a formidable task, so Curley resorted to blackmail! Honey Fitz was having a dalliance with a dancer named Toodles. Photographs of the two were shown to his family and he withdrew from the election citing health reasons. Thus began Curley’s first of four mayoral stints.
Curley lived an opulent life well beyond his mayor’s salary. His mansion on the Jamaica Way with shamrock cutouts on the shutters, was financed by skimming and shady dealings with city contractors.
As to my story, my grandfather was raised in Loughrea, County Galway. He left for America as a teen in 1887 and was followed by his younger sister Jenny -- my great-aunt. In 1907 Jenny married a Tom Hynes, also of Loughrea, and settled in Boston, where she ran a boarding house while he was a porter at the Harvard Club. They were childless.
Tom's brother lost his wife and was left with a young child; and therein lies my tale. Jenny raised young John until his father remarried. Time passed and John served in World War I, went to night law school and got a job in Boston City Hall. Jenny and Tom returned to Loughrea in the 1925 .
After a single term as governor of the Bay State, in 1935-37, Curley spent some time in the political wilderness. But he ran and was elected to Congress again in 1942. During his second term in Congress, while running for mayor, he was indicted for federal mail fraud.
In 1947, Curley was sent to the slammer for the second time, City Clerk John B. Hynes, the aforementioned John Hynes, became the acting mayor of Boston. The City Charter devolved the power of mayor to the City Clerk.
Upon his release , after five months, Curley, now a twice-convicted felon, returned to serve out his term. Hynes had served as a caretaker reserving to the mayor major decisions upon his return. Curley dismissively said: “I have accomplished more in one day than has been done in the five months of my absence”.
Hynes returned to his position of city clerk. Stung by Curley’s public rebuke, he bided his time. In 1950, backed by a bipartisan group, he took on Curley in the mayoral election and soundly defeated him!
Mayor Hynes would go on to serve four terms and Boston experienced the start of a renaissance under his calm, steady hand. The eponymous John B. Hynes Convention Center is testimony to that revival.
In 1953, after defeating Curley again, Mayor Hynes visited Loughrea. He was greeted by local dignitaries, his uncle Tom, and Jenny’s family. My wife, Julie, and I visited Loughrea in 2010 and visited the Carmelite Cemetery where Tom and Jenny are at rest a few yards from the grave of my great-grandparents.
The voters of Boston rejected four decades of corruption and venality and turned instead to the future. May Providence voters, who have suffered through a similar period, profit from their example.
William Colleran, a retired engineer and longtime good-government activist, lives in Bristol.
Postscript from Robert Whitcomb: Jim Curley had a brilliant pol's memory for names and faces. My paternal grandfather met Curley once in the '20s. He next met him in the late 40's. Curley's first question to my grandfather was "Henry, how is Margaret? '' -- referring to his wife, my grandmother.
My grandfather, a Yankee Republican (the other side of my family were Midwesterners of French and Scottish ancestry) who generally detested big city machines and the sort of people like Curley who ran them, was impressed! He spoke of Curley as something of a genius.)
Many readers will remember Edwin O'Connor's book The Last Hurrah and the movie of the same name, which starred Spencer Tracy as the Curley figure. It greatly romanticized the life of a narcissistic crook. Still, it's true that his mayoral regime did help many of his impoverished supporters during tough economic times for New England, especially when he served as mayor in the early '30s, in the worst of the Great Depression.