Boston Alderman Is Reelected While in Jail for Fraud Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Boston politician James Michael Curley won reelection to a city board of aldermen while serving his jail sentence for fraud. His reelection not only revealed the fractious nature of American politics at the turn of the century but also brought to light the epic conflict between Irish Americans and Boston Brahmins over civil service and other Progressive reform.

Summary of Event

James Michael Curley, the Democratic political boss of Ward 17 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, near Boston, took a civil-service examination under a false identity; Curley’s coconspirator was Tammany Club cohort and state politician Thomas Curley (the two were not related). The politicians sat for the exam as immigrant campaign workers Bartholomew Fahey and James Hughes on December 4, 1902. Fearing they would fail the exam because they were barely literate, Fahey and Hughes had called upon members of the Tammany Club to help. Curley and Curley offered to take the exam as Fahey and Hughes, respectively. [kw]Fraud, Boston Alderman Is Reelected While in Jail for (Dec., 1904) Curley, James Michael Boston;James Michael Curley[Curley] Curley, James Michael Boston;James Michael Curley[Curley] [g]United States;Dec., 1904: Boston Alderman Is ReelectedDecember, 1904: Boston Alderman Is Reelected While in Jail for Fraud[00030] While in Jail for Fraud[00030] [c]Corruption;Dec., 1904: Boston Alderman Is Reelected While in Jail for Fraud[00030] [c]Government;Dec., 1904: Boston Alderman Is Reelected While in Jail for Fraud[00030] [c]Politics;Dec., 1904: Boston Alderman Is Reelected While in Jail for Fraud[00030] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec., 1904: Boston Alderman Is Reelected While in Jail for Fraud[00030] Curley, Thomas Lowell, Francis Cabot

James Michael Curley.

(Library of Congress)

In November, 1901, federal law had directed that employment for the post office required examination, a prerequisite detrimental to many immigrants, who had limited abilities in English speaking and writing. On the scheduled test day in December, James Curley and Thomas Curley sat for the examination in place of Fahey and Hughes. Curley and Curley, ever brazen in their efforts, not only completed the exam successfully but also made the mistake of duplicating each other’s incorrect responses on twelve different items, a point the judge later emphasized in his verdict in the criminal case against them.

Believing they had succeeded in the ruse, Curley and Curley confidently returned to the rough-and-tumble of politics, but their tactics were detected by lieutenants of a rival Democratic bloc headed by former ally Timothy McCarthy. Ripe for revenge against James Curley, who had earlier defected from the McCarthy camp to form the rival Tammany Club, McCarthy staff publicized their discovery. By February 11, 1903, the Tammany Club’s activity became the focus of a major news story in the Boston Herald, the facts of which nearly ended James Curley’s promising political career.

Born in 1874 to immigrant parents residing in the south end of Roxbury, Curley experienced the sting and degradation of poverty. After his father died unexpectedly from an accident when young James was only ten years old, the boy left school to work tirelessly to support his family. Even at this young age he observed the local politicians—their parades, fund-raisers, and public appearances—and became intrigued. By carefully aligning himself with local ward bosses, Curley eventually utilized this tutelage to his personal advantage. He vowed to amass great power and fortune and to use his influence to further the cause of social justice for the immigrant poor. The Brahmins had a brand of reform that was institutional rather than personal, which angered Curley because he believed himself pure of spirit and able to rival the Boston Brahmin in style, grace, and influence.

On September 23, 1904, the criminal trial began. It lasted one day and pitted the Irish Americans against one of the Boston elite: federal district judge Francis Cabot Lowell. Lowell, of distinguished lineage, convicted the two of fraud and ordered them to serve two months in the Suffolk County Prison (also known as the Charles Street Jail). Lowell set bail at twenty-five hundred dollars and released the defendants after they petitioned the verdict (on the advice of their lawyer). The case was sent to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Tammany Club stood by its proud sons and raised the money needed for their additional defense. Always defending his actions, James Curley had assumed after extensive research that his penalty would merely restrict him from sitting for future civil service examinations. He had not expected to receive a jail sentence.

Judge Lowell was disturbed by the unrepentant attitude of both Curleys. Lowell would later chastise their supporters for being ignorant of the law and electing the two to major office within months of their convictions. New York Times >The New York Times had reported one month earlier that several allies of James Curley actually applauded the two schemers as they exited the courtroom.

Turning a nearly devastating defeat into an opportunity, James Curley successfully used the conviction to mass a campaign against civil service, deriding it as a ploy to discriminate against immigrants who would be well suited to perform various state jobs if not for the examination requirement. Curley contended without remorse that Irish immigrants need not suffer at the hands of Yankee Progressive reformers, whose only goal was to bar newcomers from the best jobs. Hence, Curley’s brief prison term became not a source of shame but a vehicle to illustrate his selflessness and commitment to the plight of the poor. His victory that year (a reelection to the thirteen-member board of aldermen) would validate his questionable methods. Thomas Curley would win reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives soon after his own conviction as well.


Although James Curley would lead a successful political career that spanned more than four decades, serving terms as mayor, governor, and state legislator, he would forever be excluded from the inner circles of Brahmin politics. In an age of the growing professionalization of government, Curley was looked upon by the elite and well-bred Progressive politicians as a crude anachronism. Curley’s only recourse, therefore, was to mock them and their professional institutions. Eventually, his obsession with money and power would lead to his downfall.

In response to Curley’s excesses, a group of Massachusetts reformers founded the Good Government Association Good Government Association (GGA), seeking to eradicate “machine” politics. In 1909 the GGA successfully adopted a new city charter that eliminated the common council and board of aldermen and replaced these bodies with a city council. Ironically, Curley served the new council after five years on the board of aldermen, and he remained an undisputed political boss, successfully sidestepping a concerted effort by his political foes to unseat him as mayor in a recall election.

Curley’s brief prison term won for him a reputation as a champion of working people, especially immigrants. However, his method of governing eventually led to an unhealthy reliance on old-fashioned personal politics. Actively utilizing the spoils system, he continued to cultivate his immigrant following, but as the population gradually adopted New Deal reform during the 1930’s, his methods became costly and out of step with the changing times.

After a time in the U.S. Congress as representative of the eleventh district, Curley captured another term as mayor in 1945. Then, in a near-repeat performance, Curley again was under scrutiny by a federal grand jury for mail Mail fraud;James Michael Curley[Curley] fraud. However, as a respectful gesture to the politics of yesteryear, U.S. president Harry S. Truman Truman, Harry S. pardoned Curley. The Curley political era was unquestionably at its end. Curley, James Michael Boston;James Michael Curley[Curley]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beatty, Jack. The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley, 1874-1958. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1992. Entertaining and informative study of Curley’s life. Especially good on the motivations behind his public behavior.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curley, James Michael. I’d Do It Again: A Record of all My Uproarious Years. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1957. Personal reminiscences of the colorful career of Curley, whose bias is evident throughout the narrative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, Thomas H. The Boston Irish. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995. Lucid narrative by an acclaimed New England historian on the history of Boston and its Irish immigrants. Thorough analysis of Curley’s political style and motivation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Hub: Boston Past and Present. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001. An overview of Boston’s history from its founding to the beginning of the twenty-first century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trout, Charles H. “Curley of Boston: The Search for Irish Legitimacy.” In Boston, 1700-1980: The Evolution of Urban Politics, edited by Ronald P. Formisano and Constance K. Burns. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. Argues that Curley’s Irish roots led him to emphasize his personal charisma in finding a legitimate place in Boston politics.

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Categories: History