Jamaica Plain Historical Society
For decades, the black-and-white negatives were half-forgotten, tucked in envelopes, tied with rubber bands, and shuffled among rare book dealers and collectors of ephemera.
But when an antiquarian bookseller in Houston put the negatives up for sale on eBay, Charlie Rosenberg, the webmaster of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society, stared at them, astounded.
The images — nearly 1,000 in all — showed James Michael Curley, the legendary Boston political titan and notorious rapscallion, through the triumphs and disasters of his extraordinary life as a four-term mayor, one-term governor, and two-term inmate in prison.
Now, with help from the Boston Public Library, the images, dating from 1934 to 1958, have been digitized and posted online. Together, they depict another era in Boston, when Curley was king, perpetually parading, campaigning, and doffinghis hat to well-wishers.
“It really is an amazing collection,” said Gretchen Grozier, the president of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society, who raised $2,500 to buy the negatives from Adam Schachter, the Houston book dealer who himself had acquired the collection from another seller. “You get a sense of how much people loved him and what a character he was.”
They show Curley the family man, opening Christmas presents at home, and, later, grieving at the funeral of his children, Mary and Leo. And they show him at the end of his life, lying in a hospital bed nine days before his death, as the attorney general hands him an absentee ballot.
Jack Beatty, the journalist and Curley biographer, said he was struck by how ravishingly Curley is dressed in almost every shot.
Unlike contemporary mayors who sometimes make public appearances in T-shirts and shorts, Curley — with his silver hair slicked back perfectly — favored top hats and tails, tuxedos, gold watch chains, and broad-brimmed fedoras. Even on the golf course, he sported a starched shirt with tightly knotted tie and metal collar pin.
“He really looked the part,” Beatty said. “And if you can supply in your mind the sound of his voice – the aggressive basso profundo and the old-timey diction — you get quite the impression.”
Curley was a singular figure, the impoverished son of Irish immigrants who built a political empire by doling out jobs to constituents and deftly undercutting rivals.
During the first half of the 20th century, he served as an alderman, state representative, congressman, mayor of Boston, and, from 1935 to 1937, as governor of Massachusetts.
He remained enduringly popular despite being sent to prison twice — once in 1904, after taking the civil service exam for a constituent who wanted a job at the postal service and then again in 1947, during his final term as mayor, when he was convicted of mail fraud.
At his funeral, in 1958, thousands lined the streets as his casket was carried from the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End to Old Calvary Cemetery in Mattapan.
“People in Boston loved him at the time, working people loved him, and he’s one of the bigger-than-life characters,” Rosenberg said. “I wouldn’t compare him to a modern-day Donald Trump because he was more accomplished politically, but he was bigger than life in that way.”
Curley’s outsized persona — and longtime home on the Jamaicaway — prompted the Jamaica Plain Historical Society to buy the collection, Grozier said. She called Curley “perhaps the most infamous resident of Jamaica Plain.”
But the collection’s origins remain something of a mystery.
Shachter, the Houston dealer who sold the negatives to Grozier, said he bought the images at an auction along with a trove of baseball memorabilia. Only later did he recognize Curley’s historic significance in Boston and begin looking for a buyer on eBay.
Grozier said the negatives may have originally come from newspaper archives because “Boston American,” the name of a long-defunct tabloid, was scrawled on some of the yellow envelopes.
She speculated that the shots may have all been taken by one photographer who followed Curley for decades.
Robert J. Allison, a professor of history at Suffolk University, said he spent hours looking at the photos when they were first posted online earlier this year.
He said he was particularly drawn to the images of Curley with his family, as well as to several that show Curley with Justice Louis Brandeis, whose nomination to the Supreme Court Curley had opposed as a congressman.
“I don’t think any other mayor has had as big an impact on the culture of this city,” Allison said. “Curley was ubiquitous; he was everywhere,” and residents expected him to attend to their every need.
In that way, “it’s something we expect in every subsequent mayor,” Allison said. “All are following in Curley’s footsteps.”
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