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Kevin Cullen

The nice lady from Beacon Hill and the Southie housewife

Jamaica Plain Historical Society

The story is apocryphal, more allegory than history, but bears repeating in the wake of a federal jury convicting two aides to Mayor Marty Walsh of something the federal government has deemed a crime.

The electoral rise of James Michael Curley a century ago gave hope and voice to the mostly immigrant working class of Boston. At the same time, it created anxiety and deep suspicion among many Brahmins, descendants of the Puritans who settled Boston and lorded over it from their brownstones, looking down at the Irish, the Italians, and anybody else who spoke a foreign language or had a vowel at the beginning or end of their names.

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Curley’s credentials as an aspiring politician were established with the city’s poor and marginalized communities when he got caught taking a civil service exam for a friend. Curley was sent to jail, which only increased his street cred with those who would become his political base.

On Beacon Hill, the grandees clutched their pearls and worried that Curley and the great unwashed who supported him would ruin the City on a Hill.

After Curley was elected mayor, smelling salts were needed to revive the good ladies in the city’s finer homes who wondered if this was what their ancestors fought the Revolutionary War for.

In response to the rise of the Curley machine, good government reformers, known derogatorily as Goo-Goos, put forward candidates of unquestionable breeding and integrity to save the city from Curley’s gallery of rogues and thieves.

As the story goes, the sister of one of the reform candidates was canvassing for votes in South Boston and knocked on the door of a three-decker in the Lower End.

The lady of the house opened the door and stood there, holding a bucket and mop, taking a break from scrubbing the hallway to talk to some well-heeled stranger.

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The nice lady from Beacon Hill told the Southie housewife that her brother was running for office and that he was an honest man who would do his utmost to stop the graft and corruption that the Curley machine had allowed to infest the city.

After the nice lady from Beacon Hill finished her earnest pitch, the Southie housewife put her mop and bucket down, folded her arms, and leaned against the door frame.

“Let me ask you a question,” the Southie housewife began. “If I vote for your brother, and he gets elected, will he give you a job on the city?”

The candidate’s sister was aghast.

“Why, no,” she stammered. “Not in a million years. My brother is opposed to nepotism in all forms.”

The Southie housewife had her answer. She picked up her mop and bucket and used her foot to close the door, but not before saying, “Why would I vote for someone who wouldn’t even take care of his own family?”

A jury accepted the argument by federal prosecutors that Tim Sullivan and Ken Brissette engaged in a form of public corruption and extortion when they pressured the Boston Calling concert promoters to hire union workers.

I didn’t sit through the trial or hear the evidence, but I remain skeptical of criminalizing what Sullivan and Brissette did. They represented an administration openly committed to promoting union work and living wages in a city where the cost of housing makes it virtually impossible for ordinary working people to remain, let alone survive or thrive.

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They pressured a company that wanted to increase its profits by doing everything on the cheap, forcing it to hire union workers at a living wage.

Good for them.

If that’s a crime, working people might as well move out of the city.

As for modern Goo-Goos who think Marty Walsh is suddenly vulnerable, remember how many people he’s helped as a union rep and politician, and remember, too, the story about the nice lady from Beacon Hill and the Southie housewife.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.