James Michael Curley and the #5 License Plate

The first night I sat down with Ronald Reagan in the White House, the president wanted to hear all about James Michael Curley. The same was true of Jimmy Carter, and just about every other politician I’ve ever known.
— Rep. Tip O'Neill
Curley's car displaying the number 5 license plate. Jamaica Plain Historical Society archives. https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:kk91gc774

Curley's car displaying the number 5 license plate. Jamaica Plain Historical Society archives. https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:kk91gc774

I hope that Tip didn’t try to tell the President the story about how Mr. Curley obtained license plate #5. Mr. Reagan, coming from a state that has long since loaded up every licenses plate with a jumble of letters and numbers, couldn’t even begin to grasp why Mr. Curley (or anyone else) would go to such lengths over a license plate.

Versions of the story differ, but the simplest one is that Curley fancied #5 for his own car, that he plotted a campaign of terror against the rightful bearer of that number (a prominent Republican), and that his henchman finally trumped up a charge against the poor man, revoked his automobile registration, and gave the license plate to their boss.

The story always made perfect sense to me. I grew up in the Boston area in an immigrant family and I watched my father and his father struggle to get a “good” license plate. And yet I had to wonder-knowing how people tended to exaggerate the misdeeds of Mr. Curley-was the story about #5 completely true? And when, exactly, did it happen? Who was the other fellow? I decided to see what I could find out. But before I get into the story I have to give a bit of background about the social dimension of these lowly embossments in Massachusetts.

“Father of the American License Plate” is probably not how Henry Lee Higginson would choose to be remembered. “Founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” perhaps, or “Civil War hero” would be more to his liking. But in fact it was Major Higginson, the prominent banker and philanthropist, who first recommended that the state put a numbered plaque on each motor vehicle.

Higginson hated the automobile. As the twentieth century dawned in Boston he was in a state of high complaint about the rudeness of the unlicensed “automobilists” whizzing past his front door at 190 Commonwealth Ave. (in both directions on both sides of the avenue). At his summer home in Manchester, Massachusetts He even arranged to set up an elaborate network of timing devices in order to prove that over half of that town’s motor traffic was routinely exceeding the speed limit of 15 miles per hour. But how to determine the identity of the offending motorists?

It was to address this question that Major Higginson submitted a petition to the Massachusetts legislature in January of 1903 “Relative to licensing Automobiles and Those operating the Same.” Since Higginson was perhaps the most influential private citizen in the Commonwealth at the time, his petition was sure to get prompt attention.

Sitting in one of the back rows of the legislature that year was a scrappy, 29-year-old rep from Roxbury named James M. Curley. Son of an immigrant laborer, champion of the Irish underclass, Mr. Curley was already staking out the epic boundaries of a career in urban politics that would take him to the mayor’ office four times (in four different decades) and twice to prison. In the 1950s he achieved legendary status with the release of the film “The Last Hurrah” (Spencer Tracy played him), which was loosely based on his life.

But back to 1903. Major Higginson’s proposal was approved by the legislature in June and the license plates hit the streets in September-the first state-issued license plates in the country. (New York had mandated numbered license plates one year earlier but left it up to motorists to make their own.)

Those first license plates in Massachusetts bore the unmistakable mark of that grant program of civic improvement that the Yankee elite felt was their sacred trust. In the first place the plates were made of high-gloss porcelain enamel, which far outshined the home-made license plates of the Empire State. Secondly, they bore a legend of self-importance: “MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER.” The word “register” was seen to have the same connotation as it had in the “Social Register,” i.e., a list of the people properly located in society.

Indeed, when the first auto registration list was published in the fall of 1903, it was easy to see from the names that it was a system of registration by and for the Yankee aristocracy. More than 97% of the automobile owners came from the WASP upper and middle classes. This at a time when more than 60% of the population of Massachusetts was “of foreign parentage.” Those porcelain plaques quickly took on a totemic quality-they not only uniquely identified a motor vehicle, they also attempted to indicate the social caste of the vehicle’s owner.

The Irish, who were locked in a bitter battle for social respect with the Yankee establishment at the time, were conspicuously absent from the registration list. Only 15 Irish surnames appeared among the first 1000 registrants. Not that Major Higginson had saved all the low numbers for his pals. No. Except for a man named Frederic Tudor receiving #1 and #99, there is no evidence that favoritism played a part in issuing the numbers. (Mr. Tudor was an automobile enthusiast, coincidentally Higginson’s nephew, who had been working with state highway officials on other matters.) The failure of the Irish to register automobiles in that period was simply a function of their low economic status. While there were plenty of Irish chauffeurs around in 1903, there were not many automobile owners.

As for Mr. Curley, he didn’t need a car that year anyway because he had to go to jail. In December of 1902 Curley had been caught impersonating another man at a civil service exam. (“I did it for a friend,” he said.) Convicted,—the first Massachusetts legislator ever to be found guilty of a crime-and sentenced by Judge Francis Cabot Lowell to 2 months in jail, Curley would have seen his political career go off a cliff in normal times.

But, by playing the ethnic card, Curley was able to turn his disgrace into an advantage. Claiming persecution at the hands of the Protestant power structure, he announced that even while incarcerated he would be a candidate in an upcoming citywide race for alderman (the equivalent of city councilor). A convicted criminal campaigning from jail for high office. The walls of Indignation swept over Beacon Hill like a March blizzard. But there was nothing that Curley’s opponents could do. With his supporters delivering speeches written by him in jail, Curley easily won his seat on the Board of Alderman, finishing third in a field of 26.

Meanwhile, a man’s love affair with the motorcar had created a demand for license plates in Massachusetts far in excess of original estimates. By the end of 1907 almost 24,000 pairs of them had been issued. Then in 1908 the plates were redesigned and the words “AUTOMOBILE REGISTER” were dropped. With the average citizen rubbing hubcaps with the Peabodys and the Gardners, automobile ownership had lost its exclusive character.

However, a new kind of exclusivity was taking shape during these years-the possession of a low registration number, especially one with four digits or less. For the Yankee upper class, who shunned vulgar displays of wealth, it expressed their aura of entitlement in just the way they preferred, so quietly. Just a little reminder of who had belonged at the front of the line back in the beginning.

But there was a problem. From 1903 through 1910 there was no provision for motorists to keep their plate numbers from one year to the next. While some people appealed directly tot he Highway Commission for continuity, many did not bother. For example, Lowell businessman Paul Butler, who held plate numbers 6 and 7 in 1908, was bumped to 3078 and 3079 the following year. But if Lady Luck frowned on Mr. Butler, she had nothing but smiles for some of Boston’s most prominent citizens. In 1909, for example, Frank Peabody son of the founder of Kidder, Peabody, picked up #61 and #62; Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy got #225, and #80 went to a fellow who had just moved to town from Maine. He was William H. O’Connell, Boston’s new archbishop.

But all of these preferments paled before the one granted to a man I shall call, pseudonymously, Charles T. Appleton. He was chairman of the board of the Shawmut Bank and one of the largest landowners in the inner suburb of Brookline. In 1908 he was well back in the pack at #9960 but in 1909 he was issued two single digit license plates, #4 and #5.

All this preciousness about one number and the next was causing such a headache at the Highway Commission that in the following year, 1911, the “reserve system” was put in place. The new system allowed anyone with a license plate number below 5000 to keep that number automatically upon re-registration or to transfer it to a relative. The system has been expanded over the years and now includes all numbers of five digits or less.

Massachusetts is the only state to have held to such a far-reaching reserve system. In some other states (New York, Vermont, etc.) all the low numbers were withdrawn and redistributed as political favors, but here the people in charge seemed to realize that a whole takeaway would cheapen the very thing that others were trying to gain-prestige. So much better to pick off the low numbers one at a time, when someone died without heirs or moved out of state. This way, the newcomers would be able to mingle with the old money. To put it another way, when John A. Volpe, Jr. (#365) and Edward M. Kennedy (#202) take to the road with their coveted license plates, they want to know that the Converses of Marion (#52) and the Saltonstalls of Dover (#600) still have theirs. The so-called “immigrant” classes may love to mock the Yankees, but they love to imitate them too.

James Michael Curley, meanwhile, enjoying the benefit of ethnic bloc voting, went from alderman to U.S. congressman to mayor of Boston. Then, in the fall of 1934 he won his greatest victory and gained his only statewide office-governor. The boy who had spent 8 years at the reins of a horse-drawn delivery cart could now ride out the Great Depression in the back seat of a 12-cylinder Lincoln limousine with license plate “S1.”

Curley’s 2 years in the State House, 1935 and 1936, saw a personal extravagance on his part that was almost surreal in the context of the times. When he went on a golfing trip to Florida he took along state policemen as caddies. A routine trip across town in the governor’s limousine (which was known simply as “S1”) became a motorcade with sirens screaming. At his daughter Mary’s wedding reception at the Copley Plaza he laid on 2000 pounds of lobster and 6000 glasses of wine to quell her guests.

But if the Depression era had taken Mr. Curley to the peak of his power, it had put Charles T. Appleton II on a different road, a road to ruin. He was the grandson of the banker who had received license plates #4 and #5 back in 1909. The younger Mr. Appleton, who had inherited the license plates as well as the name from his grandfather, began his career in 1920 in the faltering New England textile business. In 1928 he left that to join the Boston brokerage firm of Gurnett & Co. Like many brokers, Gurnett allowed its clients to buy stock “on margin,” that is, with money that was pledged but not actually remitted. This method worked wonders when prices were rising but when the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, Gurnett’s clients could not meet their margin calls and the firm was wiped out.

The fall of Gurnett coincided with the breakup of the great Appleton estate in the Coolidge Corner area of Brookline, and by 1930 Mr. Appleton was living with his father in a more modest part of town. The full extent of his finances is not known (he may well have had some trust income) but in 1931 the town assessed his total personal property, including real estate, as $1100. The irony was that those two pairs of license plates, which once had been a mere token of the Appleton wealth, were probably his most valuable possessions.

Somewhere between 1930 and 1933 he sold #4 to a wealthy lumber dealer named George E. McQuesten. At least this is what friends and family on both sides of the deal remember. It’s hard to see any other reason why Mr. Appleton would surrender such an heirloom to someone outside the family. If it were simply a case of him giving up one of his automobiles, he could easily have transferred the other set of plates to his younger brother, who was living in the western part of the state at the time. In any event the plate appeared as early as 1934 on Mr. McQuesten’s Rolls-Royce sedan. Precisely what Mr. McQuesten paid for the right to use #4 will never be known, but it is safe to say, given the lowness of the number and the needs of Mr. Appleton, that it was the most money ever to change hands over a license plate in Massachusetts. (The price might be inferred from an incident that occurred recently in Delaware, where the history of the registration of the automobile has some similarities with Massachusetts. There, in 1994, the right to use a single digit license plate was auctioned, legally, for $185,000.)

Anyhow, the worse seemed to be over for Mr. Appleton. He caught on with another brokerage firm and then in 1935 he bought a Ford beach wagon and moved with his wife and children to a rented house in Cohasset, a coastal community on Boston’s South Shore. And of course he still had his #5.

Appleton and McQuesten, both lifelong Republicans, didn’t know it at the time, but they were lucky to have finished their license plate business before 1935, because in that year they would have had to bargain with James Michael Curley. In fact, one of Curley’s first acts as governor was to fire the registrar of motor vehicles (the man had made the mistake of suspending the driver’s license of his son, Paul) and install his old friend and crony, Frank A. Goodwin, in that post. Through his registrar, Curley enjoyed, as has every Massachusetts governor since 1911, total control over the awarding of the reserve plates when they become available due to death, dislocation, or other reasons.

In Curley’s day it worked like this: every month a list would be delivered to his secretary, Eddie Hoy, showing which numbers had been vacated. The governor would then send the list back, after matching the numbers up with friends and “contributors.” A few of the lucky ones were Curley’s son Leo (#292), his son-in-law, Edward Donnelly (#176), his chauffeur, Charles Manion (#518), and Congressman John W. McCormack (#409).

No one, however, could match the ease of his only daughter, Mary, in commanding the favors of His Excellency. Since Curley’s wife had passed away in 1930, Mary became the stand-in First Lady of his administration. While still governor-elect Mr. Curley ordered for her a custom-made V-12 Cadillac Fleetwood “Town Sedan,” the original purchase order of which is on file at the Historical Services Office of the Cadillac Motor Division in Warren, Michigan. The maroon vehicle, which featured among other extras, a matching monogrammed lap robe, was mounted with the “S2” license plate, indicating a state-owned vehicle, but it was also listed at the registry as her personal vehicle with private passenger plate #350. Why 350? Simple, it echoed the address of the mansion her father had built (with “donated” materials) at 350 The Jamaicaway, Mr. Curley, who understood so well the power of words, also knew the magic of numbers.

But what about a license plate for the governor himself? This question was asked even more breathlessly in 1936 when Curley decided not to run for a second term as governor but instead to challenge Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. for a senate seat. He lost that election (the only Democrat in the country to lose a senate race in ‘36), meaning that he would again be a private citizen in 1937. The man who held the keys to the vault, the vault that once held Higginson’s enameled registry, was not going to give himself any old top-of-the-pile license plate. No. He was going to penetrate deep within the reserve system before he left office. But how low could he go?

That question was answered in the wee morning hours of May 29, 1936. At 2:40am a Ford beach wagon passing through the town of Weymouth was stopped by police and the driver charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. On the car was license plate #5. At the wheel was, yes, Charles T. Appleton II. This much I have seen for myself on an ancient Weymouth police blotter.

But was Appleton fairly accused? The evidence says yes. The key point is that the arresting officers were not registry police or state police, which might have lent some credence to the “cops outside the barroom door” theory, but ordinary town patrolmen. Moreover, a week after the arrest Appleton appeared in Quincy District Court, pleaded guilty, and paid a $50 fine. So there was nothing to distinguish the affair from a typical Memorial Day weekend drunk driving conviction.

What happened next is a matter of some guesswork. (There are no records of the case at the registry.) Mr. Appleton’s daughter remembers that her father’s driver’s license was suspended for 6 months, and it is probably safe to assume that his registration was revoked as well, technically vacating his license plate number. Whatever the exact chain of events, there is no evidence that Appleton ever publicly protested any of these reversals. To have done so would, of course, have exposed him to much messy publicity about his earlier misadventure.

January 7, 1937, Mr. Curley’s last day as governor of the Commonwealth, was quite a day for him, even in his Homeric career. The morning began with a nuptial mass to mark his marriage to Gertrude Dennis, a woman 20 years his junior. It was the second marriage for both. The wedding couple left the church in the governor’s “S1” limousine and arrived at the back door of the State House around 11:20am. The Incoming governor, Charles F. Hurley, was to be sworn in at noon. This gave Curley a chance to do some last minute politicking. He met with Mr. Hurley briefly and gave him a Bible. Then, as the noon hour drew near, Curley made his way to the front door.

By longstanding tradition, the outgoing governor was required to exit the building as the new governor was taking the oath of office, walk solitarily down the front steps and continue on across Boston Common. On this day, however, tradition would take a back seat. Outside was a brass band and a noisy throng of 3000 well wishers waiting in a cold rain to see the Curleys off on their honeymoon.

At the edge of the crowd, awaiting Curley on Beacon St., were three things that he would take with him on his next campaign. (He would serve one more term as congressman and one more as mayor, in all, he ran for public office an incredible 32 times.) The first was a new Lincoln Limousine, a “gift” from his staff. The second was his bride, Gertrude, perched radiantly on the running-board in a lynx-trimmed wool coat. The third was a pair of license plates on the car showing the number 5.

That is all I can tell you about the transfer of #5. The facts leave much of the blame away from Mr. Curley. The rumor about Curley terrorizing the Appleton family was probably a face-saving attempt on the part of the Appletons. To my mind the story is interesting now not because it lifts the veil on a great scandal but because it highlights this curious concupiscence that afflicted Mr. Curley and continues to afflict generation after generation of Massachusetts motorists. License plates as objects of desire. Quaint, isn’t it?

In 1944 Mr. Appleton left Massachusetts for good and moved to Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He died in 1960, two years after Curley. License plate #5 is now with Mr. Curley’s stepsons, and #4 is with a nephew of Mr. McQuesten, who passed away in 1975.

Written by Kevin Burke. Reprinted with permission from Antique Automobile. All rights reserved.