In A Nutshell
Presenting someone with the keys to the city has always been a big deal, so it was an honor when a representative from the mayor’s office went out of his way to track down the Prince of Wales during his 1924 visit to give him the keys to Boston. The only trouble was, no one in the mayor’s office knew who this representative was, and in a time when tensions between England and Ireland were high, this caused a huge embarrassment for the Irish-run mayor’s office. The mysterious man wasn’t done yet, either, continuing to give away keys and invite guests around to the mayor’s for dinner.
The Whole Bushel
In 1924, the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) was vacationing just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. It wasn’t an official visit, and it’s crucial to note the tensions that such a visit would have caused at the time. The Prince of Wales, heir to the English throne, wouldn’t have been unconditionally welcome in Boston by any means. A city with a long-standing and proud Irish history, many of Boston’s residents were Irish immigrants or the children of immigrants and weren’t about to welcome an English representative with open arms.
That included the mayor at the time, James Michael Curley. Curley was the son of Irish immigrants and got where he had by being the everyman and the voice of the Irish working class that made the city home. He was already a controversial figure, having won his first election while he was serving 90 days in jail for fraud.
So when a man showed up at the home of the family that the Prince of Wales was staying with and presented himself as being from the mayor’s office, it came as a welcome surprise. The man, who gave his name as Lafayette Mulligan, said he was the social secretary of the mayor, and had been dispatched to present the Prince of Wales with a gold key to Boston. It was an amazing gesture of friendship between two nationalities that, historically, have never seen eye to eye. He invited the visiting dignitaries back to the city as guests of the mayor, but they had to decline. (Other versions of the story, written well after the fact, say that the Prince of Wales didn’t receive the key and the invitation until he was back in England.)
The Prince of Wales did, however, return the courtesy with a formal thank-you for the gesture of giving him the keys to the city. It was only when the mayor got the letter that he realized that not only was there no such person in his employ and that some stranger was going around handing out golden keys, but also that he had just been massively, massively insulted.
His political opponents had a field day with the Irish mayor that authorized handing Boston over to the English, but not everyone found it so amusing. Scotland Yard got involved, because of this stranger’s ability to track the supposedly personal movement of their heir and get in contact with him directly.
There was no immediate resolution to the matter, in spite of several detective agencies being called in to aid Scotland Yard and the police force in finding Mulligan. In the meantime, though, other keys to the city were sent out to visiting dignitaries from Belgium and China, and letters started showing up at the mayor’s office as well. They were postmarked with the return address of an elite Boston gentleman’s club, but members denied knowledge of the mystery man, and no one was ever concretely tied to the name or the actions.
The prank hopped across the pond, too, when residents in the English town of Boston got invitations to attend a grand reception for the United States’ Boston mayor. Not only did they get invitations, but Lafayette Mulligan also made arrangements for the entire event to be covered by the media and completely catered, all of which had to be sorted out after invitations had been received and companies had been booked for the non-existent event.
Several years later, a 55-year-old man was caught doing something very similar. Convinced he was organizing a “League of World Cities,” he had been sending out very official-looking invitations to leaders around the world. Boston, which he had chosen to host his event, found out when they started getting acceptance letters. Lafayette Mulligan, however, never had his true identity unmasked.