Ely was born in Westfield, Massachusetts on February 22, 1881. A graduate of Williams College in 1902 and Harvard Law School in 1905, he returned to Westfield and began the practice of law as a partner in the firm of Ely & Ely. In 1915, Governor David I. Walsh appointed him as District Attorney for the Western Massachusetts District. He was elected to this position in his own right the next year, and served until 1920.
Active in Democratic politics, Ely was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 1924 and 1928. In 1930, he challenged incumbent Republican Governor Frank G. Allen, and defeated him in the popular election by a narrow margin. Chief among Governor Ely's concerns was the effects of the Great Depression. He began a series of public works projects to relieve unemployment. Highway construction in Massachusetts was accelerated by this work, which was supported by the imposition of a gasoline tax. Ely advocated substantial reductions in state salaries during the depression, but met with overwhelming legislative resistance. In concert with the City of Boston, Governor Ely established a permanent Boston Police Academy to increase the training of public safety officers. He was re-elected in 1932, but declined to run again in 1934. In 1944, Governor Ely made a brief run for the Democratic presidential nomination, but was defeated by incumbent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt by a substantial margin.
Governor Ely died on June 13, 1956, and is buried in Pine Hill Cemetery in Westfield, Massachusetts.
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