Joe Souza: I never met Whitey Bulger growing up. I’m not sure that I ever wanted to meet him, but I was certainly intrigued by the legend of the man. The truth is, Whitey Bulger is as responsible for my foray into crime writing as anyone. I write this post not to praise him but as a way of reflecting back on my views of the man at the time. It was a time in my life when I was an impressionable young man making my way in the world.
I never met Whitey Bulger, despite the fact that I worked in Southie for seven years while he reigned terror in Boston. Despite the fact that I drove past his grimy headquarters (Triple O’s tavern) on a daily basis. Despite the fact that Whitey lived in a condo in my hometown (Quincy) and commuted over the Neponset Bridge each day to conduct his criminal activities. Despite the fact my mother grew up with him in the same building in the Mary Ellen McCormack housing project. (As a side note, my father grew up in Roxbury with Whitey’s murderous partner, Stevie Flemmi). Or that Whitey executed Brian Halloran a quarter mile from the fish pier where I worked.
There were plenty of people on the waterfront who knew Whitey: small time criminals, union men, cops and politicians, In many ways, I felt as if I was one degree removed from ‘Jimmy’ Bulger (I’d always been warned that if I ever met him to never to call him Whitey to his face). I braced for the day when I might accidentally run into him on the street or in one of the local bars. What would I do? What would I say? I certainly wouldn’t say or do anything disrespectful to Boston’s most infamous and dangerous mobster. Whitey was like a VIP in town, respected and feared by many who lived in Southie. People viewed the guy as if he was a celebrity.
South Boston was largely blue collar and proudly provincial back then. Everyone worshipped our celebrities, especially if they were one of us. Sox, Celtics and Bruins. My mother loved the Kennedys, despite all their faults, and you couldn’t convince her otherwise. Priests were treated as demigods and practically idolized by parishioners. This sense of entitlement facilitated the sexual abuse in the Church that scandalized the nation. In some ways, it also helped Whitey Bulger rise to power. People just looked the other way.
To say that I was fascinated with Whitey Bulger as a young man is an understatement. His brother, Billy, was the most powerful and feared politician in the state. For many years he lorded over the Massachusetts Senate as President and dictator. He was a triple eagle: BC High, BC. And then BC Law. He was the proud son of South Boston. If you worked for the state and ended up on his bad side, he’d withhold your salary until you won back his favor. Or else he’d find a way to get rid of you. A state cop who once arrested Whitey found himself relieved of his duties a year later. Shortly after that he killed himself. So while Billy was the most important and powerful politician in the state, Whitey ruled the underworld with his unspoken blessing. Together they made a formidable pair.
We all believed Whitey was Robin Hood. This was the myth passed down on the street and in the newspapers like the Boston Globe. Everyone believed that Whitey took care of his own. Watched out for the poor and and bought groceries for the old widows who lived on K Street. That he purposefully kept drugs out of Southie was one of the biggest lies, but many believed it at the time, despite kids dying everyday from heroin that he profited from. It was all part of the myth perpetuated to grow his legend, and most people bought into this perception of him. Famed Globe sportswriter Will McDonough befriended ‘Jimmy’ and reported about him in a positive light. And Salon called disgraced columnist Mike Barnicle, “The best friend a gangster could have.”
So what’s a nineteen year-old kid to think when reading all of this? This view of Bulger was ubiquitous in the neighborhood, establishing his image as a hometown hero. Men talked proudly of him over beers at the Eire Pub. He was a proud Irish-American like one of us. While the Angiulo family fell away, thanks to his secret cooperation with the FBI, Whitey continued to remain in power. Everyone admired the fact that Whitey was smarter and more clever than the Italian mobsters. Whitey was a staunch supporter of the Irish Republican Army as they fought to break away from the Brits, and this endeared him to the Irish-American community. Whitey didn’t drink or do drugs, keeping himself fit by lifting weights and exercising religiously. He was an avid student of history and loved to read books. How could anyone not admire this warrior/philosopher from the mean streets of South Boston?
In retrospect, I look back and think what a fool I’d been for buying into such nonsense. Whitey was a lowlife who not only killed his way to the top, but ratted out all his competition in exchange for FBI immunity. The agent handling him (John Connolly) grew up in the neighborhood and worshiped the Bulger brothers. One of his best days, according to Connolly, was when Whitey bought him an ice cream cone when he was a kid. Not only did he pass on top security information to Whitey, but he watched on as Bulger killed his rivals and maintained his iron tight grip on the rackets.
Looking back on those days, and my obvious blind spot, I find myself more intrigued than ever with Whitey’s climb to the top. But for different reasons. He’s a vile human being and deserving of no sympathy. But as a crime writer, I can’t help but be fascinated by his violent career. The utter ruthlessness of his character is chilling, and the criminal skill set he possessed was unparalleled in modern mob history. In the corporate world, he might have become a Rockefeller, Lee Iacocca or Steve Jobs. Whitey could charm you one minute and then gun you down the next without any remorse. Even the FBI agent handling him, John Connolly, fell deeply under his spell. Thankfully, Connolly is now spending the rest of his life in prison.
I never met Whitey Bulger and I’m glad I didn’t, but he’s stayed in my head all these years. As a writer, I doubt I could devise a believable character as fierce, cunning and charismatic. And what are the odds that his brother’s political career rivaled Whitey’s own meteoric rise in the underworld? Good brother. Bad brother. Classic literary theme, right? Tight knit Irish brothers watching each other’s back.
As writers, we have a responsibility not only to tell a great story, but to deconstruct myths and illuminate universal truths. The old Boston crime writer, George V. Higgins, was the best at depicting crime’s influence on society. If you’re a crime writer and you haven’t read V. Higgins, you definitely should. His dialogue heavy novels perfectly catches the zeitgeist of the Boston crime scene in the seventies and eighties.
Looking back on those days, I can clearly see how destructive unchecked power is to a democratic society. Only by exposing such truths in our writing will we have any chance of preventing future Whitey Bulgers. “Power tends to corrupt,” said John Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s something we must teach our children.
My hope is that future generations will never see Whitey Bulger as anything but a monster. In many ways, the institutions that rose up in Boston allowed such unchecked criminal behavior to happen. It’s also the reason Roman Catholic priests got away with sexually abusing children for many years. As an altar boy during that period, serving with a priest who was later convicted of such a crime, I’m glad I came out unscathed. I can’t deny the powerful influence these factors had on me growing up, and on my writing. I’m just relieved to know that Jimmy Bulger will be spending his remaining days behind bars. I pray he lives a long life before he meets his maker.
Joe, this is a dandy and fascinating post. Whitey certainly left a scary and intriguing legacy.