The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century
by Howie Carr
(Warner Books, 352 pages, $25.95)
Who knew Howie Carr could write like this?
Boston’s veteran wiseacre talk show host and newspaper columnist can turn a sharp short commentary. Everybody knew that. But now, with the publication of his book, The Brothers Bulger, Howie Carr proves he can write a modern political history book that reads like a first-rate crime novel, full of rich social insights and — most important — facts that nobody else ever wrote before, and maybe no one person ever knew.
The intertwined stories of Boston politician William Bulger, longtime president of the Massachusetts Senate, and his brother James “Whitey” Bulger, mob boss and multiple murderer, loop around virtually every stratum, nook, and cranny of New England society.
Carr said on his radio program last week that he had thought of including in the book a “tree,” or family and associate diagram of the Bulgers. “But it would have been a kudzu.”
Many a non-fiction book flounders on the author’s inability to keep relationships straight in the reader’s mind. Carr proves that the best way to unravel a kudzu is to tell a good story, and to tell a good story well.
“I’M JIMMY BULGER AND I KILL PEOPLE.”
So did James “Whitey” Bulger introduce himself to Boston Herald reporter Paul Corsetti. Forget any romance about the rackets. Whitey Bulger made his career by murder. He did it personally and repeatedly. He got his hands right in the gore, cut up his own victims, pulled their teeth to avoid identification, and buried them. Through murdering some and ratting out others, he destroyed the old Winter Hill Gang, the Irish Mafia of Somerville. Then he did the same to the Italians in the North End. Together with his accomplice, Stevie Flemmi, he killed more than two score people in about 15 years, through 1985.
They didn’t limit themselves to crime rivals. They killed no-longer-useful girlfriends, for one, several times. And they had plenty of those. Both Flemmi and Bulger fancied raping teenage girls — and Whitey liked boys, too, from time to time.
They made their money — some $50 million in net worth for Whitey by the time he went on the lam — mostly by straight extortion. People knew Whitey and Stevie killed people, so they paid them.
And they did it all under the protection of the local FBI office, which, over decades, they completely suborned and corrupted. When Whitey’s empire finally collapsed, former FBI agent John “Zip” Connolly went down for a long jail sentence right along with Whitey’s hoods. Carr describes Connolly’s replacement, John Morris, tormenting himself with guilt in his office in 1988: “When Morris had been transferred to the Boston office, he had considered himself an honest man, a decent human being. Now, like almost everyone else he knew in Massachusetts, he was a crook and a drunk and a cheat. He had gone native.”
BILLY BULGER, TOO, SUCCEEDED FROM THE BEGINNING by blunt force in a corrupt environment — the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as the state legislature is styled. Open seats don’t come along very often. When Joe Moakley ran for State Senate and did not defend his representative’s slot in South Boston, it gave the young, still half-educated Bulger his chance.
“One Suit Bulger,” his opponents called him, because he literally had only one suit. Carr tells how Bulger simply outworked all his opposition. He was sworn in an as representative in 1961, and he did not leave the legislature for 34 years, eventually rising to become Senate President and, effectively, governor. How? The Senate controlled the budget. With a veto-proof Democratic majority except for two years, from 1990-1992, Bulger called all the shots.
There were three rules in the State House when young Bulger took office, writes Carr: 1. Nothing is on the level; 2. Everything is a deal; 3. No deal is too small. Carr quotes Edwin O’Connor from The Last Hurrah: “Corruption here had a shoddy, penny ante quality…Everything was up for grabs and nothing was too small to steal.”
Over the years, Bulger stuffed the state with cronies, judgeships and court clerkships being specially favorite slots. But no job was too small for the President to notice. When, in a budget crunch, Mayor Kevin White contemplated closing the L Street Bathhouse in South Boston, where Bulger and his pals had hung out as kids, a new state agency magically appeared, with a $280,000 appropriation, to run the bathhouse and keep the place open.
That kind of machination doesn’t even begin to approach the wholesale legislative giveaways Bulger engineered. Anticipating the Big Dig, in 1981, he created the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority to buy the decrepit Hynes Convention Center from the city of Boston, then renovate it. Staffed with Bulger cronies from top to bottom, the MCCA project came in $200 million over its original $450 million budget — and most of the time the old barn sits empty, except for small-bore rentals. It has recently been appraised at $35 million.
Bulger engineered the MCCA project to raise cash for Boston to pay off a court-ordered tax rebate to the city’s commercial property owners, who had sued, and won, after years of being over-assessed to line the city coffers.
THE MCCA SWINDLE ALSO DEMONSTRATED how Billy Bulger’s realm intermingled with that of his brother.
Longtime Bulger aide Francis Xavier (Franny) Joyce got the plum job, manager of the MCCA’s daily operations, at $75,000 a year. “One of Joyce’s first hires,” Carr writes, “was Nancy Stanley, daughter of Whitey’s girlfriend Theresa Stanley. Another early hire was Lisa Martorano, the eighteen-year-old daughter of [Bulger contract killer] Johnny [Martorano], who was already on the lam. She soon stole $21,000 in MCCA funds; her uncle, Jimmy, who was out of prison by that time, had to reimburse the agency. The payments were renegotiated between Jimmy and an MCCA executive named Bob Sheehan, [a] former Boston FBI agent. [Whitey controlled the Boston FBI, remember.]”
So it went. And so it goes in Massachusetts to this day, though the Brothers Bulger are, finally, gone.
CARR TELLS THE STORY OF THESE TWO CHARACTERS, largely unknown outside Boston, with vigor and flair — including using “f**k” and “s**” in his own narrative, where, one must say, it seems quite natural, given the subject. His blending of the two stories verges on masterful, especially in the opening scene, where Whitey puts together his final escape from the United States and from prosecution and Billy hems and haws in humiliation before the House Government Affairs Committee. Whitey has not been seen since September of 1996. He is now the number two man on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list (after only Osama bin Laden) and has been featured on America’s Most Wanted a number of times. Billy, after engineering a posh appointment as President of the University of Massachusetts and feathering that nest to luxurious proportions, was forced into retirement by Governor Mitt Romney — with state pensions totaling some $11,312.99 a month. His retirement settlement itself cost the taxpayers $960,000.
The only thing Carr neglects is how this kind of corruption gets its start. It continues to flourish today, not only in Massachusetts, but in other single-party states like Rhode Island, Maryland, and Louisiana. And only recently did the Republican revolution put an end to several other such fiefdoms in the South, including Bill Clinton’s Arkansas. Carr notes that Irish immigrants in nineteenth century Boston brought “no native entrepreneurial skills,” and were deeply suspicious of authority and private enterprise. (The Bulgers’ father lost an arm in an industrial accident.) So they looked to government for the source of everything: jobs (with “no heavy lifting,” literally), favors, contracts, emoluments, cash outright, places to park no-good relatives. On his radio show, Carr regularly digs into disability and pension fraud, a racket so widespread in Boston that everybody knows some able-bodied prime of life former cop, bus driver, fireman, or construction worker spending his days at home or at the local muni golf course or corner tap.
Was it Tocqueville who warned against the day when citizens should realize that they could vote themselves a portion of the Treasury? That’s the way things work in Boston. Howie Carr has told the story of the Bulgers beautifully, neglecting only to point out how close we have come to the same kind of corruption on a national level — and for the same reasons.
Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.
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