- - Thursday, November 1, 2018


By the code of the streets, he got what he deserved. Hundreds of the kith and ken of the dozens of men and even some women who died at the hand of James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger would agree. Whitey, the notorious Boston mobster, was killed in prison this week at the age of 89. It was a fitting and violent end to an extraordinarily violent life.

Bulger was a sociopathic killer, Tom Foley, the former head of the Massachusetts State Police, observed in 2011. “He loved that type of life. He’s one of the hardest and cruelest individuals who operated in the Boston area. He’s a bad, bad, bad guy.”

Whitey was born in 1929, and spent his formative years in Everett, Massachusetts, a working class enclave just north of Boston. In 1938 the family moved to a public housing project in South Boston — “Southie” in Boston parlance — a neighborhood to which he would come to display a perverse and fearsome loyalty.

By 1943, at the age of 14, Bulger had already been arrested for larceny. Charges of forgery, assault and armed robbery would follow, and he was sent to juvenile hall. Attempts to reform him in the “kiddie slammer,” so called, didn’t take. He got another chance when he joined the Air Force but soon went to military prison for assault. By the time he was discharged in 1952, Bulger was well on the road to a life of crime.

He began robbing banks, racking up nine years of punishment in federal prison. He joined violent gangs specializing in bookmaking — and not the leather-bound great books, either — and loan sharking. Eventually he took over the notoriously rough Winter Hill Gang, an enterprise of extortion, bookmaking, loan sharking, hijacking trucks, and trafficking in illegal guns. He established a reputation for merciless discipline, ordering the murder of anyone who stepped out of line. “Psychopathic mob boss” was a role he would thrive in for two decades. But he didn’t follow the code of the streets. For 15 years he was a squealer, helping the FBI take down members of the Mafia. Bulger ate his cake and had it, too.

In 1994, he was tipped off to an impending indictment by his handling agent, and fled to escape prosecution. Bulger and a doxy lived as fugitives for more than a decade. Remarkably, during this time Whitey’s brother, William Bulger, was president of the Massachusetts Senate. William said he had no firsthand knowledge of his brother’s crimes and whereabouts. When he was finally run to ground in Southern California in 2011, Whitey was charged with many crimes. He was ultimately convicted of 11 murders. This figure was understood to be far less than the actual number of those who died at his hand. He was sentenced to two life sentences plus an additional five years in prison. “The testimony of human suffering that you and your associates inflicted on others was at times agonizing to hear and painful to watch,” the judge said at his sentencing. “The scope, the callousness, the depravity of your crimes are almost unfathomable.”

Bulger was perhaps the most famous crime boss in America at the time, portrayed in the movies by both Jack Nicholson, in a lightly fictionalized account of his life, and by Johnny Depp. But by the time of his richly deserved convictions, he was an old man who would rot in prison until the end of his days.

Those days ended earlier than scheduled, when Bulger was murdered on Tuesday. “Two Federal Bureau of Prisons employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Whitey was beaten unrecognizable by inmates shortly after he had arrived at the prison,” the Hazelton federal penitentiary in West Virginia. He was moved from prison to prison in recent years and was imprisoned in Florida before transfer to Hazelton, which has a reputation for violence. Police suspect that Bulger’s killers were mobsters themselves, perhaps settling a score from back in the day in Boston.

Bulger moved from his Florida prison after he threatened a worker there. He never became the mellow octogenarian. Unrepentant, unreformed mobster that he was, Bulger nevertheless did not deserve vigilante justice. No one does. That’s why we have the law. In the end, said Ed David, the former Boston police commissioner, “I’m not surprised that he got hit. I’m surprised that they let him get hit.”

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