Although I have been a gangster aficionado ever since watching the original Godfather movie, I had never heard of Whitey Bulger until I started hearing reviews earlier this year about this book written by Kevin Fullen and Shelley Murphy. Fullen and Murphy, who grew up in South Boston, were Boston Globe writers and their book described the life of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, who had recently been captured after 16 years on the lam.
Despite my interest in gangsters and the generally good reviews of the book, I was not motivated enough to want to read it. But then a couple of weeks ago, Steve Kroft and “60 Minutes” did a segment on the 16-year manhunt for Bulger, and that made the guy interesting enough for me to devote some time to a book.
The manhunt is not the major part of the book. Of the 429 pages, Part Three titled “The Run” didn’t start until page 305. The majority of the book describes Bulger’s life in South Boston, where the Irish mob ran things, and his uneasy relationship with the Italian Mafia in Boston’s North End and his unholy alliance as an informant with the Boston office of the FBI, which at one time was much more interested in enlisting Whitey’s support in the FBI’s nationwide war against the Mafia than it was concerned with the murder and extortion that Whitey was doing on a local scale.
The book was completed after Whitey’s capture, but before his trial. A few weeks ago, Whitey was sentenced in Boston to two life sentences for murder, extortion, etc. Trials are being considered in Florida and Oklahoma that could result in a death sentence. Whitey offered to accept a death sentence in return for leniency to his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, who was guilty of nothing but hanging out with Whitey for the past 16 years, but the federal prosecutors refused, and she is currently serving an eight-year sentence.
What was my impression of Whitey? He didn’t create much of an elaborate organization, but rather thrived by being an extremely violent person whose reputation enabled him to easily extort his victims. More like Gotti than Corleone. Whitey’s success was also facilitated by his younger brother Bill, who rose to be the president of the Massachusetts State Senate and later president of the University of Massachusetts from 1995 to 2003. His brother, who provided Whitey with his entre to the Boston office of the FBI, resigned from UMass under pressure from Governor Mitt Romney when he refused to cooperate in the manhunt for Whitey.
An important theme of the book is the refusal of so-called Southies, like Whitey’s upstanding brother, to help with law enforcement, and that is why Whitey’s turf of South Boston must accept some responsibility for allowing him to operate in their midst, almost like the Mexican drug cartel south of our border.
Reading this book was time well spent.