Bulger begins life sentence as a relic of a vanished age
A hoodlum left with his notoriety and nothing else
Besides being a convicted murderer, James “Whitey” Bulger is an avowed racist and misogynist, pontificating on how the races should not mix and how women should know their place. So the irony was palpable yesterday in Boston as he sat at the defendant’s table and was lectured and sentenced to life in prison by an accomplished federal judge who happens to be an African American woman.
James “Whitey” Bulger, once a legend, now a shrinking man of 84, learned his fate in a courthouse named for his old neighbour in South Boston, Joe Moakley, the congressman. But that was the old Southie, a Southie that no longer exists.
That he was put away for life by US district court judge Denise Casper captured, in part, how much the neighbourhood and the city Bulger used to rule with an iron fist and gun has changed.
He was sentenced to life in prison in a courtroom a few hundred yards down the street on the Southie waterfront where, 31 years ago, he slaughtered two men, murders facilitated by corrupt FBI agents who had used Whitey as their informer and routinely got people who might turn him in killed.
The 1982 murder of Brian Halloran, a hoodlum who tried to shop Whitey to the FBI, not knowing he was their prized snitch, and Michael Donahue, an innocent truck driver who had the misfortune of offering a ride to Halloran, took place when the waterfront was a grimy, smelly place frequented by fishermen and few others.
A few years ago, Jon Cronin, an immigrant from Cork, opened a bar, the Whiskey Priest, on the spot where Bulger levelled his rifle and riddled Halloran and Donahue with bullets. The young people who frequent Cronin’s pub, for the most part, haven’t a clue who Whitey Bulger is. He is not part of their Boston.
In the 16 years that Whitey spent on the lam, after being tipped off about his impending arrest by his corrupt FBI handler John Connolly, the Southie waterfront has changed, changed utterly. Fish processing plants and shot-and-a-beer bar rooms gave way to high-rise hotels and high-end restaurants. The young people who pay anywhere between $2,000 and $3,000 a month for waterfront apartments think nothing of dropping $12 on a cocktail.
Yuppies walk the waterfront where Whitey once trolled with a machine gun in easy reach. The neighbourhood has been rebranded. It’s called the Seaport, and it’s full of new money and new energy, and it houses the Institute of Contemporary Art, one of the most beautiful buildings in one of the most vibrant sections of the city.
As the US marshals drove Whitey away from the courthouse yesterday, back to his holding cell in Plymouth, where the Pilgrims landed in 1620, it may have dawned on him that all those yuppies, all those glitzy restaurants and bars, were missed opportunities. He would have been able to extort so much money from them, maybe even have to kill some of them, because back in the day the FBI had his back, protecting him from prosecution in exchange for his dubious value as an informant against the Mafia.
The Mafia is a joke in Boston now, reduced to a few old Italian bookmakers trying to eke out a living on sports gambling. The Irish mob that Whitey once headed is dead, too. The working-class Irish kids who grew up in the Southie housing projects like Whitey did are mostly gone, replaced mostly by blacks and Hispanics and Asians. What’s left of the working-class Irish in Boston, including Southie, aspire to join the police and fire departments, not some gang of plug uglies who sell drugs and broken dreams.
Everything that Whitey knew is gone. He has his notoriety but nothing else.
Judge Casper noted with regret that because of his criminal career and his ability to corrupt the FBI and justice department so thoroughly, Whitey Bulger is one of the most famous, or infamous, people in Boston’s history. She put his infamy in terms that everyone in Boston could relate to: without specifically mentioning the Boston Marathon bombings or the improbable championship of the Boston Red Sox, the city’s beloved baseball team, she lamented that anyone might consider Bulger famous in this year of such tragedy and triumph in the city.
“You have in certain quarters become a face of this city,” the judge allowed, before quickly adding, “but you, sir, do not represent the face of this city.”
Instead, the judge said, the city’s face is captured in the jurors who convicted him in August, a mix of decent people of all races and demographics.
Bill Bulger, Whitey’s brother, was the longest-serving president of the Massachusetts State Senate. Despite his lofty position, he remained close to his gangster brother, and even joked about Whitey’s fearsome reputation, and later his fugitive status, while presiding over the St Patrick’s Day breakfast, while singing such ditties as The Wild Colonial Boy.
But Bill Bulger was forced to resign as the president of the University of Massachusetts after the Boston Globe reported that he had talked to his brother while he was a fugitive and told a grand jury he would never do anything to help get his gangster brother caught.
Earlier this year, a Dorchester woman named Linda Dorcena Forry, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, took over the senate seat occupied by white Irishmen from South Boston for nearly a century.
She looks forward to presiding over the St Patrick’s Day breakfast next March. She has a great singing voice and knows the words to, among many Irish songs, Take Me Home to Mayo. Maybe Judge Casper can drop in and sing a song, too.
Kevin Cullen, a Boston Globe columnist, is co-author of Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice.