The legend is dying
Here’s one thing that has changed in the 16 years since Jimmy Bulger went on the lam: At some point, his life became a legend.
Yes, he was a folk hero and a celebrity years before he took his ill-gotten fortune and fled for the sunny climes of Santa Monica. Yesterday he returned to the home that is no longer home.
But there’s no Jack Nicholson in his anything-but-heroic return. There are blood-stained streets and grieving relatives and disgraced federal law enforcement officers and a city that is largely grateful to have moved on. The glamour is superficial, while the damage runs deep.
True, he is no ordinary gangster. Even the parade of disgraced politicians who have haunted the Moakley courthouse in recent months didn’t arrive in tinted SUVs, after being ferried across the country by jet. He got the star treatment.
In popular imagination, Whitey is a maverick, the genius who could have gone straight, like his brother, but had the moxie to dare the harder, outlaw path. There’s no disputing his Machiavellian flair for bending people and situations to his will. He is a true scholar of evil.
Still, the legend can’t coexist with the reality. The legend has taken a big hit over the past 72 hours in the face of relatives of alleged victims reminding the world of their pain. The true story of Whitey and the FBI is infinitely colder and more deadly than Nicholson befriending some future cop in a candy store.
One myth that bears correcting is the erroneous idea that he is responsible for 19 murders, chilling as that number is. That doesn’t begin to take into account the carnage exacted by his henchmen.
It’s time to dial back the sentiment, too, over the courtroom family reunion of the legendary brothers, Billy and Jimmy, the supposed polar opposites with so much in common. There’s nothing moving about this. True, Billy never turned on his brother. How noble. But did he ever suggest to his brother that murder and terror were lousy ways to make a living?
James J. Bulger has never been a man to let anyone see him sweat, and his poise was apparently intact in US District Court yesterday. When he was asked if he could afford a lawyer, he said sure, if the government gives him his money back. What a riot, that Whitey.
While Whitey was entertaining his subjects, I was thinking of a few murders that weren’t part of his indictment. Whitey wasn’t the triggerman. That fell to John Martorano, his onetime close associate. Herbert Smith, Elizabeth F. Dickson, and Douglas Barrett were leaving a South End jazz club called Basin Street South in early 1968 when they were gunned down. Smith, 47, who managed the club, was the presumed target. The other victims, both teenagers, were his friends. How he managed to offend the mob is lost to history. The Globe story the next day said a trail of blood was visible for a block.
Their slayings were forgotten until Martorano faced prosecution in the late 1990s. As part of his plea bargain, Martorano acknowledged guilt in 20 murders, including those. A retired patrolman named Edward Walsh, who helped revive the case, said that unsolved murders in Roxbury were commonplace, that blacks were used, in his words, “as target practice.’’ Just another scene you won’t see in any of the Whitey-inspired movies.
Whitey is back home, but it doesn’t figure to be much of a homecoming. Many of his lieutenants finished their time years ago. His brother doesn’t run much of anything anymore. South Boston, once unimaginable without him, is significantly different from the place whose rackets he ruled with an iron fist.
No lie can live forever. The legend of Whitey, like the man himself, is winding down.
Adrian Walker is a Globe coumnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.