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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM BOSTON

Another Bulger's Fall Echoes in 'Southie'

One brother's a fugitive and the other has lost a seat of power. On the streets where they once ruled, the end of their influence is debated.

August 10, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — In the hub of this city's large Irish American community, there is an old saying about the brothers who long ruled the streets.

One Bulger boy sticks you up with the gavel, the South Boston adage holds, and the other sticks you up with a gun.

But now William Bulger, who for 17 years served as president of this state's Senate, has been deposed from his prestigious post as head of the University of Massachusetts.

His brother James "Whitey" Bulger -- a gangster wanted in connection with 21 murders, among other charges -- has been missing since 1995, just after federal agents tipped him off that he was about to be indicted.

With one out of office and the other on the lam, many in and around South Boston were left to wonder late last week: Has the curtain dropped on the Bulger brothers?

"Is this the end of this tawdry, pathetic story?" asked novelist Dennis Lehane. "Unless Whitey comes back, yes."

Publicly, the younger Bulger -- the respectable one -- spent 45 years trying to distance himself from a brother who ran this city's most notorious crime mob, controlled the Boston drug trade and became an informant to the Boston office of the FBI.

Rogue agent John Connolly -- raised in South Boston and currently in prison on corruption charges -- helped recruit Whitey Bulger and his mobster sidekick Stephen "the Rifleman" Flemmi to provide information on underworld crime.

Raised in South Boston's most dismal, dangerous housing project, Billy and Whitey -- as the two blond, blue-eyed brothers were known -- grew up to live in brick row houses in the same iron-tight neighborhood, just a few feet apart.

Their homes were near St. Augustine's, which is a parish church that is so vast it looks like it could swallow this city's cathedral.

As the brothers rose in the ranks of their chosen areas of endeavor, their story invited decades of comparisons. The Bulgers were likened to Cain and Abel, to tragic figures from Shakespeare or to denizens of Greek drama.

But Lehane, whose seven novels are set in fictional neighborhoods not unlike the clannish realm of South Boston, rejected the notion that the Bulgers represent some "grand, epic saga" of the city.

"The whole idea that they are fighting for the larger themes, Shakespearean themes, is ridiculous," he said. "It gives them too much legitimacy."

Lehane grew up buying liquor under age from a South Boston "package store" owned by Whitey Bulger. The gangster took the business over when he and several associates reportedly held the previous owner's toddler daughter at gunpoint and announced that from now on, the store was theirs. That is what the previous owners said in an unsuccessful lawsuit when they tried to regain ownership.

The Bulgers flourished in the "them vs. us" culture of Irish immigrants living in South Boston, Lehane said.

The neighborhood known as Southie is only a few miles from the Back Bay of Boston's Brahmins -- but is a separate world in many ways. South Boston lies in sight of the landing strips at Logan Airport, but fosters its fiercely insular mentality, right down to a theme song that begins: "I'm proud to be from Southie."

In this setting, both Bulgers benefited from a sense that "as long as they help their own people, we'll look the other way," Lehane said.

In a chain of political successes that began in 1960, when he won his first election to the state House of Representatives at age 26, William Bulger made sure the people of South Boston were taken care of. His brother, meanwhile, "flooded his own streets with heroin," Lehane said.

Testifying in June before a congressional committee investigating his brother's role as an FBI informant, William Bulger insisted that he knew nothing about his elder sibling's criminal activities.

"But how could you live next door and not know?" Lehane asked. "How could you not know?"

William Bulger's cool composure before the committee prompted a former lieutenant of his brother's Winter Hill gang to borrow from the bard.

"Being that William Bulger is an authority on Shakespeare, I got a quote," said Edward J. MacKenzie Jr., whose book "Street Soldier" deals with his role as an "enforcer" for Whitey Bulger.

" 'The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,' " MacKenzie said. "That's from 'The Merchant of Venice.' " Whitey Bulger was bound sooner or later to bring his brother down, MacKenzie said: "It was inevitable."

The younger brother, at 69 years old, simply played by the rules of the South Boston streets, said MacKenzie.

"In the projects, you grow up with your brothers in a small, crowded flat. Not only do you form a fierce loyalty to the people in the neighborhood, but you form a more fierce loyalty to your siblings," he said.

But MacKenzie predicted that William Bulger would be back, "faking his Irish brogue and feeding at the public trough."

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