In 1968, Jerry Angiulo, a Boston mafiosi, dodged a murder conviction.
The FBI would spend decades and untold man-hours trying to bring him in. In doing so, however, a whole slew of agents found themselves not just dealing with the devil, but in bed with him. The FBI provided information to, and covered up for their criminal informants in the hope of putting together a charge that would stick on Angiulo.
One such informant was one James “Whitey” Bulger, the Irish gangster whose conviction and trial became the subject both of the recent Scott Cooper movie Black Mass, and Where the Bodies Were Buried, a new book by mob historian T.J. English.
English's book focuses on the narrative of Bulger's trial, interspersing a day-by-day account of witness statements and lawyers' objections with expanded details on the day-to-day operations of Whitey’s Winter Hill gang in South Boston during the 1970s. This was not a slick, witty mafia, but a group of brutal men who lived and dealt in violence. While the mafia expanded in North Boston, Bulger’s crew was responsible for introducing drugs into Southie, using bribery and murder to achieve their ends.
While this should have brought Bulger to the attention of the FBI, the bureau was more focused on Angiulo. The bureau knew they needed to develop criminal informants to make the case and developed a “Top Echelon Informant” program to forge ties with key underworld players from whom they hoped to glean information. Within the FBI, agents who developed such contacts were rewarded with bonuses and promotions. This meant that when FBI agent John Connolly was introduced to Bulger, he had significant incentive to make sure the ties of communication stayed open.
Buy the book on Amazon.In the meantime, Bulger was effectively immune from prosecution, with Connolly pulling strings at the prosecutor's office to allow him to walk on criminal charges ranging from race fixing to murder, all on the promise of nabbing Angiulo sometime in the future.
Eventually, after Bulger spent fifteen years on the run, he was finally brought to trial. English intersperses his own courtroom observations with his own interviews with key players, largely aging gangsters. (Though when the cast of characters is comprised primarily of aging criminals, many of whom are free only because they sold information, figuring out which of the narratives of Bulger is accurate is tricky.) He also spoke with FBI agent Connolly, who remains unrepentant.
What English’s book depicts is a world running under lex talionis, where life is worth very little and loyalty only slightly more. There is no brotherhood among thieves, which, in the end, is why these aging men sat in the courtroom testifying about their former crimes.
English is more of a pop writer than a historian. He describes what the Winter Hill Gang did without seeming very curious as to why. And as the book progresses, it becomes more striking that the one figure who never spoke in court was Bulger himself. Perhaps Bulger is a psychopath, perhaps merely an opportunistic brute; we don’t know. English seems strangely uninterested in plumbing for answers, preferring instead to glory in the enigmatic crime figure.
At least the book makes no attempts to humanize him. And in the end, this leads to what may be the more intriguing question not asked by anyone in the book, nor even by English himself: What made Bulger, a brutal and by no accounts charismatic figure, so tantalizing to those around him? Connolly not only sought out a working relationship with Bulger, he went to great lengths to maintain that relationship, even though the mobster gave the FBI very little intelligence of worth. English not only interviews Bulger’s former gang members, he seeks them out after the trial concludes each night to ask questions, and, one gets the sense, because he enjoys some part of the experience of being with them.
With Bulger convicted and sentenced, we may now know where the bodies were buried. But the strange allure of Boston’s Irish mob still lingers.