Looking for Whitey

Gun pockets and presidential ambition in a colorful history of Shamrock gangdom

Somewhere in the world is a wiry, 75-year-old man with thinning silver hair and cold blue eyes whose photo adorns the FBI's Most Wanted list. If you see something, say something, as they tell us on the subways now. But he's not a jihadist or a drug cartel chieftain. Rather, he is James "Whitey" Bulger, the South Boston mobster who vanished 10 years ago after an alleged 19 unpunished murders, courtesy of a heads-up on his pending arrest provided by none other than the FBI itself. Should you spot him, take a good look. For Bulger, whose younger brother headed the state's senate while he ran its rackets, may be the last direct link to 150 years of Irish American gangsterism, an intensely tribal criminal trend that controlled many of the nation's largest cities before losing a pennant race to a larger and far better organized Italian faction.

Thanks to its fondness for secret ceremonies and hierarchical organization, the post-Godfather Mafia has dominated the books, movies, and headlines celebrating American organized crime. The Irish mob never bothered with such hocus-pocus. Hobbled by an anti-authoritarian streak that dates back to battles against British rule, it also never demonstrated much talent for inter-gang coordination. But if the likes of Whitey Bulger, Legs Diamond, Mad Dog Coll, and Jimmy "Lufthansa Heist" Burke never held a burning tissue in their hands as they drew blood from a finger and mumbled words in a foreign language, they could still go head-to-head in any criminal contest in terms of ill-gotten gains and homicidal tendencies.

And as T.J. English points out in this captivating history of Irish gangsters in America, would not John Gotti, the Cosa Nostra's swaggering emblem, have given anything in his final ailing prison days to trade places with Bulger, who, since going on the lam in 1995, has been spotted touring Rome, Dublin, and an island off the Louisiana coast?

Bulger's narrower but more satisfying success, English asserts, stemmed from a gangland philosophy that mirrored the approach of such Irish American politicians as Boston mayor and JFK grandfather John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, who understood that all politics is local. Bulger's gang donated turkeys to the poor at Christmas, picked up tuition payments for deserving youths, and generally let it be known that Whitey was there for his neighborhood, even as he funneled drugs into its streets and mercilessly shook down its merchants. When the community erupted in the mid 1970s against court-imposed school busing, Bulger was alleged to be the muscle behind the head-busting vigilantes called the South Boston Marshals. Such crafty maneuvering also led to a pact with the FBI in which Bulger dimed out the Italian mob in exchange for a free pass.

That same attention to local concerns was successfully pursued by such neglected Irish criminal luminaries as Dean O'Banion of Chicago, Tom Pendergast of Kansas City, and Owney Madden, the Liverpool-born Irishman who presided over much of the flow of Prohibition-era booze into New York City, where it filled the glasses of the swells who dined at Madden's Cotton Club. It was a strategy employed even more successfully by their 19th-century forebears, including King Mike McDonald, the Chicago gambling baron, and Big Tim Sullivan, the Five Points crime boss who gave shoes to the homeless.

By 1931, America's image of a real gangster was the deadly but nattily dressed Irish gunsel played by James Cagney in Warner Brothers' The Public Enemy. As Paddy Whacked tells it, Cagney drew his inspiration from O'Banion, who sewed gun pockets into his suit jackets, and from the suave Madden, whom Cagney met at the Stork Club via another gangster-admiring actor, George Raft.

All of that began unraveling, English says, when the Italians and their Jewish allies decided to squeeze the Irish out of the rackets. One reason was jealousy: The Irish had an unfair advantage, gangsters like Lucky Luciano figured, because so many members of their tribe also held positions of influence in politics and law enforcement. Let the Irish have the courts and the cops, Luciano and Meyer Lansky reasoned; we'll handle the crimes. A lopsided war between Micks and Dagos commenced, writes English: Coll got his while seated in a drugstore phone booth; seven of Bugs Moran's crew famously went down in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

The Irish mob survived in Shamrock strongholds like Bulger's Southie and Hell's Kitchen, where a dysfunctional and murderous gang briefly ruled, a bloody tale English has told before in The Westies. But the Big Squeeze, English suggests, ultimately had the effect of propelling the Irish even further into legitimate pursuits, where they prospered. One who did so was an ex-bootlegger named Joseph Kennedy, who, when he later came up with the fantastic notion that his son could be president, was able to pull it off with crucial help from former underworld allies like Chicago Mafia big Sam Giancana. All John Gotti's progeny got was a TV show.

 
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