In a recent conversation, T.J. English, the lauded journalist/author, asked me what I knew about Whitey Bulger. Prior to reading English’s latest work, Where The Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him, my recollections of Bulger were half-formed, misty snippets plucked from the popular press: I knew he was some kind of washed-up gangster, whose years on the lam had ended in an explosion of public fascination when he and his dishy girlfriend were apprehended in California awhile back. I also had a vague recollection that in the midst of his trial, someone related to it had gotten himself whacked in some cryptic fashion, although I couldn’t remember who or why or how. That's pretty much it. Clearly, I’m no connoisseur of the Irish-American mob.
English, on the other hand, has made a career of investigating and chronicling the infamous South Boston crime legends, along with numerous other underworlds: the drug wars in Juárez, Mexico; Jewish mobsters in Havana; and the Irish gangs of New York, among others. If it’s someplace a sane person would avoid, English has probably been there and had a few beers with a murderous psychopath nicknamed Mad Dog or Mugsy, while unobtrusively extracting from him the secrets of the alternate universe of organized crime.
This is a great time to revisit the story of James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, who became the focus of renewed public interest with the recent release of Black Mass, a movie about the Irish-American mafia (featuring a tragically dumpy Johnny Depp.) Raised in poverty in South Boston, Bulger drifted into crime as a teenager, ultimately morphing into one of the area’s most feared organized crime bosses. If there was a way to to profit from an unsavory enterprise in Boston—extortion, arms trafficking, gambling operations, drug smuggling, hijacking, loansharking, etc— you could be certain Bulger had a hand in it.
How, you might reasonably wonder, was he able to continue this reign of barbaric tyranny for so long? It was no secret who he was. The cops knew, the feds knew, his rivals knew. And yet, he ruled South Boston for decades, merrily shooting or strangling anyone who stood in his way, while the FBI lurked nearby, daintily holding its collective nose as the bodies piled up.
The answer is shocking: in the 1970s, Bulger was recruited by the FBI as an informant against the Italian Mob, working with Special Agent John Connolly in a symbiotic relationship that allowed Bulger unchecked freedom in his rampage of murderous misdeeds. The feds knew all about it, and not only did they not stop him, but they actively abetted him, feeding him information he used to eliminate rivals, protecting him again and again from prosecution. This continued for decades, until at last a joint task force of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the police built a case against him, deliberating excluding the corrupted FBI. Nonetheless, Bulger was tipped, and fled with his girlfriend Catherine Grieg. The FBI, mired in humiliation over its role in enabling such a litany of horrors, turned on Connolly—Bulger’s complicit handler within the agency—and he was ultimately sent to prison. Meanwhile, Bulger and Grieg enjoyed years on the run until finally they were captured in Santa Monica, California in June 2011.
So all this begs another question: why? Why would the government go to such extremes to protect a master criminal, especially given that his utility as an informant was minimal? This, more than anything else, is the question that intrigues T.J. English. Scores of books have been written about Whitey Bulger. Very few of them go to such lengths to delve into the systemic dysfunction that allowed him to flourish.
English initially followed the story as a citizen and journalist. Often writing about the dark side of human nature, he views the theme of his works as an exploration of our social universe, seeking to illuminate the subterranean criminal world in order to understand the aboveground societal implications. In this case, to English, the most compelling aspect of the Bulger case is the staggering corruption of the criminal justice system, which began as a dirty little secret inherited from even earlier days of agent-gangster collusion. Where The Bodies Were Buried explores the career and trial of Whitey Bulger, seeking to shine light on the intertwined nature of crime and law enforcement. Through lengthy cultivation of sources—beginning with some of his earlier books—English manages to elicit inside information from a variety of sources: lawmen, witnesses, families, jury members, and even the gangsters themselves.
I was curious about this process: how do you get a criminal to talk to you? The answer, English maintains, is neutrality: people won’t share information with you if they sense judgement. He seeks to understand the perspective of his subjects, allowing the reader to be the judge of the unfolded events he writes about. I asked if he’d ever received feedback from his sources after publication, and he said yes. But I get the sense that few of theses interactions have been hostile; his sources trust him to write honestly and objectively, as do his readers. Unlike a fiction writer, English views the act of sitting and writing as only a fraction of his profession; he thrives on observation, active research, and relationships as his primary métier.
I’m writing this piece on behalf of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system, and so I feel compelled to include a shameless plug for the power of libraries. Prospective authors, take note! English was born in Tacoma, Washington—one of ten children—and like most authors, he believes that becoming a writer begins with becoming a reader. Since it was difficult to find a calm place to read in his childhood home, he often escaped to the library, which he credits with sparking his eventual career. In addition to WTBWB, English is a noted journalist, screenwriter and the author of multiple New York times bestsellers. I’m looking forward to his next work, which will focus on the Cuban American underworld in the U.S. in the decades following the revolution in Cuba.
Click HERE to buy Where the Bodies Were Buried.