The arrest of James “Whitey” Bulger this past June left me feeling like I was missing too much context: it clearly closed a significant chapter for my new home, and I had only a vague (and mostly incorrect, it turns out) awareness of his role in Boston history. And I’d seen people reading Black Mass on the T for years; it seemed like the logical source for more background.
Black Mass lays out, in eminently readable and often shocking detail, the incredible story of how Bulger and Steve Flemmi co-opted the Boston FBI, using their role as informants against the Mafia to eliminate their rivals and evade other local and federal law enforcement agencies. They even “tipped off” the Feds to crimes they committed (or ordered), casting suspicion on players they would like out of play. I read the first chapter thinking Black Mass must be a glamorized and highly speculative account — and then I reviewed Lehr and O’Neill’s copious and rigorous notes on their sources, and revised my opinion. (This was a two-bookmark book for me: one for the body of the text, one for the endnotes.) In fact, Lehr and O’Neill, career journalists both, are studiously careful to avoid speculation (or any possible grounds for libel). They stop short, for instance, of suggesting that Bulger and Flemmi’s “handler” at the FBI, John Connolly, or his boss John Morris, might literally be described as gangsters with deep cover as FBI agents. Lehr and O’Neill point out Connolly’s boyhood in Bulger’s turf, and the amazingly paltry quantity of established bribes to Morris, and leave the reader the option to make inferences. (Morris allegedly sold himself out for roughly 7 grand and some wine, which even in 80’s dollars seems awfully cheap.) Lehr and O’Neill are likewise cautious in how they characterize Whitey Bulger’s relationship with his brother, former President of the Massachusetts Senate, William Bulger. But they do ensure that I will never look at the State Street building quite the same way again.
I did form some reservations as I read the book. First, the extent to which Connolly and Morris are demonized tends to largely exonerate others in the FBI. Second, many events presented as fact in the book are primarily sourced by sworn testimony from professional criminals — individuals for whom lying effectively is an essential skill. (Lehr and O’Neill are careful to note when testimony disagrees, in fact, but almost always portray one version as authoritative in the main text. Finally, Lehr and O’Neill’s role in shaping the story clearly renders them very much non-impartial: their own reportage helped focus public opinion and create pressure to prosecute Bulger and to examine his relationship with the FBI. So I’m not inclined to accept absolutely everything at face value; their are clearly agendas at work. But the preponderance of evidence that it’s all mostly true seems overwhelming.
needs more demons? nuh uh.