A number of years ago I had the privilege to work with George Hassett, the baby-faced former editor at The Somerville News. And during his tenure at the paper I became aware of his interest in crime. He was a student of the Winter Hill Gang, the machinations of Whitey Bulger, and many others of this ilk. Because of Hassett’s passion for the ne’er-do-wells of the world it came to no surprise for me that he penned Gangsters of Boston.
On the back cover of “Gangsters…” it states the book is “…the first comprehensive account of three centuries of thug life in a city where America began.” That is of course Boston and the immediate environs, including Somerville.
Hassett goes back to colonial times and explores how gangs helped spark the American Revolution. One early gangster was Ebenezer Mackintosh. According to Hassett this nascent thug went up against the hated Stamp Act. He is described by the author:
“At various times imprisoned and deemed a drunkard…Mackintosh finally had the chance to prove his dedication to liberty. To attack the British crown he summoned the laborers, fishermen, and seamen from the rough and tumble ranks of the town’s waterfront community. Also members of the town’s perpetually warring street gangs were there. Each of them, however, respected Mackintosh and followed his command as the night wore on.”
Mackintosh, with the help of his hardscrabble band of brothers caused severe havoc when Andrew Oliver–the British appointed official– was to implement the Act. This colonial thug led a crowd that ransacked and plundered Oliver’s office building.
From the Colonial era Hassett goes on to explore criminals from many of the historical eras of Boston. Hassett’s gimlet eye roves over to Malcolm X who resided in Boston, and who was involved in petty and not so petty crime. Hassett explains how Mr. X used his criminal past to bolster his street credibility during the Civil Rights Era. Hassett also covers the Brinks Job, The Winter Hill Gang, Whitey Bulger, Joe Kennedy, the Chinese gangs, and gives us a fly on the wall view of a Mafia induction ceremony. According to Hassett the exacting requirements to join the “family” included killing your own brother if need be, and leaving your mother’s death bed to take care of family business. Hassett is a consummate observer of this pond scum of bookmakers, liars, thieves, murders, and maintains an objective reporter’s viewpoint.
And of course there are all the colorful names that gangs etc… come up with for their partners in crime. Like Charlestown’s Arthur “ Butchy” Doe “Animal” Joe Barboza, the “Cheese Man,” George Mook “The King of the Chinese,” or the drug seeking female thug “ Dotty from Dorchester.” All these characters make for lively reading.
At an event at the Book Shop at Ball Square, Hassett read from his new book and answered questions from the audience. I asked Hassett if the gangsters of Boston could be considered heroic. Hassett opined that perhaps in colonial times when they went against the British, but he would be hard pressed to pin a medal on contemporary gangsters who were and are actively involved in the drug trade. Hassett, who wrote for the Boston Phoenix before it hit the alternative press dust said that he would not go after Mafia figures after he graduates law school. He feels that the “Mob” is greatly diminished and the significant and savvy characters of the past are now in their dotage. But because of Hassett those bad boys of a bygone era will be remembered for generations to come. And this is important because one thing we can surely learn from this book is that in the end—crime doesn’t pay.