On Tuesday morning, investigative reporter Michele McPhee broke the story that the gangster Whitey Bulger had been killed at age 89 after being transferred to a West Virginia prison. Her reporting was later confirmed by other sources.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1929, Bulger was a storied figure, the subject of endless lore and myth-making because of his extremely colorful and violent life. A career criminal from his teen years, Bulger became the boss of the Winter Hill gang which dominated South Boston.
According to the FBI, he was an informant starting in 1975. This allowed Bulger to flourish despite committing murder as he supplied information on other gangster. By 1995, the FBI was believed to be so compromised by its association with Bulger that an investigation into his gambling activities was launched by other law enforcement agencies (Drug Enforcement Administration, Massachusetts State Police and the Boston Police Department) without notifying the FBI.
A retired FBI agent named James Connolly learned of a sealed indictment against Bulger. Connolly informed the mobster, who fled Boston. Connolly was later convicted of racketeering charges related to his associating with Bulger.
Bulger lived as a fugitive from 1995 until 2011, during which time he was on the FBI’s most-wanted list. After his capture he was indicted on 19 counts of murder, as well as other charges of drug dealing, money laundering, extortion and related gangster activities. Bulger himself boasted that he committed murders that he was never charged with. He claimed to have killed at least 40 people.
As Nora Caplan-Bricker noted in The New Republic in 2013, “It’s impossible to talk about Bulger without mentioning the neighborhood where he was feudal lord and patriarch for over two decades: South Boston, or ‘Southie,’ which has come to symbolize a particular variety of gritty urbanism and street smarts, largely thanks to Bulger’s legend and that of his Winter Hill Gang.” As an avatar of Southie mobster culture, Bulger inspired many TV shows and films, notably The Departed (2002) and Black Mass (2015).