Whitey’s generation

What was life like for the tough boys of '30s and '40s Boston? It turns out they were the most closely studied troublemakers in history.

By Leon Neyfakh
July 10, 2011

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It’s the late 1920s in Boston, and thousands of boys are being born all over the city. Soon, as the Great Depression sends their neighborhoods through the wringer, some of them will start ditching school and smoking cigarettes, hanging around rail yards, stoops, and alleyways after dark. They’ll sneak into movie theaters downtown and get caught stealing candy from drugstores. As they grow older, they will cause real problems, running away from home and joining gangs and stealing cars. Before they can say “I didn’t do it,” they’ll have landed themselves in a juvenile detention center.

Some of the boys will eventually quit the life and go straight. Others will keep getting into hot water.

One of them, an Irish kid from Southie with blond hair and blue eyes, will become the single most famous criminal in Boston history. As a highly effective and reputedly ruthless gangster, he will rise precipitously in the ranks of the city’s underworld before disappearing off the face of the earth and spending 16 years as a fugitive from the FBI.

By the time he is apprehended at his hideout in Santa Monica, Calif., at age 81, it will be hard to imagine James “Whitey” Bulger as anything but a singular figure, much less one anonymous little street tough among many.

But everyone has to start somewhere. And the reality is that growing up where and when he did, Whitey Bulger was not so different from countless other Boston boys who spent the 1930s and ’40s getting into fights and staying out late. We don’t normally think of it this way because the rest of these boys have all but vanished for us, the details of their lives as invisible as Whitey’s story is famous. After all, these weren’t men who got books and magazine articles written about their origins, or Hollywood movies made about their professional exploits. They were just guys who lived private lives: What reason would anyone have had to document them?

As it turns out, someone did. Far from disappearing into the

folds of time, Whitey’s generation was the subject of the single most ambitious and comprehensive study ever conducted on juvenile delinquency. So thorough and meticulous was the study, in fact, that we arguably know more about this group of boys than we do about any other group of boys ever.

It all began in 1939, when husband-and-wife researchers Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck assembled a team of investigators to go door to door through a number of poor Boston neighborhoods and collect data on boys who had grown up there. Their goal was to understand what causes some boys and not others to get involved with crime, a question which, as it happened, would be dramatically brought to life in the story of Whitey Bulger and his overachieving brother in the state Senate, William.

The Gluecks picked a sample of 1,000 boys, half of whom had stayed out of trouble while the other half had racked up records and gotten themselves locked up at one of two local reform schools, Lyman and Shirley. The boys were interviewed repeatedly - once when they were around 14, then again when they were 25 and 32 - as were their teachers, parents, and neighbors. Their world - Whitey’s world - was carefully documented, and their lives were charted as they grew from adolescents into adults.

For criminal justice experts, the material collected for the study represents a unique window into the nature of criminality. And for Bostonians who can’t help but be fascinated by the fearsome and mysterious Whitey Bulger, it offers a glimpse few of us could have expected into the exact time and place that produced him.

Whitey Bulger was still very much in business in 1985, when a young criminologist from Harvard named John Laub learned there was a trove of unpublished information about the gangster’s childhood peers sitting and gathering dust in a Harvard Law School basement.

The boxes in the basement took up no fewer than 80 feet of shelf space, according to Laub, each one full of the notes, interview transcripts, and records that the Gluecks had assembled as part of the juvenile delinquency study. Laub found details on where the boys got their money - whether they shined shoes or hawked newspapers after school, or stole stuff out of trucks and sold it on the corners. There was information about the boys’ families - how much their dads drank, how much they loved their moms - as well as evaluations from psychiatrists and teachers. There were descriptions of whether their homes were dirty or messy, and how crowded they were. There were extensive records of all their dealings with the authorities.

Around 50 of the 500 delinquent boys came from South Boston; the rest were from other poor neighborhoods like Charlestown, East Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury, and the West End. The Gluecks had compared them with the nondelinquents from every angle they could think of - attitudes towards school, relationship with parents, preferred hangouts, even body type.

From the Gluecks’ records emerges a portrait of the city in which these boys came up. Then as now, the city was organized around strict ethnic lines that in many cases lay along neighborhood boundaries. These neighborhoods were populated by working-class immigrants, who had been pouring in from Europe - mostly Ireland and Italy - in great numbers since the mid-19th century. Though many of the boys got frequently moved from house to house by their families - Whitey’s parents relocated him and his siblings from Dorchester to Southie when he was 9 - most of them nevertheless identified strongly in terms of where in the city they lived and where their parents had come from.

More than half of the delinquent boys in the study were involved in street gangs. Ninety percent of them had taken up smoking at an early age. They hated school, skipped class regularly, and told researchers that they wanted to quit for good at the earliest opportunity. On average, they had first appeared in court around the age of 12, mostly for relatively minor offenses like setting off fire alarms, breaking windows, or “jack rolling,” a slang term for robbing drunks.

As the Gluecks found, these weren’t boys with a lot of books or toys at home, and most of them didn’t have hobbies like building models or collecting stamps. Instead, they went to pool rooms, dance halls, and arcades, as well as to the movies three or more times per week, often sneaking in without paying. Many begged for money in the street; others earned it by selling stolen merchandise. And while there were no drugs or guns among kids back then, there were lots of knives and booze. Sometimes the boys threw rocks - at each other, at their school, at people’s homes - and sometimes they stole cars and took them for joy rides.

Whether or not Whitey Bulger was involved in these particular bouts of mischief is impossible to say from the Gluecks’ data. He wasn’t one of the delinquent boys in the study - we know because although the names of the boys in the sample have been changed, all of them were at one point incarcerated at either Lyman or Shirley, which Whitey never was. What we do know about Whitey’s childhood is that he was a member of a gang called the Shamrocks, that he lived in the first public housing project in Boston, and that he was first arrested at the age of 13 on a larceny charge before graduating to assault and robbery. Though Whitey wasn’t in the sample himself, it’s not hard to imagine that he would have come into contact with some of the Southie boys in the group, who spent their early years running loose in the same neighborhood.

Laub, who is now the director of the National Institute of Justice, had first heard of the Glueck boys in graduate school. It was a famous study - one that polarized the field of criminology when it was first published in 1950, in part because of the Gluecks’ insistence on recording physical characteristics like neck breadth and waist size. What Laub hadn’t been taught in school - what no one really realized - was that the Gluecks had only published a small portion of the data they had gathered. What appeared in their two books on the subject, it turned out, was only the tip of the iceberg. As Laub found out after a bit of archival research, there was all kinds of material stored in the Harvard Law School library that had never seen the light of day.

Laub scoured the archive with a friend from graduate school, Robert Sampson, then a young criminology professor at the University of Illinois and currently a sociology professor at Harvard. “The data were just extraordinary,” Laub said. “We had never seen anything like that, in terms of the richness of it, the multiple methods that were used, the extensive and detailed records they were able to secure on these boys, and later as adults.”

After reanalyzing the Glueck data and publishing a book on it, Laub and Sampson decided there was still more to be done. Some of the men were still alive, they realized. Most of them would be coming up on 70. What if they could get in touch with them and find out how their lives had turned out?

The search process began in 1993, and continued for several years. Some of the guys were easy to find: You could just look them up in the phone book, and see that they were still living in the same neighborhood they lived in when the Gluecks first met them. Others were more difficult to track down: They’d gotten married and moved away, for instance, or they were in jail. With a few particularly elusive members of the sample, Sampson and Laub enlisted the help of the police department’s Cold Case Squad. Laub still remembers how the cops quizzed them, for fun, on the art of finding people, and laughed at their bad instincts.

They found 52 of the men in total. Laub did most of the interviewing, meeting the men at restaurants around town, shopping malls, and so on. Often they’d invite him to come over and talk to them at home; sometimes they’d come to his office at Northeastern. The first interview Laub ever did was conducted in a smoky parked car because the guy had a bad leg and didn’t want to go through the hassle of having to walk somewhere.

Not everyone remembered participating in the Glueck study. When Laub filled them in, they would often ask him how they measured up against everyone else. “They wanted to know, ‘What did the study say would happen to me? How’d I turn out?’”

Some of the interviews provoked dark memories and stormy feelings, as the men crumpled under the weight of regrets. Tears were not uncommon. “Particularly men who had what I would call damaged lives, they got emotional about it. And they referred to their lives as a waste,” said Laub.

Of the 52 men Laub and Sampson talked to, 19 had left crime behind at some point after the Gluecks first interviewed them. Some had joined the military and then learned a trade on the G.I. Bill. Some had started families; one had taken up meditation. These men took pride in having spent their lives going to work and earning money for their families. They were electricians, plumbers, cab drivers, mailmen, and repairmen. For them, the turbulence they experienced during adolescence ended not long afterward.

“We’d go through year by year, and so we’d find out when he got fired, when he got a new job, did he live with someone or not, number of children, and all that,” said Sampson. “And we pieced it together.”

What distinguished the men who’d stayed in crime from those who had successfully cleaned up their acts? How had their lives been different? After going through the interviews and constructing detailed dossiers on each man, Laub and Sampson came to a few conclusions: First, that men with strong “social ties” were more likely to leave crime behind. Many of the men who had succeeded at it, Laub and Sampson found, had done so after turning points that involved committing to a stable social institution such as the military or marriage.

Their study earned Laub and Sampson accolades in their field for their insights into the nature of crime. But it also points to a few truths specifically about Boston, and the way the city shaped the Glueck boys while they grew into the Glueck men. It mattered a lot where these boys came from, Laub and Sampson concluded: The city had influenced them like no other city could have. Specifically, according to Sampson, it had made them cynical about authority.

All the poor neighborhoods in Boston were isolated to some degree in the 1940s: As Sampson and Laub discovered, kids who grew up in ethnic enclaves like Southie or the North End during that time did not identify with the city as a whole. Their lives were just too separate from everyone else’s, their daily routines too local. Plus, they knew the people who ran the show on Beacon Hill thought of their neighborhoods as slums, and they resented it.

“This sense of the elite society looking down on them - it gave them an edge,” said Sampson. In this context, he said, crime was not always undertaken as a source of income, but as a way to push back against an outside authority. The politicians and the policemen who ruled over the so-called straight world, he said, were presumed to be crooked. And in the eyes of Boston’s delinquent population, they were no more deserving of respect or generosity than a rival gang might be.

It’s tempting to think these conclusions tell us as much about Whitey Bulger as they do about the 500 other troublemakers who were in the Gluecks’ sample: that there was something about the neighborhood, or something about the era, that explains his story as much as it explains the others’. More tempting still is to imagine Whitey sitting down with a pair of sociologists and, in the name of science, spilling his guts to them about where it all went wrong.

Perhaps it would have thrown off the Gluecks’ sample, to have such an extraordinary outlier in the mix. Or maybe he would have fit right in.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail