For nearly as long as James “Whitey” Bulger—the infamous Boston gangster and FBI informant who was on the lam for 16 years—has been in the news, Shelley Murphy has been reporting on him.
Murphy, who graduated from Northeastern in 1980 with a degree in political science, covered the Bulger case for The Boston Herald and The Boston Globe, where she now reports on organized crime, homeland security, and legal affairs. She returned to her alma mater yesterday to discuss her new book, Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice, which she co-wrote with Globe columnist Kevin Cullen.
“There’s much that’s been written about ‘Whitey,’ and there are a lot of books about him, but we wanted to find out what made him tick,” Murphy said. “How do you have one brother become so successful and another take such a wildly different course?” she added, referring to William Bulger, who served as president of both the University of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts State Senate.
The book is based on new reporting, including letters provided to them by Bulger’s prison friend Richard Sunday.
During her hourlong lecture at Snell Library, Murphy recounted her coverage of the Bulger case, including Bulger’s relationship with the FBI and the circumstances of his 2011 arrest; the gangster’s attempts to rehabilitate his image; and his personal feelings about the authors.
“He hates us. That was one of the most stunning things to me,” Murphy said, explaining that she sought to cover the notorious figure fairly. “I thought if you write the truth, people would respect that. He said a lot of things about me—he called me a traitor, because I grew up in Dorchester and went to South Boston High School, and I lot of other things I won’t repeat.”
According to Murphy, Bulger developed a vitriolic distrust of the government after his imprisonment in the 1950s and ‘60s for armed robbery and hijacking, where he unknowingly participated in a CIA experiment in mind control by taking LSD. Still, he developed strong ties to the Boston FBI, which in the 1970s and ‘80s was focused on taking down the Italian mafia. He and agent John Connolly had developed a friendship as children, Murphy said, growing up in the same South Boston housing project where Bulger got his start in crime.
“From a very early age, he cultivated his image as a neighborhood good guy,” Murphy said. “A good bad guy. He quickly cultivated this reputation in South Boston of ‘Of course he’s a gangster, but he’s our gangster—how bad could he be?’”
Bulger maintains he was a gangster “with scruples,” according to Murphy. Though he is charged with 19 counts of murder, he adamantly maintains that he did not kill the two female victims he stands accused of murdering in a forthcoming trial. He also says he was never an FBI informant, but rather a strategist or analyst, which Murphy called “more a matter of semantics.”
The book has received popular reviews and has sold well both locally and nationally, ranking 14th on The New York Times bestsellers list. Tuesday’s meet-the-author event, co-sponsored by the School of Journalism, Northeastern Libraries, and the Northeastern Bookstore, began with an introduction from journalism professor Bill Kirtz, who praised the book.
“It’s a real fantastic read,” Kirtz said. “It doesn’t read like just a series of articles—it has a real nice flow to it.”