Sunday, March 21, 2010
Confronting My Neighborhood’s Violent Past
Just a heads up—this blog details some violent events that may be triggering.
Number 799 East 3rd Street in South Boston is a few blocks from my apartment. I pass it on a daily basis. The house there is distinctive for a couple of reasons. One, it’s a short single-family amid an imposing row of triple deckers. And two, it’s the sight of unparalleled horror in a neighbor marked by the legacy of two of Boston’s most ruthless crime bosses—James “Whitey” Bulger and Stevie Flemmi.
To this day, mentioning either Bulger or Flemmi’s name to Southie old-timers can elicit contemptuous glares, eyes daring you to justify who exactly you think you are for presuming to know what happened here not so long ago.
But who I am—who we are, for that matter—is a proud Bostonian willing to acknowledge the collective shame of living in a city, a country, a world where sexual violence seeps off the streets like steam after a midsummer rainstorm.
In the early-1980s, Bulger and Flemmi were at the height of their power. They’d cornered the market on petty gambling and loansharking and had begun moving into drug trafficking. Their reputations as the most ruthless figures in Boston’s underworld preceded them, rendering them virtually untouchable. By all accounts, they were more respected than the politicians—including Whitey’s brother Billy, who served as president of the Massachusetts State Senate at the time—running Beacon Hill. As a result, the two men spent the better part of three decades getting away with murder, literally.
Stevie Flemmi was, at best, a man with uncomfortable taste in dating partners. At worst, he was a pedophile. But anyway you swing it, he was a violent misogynist who raped and murdered at will. Two of his victims, Debra Davis and Debra Hussey, were 26 when Flemmi killed them. And both were teenagers when their relationships with the nearly-fifty-year-old Flemmi began.
In September 1981, Flemmi killed Debra Davis, whom he’d dated since she was 19 years old. The reason for the murder? She wanted to raise a family, something Flemmi already had (more on that in a moment…) and wasn’t willing to give her. When Davis decided to leave Flemmi, he killed her, mutilated her body and buried her near the Neponset River. Flemmi most likely killed Davis at his mother’s house in South Boston, which, it should be noted, was directly next door to Senate President Billy Bulger’s house.
Three years later, Flemmi, with the help of Whitey, murdered another one of his girlfriends. This time the victim was Debra Hussey. Hussey was the daughter of Flemmi’s common-law wife, Marion, and he first raped his stepdaughter when she was fifteen years old. By the time she was 26, Hussey had become a prostitute and drug addict (perhaps using the same drugs that her stepfather was trafficking into Southie). She decided to sever her relationship with Flemmi and disclose to her mother the decade of abuse to which she’d been subjected. However, Flemmi wouldn’t allow that. So, as with Davis, he took Hussey to his parents’ house, where Whitey Bulger strangled her. Then, the two men took her across the street, to 799 East 3rd, where they, with the help of another gang member, mutilated her body and buried the mangled corpse in the basement.
Flemmi was not the only perpetrator at the top of Boston’s underworld. Whitey Bulger, depending on which sources you consult, was allegedly a pedophile. In his book “The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century,” Howie Carr (an unapologetic homophobe whom I don’t love quoting) asserts that, not only was the elder Bulger a gay prostitute, he was also a pedophile. Carr relays Whitey’s m.o. as described by one of the crime boss’s underlings, stating that “Whitey employed them same techniques on young males as the pedophile priests of the archdioceses of Boston. After seducing them, he would take the boys out for an ice cream cone.”
Whitey apparently also used the still-running Boston Athletic Club, located in a South Boston industrial park between Summer and First Streets, as a hub for sexual exploitation. According to Carr, Bulger “put in a two-way mirror that enabled him and his friends to enjoy a full-length view of the women’s locker room.” Carr further quotes one South Boston hood as saying that some of Bulger’s associates “surreptitiously watched through the two-way mirror as Whitey raped a fifteen-year-old girl.”
Today, perhaps to a lesser degree than in their heyday, Whitey Bulger and Stevie Flemmi maintain some level of folk-hero status in my neighborhood. They’re not quite Robin Hoods, but neither are they the Benedict Arnolds they deserve to be. They were drug traffickers. They were murderers. They were rapists. They were pedophiles. They were bad. Bad men. Bad for Boston. Bad for the world. And everywhere I go, whether I’m walking to the beach or running to catch the bus, I’m confronted with some relic of the atrocities they perpetrated.
My neighbors don’t want to talk about the crimes Bulger and Flemmi committed. Especially not the sex crimes—it offends not only their image of the past but also their largely Irish-Catholic sensibilities. They prefer to live in the bubble. But bubbles burst. And when they do, they leave residue on everyone whose power of denial superseded their logic and compassion. I live trying to learn from the past. But it’s tough to learn from something few people even are willing to admit ever happened.