Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch star as brothers James and William Bulger in the new film Black Mass, which is based on James’ rather unorthodox career. James is better known as Whitey Bulger, and he currently resides in a US penitentiary where he is serving two life sentences plus five years for involvement in 11 murders as well as racketeering. William is now retired after spending from 1978 to 1996 as president of the Massachusetts State Senate. While both men were outstanding in their respective fields and could be fairly called overachievers, it is Whitey who seems to get the lion’s share of the public’s attention.
Bulger was a notorious gangster and an informant who in 1999 was the FBI’s second most wanted fugitive. Osama bin Laden had the number one spot, and it’s hard to overcome that kind of competition. He was captured after 16 years on the run at an apartment he rented under an assumed name; police found more than 30 firearms as well as other weapons and more than $800,000 in cash. Some of the loot was hidden in the walls; apparently he was not concerned about getting his deposit back.
Two Brothers, Two Paths
The inner dynamics of the Bulger family would make a fascinating story. How did the same working class Boston Irish Catholic family produce both of these people? Born in 1929, Whitey is the eldest of six, and William, the third child, was born five years later. The other four siblings have kept a relatively low profile. Their father was a longshoreman from Newfoundland, Canada who lost his arm in an accident. One result of that was that the family lived in poverty. When Whitey was eight, the family moved to a public housing project in South Boston. Whitey was first arrested at the age of 14. William attended Boston College High School, a Jesuit prep school.
The stories tend to focus more on Whitey’s life as a gangster than on the tension there must be between the two brothers. After all, in 2003 William was called to testify to a Congressional committee about what he knew about his brother’s activities, and his claims to know only vaguely that his brother was involved in gambling eventually led to pressure that caused him to resign his position as president of the University of Massachusetts.
Just as well Whitey was on the run that Thanksgiving. Talk about awkward family gatherings.
Or maybe not. One thing William did say clearly in his testimony was that he loved his brother. He did not say he approved. He was quoted as saying “he wasn’t doing what I’d like him to do” when asked by the committee about his brother. Whitey’s crimes were grotesque. That is beyond debate. The violence and terror perpetuated by crime gangs is not romantic or glamorous. Nonetheless, there is something very poignant about William explaining how he went to what he described as “an arranged location” to speak to his older brother by phone. In one interview, William acknowledged visiting Whitey in prison and explained “I just try to be a brother.”