A survivor of the Gangland War tells us what it was like


City Journal has published an article titled “Confessions of a Loan Shark:  One of the last survivors of Boston’s Gangland War of the 1960s opens up about his notorious past“.  It reminded me of a number of hardline convicts I met during my service as a prison chaplain.  I’ll cite an excerpt from the article, then talk about what such people were like behind bars.

Boston police said he was marked for death. He was caught up in a gangland quarrel that quickly degenerated into a war, pitting the McLaughlin brothers of Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood against Buddy McLean and his friends from the neighboring city of Somerville. Each side was trying to eradicate the other, and by the time Maxie was transported north, they were well on their way to doing exactly that. Bodies were left slumped in cars, dumped in Boston Harbor, sprawled on the street, and left in patches of woods for critters to eat. Number of cases solved? Zero.

Maxie was one of the reasons why. Questioned by police as a matter of routine in those days, his answer was always the same—“I have no idea.” Maxie, those guns we know you got, where are they? “What guns? I have no idea.” Who was with you in the car that got shot up? “What car? I have no idea.” Gangsters dying like dogs in the street after an ambush were more likely to spit in the eye of their interrogator than spill the beans, even as God’s judgment barreled toward them.

. . .

Maxie is a rarity: a survivor who kept his mouth shut.

. . .

It was Labor Day weekend, 1961. Georgie McLaughlin, stewed to the gills, insulted and likely assaulted the girlfriend of one of McLean’s many friends. What happened next was the mandatory minimum for that kind of conduct in that kind of crowd. Georgie was beaten senseless and ended up in a hospital. Predictably, his two brothers sought vengeance—they crossed the border into Somerville and demanded that McLean hand over those responsible. McLean knew what that meant. He refused.

Eight weeks later, Georgie was out of the hospital and among those attaching dynamite under the McLean family car. “Buddy was up in the window having a drink,” Georgie told Maxie the next day. “He heard us in the dark and started shooting.” They ran like jackrabbits. The dynamite wasn’t attached properly and never blew up. Buddy did; he blew his top.

Two days later, he and two accomplices crossed the border into Charlestown and headed for City Square. They knew that Bernie McLaughlin would be in his usual spot out front of Richard’s Liquor Mart collecting loan-shark debts. The sun was high in the sky when McLean stepped out from behind a steel abutment under the Mystic River Bridge and shot him dead—and then shot him a few more times. More than a hundred longshoremen on lunch break watched—but no one saw a thing.

. . .

To a townie like Maxie, being on the lam was like seeing the world. “Me and Georgie traveled all over the country,” he told me … they swung down to California and then to Mexico. They headed straight for a cantina, and Georgie grabbed a house girl and headed straight for the stairs. When he refused to pay, the bartender pulled a gun. Georgie and his bad eye didn’t blink. He turned on all the gas jets and stood there with a lighter and said, “Lemme know when.”

“I thought that was really it,” said Maxie.

. . .

Between March and Thanksgiving of 1964, there were 15 unsolved gangland murders—two more than the 13 that ended the era of unlocked doors in Boston. Newspaper editors had a field day coming up with headlines: “GANG WAR DEATHS REPLACE STRANGLINGS AS HUB TERROR,” said one. “ORIGINAL BOSTON MASSACRE LOOKS LIKE CHURCH PICNIC,” said another. “MURDER-A-MONTH IN BEAN TOWN,” said the New York Daily News. “Not even Chicago’s Prohibition killings can match staid Boston’s corpse-of-the-month club.” Citizens started referring to the Boston Herald’s obituary section as “the Irish sports pages.”

“I got caught up in the war,” Maxie said.

There’s more at the link – and very interesting reading it is too.

In my memoir of prison chaplaincy, “Walls, Wire, Bars and Souls“, I described a man I called “Adam”, a pseudonym given to protect his privacy.  (Yes, even prison inmates have a legal right to privacy – and besides, to irritate them by violating it might lead to unpleasant consequences.)  He, too, was part of the “Gangland War” several decades ago.  I daresay he’d recognize most of the names mentioned by “Maxie”.  He probably helped to kill some of them.

Adam’s another murderer, but in an entirely different class. He was an enforcer for the Mob in a major city. He was convicted of several murders, and collected a life sentence for each of them (the judge ruling that they were to run consecutively, apparently to make sure he’ll never get out of prison). He contemptuously rejects any notion of feeling guilty over his crimes. Those he killed were ‘crooks’ who were trying to steal from their criminal bosses. They deserved what they got. He was merely the instrument of ‘street justice’. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with Adam, trying to get him to at least acknowledge an intellectual and moral responsibility for what he’s done… but without success. The best I’ve been able to achieve is that Adam has said he’s “sorry for not feeling sorry”. I hope God will accept that as a first step. (Sigh.)

Adam’s a very hard man indeed. No-one with any sense messes with him… but then, not everyone has sense.

A year or so back a new convict arrived, a cocky young man ‘full of p*** and vinegar’ as they say in the classics. He wanted to build ‘street cred’ in the prison, and decided that beating up a Mob killer would get him a reputation. It did — as an idiot. He came up behind Adam while he was sitting with a group watching television, and hit him over the head with a chair. Adam sprang to his feet, bleeding from a cut on his scalp, and proceeded to take this thug apart at the seams. He ended up in hospital with several broken bones and serious internal injuries (not to mention speaking in a dulcet and henceforth permanent soprano). The guards broke it up (although they probably found it difficult to restrain themselves from cheering Adam on — they’ve had to deal with too many young thugs to have any sympathy for them). Adam did a spell in the Hole for fighting, but by all accounts was treated well by the staff there (who doubtless felt that Adam had done them a favor by dealing with the punk before they had to). He’s back in general population now, his reputation not merely intact but significantly enhanced. The thug was transferred to another prison a long way away, with a note in his records to the effect that he and Adam were never again to be assigned to the same institution. If they were, the consequences (for the thug) would probably be lethal.

I quoted Adam in one of my “Convict to Chaplain” vignettes in the same book.

There ain’t many in here wanna mess with me. In the early days, I had to fight for my place. I did, and the hassle stopped. Nowadays the old cons leave me alone, and I leave them alone. We know where we stand. We respect each other. Still, every now and then a new guy arrives. He’s eager, he’s pushy, he wants to make a name for himself. To him someone like me is a path to an instant rep. He reckons I’m older and slower, and he figures he can take me.

I watch ’em. You can tell they’re screwin’ themselves up to it, getting psyched and set to take me. I want ’em about two-thirds of the way there, far enough that they’ve bragged about what they’re gonna do to me, so it’s real hard for them to back down, but they’re not quite ready for me yet.

Me, I’m always ready. That’s how I got my rep in here. They all know, man: if you **** with me, you got nothin’ coming but pain. I’m gonna hurt you real bad. No other way. I don’t fight fair. I’m older now, and I don’t have the strength and speed I used to have, so I fight hard and I fight dirty and I know all the tricks. I fight for keeps. I also got my buddies, an’ they got my back. If the guy’s got friends, they’ll keep ’em off me while I take him.

So, when the guy’s just about where I want him, I call him out, right in front of the convicts and the guards and God and the Devil and the whole ****ing world. I do it on the yard. I tell him straight, “I hear you got a big mouth. I hear you think I’m an old **** and you reckon you can take me. Well, here I am. Do it now, or shut the **** up, because this is the one and only chance you get. Take me now, or stay outta my face forever. I see you within twenty feet of me ever again, I’m gonna rip your **** off and make you eat it.”

They freeze. They know everybody’s watching ’em. They want me so bad they can taste it, but man, they just ain’t ready. I am. That’s my edge. They know I’m ready.

Nine times outta ten they crawfish. That’s the end of it — and of their rep. Everyone’s seen it. From then on they sing real low around me, ’cause they know what’s gonna happen if they don’t. The tenth time, the dumb **** will try to take me, and I’ll put him down hard and fast and mean. He’s bleeding and screaming on the ground and he’s got some broken bones and he’s missing some teeth and maybe an eye or an ear or something else, and I’m on my way to the Hole for a stretch — but every damn convict and every ****ing guard on this yard knows which one of us two’s the boss. I am, mother******. You ain’t ****. Ever. I’m top dog. Live with it.

Same goes for the guards. They treat me with respect, ’cause they know that if they don’t, they got nothing coming on this yard. I pass the word, their lives are a living hell. Same goes for you, Chaplain. I got nothing against you, y’know? So far you seem an OK kind of guy… but you want to remember that.

I found a lot in City Journal’s article to remind me of Adam.  Those were hard, hard men.  There was no give-up in them at all . . . and old age hasn’t changed that.  I’d still hate to meet one of them in a dark alley.



  1. I've had the opportunity(?) to meet a couple of truly sociopathic folks. It's scary dealing with someone who isn't restrained by any morality but only their self interest. Worked with a couple of boys in the juvenile justice system that I expected to become cold blooded killers unless somebody killed them first.

    1. Peter’s book helped open my eyes a lot on understanding the culture issue, when I was helping defend my incredibly naive parents. End result was 2 of the 3 victimizers got sent to jail. 3rd is back on the street. Extremely valuable book that should be required reading in high school.

      Sadly 2 of them, both convicted felons, just had ballots that were mailed to my parents house. One of them is still in prison.

  2. "I've had the opportunity(?) to meet a couple of truly sociopathic folks. It's scary dealing with someone who isn't restrained by any morality but only their self interest."
    @ Tsgt Joe: Many years ago I had the pleasure of meeting and working with (on a one:one basis) several top large-corporation people; in truth, not all that far different.

  3. That fellow is proud of his being the baddest guy around. Misplaced pride to be sure, but sadly his only accomplishment.

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