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Hitman – Book Review

HitmanAuthor: Howie Carr

Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC,

Copyright: 2011, 2012, ISBN: 09876543216

Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, 18 July 2013


Summary: “The untold story of Johnny Martorano: Whitey Bulger’s enforcer and the most feared gangster in the underworld”.  Okay, so we continue our fascination with the honor-code among society’s parasitic criminals and our own enabling behavior. This book is an excellent chronicle of corruption and crime of the small and big.


Cable TV news devoted hours to showing the Florida murder trial of George Zimmerman, the man who killed seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. At the same time, a federal trial not shown on cable-TV or anywhere else was and is, as of this writing, underway in Boston for James J. “Whitey” Bulger. Bulger was leader of the organized crime group known as the Winter Hill gang during the 1970s-1980s.

In one trial, we have a situation in which two-testosterone driven would-be-supermen confront each other and one kills the other. Naturally the one who survived claimed self-defense even though the situation only developed because he essentially stalked his victim. The stalking was for the best of intentions of course. But best intentions can sometimes backfire. Killing an innocent person when hunting for evil-doers classifies as a backfire. Some might call it a crime, but all would admit to it being, at the very least, a mistake.  It makes a nice, neat storyline however—but not a good trial.

In the other trial, we have a group of men who, over the period of a decade, were morally and spiritually deficient enough to nonchalantly kill innocent and not-so innocent people and bribe, extort, coerce and swindle every element of their community including the police, the FBI and other government agencies to protect their extortion, gambling and drug trafficking empire.

Which trial commands the most interest?  Which trial has the greatest potential impact on society: Machismo versus machismo, or evil-cabal versus society?

The Two Trials

Anyone having read Gilbert King’s DEVIL IN THE GROVE (reviewed here in June 2013) can readily understand the possible importance of the Zimmerman trial.  But unlike the mockery of justice documented in DEVIL IN THE GROVE, the Zimmerman trial seems to be a clear-cut case of one would-be superman defending himself against another would-be-superman (albeit, a seventeen-year-old) despite the racist—or, more precisely, the xenophobic atmosphere that fueled the situation. Zimmerman was acquitted of second degree murder because he used a weapon of singular destruction to prevent getting the crap beat out of him. (The question the trial did not address was why Mr. Zimmerman was in the precarious position of defending himself in the first place. That’s another trial no doubt). The Bulger evil-cabal trial however encompasses more than idiots and innocents—a lot more.

Howie Carr’s HITMAN manages to compact and crystalize a long list of murders committed in the name of sloth and greed. That most of the murders were committed by confessed hitman-turned-government-witness, Johnny Martorano, is incidental to a larger narrative.  In Dick Lehr and Gerad O’Neill’s excellent 2000 book, BLACK MASS: THE TRUE STORY OF AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE BETWEEN THE FBI AND THE IRISH MOB, we get a thorough description of Whitey Bulger’s racketeering methods and activities. Carr does not retrace the history. He instead focuses on the killing machine that was Johnny Martorano. In doing so, Carr reveals tantalizing instances of corruption in Boston public places—the places of the Big.

The Fear of Being an American

An entire book could be devoted to the subject of corrupt public places. Corruption of public places is not unique to Boston.  But the Boston of the 1960s through 1980s shows how corrupt public places work—or don’t work. From Gilbert King’s DEVIL IN THE GROVE, we learn that a community can be made complicit in corruption when they are made to exist in a state of fear. Tranny 101 teaches us that a community can be put in a state of fear by raising the specter of change. Any kind of threatened change will do, but it is best if the change is amorphous and vague. In the post-Civil War to the 1960s “deep” south, the fear was race-mingling. In post-World War II to the 1980’s Boston, the fear was of Americanism. Americanism is simply the proposition that individuals have rights, not groups. If your entire rationale for existence is the group, Americanism is a very scary thing. A small group of Bostonians were able to exploit this fear to maintain their own version of a welfare “state”.

For instance, on page 365, Carr cites the orchestrated hiring by Massachusetts state senator Billy Bulger of “the tin-whistle player in his Irish band, a former postman” to run the Massachusetts Convention Century Authority (MCCA). The supposedly “nation-wide” search for the best person for the job was not a nation-wide search, but seemed to be a pro forma going-through-the-motions of Americanism. Soon after, the MCCA became a communal bed of employees who were relatives of “Good People”—those who were capable of doing good deeds for Billy Bulger or had kept his brother out of “trouble”. The Teamsters Local 25 had members closely associated with the street crime activities of Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill gang. According the Carr, public-sector “no-show” jobs with the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority) were the most valuable asset to Bulger’s drug dealers. The jobs were a ticket to transverse the city and deal drugs. Bulger made millions from his cut of the action.

But the exemplar of private welfare “state” fiefdoms Carr mentions in HITMAN was the antipoverty agency known as the New England Grass Roots Organization (NEGRO). Ran by ex-con Guido St. Laurent, the thirty-eight year old founder was killed by Alvin Campbell, his brother and his “top enforcer, Deke Chandler in November 1968. Campbell’s wife went to “Bwana Johnny” Martorano for assistance after Alvin and his two assistants were arrested. Learning that the main witness against Campbell was a drug dealer named Ronald Hicks, Martorano decided to do Campbell’s wife a favor as well as a favor for his friend, Deke Chandler.  He decided to murder Hicks. He did. In classic organized crime style, while Hicks was snorting a line of cocaine, Martorano put a bullet in his head. The entire social-drama of minor gangsters, exploitation and murder could be summed with the epitaph, “Doings of the Other Boston”. [For a thorough discussion of mini-cabals operating in Boston at the time, see the digBoston website and an excellent article by George Hassett).

Boston’s major newspaper, THE GLOBE, “had their own omerta when it came to Whitey [Bulger]” according to Carr. On page 405, he recounts the story of a GLOBE photographer who spotted city workers installing parking curbs on Whitey’s South Boston Liquor Mart store. Expecting his photos to be front page news–city workers performing personal service, evidence of corruption—the photos were never published. While the Globe “lectured its blue-collar city readers” to obey school desegregation orders by a federal court, the paper could not bring itself to expose corruption in public places because it meant challenging the political establishment. Corruption in public places goes hand-in-hand with political corruption.

This political corruption was at a different level than the corruption taking place on the streets. They were mutually facilitating activities of course.  For a time, according to Carr, Whitey Bulger at one time had a “no-show” job. He was employed on the “Suffolk County payroll as a courthouse custodian for $76 a week.” In 1971, when Boston police found fingerprint evidence that Whitey had participated in a shooting, they attempted to get an arrest warrant from the South Boston District Court where Billy Bulger welded “considerable influence”.  The warrant request was turned-down.  This, Carr reports, became a pattern for any law enforcement action involving Whitey Bulger.

HITMAN is not a great crime book. It simply reports the circumstances surrounding twenty-plus murders committed by, with, or in cooperation with Johnny Martorano and the Bulger crime organization. As stated, the real value of HITMAN is its peripheral discussion of the political corruption co-existent with the mayhem on the streets of Boston. Anyone without an interest in politics might learn why they should grow a political spine—whatever the ideological slant. For those with an interest in politics, we learn the value of a two party political system. Attributes of personal integrity does not seem to be enough to keep politicians on the straight and narrow. More to the point, it is best to be very suspicious of any politician who pushes the fear button—whether it’s race, religious values, or economic survival. Moral foibles in elected leaders are infinitely more acceptable than a blindness to such things as extortion, bribery, murder and other exploitative endeavors of the vain and greedy.

Johnny Martorano, the subject of HITMAN, comes across as a likable, integrity-centered guy. He could have ran for political office anywhere. A dedicated families-man—note plural—a man who stuck by his word, a man loyal to the people who helped him. During his life, he killed around twenty people. Martorano maintains that none of his killings were for money or were for personal reasons—except for maybe one instance.  It was all business, the murders were done out of loyalty to his criminal associates and friends. It is an amazing take on the concept of integrity: the honor among thieves type thing;   hubris in the community square with dead bodies no less. Just because Mr. Martorano cannot see the self-serving tendrils of his acts does not mean not one else can. Carr provides a very good lens.

HITMAN is one of the most informative and obviously authoritative books written on the era of organized crime in Boston. It appears to be a list of murder victims.  But Carr has sprinkled the chronology with enough social and political history to make the book truly informative. Highly recommended reading.

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