T. J. English, Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him! New York: William Morrow, 2015

This is a tale of terror, with implications well beyond the mean streets of Boston. On its surface the true story of the career, capture and trial of life long Boston Irish American gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, T.J. English’s enthralling narrative in Where the Bodies Were Buried actually focuses on exposing the failings of the previously little- known US Government “Top Echelon Informant” (TEI) program. Set up by J.Edgar Hoover’s FBI decades ago in response to Hoover’s embarrassment when mobster Joe Valachi revealed the undeniable existence of the Mafia that Hoover had long claimed was a myth, the TEI program inextricably tangled Federal (and allied state and local) law enforcement agencies with the criminal networks that were supposed to be their targets.

Thus, as English deftly recounts, in the 1960s, the FBI enlisted and protected a vicious New England thug named Joseph “Animal” Barboza. The mob hit-man Barboza was given Federal cover to frame by false testimony a number of men who were sent off to decades of prison for crimes they did not commit. The Feds played Barboza as a snitch against the “bigger fish” Mafiosa who were their ostensible targets. In exchange, Barboza was given nearly a free hand to commit murder and other crimes. English explains that, “Afterward some of Barboza’s handlers in the FBI would go on to become the handlers of Whitey Bulger, who, like the Animal, was protected by the FBI and theU.S. attorney’s office in New England.”!

When Bulger, after an infamous, often public, career of murder and racketeering, disappeared in 1995, he became a national “Where’s Whitey” obsession until his capture in 2011. While he was hiding, the fact of his role as an FBI informant became public knowledge. His 2013 trial in Boston, which is reported in fascinating detail by English, raised the very real risk that the long standing Federal collusion with and de facto sanctioning of murderous criminals would come to public light. English suggests, and convincingly demonstrates, that the Feds manipulated the trial so that the earlier Barboza story and its implications (systemic decades-long criminal corruption of the FBI and Federal prosecutors) would not be exposed, and the focus of public attention remained on Bulger, his henchmen and the by-then imprisoned former FBI agent John

Connolly, Bulger’s close crony and, in English’s estimation, the fall-guy distracting attention from the wider story of law enforcement collusion with Bulger and other gangsters.

No Robin Hood, and certainly not the romantic “Irish chieftain” of uninformed popular imagination—among many other killings, Bulger had a young would-be supporter of Irish revolutionaries gruesomely murdered—James “Whitey” Bulger was a thug driven by his own lust for money and power, albeit a very intelligent thug at that. And a sometime acid-head! An odd aside in his story is the early prison stretch during which Bulger volunteered to participate in the CIA’s experimental program testing LSD on inmates. Bulger took an extraordinary high dosage, prolonged over months. Interestingly, although narcotics importing and distribution were his stock in trade, in later years, according to English, “Whitey” never touched drugs nor alcohol. Perhaps his early hallucinatory trips were enough indulgence for him. English describes Bulger as normally reticent and taciturn, though he did indulge in some crude outbursts at trial, despite his attorneys efforts to keep him quiet.

A very poignant scene late in this book is English’s description of the court’s listening to impact statements from the families of Bulger’s victims—many of them now-adult children whose parents or siblings had been abruptly and forever taken from them by Bulger in the tight-knit confines of working-class South Boston. English writes, “Within the community, these were intimate murders, hushed in silence because they had occurred under the umbrella of organized crime. These people had grown up consumed with fear and hatred for the man who through his powerful political brother [Massachusetts State Senate leader Billy Bulger], his connections in law enforcement, and his control of the underworld had, for decades, seemed to be above the law.”

This is a chilling story, to say the least. It is far more scary than the amusing but decidedly fictional version of the Bulger story cleverly acted by Jack Nicholson in the movie The Departed, and it is even more frightening than the psycho-killer portrayal of Bulger by Johnny Depp in the recent film Black Mass (which itself is based on an earlier non fiction account of the tale of Whitey Bulger and his crooked- politician brother Billy). That’s because the true tale that T. J. English strives to tell here is really not Whitey Bulger’s pathological biography. It is the far more twisted story of deep rooted, and persistent murderous corruption within our own Federal government. Indeed, as this book rolls out it’s “truth is far stranger than fiction” account, the reader sees a horror unveiled that is much more terrifying than the face of a cruel killer like Bulger. It is the face of organized state terror colluding with criminals.

T. J. English has never written books meant to comfort. His earlier masterpiece, The Savage City showed us a true 1970s New York nightmare of bad cops and desperate revolutionaries locked in a death-dance of real life savagery. Likewise, his books on Cuba and the Mafia and on Asian-American and Irish-American gangsters were page turners driven by mounting tensions as some very bad people commit some very bad deeds—and often get away with them.

This book goes deeper into its story than any of the many books and films on Bulger have and English is greatly to be praised for his diligence. English was never able to interview Bulger—no one ever has, despite attempts, not even Johnny Depp—but he does use sources extremely close to the man and his network of crime. Some are victims, some are former pals and allies.

An added boost is the access English achieved post-trial to one of the jurors in Bulger’s trial, Janet Uhlar. While she had agreed with the conviction of James Bulger on thirty-one of thirty-two counts, including eleven murders (for which Bulger was sentenced to the rest of his life in prison), Uhlar tells English, “to me the government’s case was a travesty of justice.” She also publicly blamed the prosecutors for failing to fully reveal who was responsible for enabling Bulger in his long and brutal career, and she attacked the media for not delving deeper into the background story of government corruption which she and English feel was not made clear in the trial, to their shared deep disappointment.

Certainly no other writer on the subject has achieved such an inside view of the multi-faceted horror that is the Whitey Bulger story and its Federal conspiracy ramifications. As English concludes after telling his exhaustive tale, “The truth is buried or obscured. . . . In the end, the System protects itself.”! This is a hard, fascinating, very important read. The effect is one of extreme outrage at the massive injustices and brutalities which English deftly reveals. Highly recommended.


Bill Nevins is a poet and film festival curator who teaches at the University of New Mexico. His latest book is ‘Heartbreak Ridge (and Other Poems).


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