Two Irishmen: James (Whitey) Bulger and James (Jimmy the Gent) Burke: Boston vs New York

Jimmy the GentHow is it that Whitey received widespread national coverage during his trial, even reports in some international media? What makes him such a figure that well over two dozen books have been written about him in which he plays a prominent part in one way or another?  I’ve posited that Whitey was a run-of-the-mill viscous gangster. Yet forces united to elevate him to stratospheric levels.

When his trial ended media reports told us he terrorized the City of Boston for decades. But as I’ve noted few outside one section of the city, South Boston, and those were people involved in booking and drug dealing, ever heard about him. How can you terrorize people if no one knows you exist until after you’ve gone?.

One prominent media maven wrote that he “Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century.” From what I can tell there’s never been any public official in the state or city convicted of corruption because of an involvement with Whitey. It seems that the corruption we’ve seen among Massachusetts public office holders or officials has not implicated anyone involved with organized crime.

Speaking of corruption, there’s a recent article that spells out what states are the most corrupt in the United States. Massachusetts has 6.4 million people and about half live in the Metro-Boston area.  Greater Boston  has 4.59 million people. Had Boston been corrupted, you’d think that it would propel Massachusetts to the top of the list of states deemed most corrupt.

However four different  surveys ranks Massachusetts as follows: Center for Public Integrity gives it a C placing it in the top ten least corrupt states; the New York Times ranks it 18th in the number of officials convicted;  the federals show it ranks 27th in per capital convictions; and Business Insider ranks it as the 21st most corrupt.

As a state we are somewhere in the middle of the pack. If you’ve paid attention to the people who have been convicted who have placed us there, you’ll look long and hard before you find that organized crime, Italian, Irish or otherwise, had any involvement. If you look at the level of corruption, that is the money involved, you’ll see our public officials seem to go down for nickels and dimes.

If Whitey didn’t corrupt any public officials and if he didn’t terrorize the city, then what is it that makes him such a matter of fascination?  It boils down to the smallness of Boston where something rather ordinary can be made into something extraordinary. But why pick out Whitey? He wasn’t the worst of the lot: John “Murderman” Martorano and Stevie “Benjiman”Flemmi, not to mention Larry Baione (Zannino), Gerry Angiulo and Frankie Salemme all surpassed him in cruelty and crime. I’ve suggested Whitey was made into much more than he ever was because it sated the Boston media’s appetite to foil his brother; and there was a need of other parties to jump on the ship to inflate his reputation for their own less than straight forward purposes.

Even had Whitey been the most sordid criminal in Boston, he paled in comparison to what New York City produced. I thought I’d put him up against another Irish criminal: James (Jimmy the Gent) Burke, out of New York City.  I pick him since he was a contemporary of Whitey. He was born in July 1931 and Whitey  was born in 1929.

I’m sure most of you are scratching your head and wondering who is Jimmy the Gent?  You’re probably saying “there’s no way he’s in the same league as Whitey.” And I’d  have to agree. He makes Whitey look like a small timer.

I never heard of the bum until the other day when I read an article about  the infamous 1978 Lufthansa heist at Kennedy International Airport in which 6 million dollars were stolen. Jimmy the Gent was the master mind behind the robbery while living in a half-way house. So I decided to see what else I could find out about him.

Burke was an outright mean murderer. You might have heard how Whitey didn’t like a story Paul Corsetti of the Herald was planning to write. He made a plan to confront him at the Dockside in Quincy Market (according to Ralph Ranalli in 2001) or at  P.J. Clark’s (according to Howie Carr in 2006)  or “a bar in Quincy Market” (according to Howie Carr in 2011). Whitey was upset because the story was about his brother Billy, or about the Litif murder, or whatever.(Hard to pin down the reason.)  We’re told that Whitey interacted with Corsetti, a combat vet from Vietnam, and whispered one of those “do you know who I am” talks allegedly telling him “I’m Jimmy Bulger and I  kill people.”

I seems  Jimmy the Gent had a problem with a column written by Jimmy Breslin the famous New York columnist. He confronted Breslin.  Rather than whispering, he beat and choked him to within an inch of his life in front of a barroom full of customers. He walked the talk.

Many of the murders attributed to Whitey were done by others. He was allegedly in a crash car for a half-dozen who were murdered by Murderman  nor did he have much to do with the Wheeler or Callahan murders. Jimmy the Gent was all hands on. He is suspected in over 50 murders. Most of the people who pulled the Kennedy heist with him he murdered so they either wouldn’t talk or complain about their cut of the loot. Yet no one has suggested that he terrorized New York City. He was but a minor blip in the annals of crime.

I find it a compelling story to see how a minor actor has become so blown out of proportion. Is it something that could only have happened in Boston? And if so, why is that?



23 thoughts on “Two Irishmen: James (Whitey) Bulger and James (Jimmy the Gent) Burke: Boston vs New York

  1. In light of Mark Rosetti’s recent conviction, and the revelation that he was used as an informant in a similar manner to Bulger, do you believe it sheds any light on your theories regarding Bulger’s status as informant, or how accurate his status as an underworld figure is depicted in the media?

    After reading the the 2 books by the Globe writers, Brutal, and Carr’s Flemmi and Martorano books, it seems clear to me that Whitey was just another bad guy among other bad guys. Flemmi seems connected to many more murders than Bulger, although I believe Weeks states in his book that both Flemmi and Bulger claimed between 30-40 murders (I might be in the words of Roger Clemens, misremembering this anecdote). Flemmi and the Martorano brothers had been in the game for over 10 years by the time Whitey was back.

    Moreover, I do not buy for 1 second that Bulger murdered Deborah Hussey or Deborah Davis. He had 0 motive. The idea that anyone would buy Flemmi’s explanation that he “blurted out” he had to see an FBI agent is laughable. I am by no means a Bulger apologist, I just find that theory ridiculous.

    1. Let’s point out that Davis’ murder apparently was NOT considered part of the criminal enterprise by the jury in that Bulger was NOT found responsible when the jury returned a ‘no finding’ in her murder in part after Martorano took the stand when he was called back in for the defense to relay his phone conversation with Flemmi in which Flemmi made self incriminating statements – Bulger was found guilty for ex. in the murders of Callahan & Wheeler both murders of which both sides agreed Bulger was Not present for, however, there was a real push to put Bulger at the scene of Davis’ murder despite under the criminal enterprise laws, Bulger would not have even had to be present to be convicted, Davis’ alleged knowledge imparted on her in a described minor/momentary act of blurting weakness (lol) by …of course, Flemmi, not Bulger was testified to as the alleged reasoning within the ‘criminal enterprise’ that she was murdered…..sounds like something Flemmi made up, Steven Davis went with it also as he doesn’t like to bear the burden that his friend Flemmi killed her himself out of sheer macho anger and attempts to attach a notion of James Bond, 007, bravado top secret the beautiful young woman’s murder…..cuz she was ditching the louse.

      1. Jan:

        Good comment. Flemmi was at one time the darling of the Davis household. The motive for the murder of Debbie seems quite apparent with Flemmi’s thought process of “if I can’t have her no one can.” Flemmi’s reason for Whitey wanting her dead did not make sense. Whitey was part of it since her death could have taken place anywhere other than in South Boston if Flemmi had the courage to murder her himself. He needed Whitey’s support in killing and burying her although there is no way of ever knowing exactly how she died since both men lie about it. Kevin Weeks in his books makes a few good points: He blamed her mother for her death; he said Stevie and Whitey went to Mexico trying to track down “the guy she planned to dump him for;” and “I’m glad Jimmy never involved me in that murder.

    2. Dave:

      The Rosetti case definitely showed that the Connolly/Whitey relationship was business as usual in the FBI. Having Rosseti as an informant was as bad if not worse than having Whitey especially since Rosetti was suspected of having been involved in several murders but for the most part Whitey’s role in murders was not suspected until late in his informant career. Rosetti demonstrates Connolly was railroaded by the FBI since what he was doing in having his relationship with Whitey was approved by all in the Bureau. You’d never know it by the subsequent publicity.

      There’s no doubt Bulger was an informant. He was always with Flemmi, he was with Flemmi when Flemmi spelled out all the Mafia information to Connolly, plus, as Weeks pointed out, when Connolly showed him Bulger’s informant files it became clear to him Bulger was ratting out a lot of the Southie guys. But his deal with the FBI was to be an informant and in return he’d be protected; the same a Mark Rosetti’s deal.

      Whitey was a leader of the Winter Hill gang since the late 1970s. That gang worked in conjunction with the Angiulo Mafia faction until it undermined it. When the Mafia guys who weren’t brought down in the Angiulo take down tried to reassert themselves, Whitey and Stevie also undermined them. Whitey got tribute payments from all the bookies and the Southie drug dealers by reason of his reputation for using violence. He was a big organized crime guy in a small area; he never bothered those who weren’t in the rackets or legitimate business people except perhaps one or two. His reach was very limited outside of Southie. He never terrorized anyone other than those involved in crime. His reign lasted for the ten or so years because he was being protected by the FBI and because he was very disciplined and tough.

      Flemmi, Salemme, Martorano and Winter were equal if not superior to Whitey as was Larry Bione and come other Mafia guys in reputation and violence and reach. You’d be hard pressed to make him stand out from those five or so other guys. Martorano was the biggest murderer because he was the one that delighted in pulling the trigger; Flemmi had no scruples killing his friends and girl friends. Your point that Flemmi and the Martoranos were involved in murders long before Whitey started is true. A recent Emily Rooney show on Whitey on Channel 2 started out talking about the Boston Gang wars of the 1960s. Many people who write about Whitey talk about those which are called the Irish gang wars. All seem to suggest Whitey was involved in them somehow but as you point out he wasn’t in the area at the time.

      It seems clear to me Debbie Davis was murdered because she was leaving Flemmi and Deborah Hussey was murdered because she was leading a scandalous life that reflected badly on Flemmi. Those were the motives for their murders. Whitey had none but he had to help his buddy Flemmi in carrying them out. It seems clear that Whitey was involved – we’ll never know the truth about how the women were murdered since those there are liars – because they took place in Southie and they were buried in places Whitey used to bury his victims.

      Excellent comment. I see you have read between the lines of what has been written. Hopefully the true story will be written one day that will tie most of these things together and put them in proper perspective. Thanks.

  2. jimmy burke is a very interesting life story. henry hill, john gotti a lot of mobsters associated with that name. it has been written that jimmy would have been a capo if he was Italian. the day to day life and crimes were higher than whiteys for many years I would think because of the truck hijackings which he was a big part of. did he make the money whitey did from drugs in the 1980s? no. I have detailed the publics interest in the whitey saga, brother highly elected official secret fbi informer it all sounds make up. jimmy the gent burke just like whitey was a hardcore criminal

    1. Norwood:

      Rumor has it that Jimmy Burke went to Concannon’s in Norwood with Henry Hill because they heard it had the best Shepard’ Pie in the Northeast. He never was big into the drug money but usually did big jobs that netted him millions. Jimmy the Gent was no Gent to those he didn’t like.

  3. Never was so little known … By so many … Of so few … specifically James Joseph Bulger 🙂 …. All apologies to Winston C. for paraphrase … Such … Poetic License !!! 🙂

  4. People also said they weren’t there much. They were sighted in Lousiana, and a lot in New York;
    Ms. Stanley when she was with him said they drove all over the country, and Bulger left her for days in hotel rooms….What was he doing?
    Pictures of the a mishmash of belongings typical of a home you only use sporadically.
    Did WB have a car? Where was it registered?
    And so on…

    1. Duncan:

      Let’s say he first leased the propery 15 years prior to the time he was captured. I assumed he lived there if he was paying the rent and was found there. Where do you think he was living?

      1. Matt- I think after all is considered and examined, I would say the enemies of William Bulger (politically&news/radio) would be the largest reason for this reputation and supersizing of his life of crime. In my opinion you could probably make a list between 40-50 people that can take credit for the majority of this exaggeration , may be a good idea for future articles, to list people that contributed to supersizing the attributes of this criminal.

  5. The Lufthansa robberey is still hot:

    Mobster (78) charged with ‘Goodfellas’ airport heist after being caught on a wire

    MORE THAN 30 years after Vincent Asaro is believed to have gotten away with helping hatch a $6 million airport heist dramatised in the hit Martin Scorsese movie “Goodfellas”, prosecutors say the reputed mobster slipped up and complained to the wrong person that he’d been cheated by another gangster named James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke.

    “We never got our right money, what we were supposed to get,” the 78-year-old Asaro told a cooperator wearing a wire in 2011, according to the court papers. “Jimmy Burke kept everything.”

    Burke inspired Robert De Niro’s character in “Goodfellas,” which was based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book “Wiseguy” and told the story of Hill’s time in the mob and subsequent cooperation with law enforcement.

    Asaro’s profanity-laced rant was a break in an investigation that resulted yesterday in murder, robbery, extortion, arson and other charges against Asaro and four other defendants, including Asaro’s son, Jerome.

    The men were named in a racketeering indictment and other court papers that Asaro’s defence attorney, Gerald McMahon, dismissively said at times read like another movie script.

    1. Henry:

      Jimmy the Gent or Jimmy Whitey – two nice Irishmen. I noted in reading about them that both were alleged to be quite charitable in giving a hand to old ladies in distress or some turkeys at Thanksgiving.

  6. I would say that Whitey’s story has been sensationalized, sure… but his story is much more compelling than Jimmy the Gent’s or killers with many more notches on their respective belts. One reason is his is a tale of two brothers, that went in completely opposite directions, another is he seemingly worked hand in hand with high levels of law enforcement. A third would be he evaded ARREST for decades. Jimmy the Gent died in prison in 1996. And, yeah, the american public probably has such a fascination with his story because the people of Boston and greater MA have made it so by spinning so many yarns… stories similar to those told of “Billy the Kid” during his day. That he was a “robin hood” type of anti hero. The stories have obviously been proven false, but stories like that usually are. It seems not only Whitey had an interest in inflating his presence in american gangster lore, as many propagated the fiction.

    1. John:

      Good comment. One thing I’d say is that it is true that each brother went a different way but f you read the books that have been written about them you’d believe otherwise. So part of the story of Whitey is based on a lie that somehow he was helped by Billy. Being an informant for the FBI does make it substantially different from that of Jimmy the Gent. In that scenario we’re treated with the idea of a rogue federal agent John Connolly who crosses the line. Upon closer examination, if you understand the Top Echelon Informant program, it was Connolly’s job to do with Whitey exactly what he was doing, protecting him. Whether money exchanged hands is somewhat irrelevant to that issue. But you are right, that juices up the Whitey story but it doesn’t make Whitey into any greater criminal say than Benjiman Flemmi who had the same relationship.
      I read somewhere that between age 17 and 22 Jimmy the Gent spent 86 days out of prison. He was constantly in the can. Whitey did 9 years before his flight in 1995. The long time on the lam, the FBI informant and his powerful brother are matters that make his story more interesting than Jimmy the Gent whose story just seems to be that of a guy who liked to murder people – and who had a nice way of threatening them by telling them he’d lock their kids in a refrigerator.
      Speaking of Billy the Kid, Jimmy the Gent had four or five kids. He named one boy Jesse James and the other Frank James. He was a real head case. As you might expect, there were also Robin Hood stories about Jimmy the Gent.
      I agree that Whitey was hugely interested in inflating his presence. The idea he was not an informant is part of that shtick. Whitey wants us to believe he was only a brutal murderer who never became a rat. That puts him in the company of guys like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. Not such a nice place.

  7. I suppose one difference would be that many of the people you mention were investigated & prosecuted at various times over the years where Bulger somehow managed a life more spectacular than Houdini.

    1. Jan:

      That is a difference to be sure but the books about Whitey started coming out in 2001 which was only a half dozen years after his flight. I wouldn’t think the length of flight would result in a person’s malignancy being heightened. Actually, when you look at it, he led the life of a good dude for those 15 or 16 years in a semi-incarcerated state confined to a two bedroom apartment surrounded by his guns and paranoia. I can never figure out why he had all those guns; you don’t think it was his intent to have a shoot out with the cops as we saw in those 30 movies do you?

      1. Lol. No, at least towards the end it seems he did not intend on engaging in any shoot out, however, folks of that mind-set get fixated on and attached to things like guns and seem to like to have a few around…perhaps it was also wiser to simply leave them stashed where they were in the apartment as opposed to tossing them, risking the guns being found…starting a trail by some unknown person(s) if the weapons were found and turned in. Although I would think if anyone wanted to toss a few weapons, they could break them down and toss them dismantled, in pieces, in various spots….sort of like a jig saw puzzle, never to be put together again…always that missing piece creating an incomplete picture.

        1. Jan:

          I guess that’s about right. He had to have them around and really never thought it through. Once he accumulated all of them what else could he do, as you point out but keep them company. To break them down and scatter them around in pieces might have been too much for him, it would be like losing members of his family. I guess it is just too much to apprehend the mind of some criminals.

  8. From Wikipedia: Jimmy “the Gent” Burke was depicted by Robert De Niro in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas as “Jimmy Conway”. It was claimed that at the time, Jimmy Burke was so happy to have Robert De Niro play him that he telephoned him from prison to give him a few pointers. Author and screen-writer Nicholas Pileggi denies this, saying De Niro and Burke had never spoken, but admitting that there were men around the set all the time who had known all of the principal characters very well.

    1. Blue:

      I read that. No doubt Jimmy the Gent like any other gangster was happy to see himself portrayed on the big screen. One thing of note about his is that his buddy Henry Hill said if you offered to give Jimmy the Gent a billion dollars he’d turn you down and then set about figuring a way to steal it from you. I worked with a guy who was like that once. If there were two ways to do something, one straight and the other crooked, he’d always take the latter.

    2. Not true at all. James Burke refused to talk to ANYONE involved with the movie. His daughter tried to sue Martin Scorsese and producers. They used the name jimmy Conway instead

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