THOMAS SULLIVAN, 39 December 22, 1957
Tommy Sullivan was from South Boston. He lived with his 82-year-old mother on the first floor of a duplex at 660 East Fifth Street. He had been an amateur fighter with a winning record in his 20 fights prior to going into the Navy during WWII. He was discharged in 1945. He became a professional boxer in the light heavy weight division. He had a large following from South Boston being known for his brawling style and verbosity in the ring. His two ten round fights with Al “Red” Priest from Cambridge which he lost by a split decision were considered the most sensational fights in the Boston area at the time. His first fight with Red set a Boston Garden box office record of $59,000. The second fight brought a record purse and nearly sold-out Boston Garden’s capacity of 13,909 when over 13,000 raucous fans showed up.
Sullivan posed for a group of kids just before one of his fights with Red Priest. In one photograph taken by Paul Maguire of the Boston Globe on December 15, 1946, Sullivan was shown with six kids from South Boston at the South Boston Boys Club. I was one of them. I am the kid with the glasses. Along with me were my two cousins Jimmy, to my left, and Roger Concannon, in front of Jimmy with the gloves.
Sullivan gave up fighting in 1949 after a win. He said he did not want to get hurt doing it. He figured he had made decent money. He was known as a good kid and a churchgoer. Like a lot of guys with little education, he went to work as a longshoreman at the Boston docks.
On December 22, 1957, Sullivan, after working a day shift, went home to eat. At 6:30 p.m., he left his house. He walked out his front door and then turned right down the street. He was returning to his job having been called to do a second shift at the Army base. As he passed the front of Hawes Cemetery less than a hundred yards from his house, a black sedan with four men approached and stopped aside him. Sullivan paused. Sullivan may even have stepped off the curb and taken a step or two toward the car. As he did a volley of bullets came from the car. Three shots hit him in the head and two in the shoulders. He collapsed and fell. He was found lying dead in the gutter.
The initial theory the police worked on was that he was killed for speaking out against the leaders of the New York International Longshoreman’s Union. That very well could have been influenced by the 1954 movie On the Waterfront where Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) was a boxer who worked on the docks. Brando had one of the most iconic movie quotes during that performance when he responded to the union boss told him to throw a fight: “You don’t understand! I could’ve had class. I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
The problem with the initial police theory resides in the fact that no evidence was ever produced to show he was clashing with the union leaders. The union leaders weer deep with mafia connection and in New York. It is hard to contemplate how a guy in Boston could make trouble for the Mafia controlled union guys in New York City. There were disputes on the Boston waterfront over who would run the show in Boston but those disputes did not seem to relate to New York.
The best evidence the police had was that the men waiting in a car outside his house knew what he was doing that day. They knew he had completed his day shift, that he had gone home to eat, where he lived, and when he would be returning for the evening shift. The police did not have much to go on.
Later, some would come up with the theory that was echoed by most of the authors who wrote about his murder. They claimed that he had a fight with Edward “Punchy” McLaughlin, another ex-professional boxer in early December 1956. It was said that Sullivan was bothered by the McLaughlin gang extorting one of his friends. Sullivan ran into Punchy in a barroom, complained to Punchy, and a brawl ensued. Punchy came out on the short end of the fight and allegedly crawled under a car to stop Sullivan from continuing the thrashing.
I suppose that would give Punchy a good reason for shooting Sullivan. It did not take much to aggravate the McLaughlins. But what most militates against the McLaughlins being involved in Sullivan’s murder is that the barroom fight happened a year earlier and not the month in which Sullivan was murdered as some maintain. Irish hoodlums do not wait a year to revenge a beating, especially the McLaughlins. When George McLaughlin was badly beaten up by Buddy McLean, the McLaughlins were attempting to put dynamite in McLean’ car the next month.
Another theory was that Sullivan’s murder had a connection with the war between the McLaughlin Gang and the powerful Patriarca crime family. That theory does not hold water at all. The wars involving the McLaughlins and other Boston gangs did not happen until 1961. Moreover, Sullivan from Southie and would have had nothing to do with the McLaughlins gang from Charlestown.
Another theory is that Sullivan’s killer was Harold Hannon. Hannon was later murdered in the ensuing Irish Mob wars. It is true that Hannon was friendly with the McLaughlins and at one time chauffeured them around. The initial problem is Hannon was not known as one of their hit men. A bigger problem is that Hannon was in State Prison doing a 9 to 15-year sentence for armed robbery at the time.
According to one newspaper report, Sullivan was killed because he and William Cameron were associates on the waterfront. It presumed that because Sullivan had been seen with Cameron who was “a narcotics suspect in 1951” in a past arrest in Charlestown. However, Sullivan and Cameron being seen together by itself would not be indicative of much since both worked as longshoremen. Plus, Cameron had been murdered a year-and-a-half earlier making any connection between the two rather attenuated.
Sullivan’s murder remains unsolved. One could suggest that his murderers were out of New York City and involved in the illegal narcotics business. Did Sullivan discover the NYC mafia’s illegal narcotics operation and told those involved to shut it down? Isthe Boston Police suggestion that it had something to do with New York City gangsters correct? Sullivan was not a gangster but he may have been bothering some gangsters. Perhaps somehow John “Fats” Buccelli fits into all of this? Perhaps Sullivan stumbled into a position where he knew too much about the narcotics and had to be silenced.
Perhaps, but there is another theory that is much simpler and closer to home. On July 17, 1959, a little more than 18 months after Sullivan’s murder, Francis X. Ahearn, mentioned again later, was shot twice in the head on Columbus Avenue in Boston. He lived. He identified his shooter as Stephen Hughes, also mentioned later, a stone-cold killer and longshoreman. It was said Ahearn’s shooting had some connection to Sullivan’s murder.
Ahearn, in December 1965. made a statement in court that Ahearn was pressured to sign a paper that would have put the ex-convicts in control of the docks. He opposed signing. Sullivan also would have likely opposed having the gangsters take over, too. Sullivan was not a guy to tangle with and was probably a leader in his opposition. Shooting him would have been one of the only ways to get him out of the way.
Trying to pin the murder on the McLaughlins is lazy and easy. But like a broken clock, maybe the McLaughlin theorists are right but for the wrong reasons. The murder had nothing to do with Sullivan beating up Punchy or Harold Hannon. It did have everything to do with the McLaughlin Gang of which Stephen Hughes was a member, all of them gangsters, and their attempt to take over the waterfront. Most likely it was Hughes and his brother who murdered Sullivan because he was the leader of the opposition to them.