Boston Gang Wars- THE FIRST IRISH GANG WAR: McLaughlin v. McLean Introduction

The supposed Irish gang war is commonly proposed to have started Labor Day weekend, 1961. That weekend, members of two Irish gangs – one, the Somerville Gang from the City of Somerville under the leadership of James “Buddy” McLean; the other the McLaughlin Gang from Charlestown under the leadership of the McLaughlin brothers- partied at Salisbury Beach located in the northeast corner of Massachusetts

Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts, in 1961 was so much more than just an attractive beach on the Atlantic Ocean. Like Nantasket Beach in Hull, Massachusetts at the time, Salisbury Beach offered shops, restaurants, an amusement park, and crowds escaping from the City of Boston in the summer. The picture on the left shows the Ferris wheel and roller coaster in a photo taken in 1910. Salisbury Beach had not changed much from 1910 to 1961 except the number of penny arcades, the carnival game booths, and honky-tonk bars had increased.  Salisbury beach drew in throngs of partyers looking for a weekend of fun.  Salisbury Beach was the place to go to enjoy the last days of fun in the sun and to say farewell to summer.

Modestly priced accommodations likewise adorned the beach. A few friends could get together to rent affordable cabins for the weekend. Salisbury  Beach offered the chance to get away for a breath of fresh air outside the streets of the city and meet others in a festive environment.

I lived in a similar neighborhood as the people from these two gangs around the same time in Savin Hill.   When we did not go to Cape Cod for our weekend trips to get out of the neighborhood, we would travel a little north of Salisbury Beach to Hampton Beach in New Hampshire. We would lug cases of Blanchard beer, the cheapest beer we could find.  We park our cars, change into the Bermuda shorts that few dared wear on the city streets, and walk to the beach.  We would not get back into the cars again until we were ready to drive home – unless, of course, we needed to use our cars as our weekend motel rooms.  I would assume the group of guys and gals from the Somerville and Charlestown city neighborhoods did pretty much the same thing as us.  Although we’d think at the time that our neighborhood was vastly different from the other city neighborhoods, in retrospect we were more alike than different.

Charlestown is a part of Boston on the northern side. Charlestown is the location of the famous Battle of Bunker Hill, which was fought on June 17, 1775, by the colonial forces against the British. Somerville had been carved out of Charlestown as a separate city in 1842. They border on each other. The members of the Somerville and Charlestown gangs would frequently interact with each other while passing through or hanging around in the neighborhoods. Most of these hoodlums knew each other.

We know about one instance of their casual interactions.  James “Buddy” McLean, the Somerville gang boss, was in Charlestown as late as September 15, 1965, four years after the notorious Labor Day weekend. He was arrested at Driscoll’s Café on Medford Street along with Thomas Ballou. Ballou was carrying a handgun.  Ballou, being from Charlestown, was said to be associated with the McLaughlin gang.  Yet, an unarmed Buddy McLean was in a Cambridge bar having a discussion with him as if there were no bad blood between the gangs. Perhaps, by that time things had quieted down after each side had taken a life from the other.

The 1961 Labor Day weekend troubles which have set forth the idea idea that a long Irish gang war throughout the 1960’s was in fact a brawl between two men. Various stories are promulgated about what happened that weekend. The one that makes the most sense to me was in an article on November 1, 1961 quoting a police officer who explained: “McLean entered a spot in Salisbury with a girl. Remarks were passed between her and George McLaughlin. George slapped her face. When McLean and George were pulled apart, George was taken to a hospital in Newburyport and spent two weeks convalescing.”

Then there is the article on November 21, 1975, that gave another reason for the combat with Buddy but has the same combatants. The article says a Charlestown detective who knew the McLaughlins as young kids reported that “George McLaughlin bit McLean’s girlfriend during a beach party. Mclean, a quick-fisted man who did not need a gun to prove his strength, gave McLaughlin the beating of his life.”

Then there’s the story Howie Winter told. He was not there. Howie recounts that George hit on the girlfriend of Alexander Petricone. They got into an intense argument. A Somerville guy, Red Lloyd, tried to calm them down by bringing them drinks. George smashed the drink into Red’s face splitting his lip. Then another fight broke out. When people separated and things quieted a bit, the Somerville guys wanted Buddy McLean to murder George. Buddy said he was not in the killing business, but said that he would give George a beating.

George had been beaten to a bloody pulp. He finished his Labor Day weekend in the hospital. George’s beating did not sit well with his gang. George had two other brothers who were living at the time, Bernie and Edward (Punchy). Two of his other brothers had been killed in the armed forces during WWII.

The stories that followed promoted the idea that the McLaughlins would not let the beating stand. The McLaughlins wanted their pound of flesh from whomever in the McLean gang administered the beating to George. These stories explain that the McLaughlins consulted Buddy McLean asking him to tell them who did it.

These stories that claim the McLaughlins didn’t know who did the beating make no sense.  These guys knew each other, if not personally, definitely by name and face.. The victor in a fight that hospitalized another would be well known, especially because the fight took place in a public place in front of their associates. The McLaughlins issue was not who beat up George.  They knew it was Buddy. Their quandary was what to do about it. Buddy was considered the toughest guy in the area. He had his own gang. Revenge had to be against Buddy himself, a difficult task.

The pressure on the McLaughlins to do something increased. Apparently, Bernie tried. The Boston Globe had a brief article saying that Bernie “McLaughlin,  . . . was reportedly beaten badly last Saturday night. . . .” which would have been October 28, 1961, approximately eight weeks after the Labor Day beating.  Little more seems to be known publicly about that incident.

Bernie was a tough guy.  Whoever beat up Bernie must have been a very tough guy to have beaten him badly. Who would want to take on the head of a gang unless he was tough and felt protected with his own gang? Most likely Buddy McLean administered the beating to Bernie after they exchanged words over George’s beating.  Bernie’s beating, rather than George’s, most likely explains what happened next.

Buddy knew it was not going to end there. He walked away that night knowing that plenty of nights ahead might have a different result. Buddy had now beaten up two-thirds of the McLaughlin leadership. The McLaughlins would have to act against him to save face unless, he acted first.

A strange event followed.

It could have happened as Buddy McLean told the police.  Or, perhaps another way.  What the gangsters tell police is hardly reliable.  Buddy lived at 3A Snow Terrace, Somerville, in a rear apartment on the last house on the right, in a city neighborhood where the houses were on top of each other. Snow Terrace was a small dead-end street that had two or three houses on each side crowded in next to each other. Three days after Bernie McLaughlin’s beating on Monday, October 30, 1961, at 1:30 a.m., a neighbor of Buddy McLean said he heard three shots. He looked out the window and saw that Buddy’s hood was up. The next morning when the neighbor came out of his house, he noticed that the hood on Buddy’s car was still up. He went over to it. Looking at the engine he saw five dynamite sticks.

Somerville police were called to the scene. They found the dynamite. Their investigation found the wiring to the bomb had been faulty. Examining the scene, police said they found three 9mm Luger pistol shells on Buddy’s small lawn.  His lawn, if it existed, had to be postage stamp size.  Buddy admitted firing the shots. He said he heard some people fooling around at his car so he fired the gun to chase them away.

He told the police that he interrupted them in the middle of their plan to dynamite his car. Sergeant Anthony DiFasino said he spoke with McLean. He asked him who he thought would have done it. He replied that: “he had a rough idea who did it and he would handle the matter his way.”

Now wrap your head around this. Buddy hears the noise, runs out of his house with his 9mm Luger pistol. He fires three shots. The perpetrators flee. He then goes back into his house. Don’t you think he might want to check his car? Look under the hood? At a minimum you would think he would put the hood down so it would not remain up all night.

So. how does that make sense? Was this a ruse so that Buddy could justify what he planned to do next? Did Buddy set up the whole thing?

And what about the police? Was it all right for Buddy to have a 9mm Luger pistol? Did they have no problem with him firing off three shots in the middle of the night in the center of their city. That answer is simple. Howie Winter explained that Buddy and his criminal buddies were all classmates of the guys in the police department.  They had grown up together, knew each other and were friends. Sometimes it is very helpful to stay in your own neighborhood.


  1. Thanks for your recent article and I hope that there is more soon as I am enjoying reading the articles about Boston’s crime history.