Historian and journalist Francis Russell, who was born January 12, 1910, and lived on Wellington Hill in his early years, wrote on topics from art to juvenile history. His book Tragedy in Dedham told the story of the murder trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti during the 1920s. His book Knave of Boston & Other Ambiguous Massachusetts Characters looks at some of the occurrences in his home state.
Some of his other books are: Sacco and Vanzetti: the Case Resolved (1986); Three Studies in Twentieth-Century Obscurity: Joyce, Kafka and Gertrude Stein (1953), The World of Durer (1967) and The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times (1968), The Making of the Nation, The City in Terror.
Russell died March 20, 1989.
The Special Collections libraries at Brandeis University and at Bowdoin College hold collections of his papers.
The following passages--Death in Dorchester and The End of Mattapan Macky--are from Russell's book The Knave of Boston & Other Ambiguous Massachusetts Characters.
Death in Dorchester
At half past nine of an early September evening in 1973 the young woman in the flowered dress walks along Blue Hill Avenue down the slope from Franklin Park. Behind her the trees in the park, though somewhat bedraggled, still hold their summer greenery. Most of the small stores she passes on the Avenue are empty, boarded up since the riots of six years ago, their fronts pasted over with now tattered and faded Black Power posters and smeared with crude slogans. Only the liquor stores, those hardiest of weeds, have managed to survive here, their windows bricked down to slits and protected by layers of steel mesh. The young woman is pretty in a casual way. Her errand is obvious. She is carrying a red two-gallon can of gasoline from a Grove Hall filling station to a car stranded somewhere in the no man's land of streets between Dorchester and Roxbury. There are few if any pedestrians in sight. People no longer walk along Blue Hill Avenue, particularly in the evening. As she nears a dilapidated corner house beyond a line of boarded-up or shuttered stores, six young blacks step out of the darkness into the blue-white range of the arc lamps. Shouting obscenities they encircle her, shove her from one to the other like a rag doll, force her down the narrow alley between the corner house and a decayed apartment block. There in the litter of a vacant rear lot they order her to pour gasoline on herself. She refuses. They beat and kick her until she finally gives in. When she has drenched herself to their satisfaction, one of the gang flicks a lighted match at her. She takes fire like a torch, and they run off laughing and jeering.
After vainly rolling on the ground to put out the flames, she staggers down the alley, her clothes and hair ablaze, and screams her way past half a dozen closed shops to the open liquor store. Customers and clerks pull off her burning clothing. A police car that happens to be cruising by takes her to City Hospital. She has second and third degree burns over all her body. Four hours later she is dead.
She was Evelyn Wagler, a twenty-six-year-old German-born Swiss, married but separated from her .husband, the mother of a six-year-old boy. A drifter, she had lived in communes, with Woman's Liberation friends, on Chicago's tough South Side, worked as a carpenter, a waitress, a truck driver. Five days earlier she had arrived in Boston after hitchhiking from Chicago and taking odd jobs along the way. She moved in with four women she had known previously?three black and one white? who lived in the upper floor of a three-decker on the edge of Dorchester. She was looking for a job when her borrowed car ran out of gas. Before she died she managed to tell the police that she had been confronted on the avenue the day before by three of the same gang. They had warned her: "Whitey, get out of this part of town!" It was just more of the same sort of street jive, she told her roommates, she used to hear in Chicago. Neither she nor they felt particularly alarmed. After her death her estranged husband explained to reporters that she had been killed "by the system, a system that creates ghettos and racial hatred." Her body remained in the morgue unclaimed.
Boston's Mayor Kevin White, after asserting that there was nothing inherently racial in this torch murder, offered a $3,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderers. A week later no one had been arrested, and Evelyn Wagler's name had disappeared from the newspapers.
The tale would have been one to which I should have reacted in transitory horror and then inevitably have pushed aside as new tales intervened. But Dorchester, where Evelyn Wagler died, happens to be the section of Boston where I grew up, the place of my first memories, the only part of the earth that has come to seem instinctively home to me. So I felt her death as something personal, as if we were somehow related. Blue Hill Avenue was for me the Avenue before I knew there were other avenues, a Via Appia running die-straight from the Blue Hills to Boston on the horizon that to my child's eye was London and Paris and Rome and all the world's fabled and fabulous cities.
We lived a mile or so the other side of Franklin Park on Dorchester Hill, bordering on Blue Hill Avenue, a segment of Dorchester that still kept the Indian name of Mattapan, Place-of-the-Ford. That hill of my childhood is an obscure drumlin, one of the several hundred left by the glacier in the Boston area. But for me it was the hub of the universe. From the row of pignut trees on the Hill's crest one could look north to the hazy tentacular city four and a half miles away and sometimes on bright afternoons catch the glitter of the gilt State House dome. On gray days the sky itself seemed held up by the granite obelisk of the Custom House tower. East lay the harbor islands, beyond the yellow bulk of the Dorchester High School. From my bedroom window I looked west beyond New Calvary Cemetery in the hollow to the vague ridge of the Canterbury Hills with their promise of continental distances beyond, enhanced by the red sun-ball as it sank each evening below the Bellevue water tower.
Until the Boston Elevated Street Railway Company extended its line from Grove Hall to Mattapan in 1908, Dorchester Hill was a supernumerary bit of property owned by Wellington Holbrook, a feckless Mayflower descendant who lived on the bits and pieces of his diminished inheritance. Thanks to the Boston El, Mattapan became a streetcar suburb and Holbrook was able to develop his empty drumlin into a settlement of one- and two-family houses, run up as cheaply as possible on postage-stamp-sized lots. With passing vanity he changed the Hill's old name to Wellington Hill. It became a bourgeois community of those who considered themselves simply Americans but who would later be labeled WASPs?clerks, salesmen, petty officials, minor professional men and the occasional teacher.
Ironically enough, the year of the Mattapan carline extension was the year of the great Chelsea fire that destroyed most of that sordid industrial adjunct of Boston, obliterating the slum streets along the Mystic River inhabited by Jewish refugees from Polish Russia. Before 1880 there were fewer than five hundred Russian Jews in Massachusetts out of a foreign-born population of 350,000. Between 1900 and 1914 they formed the largest racial block coming into the state. After the Kishinev pogroms of 1903 and the 190$ massacres, this migration became a stampede. Of 100,000 new immigrants coming to Massachusetts in 1913, 21,000 were Jews from the Polish Pale. They took to peddling and junk dealing, a haggling existence to which they were adapted by their harsh and limited life in the Pale. To Boston's small group of wealthy, long-established German Jews they seemed as remote as lunar visitors. Following the destruction of the Chelsea ghetto, its inhabitants migrated across the Mystic River ten miles south to the sections of Dorchester already solidly built up with wooden three-deckers. Speculative builders ran up more three-deckers to meet the demand.
With the advent of World War I, shops with kosher signs began to spread down Blue Hill Avenue, each year creeping closer to the Hill. District after Dorchester district became solidly Jewish. As soon as a few Jews bought into a street, the other families would become restive, FOR SALE signs would appear in their windows, and in a few seasons they would have moved away. Dorchester was becoming, not a ghetto, but a kahal, an expanding Jewish community, soon to be the most densely populated area of greater Boston.
For some time Dorchester Hill remained a nativist island surrounded by an alien sea. The outcome was only a matter of time. Finally in 1920 the Robinsons on the Hill quietly sold their house to a Jewish family. Prices of houses, like all prices, had soared just after the war, and the Robinsons could not resist doubling their money. I remember the sense of indignation, the neighborhood talk of banding together to buy the house back. Of course nothing came of it. The neighborhood "changed." More Jewish families moved in. No others would now buy on the Hill. But the change was a gradual process, lasting over a decade, and some of the more rooted and stubborn Hill natives stayed on until they died. Between the old and the new there was little social mingling, although the children soon played together. There was dislike, even latent hostility, but no conflict. The newcomers were extremely law-abiding, even litigious.
Most of the Jews who moved to the Hill were foreign-born, and in the rush before the more restrictive immigration laws they were willing to spend their last dollar to bring in their assorted relatives. We stayed on for six years after the first invasion, and I became used to the sight of full-bearded old men?like the Rabbi Sheshevsky who bought a two-family house not far from us?in long black coats and wide black hats. On summer evenings they sat on their front porches with yarmulkes on their heads, and the old women wore wigs that sometimes peeped askew from beneath their shawls. Shops along Blue Hill Avenue proliferated?meat markets, delicatessens, fish markets, hardware and dry goods stores, shoes, tailoring. There were too many, and some of them failed. The arson rate was high. Near Franklin Park there was the Hebrew School Haschachar, and whenever I walked by on a spring afternoon I could hear the murmur of the scholars' voices like the hum of bees. Only on Friday evenings was the Avenue quiet, empty. The rest of the time it gyrated with an ever-shifting crowd. In front of the shops were pushcarts with flaring kerosene lights, and always on summer evenings the throngs of talking, laughing, gesticulating foreigners, their language as thick as the delicatessen smells. So it all seemed to me; the Avenue a fascination. As I walked back to the Hill on a winter afternoon from skating on Franklin Field, I felt an abounding sense of life pulsing along those crowded sidewalks, a contagious vitality in those rudely pushing shoppers.
The Dorchester kahal became the center of Boston Jewry. In those years before the New Deal, the Jews voted Republican in opposition to the Irish Democrats. By the late thirties the more prosperous Jews were leaving Mattapan and Dorchester. The children and grandchildren of Chelsea peddlers and ragmen, of Blue Hill Avenue tailors and fishmongers and delicatessen proprietors, had through their relentless pursuit of education become lawyers, doctors, professors, financiers, members of all the professions. From the three-deckers and two-family houses of Dorchester they had moved to spacious single homes in Brookline and Newton. There were Jewish sections of those towns, but the kahal itself had vanished.
After World War II Dorchester and the Hill remained undividedly Jewish, but the population was thinning. Those who stayed behind were those who had not made it, the has-beens, the failures, the elderly. Dorchester remained a slightly obnoxious memory. The proud marble bulk of Temple Mishkan Tefila loomed up across from Franklin Park an empty shell, its name and substance having been translated to Newton Center.
Sometimes on a summer evening in the early fifties when I happened to be driving in to Boston from Wellesley, I would park my car near the Martha Baker School, where I had attended the first five grades, then like a revenant walk up the Wellington Footway to the Hill and along the streets with the uneasy familiarity of a dream, past the houses I once knew, the gabled house where I once lived. The Hill's crest line of pignut trees had been replaced by the brick solidity of the Solomon Lewenberg Junior High School. Who he was I had no idea, but then I had never known who Martha Baker was. But I did know that the Lewcnberg School had the highest scholastic standing of any junior high school in the city. On such a lingering summer evening the Hill people sat on their porches, in their minute yards, even on their front steps, calling back and forth in a lighthearted neighborlincss that I, the revenant, found myself wishing I might share, that someone might nod to me as I passed.
In those years when I took the Blue Hill Avenue streetcar daily and transferred at Egleston Square to the El on my way to the old Roxbury Latin School near Dudley Street, the black area of Boston was a static one, extending from the Dover Street to the Northampton Street El stations and stopping there. The "colored" district, everyone called it then, and it stayed within those limits for a generation. That colored world seemed stranger to me than Blue Hill Avenue and more remote. Not for decades should I ever know anyone with a skin darker than my own.
After World War II the Northampton Street barriers gave way. Then, as in so many cities and for much of the same complex of reasons?welfare and otherwise?Boston's black population suddenly expanded, bursting its static boundaries, flowing to Dudley Street and then across Roxbury to Dorchester. A number of old Yankee families had persisted in the large and solid Victorian mansions of the Roxbury Highlands, and the Jewish invasion had flowed round rather than through them. The black tide of the fifties and sixties drove out the Yankee lingerers when they were faced with what they had never encountered with the Jews?violence.
On casual trips to Boston in the sixties I would sometimes drive up Blue Hill Avenue to watch the progress of the black tide. It was easy to spot. For some reason lower class Jewish families never had window curtains but merely shades or Venetian blinds. Where on lower Blue Hill Avenue the windows in the drab brick apartment buildings had been neat though bare, they suddenly became smeared, the blinds twisted askew, the shades torn and stained. Blacks had arrived. One could trace the tide by the condition of the windows. It seemed to move at about half a mile a year. By the time it had covered the down slope from Franklin Park to Franklin Field, though there was still a mile to go, I knew the Hill was about to "change" again.
In the Roxbury-Dorchester riots that followed Martin Luther King's murder, most of the shop windows along Blue Hill Avenue were smashed as far as Franklin Field and even beyond. The boarded-up fronts remained. A few proprietors did reopen because their little shops were all they had. But their customers dwindled away and they found themselves threatened and challenged by young blacks, robbed in their shops, mugged on the street. These tough teen-age gangs soon made the Avenue a street of peril. No longer did flaring lights welcome the customers into the shop interiors. Old men still huddled in the G & G Delicatessen, drinking tea out of glasses and reading Yiddish papers, but each time I dropped in there were fewer of them. The Jewish wave that I had seen crest and break so long ago had receded, leaving only a few pebbles behind. Now the second wave was cresting, always thrusting?more by the accident of geography than anything else?against the retreating Jewish remnant. According to the census, Dorchester Hill had 1,204 residents in I960, of whom ten were black. Ten years later the Hill had become half black. That year, while there was still time, I decided to call at my old house and ask how they felt about their incoming neighbors.
It was a strange feeling to walk up the steps to the long porch. Not for forty-three years had I been in that small gabled house. In 1926 I had walked down those very steps, happy to be quitting what I considered a socially inferior neighborhood, not realizing until years later how much of myself I was leaving behind. As I rang the bell I could see my reflection in the square of plate glass set in the oak front door, even the small hole in the left-hand corner that I had made with a BB-gun.
I was too late. A young woman with a cafe-au-lait complexion opened the door. Awkwardly I explained that I used to live there as a boy. She was very gracious, showed me into the living room furnished in what can best be called Sears-Roebuck Mediterranean?massive carved chests with huge knobs, similarly carved chairs, and a television-stereo to match. Where our bookcase had been was an artificial fireplace with an electric heater behind which a red bulb flickered. A Naugahyde sofa filled the space once taken up by our Hallet & Davis upright piano. The young woman told me she was a nurse. Her husband worked for Boston Edison. They had come from Roxbury because they needed more space for their-child, room for a garden. "We wanted to move into an integrated neighborhood," she said, "but since we moved in a year ago the others have been moving away, a regular stampede. The man next door is white. I asked him if he was going to stay and he said he didn't know. I know though!" I told her about the early days of the Hill, of Holbrook and of the coming of the Jews. Then she asked me if I would care to see the rest of the house. We went through, room by room. I was haunted by memories?the kitchen's phantom Glenwood coal range with its iron scrollwork and nickel trim where I used to toast my feet while memorizing French irregular verbs before leaving for school. Finally we stood in my small room. Her little son, now taking a nap there, with the friendliness of happy children stretched out his arms to me. By the window that overlooked the Canterbury Hills had been my desk where I sat night after night construing my twenty lines of Vergil, stumbling through L'Avare or puzzling over the problems set in Hawkes, Libby & Touton's Revised Algebra. Perhaps, I thought, this small boy perched on the edge of his bed would one day be studying his lessons at the same window with less distaste (I hoped) than I had had for academic learning.
As I drove down the Hill I was aware of a very bustle of remodeling and repairing going on; reshingling, reroofing, painting, modernizing. Plumbing of 1908, old bathtubs, sinks and stoves, were stacked in the yards waiting to be carted off. Even if the Hill was about to turn all black, it was not going to go the way of the apartments on the Avenue. These were people who cared. Three years later I saw another scene. The Hill had indeed turned completely black, but the refurbished houses were falling apart?gaps in the shingles, peeling paint, clogged and rusted gutters, cracks in the foundations, unkempt hedges and overgrown yards, litter, rubbish. Some houses were still neat and cared for. Yet the general tone was one of slovenly deterioration. Our house was among the dreariest, the garage doors torn off, cellar windows gaping, shades ripped down altogether, the porch sagging. A FOR SALE sign announced that it had been taken over by the Federal Housing Administration and gave Blue Hill Avenue "realtor" George Sampson as the agent.
Curious about my old house, I went to Sampson's office. He turned out to be a friendly, soft-spoken man, light brown in color with rosy cheeks that gave his complexion a slightly orange tint. When I told him I merely wanted to inquire about the Hill and my old house, he couldn't have been more helpful. As he explained it to me, after the 1968 riots two dozen banks banded together in the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group?BBURG?and agreed to put up $20 million to help low-income families buy their own homes through federally insured mortgages. The bankers established an arbitrary district in Dorchester, the BBURG line, within which they would write mortgages and outside which they would not. Dorchester Hill was almost within the dead center of that line.
The practical result of BBURG for the Hill and surrounding Dorchester was instant blackness. Blacks could get mortgages only within that area. No one else would think of buying there. For the blockbusting real-estate operators and speculators, BBURG's announcement was a treasure trove. They panicked the remaining Jews into selling their houses at any price, repaired the bought-up buildings hastily and cheaply, and sold them at inflated prices to the incoming blacks from the Roxbury slums, who could take them or nothing. "Many of our people never owned houses before," Sampson told me. "They really didn't know what it meant. They weren't used to budgeting, making regular monthly payments. Most of them weren't handymen and didn't understand much about maintenance, and they paid too much and signed up for what they couldn't afford."
"Have there been many foreclosures?" I asked him.?
?Quite a few. And when anyone's about to have his home foreclosed, he isn't too fussy about keeping it up."
I did not come back to Blue Hill Avenue until the week after Evelyn Wagler's death. Nor did I linger on Dorchester Hill, for the Lewenberg School was letting out shortly and that was dangerous ground then. The school was all black now, tumultuous, its proud standards obliterated. Now, when school let out, the remaining shops on the Avenue closed for an hour. I was not going to risk having my car rocked over with myself in it, as had almost happened to me one earlier afternoon. Yet in my brief Hill transit what had struck me was the aura of fear. Many of the better-kept houses now had protective grillwork on the windows and doors. Others were surrounded by chain-link fences. No longer was it Jewish fear of blacks, but blacks fearing, blacks, men fearing other men.
Later I found the same permeance of fear along the Avenue, almost deserted in the twilight. A few shops huddled behind gratings or even behind the steel shutters that 1 had seen before only in Europe. Only the Brown Jug still kept its doors open at the corner of Morton Street. The stark yellow-brick Morton Street synagogue and school had been abandoned. The Morton Theater had become a club of sorts, the Liberty Theater a warehouse, the Franklin Park Theater at the Avenue's summit the New Fellowship Baptist Church.
Day after day for five years I had taken the Blue Hill Avenue streetcar on my way to Roxbury Latin. From afar I used to look at the elms that overarched the Avenue near the Franklin Park Theater's spire. Always they reminded me of the small framed picture of elm-arched Clovelly that my mother kept in the upper hall. So familiar was Clovclly-Dorchester, four decades removed in time. The present was inexorable. At Franklin Field I noticed that the Talbot Tailors and Cleansers had a sign in the iron-latticed window: BEWARE OF ATTACK DOG. Almost across the street was the Dunkin* Donuts where a man had been stabbed to death a few weeks earlier.
Beyond the park I stopped for a moment opposite the spot where Evelyn Wagler had been cattle-prodded down the alley to her death. The alley was only a few feet wide, fenced in but with a gap large enough to squeeze through. The back area was open to a side street that ran off the Avenue beside the dilapidated green corner house. Someone in that house or the apartment next to it must have heard her screams, must have looked out a window, must have seen. But no one ever came forward to say so. I drove round the block in the now semidarkness. There was the same conjunction I found on the Hill and all over Dorchester: ramshackle houses, empty houses, derelict houses, the yards overgrown with pig and ragweed and ankle-deep in debris; and, in between, houses as well-groomed, with yards as green and tidy, as the most proper "executive" suburb. Except for a few children skipping rope, the only figures I saw were those of young black males anywhere from sixteen to thirty, standing or leaning against doorways or store fronts, eyeing the world, and me in particular, with challenging, hostile glances. I drove round the block twice, and the second time these young men in their slouch hats watched me more narrowly, stabbed out their cigarettes with contempt as I passed, and I could sense their latent threat like a declaration of war. Unemployed, unemployable, they were as scornful of liberal panaceas as they were of me. These, or such as these, could have set Evelyn Wagler afire. What did they want from life? Unformed, consumed by an anger as vicious as it was undefined, I don't suppose they knew themselves. Their satisfaction was that they brought fear with them.
For the last time I drove back along the Avenue, down the long slope from Franklin Park. Great Blue Hill lay directly ahead on the horizon, the nipple of the weather observatory on its summit outlined against the gray sky. Just as I used to notice from the streetcar in my schooldays, Blue Hill seemed to recede into a kind of infinity as one moved downhill toward it. Blue Hill Avenue itself was empty, a scarecrow boulevard, like an artery drained of blood. I could see a planet over the dark hulk of the Lewenberg School, Venus or Jupiter I wasn't sure which. I knew then that, when everyone else had forgotten her, I should not forget Evelyn Wagler. I knew that I should not come that way again.
The End of Mattapan Macky
We started out together in the Mattapan section of Dorchhester, in the now boarded-up Martha Baker School. His name was really Tilly, but I always think of him by his nickname, Macky, though he never attained the insouciant bravado of Gay's Captain Macheath. I doubt if the Anglo-Norman label under which I first knew him in kindergarten had been in his family long. By itself the name was as old as American history. A signer of the Mayflower Compact was a Tilly, as was a captain tortured and murdered by the Pequots in King Philip's War. Consonant with its Norman roots, it is borne by one of the recurring characters in the Comedie Humaine.
Macky had a swarthy complexion and off-blond hair, a contrast one sometimes finds in gypsies. I suspect his ancestors were Sicilians, although I never thought about his origins when I knew him. In his adult years all his associates were Italians, extending to the local heads of what would later be known as Cosa Nostra. In 1975 he was killed in a car crash near the Morton Street railroad bridge in Mattapan at two in the morning, ironically enough almost in front of the police station where he had first been arrested as a juvenile and only a few hundred yards from the three-decker where he had lived as a boy. "It was a straight accident,'' the police captain told me when I talked with him. "Nothing like you're thinking. No gang stuff. That's just a bad corner by the bridge. He was going seventy, swung over to the left and another car clipped him. You see the notice in the Globel" The cap?tain shifted his cigar and the whites of his eyes popped. '" 'Tilly was engaged for several years in the contracting business in Brighton." He sure was!
I dropped in on Macky's wake at the Danny O'Connell Funeral Home. Until quite recently Danny (the Liberator) considered tuxedos de rigueur for translating his clients. But in these less formal times I found Macky laid out in a white suit, striped shirt and purple flowered tie, as if he were ready to take the next plan for Miami. Three feet above his nose a rhinestone-studded cross sparkled in the beams of a concealed ceiling light, and his hands clutched a jet-and-silver rosary. A crash at seventy miles an hour must have given Danny a lot of reconstruction work. But he was up to it, even to the obligatory smile, though I could find no trace of my old schoolmate in those patched, waxy features. R>r a Cosa Nostra finger-man the floral decorations were muted, although the ailing chief, Raymond Patriarca, had sent a six-foot set piece of white and yellow roses wired to resemble the open pages of a book and inscribed with red carnations: THE BIBLE. I paid my anonymous respects to Macky's wife, either his fourth or his fifth.
Thinking of Macky primped in his satin-lined coffin, my mind goes back over the years to Miss Lowe's kindergarten class, for some reason I go to the dressing room, Miss Lowe is already there. She is gentle; the only teacher I ever liked at the Baker school. Only this morning she is not gentle. She is holding Macky and shaking him, and he is howling. As she shakes, crayons, blocks, a ringtoss, pencils, three lead soldiers and other kindergarten objects fall in driblets from his rompers. I am only four, but I know Macky has been stealing. I am too appalled to speak. For the first time I have seen a thief.
At that time we were living on the top of Dorchester Hill in Mattapan. Macky and his brother Joe lived below the far side of the Hill on the second floor of a Morton Street three-decker. Even in kindergarten there was a quality about him that made me afraid, something that went beyond the physical fear that I and the other Hill children felt for the Mulvey Street Gang in the Hollow by the cemetery. His husky child's voice already had overtones of menace, as if he were practicing "Stand and Deliver." I have a group photograph of our Martha Baker first grade. Macky sits in the front row in the spring sunshine, slightly scowling but impassive, as if he had already learned to give away nothing of himself. His hair is cut with bangs across his forehead in a kind of bob that covers his ears, a style then known as a Dutch clip. Lower-class boys then, often to the age of six or seven, had Dutch clips, although the style was on its way out. Of our twenty-two boys, only five still wore their hair that way. Macky is wearing a kind of romper suit instead of the knickerbockers that most of the other boys are wear?ing. I think the sinister effect derives from his eyes, feline and singularly sallow against the swarthiness of his complexion.
Macky's mother never came to school. That was not unusual. Hill mothers sometimes did. Morton and Mulvey Street mothers did not. But there was something strange about Macky's father. He was never seen coming home from work like other fathers. In fact most of the time he was never seen at all. Then when after a long interval he did appear, his hair was always close-cropped. A "prison clip" someone more knowing than myself whispered. Macky and his brother Joe con?tinued to steal all through the Martha Baker's three grades. And on their way home over the Hill they would snatch up whatever they came across: tricycles, express wagons, even dolls. Afterward they would deny so glibly and tearfully that they had taken anything, that grown-ups believed them?or at least felt uncertain.
I remember a day in the third grade just as we were leaving at noon when Miss Sykes caught Macky rifling her purse, which she kept in her desk drawer. Miss Sykes, the stern headmistress, was not at all hesi?tant about laying hands on a wayward child?as was common enough for a teacher at that time. Macky squealed like a rabbit as she came up behind him and grabbed him. He struggled and bit her hand. She took him by the scruff of the neck and hoicked him out the front door. "Don't come back without your mother," she told him. He stood on the brick walk, defiant, his pallid eyes flashing. Suddenly he began to shout at her, a flood of Anglo-Saxon monosyllables that I had ab?sorbed at a distance from the Mulvey Gang, that I understood vaguely and that I also knew must never be used in the presence of a grown?up. Yet here was Macky shouting all of them at Miss Sykes. Having always thought of her authority as absolute, I expected her to strike him down. To my astonishment she did nothing at all, merely stood in the doorway and repeated very quietly: "Don't come back without your mother." Then, noticing me, she said almost gently: "You go home, Francis.'' As I walked up the concrete footway to the Hill I could still hear Macky shouting the unmentionable words.
The memory is like a few feet of old film run through a projector. What happened after that, whether Macky's mother came to the school, whether Macky even had a mother, how he was punished, I do not know. I have another segment of mental film from that same year: Macky scuttling down the street chased by the fat man in the white apron who ran the corner Greek store that sold college ices and banana splits and Paige & Shaw chocolates. My last school memory of Macky runs several years later when I was in the third or fourth grade. 1 had made myself a kite shaped like a five-pointed star from a diagram I had found in The Boy Mechanics Handbook and had taken it one spring afternoon to try it out for the first time from the top of the Hill near the old white oak. There wasn't enough wind that afternoon for me to get my kite off the ground. As I struggled with it, Macky and Joe came along, watched me for a moment, and then with disarming friendliness offered to help, "I'll hold your kite here," Macky told me, "and you run with the string." I was always rather guileless, even with boys like Macky. He held the kite above his head, and I turned and ran. I had the merest glimpse of its star shape as it began to climb into the April sky. What I did not notice was that Joe had taken out a jackknife and cut the string. I ran for about thirty feet without ever feeling the kite pull. Then as I turned I saw Macky and Joe trotting over the crest of the hill, my star kite bobbing along behind them on the end of its abbreviated string.
Since that spring afternoon I never saw Macky again until the spring of 1971. After the three grades of the Martha Baker School he moved on to the Roger Wolcott School across from the Morton Street bridge while I was shifted to the Edmund Tileston School near Mattapan Square. School-leaving age was then only twelve, and I think Macky left on his twelfth birthday or sooner. According to a recent Massa?chusetts commissioner of correction there are no criminals, merely vic?tims of a hostile environment. One should then, I suppose, be sorry for Macky, should grant that anyone brought up from kindergarten on as a sneak-thief was bound to be a criminal, should be angry rather against Miss Lowe and Miss Sykes for not having managed to shape him differently. Yet, even as I looked down on what was left of him in his coffin, I could not feel pity. Something of my child's fear of that small figure in the Dutch clip with the pallid hazel eyes still lingered. Perhaps it was this old fear, this child's uneasiness, that induced me to follow his career over the years, at least as it appeared in the papers. It was spectacular enough?robberies, holdups, an armored car hijacked with a machine gun, a Macheath-like trail of females. Yet, since he never had a legal occupation and since the papers record only his failures and missteps, most of his history is like the submerged nine-tenths of an iceberg.
His juvenile record is not available, but I know he was caught several times breaking and entering, shoplifting and purse-snatching, that he worked for a while as a delivery boy for a bootlegger, and that after stealing a car in Roxbury he ended up in the Lyman School, a reform school for boys near Framingham. His adult record begins at almost the earliest possible date, three weeks after his seventeenth birthday, with indExp 1/10 Pr? 'Indecent Exposure-Probation." Obviously the police had long had their eye on him, for his record continues month after month with petty to trivial offenses, mostly motor vehicle viola?tions: not slowing down at an intersection, speeding, operating to en?danger the lives of the public, and so on. When he was eighteen he was convicted of stealing a car and was given a suspended sentence. That same year he also received suspended sentences for assault and battery and for drunkenness.
In 1930, for the fust time since his Lyman School days, he ended up behind bars, sentenced to a year in the house of correction for rob?bing a store. However, after an appeal the case was placed on file and Macky released. He must have been then about twenty. Beyond minor violations, all placed on file, I do not know what he did for the next three years. He now lived in Roxbury, was married, but never seemed to appear twice in public with the same woman. In 1933 he made the headlines for the first time when he and Joe and two others with Italian names were indicted for the machine-gun holdup of a mail truck in the North Station in which about $100,000 had been stolen. A jury in Suffolk County, where juries have a long reputation for broad-mindedness, found him not guilty. That same year he was charged with snatching a bag containing $50,000 worth of diamonds from an out-of-town jewelry salesman in the Back Bay Station, but again a jury failed to convict him. Later in the year the police of Portland, Maine, caught him robbing a jewelry store on Congress Street. Since there is nothing about this in his record, I presume it never got to court. The next year he and Joe were in court charged with holding up the Glenwood Coal Company in Charlestown, but Macky managed to "prove" that he had been in New Hampshire on that day. In 1935 he was caught breaking into a bank in suburban Melrose and this time was given two years in the house of correction, some months of which he actually served before being parolled. Once outside he joined Patriarca, then in his Cosa Nostra salad days. Together they held up the Robin Hood Shirt Company in New Bedford. But this time something went wrong. They were both arrested, convicted and sentenced to three to five years in state prison. After eighty-four days Patriarca was released, chiefly on the grounds that he had been good to his aged mother. After loud protest by the Bar Association, Governor "Chowderhead" Hurley ex?cused himself by saying he had signed the pardon inadvertently. Coakley had put it on his desk. But the protest was hard on Macky. He had to sit in state prison for almost two years?his longest stretch?until he was parolled. But before his trial, while he was still out on bail, he was identified as one of two men who robbed a jewelry store in Newton, forcing the proprietor at pistolpoint to open his safe, and then after cutting the telephone wires making off with $20,000 in goods and the proprietor's car. For some reason the case was placed on file.
A few months after his second parole he was picked up with burglar tools and a revolver, and though the case was filed, he was returned to state prison for violation of parole. I happened to know the com?missioner of correction who personally drove him back. "Quite agreeable," the commissioner told me. "Not the type one imagines? though professional criminals often are not." A year later Macky was let out on a good conduct release. During that time his third?or possibly his fourth?wife divorced him in the grounds of his being a habitual criminal.
It was after Macky's second release from state prison that the good years began for him. Whatever he was doing, his invisible means of support came from outside Massachusetts. Within the state he con?ducted himself circumspectly. True, at the beginning he did have a little further difficulty about burglar's tools found in his car, but the judge was again understanding and placed the case on file. Macky even managed for once to go legitimate, getting a liquor license for a store in Brighton. He drove a white Cadillac convertible and acquired a new ukrablonde wife who looked like a model. Up until then he had always lived on obscure semislum streets in Roxbury and Dorchester. But now, as if for his blonde's sake, he bought the Concannon house at the top of Mount Vernon Street in suburban West Roxbury.
Before World War I Mike Concannon, a Protestant Irishman, had set up a tool shop in the back of his house in Roslindale where he manufactured artificial arms and legs. The casualties of the war had enlarged his shop to a factory and made him a prosthetics expert as well as a rich man. After the war he had gone to England on his arms-and-legs business and with his wife had visited the Cotswolds, becoming possessed by the stone houses of Broadway and Chipping Camden and Stow-on-the-Wold. When he got back to Roslindale he determiend to build a Cotswold house in neighboring and wealthier West Rox-bury. He enlisted a competent traditional architect and spared no ex?pense. Unlike the so-called English-style houses of brick with fake half-timbering, round towers and gumwood interiors, his house was authen?tic. From its rough-cut stone exterior to its walnut-panelled living room-library it followed the Cotswold design, not only in proportion but?as imitations rarely do?in atmosphere. It was a beautiful house. Of course it looked absurd on woodcnly suburban Mount Vernon Street, even on a double lot. Mike Concannon died a month after moving in, and his widow left for St. Petersburg. My Aunt Dorothy, who lived three streets away, gave me the neighborhood gossip after the house was sold. "Someone named Tilly has bought that Concannon house," she told me. "I don't know what he does, but they seem like nice quiet people. They've built a swimming pool and they have cookouts for all the neighbors. The wife is quite striking looking, very blonde; I think she's younger than he is."
"Do they call him Macky?" I asked her.
"As a matter of fact they do. Why?"
"Oh, nothing," I said, thinking that they could find out for themselves.
They found out several months later when four masked men, using tear gas, held up the Harvard Cooperative Society in Harvard Square. Just as they were bolting for the door with their loot, one of them lost his mask. The face underneath was Macky's. This time the case against him seemed clear-cut. Nevertheless a jury failed to agree, and he was again turned loose. Not long afterward he was arrested in Boston for having stolen some $160,000 worth of jewelry from a Denver, Col?orado, art gallery. He had flown back the day of the theft and tried to establish an alibi by talking publicly to police and various banenders that evening. But the police found some of the jewelry in his bedroom, and the next day his lawyer turned over the rest without comment. The lawyer was a former Massachusetts legislator known at the State House as "the Skull," a bald, cavernous man with a skin of yellowed parchment stretched tightly over a face that, but for its appraising eyes, looked like a death's head. The Skull flew to Denver with the extraditedMacky and managed to get him acquitted there on the grounds that the grand jury indicting him had been illegally empanelled. Macky arrived back in Boston "with a big grin on his face" according to the Record-American. Acquittal it might be, but it finished him in West Roxbury. No one on Mount Vernon Street would sit beside his swim?ming pool or"go to his cookouts. Finally the blonde disappeared. A few weeks later there was a FOR SALE sign on the front grass. That same year Macky paid a seventy-five-dollar fine for registering bets. A year later he was arrested in Brookline for "open and gross lewdness" on the complaint of two eighteen-year-old girls who said he had pulled up beside them in his car, exposed himself and then attempted to molest them. For this he received two months in the house of correc?tion. He did not appeal. "There's something fishy here," a Boston criminal lawyer told me when I mentioned my old schoolmate's latest caper. "Macky's not the type to go picking up high school girls in the park that way. He's got all the stuff he needs down in the North End. Either he was framed or else?and this is what I think?he wants to be locked up for a couple of months for his own safety." Whatever the reason, Macky left the house of correction after serving his time and, for all I know, disappeared for the next five years.
Then in August 1970 three men with machine guns held up the driver of a truck about to deliver a $68,000 payroll to the Chelsea Naval Hospital just north of Boston. A month before, Macky had been ar?rested for "breaking and entering with intent to commit larceny." What he intended and where I do not know, having only the hieroglypic of his record: B&E Dt w/iCom tare 82. It was while he was out on bail that the Naval Hospital delivery holdup occurred. For the break?ing and entering he was given two years. After he had begun his term at the Norfolk State Prison Colony, an old-time convict named "Buzz" Daly?rumored to have been connected earlier with the Brinks robbery?confessed that he and Macky and one of the Angiulo brothers had held up the Naval Hospital truck. Then, prudently, he asked to be placed in protective custody. Macky was taken from Norfolk to stand trial with Angiulo, a local lieutenant of Patriarca's.
On an impulse I spent an afternoon at Macky's trial, held in the federal courtroom on the fifteenth floor of Boston's Post Orifice Building. The legal cliche" that a man is innocent until proven guilty scarcely applied to Macky. For him the reverse would have been more nearly true. The ratio of what he had done to what he had been caught doing was probably about ten to one. It would be most unlikely that he would ever appear in court charged with what he had not done.
The trial was not one to arouse much public interest. Indeed after the first day it was not even reported in the Boston papers. When I arrived the courtroom was only about a third full, the usual collection of hangers-on: the idle, the dubious, the involved. Looking around the room I thought of Dickens characters that often seem such an ex?aggeration of life. Perhaps they weren't after all. For even if a Zola had written of those I saw in the courtroom, from the judge to the deputy sheriffs to the spectators, describing them with cold naturalism, they would have seemed as wildly exaggerated as anything in Pickwick Papers. The judge himself, peering over his half-spectacles, grinning a detached monkeyish grin, was perplexingly familiar. I had seen him before. But where? Then I remembered. I had seen that face many times during the war in the London Daily Express's Giles cartoons. At my right the defense lawyer, the Skull, shuffled through his papers while chewing gum with spasmodic clicks, his skin like yellowed par?chment, gorilla eyes sunk in a wrinkled head. To the left I noticed an intent brass-bed blonde with bouffant hair, wondered if she could be one of Macky's doxies. But Macky and Angiulo I could not spot at all. With Patriarca presently in prison, the Angiulos were said to be running Cosa Nostra in New England. If it was so, I wondered why this Angiulo would be directly involved in a holdup instead of leav?ing it to underlings. Still, Patriarca and Macky had been hunting partners.
When I reached the courtroom, the state's key witness, Buzz Daly, was already on the stand testifying that he had received the holdup money from Macky and had handed it over to Angiulo. The Skull, looking more than ever like death warmed up, cross-examined him, tracing back Daly's long record of assault and battery, holdups, muggings, brawls, robberies. Daly, a heavy, broken-nosed man in his sixties, could have been a punch-drunk ex-prizefighter. That face was not one I should have cared to meet coming down a dark empty street. Yet he stuck to his story, while die Skull clicked his dentures and sparred with him. At first I could not locate Macky. Defendants are harder to spot in court than in the unenlightened days when they sat in the dock. Such an enclosure has come to be considered prejudicial to the defendants, demeaning them in the eyes of the jury. Now they sit in ordinary chairs and it is difficult to tell them from lawyers, at leastit was for me where I was sitting. I asked a sheriffs deputy, a bleary-eyed man with crude, fat features, which one was Macky. "Dunno, dunno!" he said in obvious irritation at my question. Later I would see him leading Macky from the courtroom down the corridor, pals together.
At a short recess I managed to find out that the defendants were sitting in three leather chairs in front of the brass railing. I did not know the name of the third defendant, but he looked a cruder variety of Naples pimp, a man in his thirties with yellow, apelike teeth, wavy hair, long nose, padded shoulders and fists that seemed designed for knuckle-dusters. Angiulo, second in line behind his dark glasses, had the withdrawn Mafia air. Then, after over half a century, I saw Macky again. In his rogues'-gallery mug shots, taken in his thirties and for?ties, the Martha Baker Macky, his pallid cat's eyes glittering beneath the Dutch-clip bangs, was still recognizable. But with another twenty years added on, I should not have known him. For one thing he was short, a full head shorter than I, though in our schooldays he had been taller. At sixty he looked a plump sixty-five. His receding hair was greased and brushed back, and he had grown wispy sideburns. Nor did his complexion seem as swarthy as I remembered. His eyes, masked by heavy tortoise-shell bifocals, were no longer to be defined; his oval head ended in a singularly long jaw. He was nattily dressed, though in the style of several years back?narrow lapels, narrow tie, pointed shoes. An initialed handkerchief peeped from his breast pocket. One would not have said that he was Italian, or that he was not Italian, but unlike Daly he looked mild. I could imagine him kiting checks or stealing credit cards, but hardly slugging a jewelry salesman in an alley or holding a submachine gun barrel against a payroll guard or tossing a smoke bomb into the Harvard Coop. Age too?at sixty? was taking its toll, apparent in the slackness of his torso, the hunch of his shoulders. Another decade would see him an old man. He glanced at me once or twice through his bifocals with unseeing eyes, and I wondered if he could still remember running over the hill with his brother, trailing my star kite behind him. Unlikely. Probably he had even forgotten my name.
To me Daly was convincing. Apparently he failed to convince the jury, for two days later I read that Macky had been found not guilty and that before the jury went out the judge had freed Angiulo for lack of evidence. That afternoon was the last time I ever saw Macky alive. How much he served of his remaining Norfolk sentence is not on record, though to judge by his earlier history no great part of it. I have his record only through 1968. His last six years are to me a blank. But that incomplete record is spectacular enough in all the intricacy of its legal code numbers: Occupation; salesman, chauffeur. Aliases; 9. Wives; 4. Court entries from January 1927 to September 1968; 56. Time served; a handful of months
I think of Macky in his coffin under the rhinestone crucifix. Perhaps he was a victim of his early environment, shaped by family and cir?cumstance to be a criminal. Perhaps it was in his genes. I do not know. I merely see a star kite with an awkwardly knotted tail mounting up into a cloudless April sky over the crest of Dorchester Hill, then drop?ping down, disappearing from sight forever.
Francis Russell, 79, a Historian And a Harding Biographer, Dies
By ALBIN KREBS
Published: March 22, 1989
LEAD: Francis Russell, a historian and prolific writer whose publication in 1968 of a biography of Warren G. Harding became a cause celebre when relatives of the former President succeeded in preventing Mr. Russell from printing some of Harding's love letters, died of a heart attack yesterday in Falmouth (Mass.) Hospital, on Cape Cod.
Francis Russell, a historian and prolific writer whose publication in 1968 of a biography of Warren G. Harding became a cause celebre when relatives of the former President succeeded in preventing Mr. Russell from printing some of Harding's love letters, died of a heart attack yesterday in Falmouth (Mass.) Hospital, on Cape Cod. He was 79 years old and lived in Sandwich, Mass.
In addition to the controversy over the Harding biography, ''The Shadow of Blooming Grove,'' Mr. Russell was embroiled over a quarter of a century in arguments with other historians over his contention that he had solved the Sacco-Vanzetti case. His first book about the case, ''Tragedy in Dedham,'' was published in 1962.
The Writer's Conclusion
In 1986 he summed up his findings in another book called ''Sacco & Vanzetti: The Case Resolved.'' He wrote that of the two anarchists involved in a holdup in Braintree, Mass., in which two men were murdered, only Nicola Sacco was guilty and Bartholomew Vanzetti was innocent.
Francis Russell was born in Boston on Jan. 12, 1910. He was a graduate of Bowdoin College and received a master's degree from Harvard in 1937.
Mr. Russell wrote articles for several magazines in the United States and abroad, before joining the Canadian Army in 1941. He was discharged as a captain in 1946 and published his first book, ''Three Studies in 20th Century Obscurity,'' in 1954.
Over the years, Mr. Russell turned out a steady string of books, marked by careful historical research combined with a distinctive and entertaining narrative style. These volumes included ''The American Heritage Book of the Pioneer'' (1961), ''Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill'' (1963), ''The Making of the Nation'' (1968), ''Forty Years Ago'' (1970), ''A City in Terror'' (1975), ''The President Makers from Mark Hanna to Joseph P. Kennedy'' (1976), ''The Secret War'' (1981) and ''The Knave of Boston'' (1987). A Cache of Love Letters
In the early 1960's, when Mr. Russell was living in Ohio and working on a magazine article and a biography of Harding, he was given access to more than 250 letters written by Harding to Carrie Phillips, the wife of James Phillips, a department store owner in Marion, Ohio.
He realized upon reading the letters, many of them ardent, that they gave conclusive proof that Harding had affairs with not one, but two married women while he was President. Many years before, Nan Britton had published a book maintaining she had been Harding's mistress from 1916 to 1922 and had borne him a son.
Mr. Russell used the letters in his magazine article and in his Harding biography, ''The Shadow of Blooming Grove,'' a reference to Harding's birthplace in Ohio.
A Harding Nephew Sues
In 1964 Dr. George T. Harding 3d, a nephew of the deceased President, sued, contending that portions of the letters already published had embarrassed Mr. Harding's descendants and would continue to do so. He won a court order forbidding Mr. Russell to use the letters, and when the book was published in 1968, blank spaces appeared in portions intended to be quotes from the letters.
Mr. Russell is survived by his wife, the former Rosalind Lawson, and by a daughter from a previous marriage, Sara Russell, of Hyde Park, Mass. A funeral service is to be held tomorrow at 11 A.M. at All Saints Church in Dorchester, Mass.
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Created: September 14, 2003 Modified: January 13, 2008