December 22, 1957. A powerfully built longshoreman walks home into the cold, his hands jammed in the pockets of his leather jacket, his shoulders hunched. Union rules allow a two-hour knockoff for supper, and home is in the close-knit Irish neighborhood of South Boston. He turns left onto East Fifth Street, where Christmas-lit windows cast his aquiline features in hues of red and green. It’s Sunday, and that means roast beef at 6:00 with his mother and his sister’s family. He can hear their laughter as he trots up the front steps. When he stands in the doorway, he fills it.
After supper, his nieces and nephews scramble upstairs to watch television, and the adults sip coffee around the kitchen table. Eileen, 13, is off with friends to the Strand Theater on East Broadway and urges him to walk with them. He good-naturedly declines in favor of the evening edition.
It’s about 6:35 when he slips his jacket on and kisses his mother good-bye. He’s due back at 7:00 for the half-night shift at the Boston Army Base. It’s a 15-minute walk. As he passes the Hawes Cemetery, about 50 yards from his front steps, a sedan rumbles toward him from behind. It jerks to a stop, and a man steps out of the passenger side and calls out, “Tommy! Over here!”
He turns around to see the face of his killer in a flash of light. Five shots from a .38 Special are fired in succession as his guard instinctively goes up. Where he stands, he falls. Shoes click-clack over to where he lies, faceup on the pavement, his spirit leaving. Two more shots are fired into his head. Elderly faces peek from behind curtains, and the sedan douses its headlights and roars toward L Street in the same direction that he intended to go, toward the Boston waterfront.
Neighbors spill out of houses. Someone says, “It’s Tommy Sullivan, the fighter,” as Eileen’s father forces a path through the crowd and nearly collapses at the sight. A badly shaken old man says, “God will get his killers.” Sirens split the night.
A priest from nearby Gate of Heaven Church takes hold of his hand and administers the last rites while men and women weep. A photographer snaps pictures of his body, of the crowd. One of the pictures shows children staring this way and that as the closest thing to Superman they know lies dead in the gutter: his feet still on the sidewalk, his arms outstretched.
Ten years earlier, Tommy Sullivan was a local light heavyweight sensation known for his almost mythical physical strength and a hard-charging, teeth-clenching, just-try-and-stop-me fighting style. Often heard hollering, “Come on, come on!” at his opponent, he told the Boston Globe that he loved a good fight. “My mother and father tell me to win in a hurry. ‘Don’t fool around,’ says my dad. ‘Get it over with.’ ”
Sullivan was born in working-class South Boston under the long shadow of the Church. According to the books at Gate of Heaven Church on East Fourth Street—where he would be baptized, receive First Communion, and be confirmed—he was born on July 9, 1919, to Eugene and Mary Sullivan. His was the pre–Vatican II Catholicism in the “or else” tradition, where the cardinal virtues were memorized by rote and enforced by the rod, but didn’t always stick.
James “Whitey” Bulger, who attended parochial school in nearby Dorchester, knew him as “Sully,” as did author Jim Lynch, now living in Braintree. “I never heard him swear, and he didn’t take Christ’s name in vain,” Lynch said. Native John Swenson recalls a shadowy South Boston, where kids who broke streetlamps ended up with broken arms, and a murder witness whose conscience wouldn’t let him clam up was shot in Kiley’s Tavern, where cops put thieves in wheelchairs and the honest among them were transferred out of Station 6. “It was a place of secrets,” Swenson told me. A place of violence. A place, perhaps, of misguided codes. Sullivan, he said, “was different.”
He abstained not only from smoking and drinking but also from cursing, and he avoided the temptations of the flesh. “If you go with a girl, you should get married,” he told the Globe. He was never seen on a date, never got married, and never had an address other than 660 East Fifth Street.
In December 1946, his undefeated record was spoiled by Al “Red” Priest, a top-ten middleweight out of Cambridge. In a main event that set a gate record at Boston Garden, Priest made the mistake of going blow for blow with Sullivan in the seventh round, and hung on for dear life when Sullivan’s punches fell on him, around him, and on the referee after the bell. “It was a waterfront brawl,” said a reporter for the Boston Daily Record.
Could Tommy Sullivan have been another Billy Conn? Could he have been a contender? Not likely. The loss to Priest was repeated ten months later, and the truth came with it. He didn’t have the class to become anything more than what he was. In 1949, he told his trainer that he wouldn’t let himself be reduced to a punching bag, and he retired.
He headed up to the waterfront, a longshoreman’s card in his pocket.
Boston’s waterfront in the 1950s was not much different from New York’s. It was like South Boston itself, a closed society with its own hierarchy, customs, rules, and means of enforcement. Outsiders, whether journalists or cops, were met with a code of silence as impenetrable as La Cosa Nostra’s omertà. If a question wasn’t about the weather, then “D ’n’ D” (“deaf and dumb”) was the expectation. Having problems? Getting pushed around? Deal with it like a man, not a pigeon. Calling the cops was considered effeminate or worse.
Encouraged by the code of silence and a hiring system that made cronyism and kickbacks easy and encouraged also by the fact that many longshoremen were ex-convicts and washed-up fighters comfortable around shady types, organized-crime factions would target union locals. Their objective was to take them over, and a gun in a face or two was usually all it took. To keep the workers in line, they actively recruited “knockdown men” from prisons. These men were handed International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) membership cards and didn’t have much to do until heads had to be busted. The transmogrified “blackjack” or “trigger” local would cease to operate on behalf of legitimate union members, devolving instead into something of a devil’s bank, where regular deposits had to be made for the privilege of working and staying healthy.
Loan sharks would appear, offering front money on paychecks that hadn’t come yet. Turning down the offer could mean no work; accepting it meant extortionate interest. Then there were the bookies. Dockworkers in debt and desperate for a way out didn’t have to go far to place a bet or play the numbers. In fact, they were expected to, just as they were expected to take loans.
After a local was taken over, honest men got caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Complaining invited unemployment. Speaking out against those in charge brought in pipe-swinging goon squads. Threatening those in charge by fighting back or exposing the truth meant death.
This was how it happened on the New York waterfront in the 1930s and 1940s. In the early 1950s, it started happening on the Boston waterfront. Most of what we know about it is found between the lines on the shipping pages of old newspapers and by word of mouth. Like a ship gradually emerging out of the mist, images of Boston longshoremen fending off thugs on the piers emerge out of the past. And the thugs might as well have been wearing Yankee pinstripes.
In 1948, the New York Sun began running Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning series about crime on the New York harbor. It forced authorities to take a closer look at mob influence in the ILA and provided the impetus for Budd Schulberg’s Oscar-winning screenplay On the Waterfront. Criminal organizations, including the faction led by the murderous Albert Anastasia and “Tough” Tony Anastasio, were wincing in the Sun’s spotlight and had plenty of motivation to expand into new territory. In fact, Anastasia’s name was whispered along the Boston waterfront, though it wasn’t exactly feared. “As New Yorkers have come to discover,” wrote Brian Mahoney in South Boston Today, “Bostonians are not really impressed with New York.”
In December 1951, longshoremen at the army base refused to cross a picket line in front of the Steel Flyer, a freighter at port. Things heated up, and the bosses tried to force them to unload the freighter, but to no avail; the men were too headstrong and their neighborhood bonds too tight. So goon squads were sent into South Boston with names and addresses. One longshoreman was rustled out of his home on M Street, pistol-whipped, and thrown into a sedan. He was found behind the Fargo building on D Street, badly injured. Bill “Windy” Mahoney lived on West Third Street and was one of the more outspoken leaders. He was felled in his first-floor hallway by five men with clubs. His eldest son rushed down the stairs, swinging a broom; his youngest, Brian Mahoney, was in a baby carriage then and keeps the story alive now. The downstairs neighbor heard the commotion and climbed out a window to rally the neighborhood. “The Kileys, Currans, Mullens, and Conleys” came running, Mahoney says, and soon “filled the front doorway.” One of the invaders pulled out a gun and shot it into the air to force an escape.
From his offices in Manhattan, ILA president Joe Ryan denied that a New York waterfront faction had hired the goons “to keep the Boston boys in line.” Given his well-documented corruption and ties to several New York waterfront factions, his denial reads like substantiation. Even so, anyone who knows anything about the Puritan City would have understood that “Boston boys” are notoriously difficult to “keep in line,” especially when it comes to what they perceive as an invading force. Pocket revolutions seem to be the go-to response, whether it’s Breed’s Hill or busing.
When word spread that two of their own had been assaulted, 1,500 longshoremen staged a wildcat walkout on the docks. What began as a refusal to unload one ship became no ships unloaded or loaded. That’s the Boston way. Business leaders, wrote Jerome Ford to the Globe, “should be grateful to the Boston longshoremen for their firm stand against all attempts to make the Boston waterfront a gangsterized ‘little old New York.’ ”
The city had its sellouts. Among the local thugs who threw in with New York was Charlestown’s Edward “Punchy” McLaughlin. Like Sullivan, McLaughlin was an ex-prizefighter; unlike Sullivan, he was without promise. His occupation is listed in his police record as “union delegate,” which is accurate only so far as emanations from penumbras. Speaking plainly, he provided muscle on the docks for his more savvy younger brothers.
“The McLaughlins were a crew, not organized crime, not much more than barroom brawlers,” said Mickey Finn, who has been tied into the streets of Boston for decades. “They did work for New York.” They were also known for carrying rolled-up newspapers with sash weights or railroad spikes inside to crack skulls. Brian Mahoney says that it was Punchy who led the squad that attacked Mahoney and that it was Punchy who fired the gun and led the squad’s retreat.
Sullivan’s presence can be sensed, but his role was yet unclear. Jim Lynch worked on the Boston docks for 16 years. “I met him many times. With his build, he was hard to miss!” he said. Sullivan didn’t work in the hole but was routinely hired as a lander by stevedores Tom Logan and Joe Humphries on the Black Diamond Line at the Boston Army Base. Lynch explained that it was a soft job; Sullivan operated a tractor to hoist loads off ships and onto the dock, barely breaking a sweat.
It made me think of Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, stretched out in the loft reading a girlie magazine. I wondered if Sullivan had gotten mixed up with the mob, the way Malloy did. Something else came to mind as well. One of the characters in Lynch’s latest book, The Longshoremen, is “Tommy Ashland,” an ex-boxer turned leg-breaker.
“That character wasn’t based on Sully, no,” Lynch said when I asked. Sullivan knew his fair share of old-time bootleggers and bookies, like Stevie Wallace—but then, who didn’t? As for the soft job, Lynch said that it was no red flag; ex-pugs were respected wherever tin cups of coffee were laced with testosterone.
“Did you ever hear a rumor that he was involved in the rackets?” I asked.
“Never,” Lynch said. “He was known as a clean-living man.”
“I can’t stand to see little guys and old guys get pushed around,” Sullivan said one night in 1952 at Jimmy O’Keefe’s Restaurant. “So now I’m not very popular with some people on the waterfront and I know it.” Less than an hour later, Punchy McLaughlin came up behind him with a newspaper-wrapped bolt and cracked him on the skull. Down went Sullivan. McLaughlin must have felt pretty good about himself as he walked out onto Boylston Street. But Sullivan had fought tougher men and never went down without getting right back up. Up he got and out he charged, his head streaming blood, straight for McLaughlin.
McLaughlin was beaten senseless. One account said that he rolled under a parked car for safety, and Sullivan lifted the car to get a tire on the curb and dragged him out by his leg. The Boston Tribune said that he “lifted McLaughlin off the ground and hurled him over the hood of a parked car.” Mickey Finn told me that guys were still laughing years after they saw McLaughlin’s legs dangling as Sullivan lifted him up by his lapels and slammed him on the hood of the car. Two eyewitnesses said that Sullivan then spread McLaughlin’s legs and said, “I’m gonna make sure there’s no more of your kind coming into the world” and threw a whistling uppercut that sank into his crotch. McLaughlin’s scream was heard six blocks way. That may not have been the worst of it. One of them had part of an ear torn off. Most accounts say that it was Sullivan’s, but the physical description in McLaughlin’s police record says otherwise: “top of left ear missing.”
After that, those who wanted Sullivan out of the way figured fighting him one-on-one wasn’t fair and three-on-one was. A goon squad swept into South Boston, but Sullivan beat the blazes out of the three of them after they had attacked an elderly bookmaker.
He was drinking by then. “A lot,” said Finn. “Whiskey.” And the fighting became more frequent and the reasons perhaps less noble. Fellow longshoreman Steve O’Neil was his best friend. The two of them fought a memorable one for reasons long lost at bottle’s bottom. O’Neil said that the 200-pound Sullivan was “the toughest man who ever lived.” But he was getting reckless. One of his fights was in an after-hours club against a known mobster.
Yet his after-hours reputation doesn’t match the daylight memories of the man. I was scrolling through newspapers in the Boston Public Library’s microtext department recently and came across an image of a curly-haired little girl sitting on his lap: Eileen Maher, one of his nieces. Eileen is 71 now. I found her married name mentioned in her mother’s obituary and then her phone number in the White Pages. She hasn’t gone too far from South Boston. “What do you want to know about Tommy Sullivan?” she asked, with an Irish edge. I told her that I was doing a feature on him. She loosened up when I authenticated my Catholic pedigree by mentioning that I had attended Most Precious Blood School in Cleary Square.
“Uncle Tommy was wonderful,” she said. “Happy-go-lucky and generous; always a hand in a pocket.” She remembered the quarters and dimes he’d press into small hands, the candy and gifts he’d carry home, the yellow roses for his sister. When she mentioned that he kept a pigeon coop in the backyard, I said, “Like Terry Malloy.”
“Did he have a drinking problem?” I asked because I had to. “Not that I ever saw,” she said. “He’d be out all night now and then, but never on a work night.” I asked if the family knew what was going on at the waterfront. “He never spoke about it,” she said. “We never saw any sign that he was in trouble,” though Aunt Mary, whom the family considered more worldly because she worked for Gillette, always seemed to be warning him about “sticking his nose where it shouldn’t be.”
“Why did he never leave home?” I asked, mindful of rumors that he might have been homosexual. “He didn’t want to leave his mother,” Eileen said. He was Mary Sullivan’s youngest, I knew, a miracle child born when she was 44.
The family shared him with the neighborhood, especially its teenagers, who seemed to trail him wherever he went. Like anyone else’s, the best of his good deeds were done quietly and eventually buried with him. A little digging turned up a monument, however. He was instrumental in a citywide fund-raising campaign to build a ranch-style home with ramps for a Korean War veteran and amputee. It still stands at the corner of L Street and Columbia Road.
In 1953, the ILA, its upper echelons long since compromised by racketeer influence, was on the brink of getting chased out of the American Federation of Labor. John “Red” Moran was one of the local leaders. He wrote a letter to the AFL about what could happen if the ILA lost its protection, about how criminally inclined organizers and goon squads “make waterfronts all over the country the sites of violence and bloodshed in the fight to get control of the dock workers.” He urged them to let “card-carrying men who are most directly affected be given the opportunity to try their hand at cleaning house to the satisfaction of the AFL.” Try their hand. It reads like a mission statement for mayhem.
In September, the ILA was indeed booted out of the AFL for corruption, and the specter of invading hoodlums became real. The Boston leaders publicly dared them to make a move. The men braced themselves and carried their hooks home.
In December 1957, one of them was marked for death. That was the word whispered on the waterfront, though everyone went mum, of course, when the police checked it out. Another rumor was that Tommy Sullivan was personally given a warning of the “or else” variety by representatives of a New York mob.
Sullivan had joined Alcoholics Anonymous earlier that month, and, as with anything else he committed to, he was serious about it. A few weeks before Christmas, he traveled to Portland, Maine, to speak at an AA meeting. He may have considered going on the lam.
On Saturday night, December 21, he went to a dance at the Hibernian Hall in Roxbury and then hit a few bars in South Boston. Other patrons noted that he didn’t drink. Given what he was up against, sobriety was a wise decision. But it was too late.
On Sunday night, December 22, Eileen was sitting with friends in the Strand Theater. A voice at the back called out, “Anybody here know Tommy Sullivan?” and Eileen turned around. “He’s been shot.” She remembers running as fast as she could down East Broadway toward L Street. Her uncle’s bullet-riddled body was already in an ambulance en route to City Hospital when she turned the corner at East Fifth, darting past teenagers staring at the chalk marks and bloodstains, half-aware that the murder was only steps from home.
The scene in the upstairs kitchen was dreamlike. Her mother was sobbing, her grandma in shock, her happy childhood torn to ribbons. “We took the Christmas lights out of the windows the next day,” she told me. All the families on East Fifth Street did the same. “It’s still hard for me to talk about it,” she added after a long pause. “I always regretted not trying harder to get him to walk with me to the Strand after supper. Maybe he wouldn’t have been killed.” I offered her a small comfort. “It wouldn’t have mattered,” I said. “They were professionals and would have only gotten to him closer to Christmas.”
Longshoreman Jim Lynch was 24 when it happened. “Sully was killed last night,” they said at the Monday morning pickup. No one seemed surprised.
Mickey Finn was a student at Christopher Columbus High School in the North End. He remembers that it was Christmas vacation when the phone rang. His father, an ex-fighter named Chester Finn, picked it up. “Tommy Sullivan is gone,” the voice said. “They got him.” The next morning, his father took him to Stevie Wallace’s bar, the Sport Light, then at the corner of Mitchell Street and Old Colony Avenue. Wallace was in the last booth, looking over racing sheets. Mickey was sent out of hearing range but recalls Wallace’s hands shaking, his head shaking, while the two men discussed what had happened.
Christmas fell on a Wednesday in 1957. Sullivan’s funeral was the morning after. The Globe was there, as was the Boston Evening American. Southie came out in force to pay “final tribute to the neighborhood hero with the big heart and the quick fists,” who had “again and again matched strong-arm tactics for strong-arm tactics, retaliated against goon squads who battered union members who dared sound off against growing New York hoodlum influence in the Boston longshoremen’s union.” The docks were empty. Gate of Heaven filled, as hundreds came to Sullivan’s funeral in their baggy denims, caps in hand, and filled the pews behind politicians. The celebrant was “the waterfront priest,” Monsignor John T. Powers.
Eighty-three-year-old Mary Sullivan was too distraught to leave the house. The funeral caravan to New Calvary Cemetery in Roslindale was rerouted down East Fifth Street for her benefit. Eileen pushed her chair to the window so that she could watch the hundred-car procession roll past. She died six Sundays later.
Federal and local law enforcement attended the funeral, watching and mingling with notebooks out. Who killed Tommy Sullivan? The Boston Police Department’s “Flying Squadron,” a round-the-clock investigative unit comprising 21 officers, was assigned to answer that question and began interviewing dozens of longshoremen. “Tommy was a wonderful guy,” was the stock response—that, and a lot of shrugs. Investigators knew that Sullivan had enemies and so picked up an obligatory McLaughlin or two in Charlestown. They weren’t talking much, either.
James “Whitey” Bulger was in prison for bank robbery from 1956 until 1965, but the chances that he didn’t know Sullivan and wouldn’t have inside information about his murder were remote, so I sent a letter addressed to him at the U.S. Penitentiary in Coleman, Florida. He wrote back in Catholic-school cursive. “Tommy Sullivan was a personal friend of mine, a good friend,” he said. “[I] was angry over his death—he was part of Southie. When I got out of prison, a relative and I had a long talk. . . . I knew I’d get the story and did. There were 3 people involved in Tommy’s death—they called him as if to give him a ride. Tom was real popular and accustomed to having people drive him here and there—they knew that.”
Bulger named one of them in his second letter: Jimmy O’Toole, a particularly vicious member of the McLaughlin gang. He once shot a medical student for insulting his dog and murdered 14 people before he himself was killed in Savin Hill in 1973. “He paid for his sins that evening” and “suffered more than Tommy Sullivan RIP,” Bulger said. “[I]f there is a Hell, Tommy will be using Jimmy for a Punching Bag.” Bulger declined to name the other two people involved in the killing. “Not sure if alive or dead,” he said, “and do not wish to cause arrests of even an enemy.”
There may have been an eyewitness to the murder who didn’t turn up in police reports. Mickey Finn described her as “a respectable barfly” at the Casino bar on the corner of E and Broadway. “Lil” disputed the newspaper version of events. She corroborated Bulger’s claim that there was more than one person in the sedan and insisted that Sullivan was not shot as it sped past, nor was he summoned over to the passenger side. She said that the man who shot him got out of the car to do it and was “neatly dressed with an Adam hat.” That would rule out Punchy McLaughlin, who would no more wear a suit than Finn would a burka. “The McLaughlin gang wouldn’t have gotten to Tommy, anyway,” Finn said. “They were shitheads.”
The method of the killing as well as the attire of the killer described by Lil, if true, points squarely at organized-crime figures. Bulger claims that “NY had nothing to do with Sully’s death,” that it was “a present” from O’Toole and two others to Punchy. He may be right, but the talk on the docks at the time was that New York was behind the general unrest and that a hitman was imported to kill Sullivan, who was trying to be a hero. Police investigators believed the same.
The modus operandi fits this theory. Organized-crime figures on the New York waterfront had perfected such hits over the years, and their protocol was consistent: once an outspoken ILA member had been marked for death, an out-of-town hitman was hired, routines were noted, a stolen car and throw-down .38 obtained, and his life snuffed out—two in the hat. There were usually others in the car who knew the area and who could identify the target, which would be where the competing theories converge.
Talk of the New York connection brought the FBI in, but not for long. A few days later, the agents were out, and the case went cold.
It is odd that the celebrated Flying Squadron was suddenly scooping up ne’er-do-wells based on anonymous tips and pressing reckless types collared after a shootout in East Boston. The FBI’s dismissal of the New York connection is more puzzling, especially considering that only 13 months after Sullivan’s murder, that connection was confirmed.
In January 1959, Red Moran was the popular choice to become an international vice president for the ILA and a delegate on an influential East Coast council. Moran traveled to a Manhattan hotel to attend a meeting where he would be officially seated. The New York district attorney’s office later said that as he was on his way to the meeting, he was “dissuaded from attending by threats and intimidation” by two underworld figures. One of them was a known heavy for the so-called Pistol Local 824 in Hell’s Kitchen, the other a major figure in the Arsenal mob on the North River Piers. They told Moran that someone else would be going to the meeting in his place: fellow ILA member John Mogan, remembered by a contemporary as a “feared man.” He would “do business” where Moran would not. He lived in Dorchester, which confirms the New York–Boston connection.
The front-page Globe story announced what the waterfront had known for years: “Boston is very definitely involved in the overall picture of the allegedly hoodlum-infested ILA.” Moran didn’t talk. He honored the waterfront code, rightly or wrongly. He also returned to New York under 24-hour police protection, refused to let the press know where he was staying during the trip, and accepted police protection in Boston upon his return.
Sullivan was more Terry Malloy than Red Moran. The mysterious and now-deceased Lil tells us why. She said that she’d seen Sullivan climb into the backseat of a waiting sedan as it idled for a while or drove off with him. She noted two heads in the car besides his.
Did he reach out to the FBI to fight the mob? Southie street talk said that he did. Sullivan was dropping dimes, it said. He broke the code.
When a teenage Finn would be “running off at the mouth,” his father would tell him that he was “gonna get it like Tommy Sullivan.” The name became a byword. Steve O’Neil remembered him as not only “the real thing” when it came to street fighting, but as a stool pigeon, which was as low as it got. Stevie Wallace turned his back completely. “He was a fuckin’ rat,” he said.
In 1962, Sullivan’s name was in the papers again when the Irish Gang Wars erupted in the city. His murder was revisited, along with a dozen others, and this time the Globe went on record with an out-of-the-blue assertion that he was involved in the loan-shark racket. By 1965, the gangland body count had risen dramatically and Sullivan’s photograph was included in the rogues’ gallery. All except two of the dead “had extensive police records,” the article stated. Sullivan wasn’t one of the exceptions.
Finn says that longshoremen who knew Sullivan well wouldn’t talk about him after he died, wouldn’t even mention his name. The Romans used to call it damnatio memoriae.
It isn’t deserved. Sullivan may not have honored the waterfront code, but that’s a long way from saying that he didn’t have one. His may have been beyond the reach of longshoremen, their persecutors, and most Catholics, and he simply tried to honor it as he understood it, rightly or wrongly.
The last time I spoke with Eileen, I told her that I was looking for the truth of Tommy Sullivan. I told her that I believed that a lot of people had gotten him wrong. “They got him wrong all right,” she said. Whitey Bulger, it seems, got him right. “He was a Southie Hero with no ties to any organized crime people or crime business,” he wrote in defense of a friend who chose the better path. “One of the last conversations I had with him, he was cautioning me to be ‘Careful.’ ”
December 22, 2015. It was drizzling rain when I stood in front of the dock off Summer Street, where Sullivan had worked. It hasn’t changed much, though the army base has been gone since 1974. The warehouse is now the home of a luxury home-furnishings company, and the dock remains in use for cruise ships from April through November. It’s where Sullivan began his 15-minute walk home for the last time. I followed in his footsteps and thought about the strange parallels that Sullivan had with On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy; his status as an ex-prizefighter and an idol to children, his Irishness, his pigeons, his willingness to stand against the underworld, which could have cost him his life—and the rumor that he went further and became a pigeon himself, which would certainly have cost him his life.
There is one more parallel. The year after Schulberg’s story was immortalized on film, he published a grittier version in a novel called Waterfront. In it, Malloy doesn’t walk away after ratting out the mob; he’s murdered and dumped into a Jersey swamp. Schulberg said that any other ending flew in the face of reality.
The drizzling rain had given way to an unseasonable haze when I walked past a sign that said, “Welcome to South Boston.” Southie retains that old Irish character; it’s quiet, though not quietly content so much as watchful and suspicious. The natives still peek from behind curtains, and their eyes aren’t always smiling, as the song goes.
At the Cumberland Farms convenience store on L Street, I asked an elderly woman how long she’d lived in the neighborhood. “Forever,” was the reply. “Do you remember Tommy Sullivan?” I continued. She thought for a moment. “Was he clubbed right here?” She said, pointing outside. “I remember there was a man clubbed to death right here.”
I found Gate of Heaven all corners and shadows on East Fourth Street and, circling back, cut through the schoolyard of the Tynan Elementary School, where a crowd of leather-faced men were on a smoking break during an AA meeting. One of them looked like an old salt, so I asked him if he had known Sullivan. He hadn’t, though someone standing next to him knew me. He used to be a hell-raiser who liked to drink and fight. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. “I’m in recovery,” he said. “Been sober for six months.”
At 6:35 PM, I was at the top of the steps at 660 East Fifth Street, squinting to read the names over the doorbells. No Sullivans or Mahers are there now, but Christmas bulbs lit up the windows like they did then. I traced Sullivan’s steps from the door to the street, just past the fence of the Hawes Cemetery, and fished in my pockets for a photocopy of the murder scene. Using it as a guide, I stood where he fell.
A glint caught my eye, and I looked up to see an ambulance, its siren off, advancing slowly toward me, toward where it would have on this day, at this time, exactly 58 years ago. I checked my iPhone: 6:42. As the ambulance passed, it flashed the rain-streaked scene in red. And for a moment, he was lying there, staring blindly at the sky: his feet still on the sidewalk, his arms outstretched.
Top Photo: Former boxer and longshoreman Tommy Sullivan, murdered at 38 in 1957 (COURTESY OF THE BOSTON HERALD)