Story by Marianne Salza
Boston Globe reporter, Emily Sweeney, discussed her book, “Gangland Boston: A Tour Through the Deadly Streets of Organized Crime,” on March 23, at The HUB50 Community Room, Boston. The Dorchester resident shared fraudulent and violent stories of local mobsters that prevailed in Boston during the West End Museum event.
“The mafia made its debut in the late 19th century Boston,” began Sweeney. “It was difficult being a police officer around the turn of the century. Back then, nobody carried ID’s. Criminals constantly used aliases. Boston Police didn’t start using fingerprints to identify people until 1906.”
Until then, officers relied on mug shots, and measurements such as the length of the left foot, middle finger, or forearm to identify suspects.
“One of the first gangs that rose to prominence in the late 19th century was the Swindling Beggars Gang,” Sweeney noted. “The leader of this gang was Frisco Slim, from California. He would fake being injured and beg for money on the street. He would recruit young kids to wear bloody bandages and limp. Then they’d go back to the West End and split the proceeds. When the police did bust this gang, they found that kids were working for them like child slaves.”
One of the earliest instances that Sweeney could locate in a digitized newspaper was from the Boston Sunday Post in 1895. The article specified the structure of the mafia and estimated that there were about 200 mafia members in the Boston area at the time. Many newspaper articles that Sweeney read from the turn of the century described people in mortal terror.
“My book, ‘Gangland Boston,’ has a lot of information about the Gustin Gang,” mentioned Sweeney. “They were one of the first, prominent Irish mobs. They rose to power during Prohibition.”
The leader of the Gustin Gang was 5-foot-5-inch-tall Stevie Wallace, of South Boston. Wallace, who was a member of the 1920 US Olympic boxing team, hugely impacted Boston’s organized crime; and was protected by powerful government officials and law enforcement.
“In December 1931, these guys go to 317 Hanover Street – a Citizens Bank now – in the North End to have a sit down with leaders of the mafia. They did not leave alive. This was a major turning point in organized crime in the City of Boston,” Sweeney emphasized. “The Italians established their power over the city.”
In addition to smuggling and distributing alcohol during Prohibition, organized gambling was another illegal source of income for criminal groups.
“People gambled what little they had,” said Sweeney. “Back then, you could place a bet with a bookie who was standing on a street corner, in shoe shine parlors, barber shops, and regular stores.”
The most famous West Ender in the bookmaking business was Doc Sagansky, the son of Lithuanian immigrants. Growing up, Sagansky sold newspapers at the Massachusetts State House. He graduated from Tufts Dental School in 1918, and practiced dentistry in Scollay Square.
“Through betting and gambling, he built a fortune,” said Sweeney, a descendant of a West End resident displaced during Urban Renewal. “He became an owner of two Boston nightclubs, and operated a loan agency, which allowed him to finance other enterprises.”
One illegal bookmaking establishment was Swartz’s Key Shop, 364 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, where bets on horse and dog racing could be made. The popular shop was raided by the Internal Revenue Service in 1961.
“In addition to gambling, when people ran out of money, they turned to loan sharks, who were excessively violent against customers,” Sweeney mentioned. “This was before credit cards. You could get a loan on the street.”
Emily Sweeney is a board member of the New England First Amendment Coalition, and the New England Society of News Editors. Her book, “Dropkick Murphy: A Legendary Life,” a biography about the professional wrestler and doctor during the Great Depression, will be available through Amazon on May 23, 2023. Visit www.Facebook.com/BostonOrganizedCrime to view images, videos, and newspaper articles about Boston’s organized crime.