Their Legacy Is In The Air We Breathe: Foreword to Slaughter in the Streets by T. J. English

Joe Barboza was a proud rat. Bettman Archive/ Getty Images

The following is the foreword for Slaughter in the Streets: When Boston Became Boxing’s Murder Capital, by Don Stradley. The foreword is written by T. J. English, bestselling author of Paddy Whacked, The Westies, and Where The Bodies Were Buried. Foreword copyright © 2020 T.J. English.

Slaughter in the Streets is the third entry in the Hamilcar Noir, “Hard-Hitting True Crime”, series.

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They died violently in a multitude of ways: beat to death with a pipe or a lead sash weight wrapped in newspaper; shot point-blank in the face with a .38 revolver; pistol-whipped, then shot in the head; strangled with bailing wire; stabbed to death with a butcher knife; shot in the balls and in the chest with a pump-action shotgun; behind the ear with a small-caliber handgun; in the stomach; shot in the back and then asphyxiated with a trash bag pulled tight over the head; shot on the street, in saloons, behind the wheel of a car, in a phone booth in the dead of night; shot in the temple and left floating in the Mystic River, hands and feet bound together with wire; bodies left in car trunks, on the side of the road, in the gutter.

A sane person would rightfully conclude that these were ignominious endings. Certainly, it is not the way you would want a loved one to ride out their final hours on earth.

Some might say, and did say, that these men got what they deserved. Most of them had crossed over to the dark side and were involved in crime: petty larceny, illegal gambling, fencing stolen goods, narcotics, burglary, murder—you name it. Some of these men were used and manipulated by high-level gangsters and Mafiosi. To coin a phrase, they lived by the sword and died by the sword. They were the embodiment of that old-school term “palooka,” a loser, of sorts, whose life seems destined for a brutal demise.

That these men were wayward souls is hard to deny, but they were also once somebody’s little boy, somebody’s brother, uncle, or father. All of them started out with a dream, which was to rise up out of humble circumstances—out of the gutter—and find fame and glory through the sport of boxing.

The historical fact that the city of Boston has seen more than its share of this breed—boxers who became intertwined with the criminal underworld—is the literary gold that author Don Stradley mines so beautifully in this book. There are moments of triumph in the ring, and some failures; Stradley is right to focus as much on the boxing careers (often misbegotten) of these men as well as their criminal associations and habits. They lived hard lives and died horrible deaths, and some might even surmise that their lives are better off forgotten. But even the lowliest of lives has much to reveal to us about the city in which these men toiled.

A few years back, in the summer of 2013, I had the occasion to attend the duration of gangster boss Whitey Bulger’s criminal trial in the city. The proceedings took place at the Moakley Courthouse in the Seaport District. The Seaport was once home to the city’s thriving commercial waterfront, where more than a few of the men profiled in this book found work as longshoremen and union “delegates” (i.e., leg breakers for the International Longshoremen’s Association).

At the time of the trial, the area had already begun its startling transformation from a hardscrabble workingman’s environment to the conglomeration of high-rise condos, glass office towers and chic restaurants that it is today.

Gentrification can be a brutal process. It does not involve snub-nosed revolvers, lead pipes, or switchblade knives, but it does involve wholesale displacement of poor and working people, unnatural alterations of the landscape, the destruction of lives. One man’s economic development is another’s predatory capitalism.

Few would disagree that the Seaport District—and the city of Boston—is not better off than it was during the historical era that this book so vibrantly evokes. Even so, it is useful to remember that the ground beneath these glistening new condos and office towers is saturated with the blood of those who came before, men who lived and died in a city known for its hard-nosed working-class, rough-and-tumble politics and pitiless criminal underworld. In many ways, the lives lived by this oddball collection of palookas laid the foundation for the thriving international city that Boston is today.

Their legacy, as detailed in Slaughter in the Streets, is in the air we breathe. Their DNA, quite literally, is embedded in the soil beneath our feet.

 

T. J. English

New York City

September 2019