The past is never really that in Boston, a city that is world-class in its ability to dwell on bygones.
Which makes this a rather interesting time among the citizenry, as three relentlessly hashed-over criminal cases have emerged from yellowed newspaper clippings to the full Technicolor of ongoing court trials, press conferences, and full-throttle investigations.
James J. “Whitey” Bulger is on trial. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum paintings are back in the news (though still not back on the walls of the museum). And on Friday, authorities plan to dig up the remains of Albert DeSalvo to extract DNA evidence that they hope will prove, once and for all, that he was telling the truth when he confessed to being the Boston Strangler.
The past has seemingly crashed into the present, the skeletons of yesterday becoming the headlines of today. But for a city that prides itself on persevering through a history that seems destined never to change, resolution has a warm uneasiness, like a 70-degree day in November.
What unites the three cases — other than being mysteries that had transitioned to mythologies — is that they were once near the top of Boston’s list of “things we’ll never see in our lifetimes,” just below what it would feel like to actually win the World Series and slightly above not having a Kennedy in office.
Now that list is getting very short.
Where’s Whitey? For 16 years, it was a riddle that was never to be solved. He was dead, people said, or holed up in Ireland, or hidden by the FBI who didn’t want him to tell the full story of his work as an informant.
Instead, he was in sunny Santa Monica, reading books about himself. Now the much-mythologized mobster is living in the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, an 83-year-old man complaining that they wake him at 4 a.m. to get him to the courthouse in Boston in time to stand trial in 19 slayings.
Where are the Gardner paintings? Well, we still have not seen the end of that one, 23 years after the 13 paintings were cut from their frames. But in March, the Boston FBI office announced that they knew who was behind the most infamous art heist in history. The FBI didn’t say who, mind you, only that they know. And then they launched a public awareness campaign, similar to the one that led to the capture of Bulger, in an effort to recover the paintings. Check your walls, people; you may have them and not even know.
And now we come to the case of the Boston Strangler, which is either a legendary whodunit, or a legendary case of over-thinking because DeSalvo already said he did it more than four decades ago.
In the latest you-couldn’t-make-this-up twist that is shortening our list, Boston police detectives trailed the relatives of DeSalvo, who was stabbed to death in prison 40 years ago, and waited for a chance to grab something that would have their DNA on it. They got it when a relative discarded a plastic bottle, and DNA tests found there was a “familial match” to forensic evidence collected from the last of the Boston Strangler’s 11 female victims.
A strange way to finally move the Boston Strangler case toward a final conclusion, but then again, Bulger was captured after a neighbor remembered meeting Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, while they were caring for a stray cat in the neighborhood.
The announcement that DeSalvo’s skeleton would be exhumed from his grave in Peabody came a day after jurors in the Bulger trial saw images of the bullet-pierced skeletons of two of his alleged victims, unearthed from crude graves where they had been buried on Halloween night in 1985. The past does not stay past if you dig it up.
Which leaves us with the Gardner paintings. Last year, authorities indeed tried to dig them up in the backyard of an alleged mobster in Connecticut, a search that reportedly involved ground-penetrating radar, two beagles, and a ferret. The paintings remain at large.
If and when those paintings are recovered, what will be left on the list of things we’ll never see in Boston?
Well, a lot of old-timers will tell you that we’ll never see another storm like the Blizzard of ’78.
Is it too early to put a chair in a parking space?Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.