In prison letters, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger writes of determination to stay alive
“Don’t worry about me,” James “Whitey” Bulger wrote in February 2018 from his prison cell to a friend he corresponded with regularly. “Im too mean to die.”
But his well-earned reputation for meanness didn’t shield him, of course. Eight months later 89-year-old Bulger was dead — beaten to death by two other inmates.
A batch of Bulger’s prison letters, made available to the Globe, offers fresh insight into his state of mind — by turns, wry, emotional, and bitter — as he neared the end. They also offer a chronicle of how his health was deteriorating in solitary confinement at a penitentiary in Florida, an account that, if accurate, contradicts the authorities who claimed his condition had dramatically improved, making him eligible for a transfer to the prison in West Virginia where he was murdered.
His transfer, given his failing health, was “unconscionable,” said Candace Lind, of Marin County in California, who shared some of her letters from Bulger with the Globe.
In the letters from prison, written deep into sleepless nights, the infamous Boston gangster told Lind he’d had eight heart attacks, routinely popped nitro pills, and took oxygen to ease chest pains. He said he relied on a wheelchair and had recently been rushed from the penitentiary to a Florida hospital for emergency treatment.
Still, he was determined to hang on. His longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig, would be released from prison in 2020, and he wanted to see her again.
“She counts on my almost daily letter to keep her spirits up shes 67 now in constant pain from arthritis,” Bulger wrote in a Feb. 19, 2018, letter to Lind, whose late father was a prison guard at Alcatraz when Bulger was an inmate there decades ago. The letters are written in his flowing schoolboy hand, but the syntax is sometimes rushed and choppy. When Lind told him she was struggling to read the tiny cursive, he began to print.
In the coming months, Bulger would write to Lind four more times, sharing complaints about prison, reflections on his life of crime, and details of how he passed his time in solitary confinement, corresponding with family and friends and poring over photo albums.
In the letters, Bulger, a former crime boss serving a life sentence for 11 murders, regularly lamented his health problems and expressed hope that he would be transferred from US Penitentiary Coleman II to a federal medical facility.
Instead, he was transferred to the West Virginia penitentiary, where eight inmates had been killed since 2014, and placed in the general population, making the longtime FBI informant an open target.
Bulger was beaten to death by fellow inmates on Oct. 30, less than 12 hours after his arrival at US Penitentiary Hazelton. The decision by prison officials to move Bulger after reclassifying his health status came under immediate scrutiny, with critics equating it to a death sentence.
In April 2018, the Bureau of Prisons rejected a request by Coleman officials to transfer Bulger to a federal medical center. Authorities then said Bulger’s health had substantially improved since he was convicted five years earlier, making him eligible to be sent to a prison, like Hazelton, that offered fewer medical services.
But his correspondence with Lind provided his own version of events, one that raises doubts about those claims.
“They changed his care level and that way he could go to any facility,” said Joe Rojas, president of the union that represents prison workers at Coleman. “It’s dirty politics.”
Rojas said the wardens at Coleman and Hazelton were negligent to transfer Bulger and “need to be held accountable.”
The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on its handling of Bulger, saying in a statement that it wanted to “protect the integrity” of an ongoing investigation by the FBI and US attorney’s office. Those agencies also declined to comment.
Weeks after Bulger’s death, the Bureau of Prisons said he was transferred out of Coleman because he made a “serious threat” against a staff member. Bulger had a confrontation with a nursing supervisor over his treatment, according to several people.
Prison records show he was originally given 30 days in solitary confinement for the infraction in February 2018, but he remained there until he was transferred in October.
In November, the Globe reported on letters Bulger sent from prison to Charlie Hopkins, a Florida man who served time in Alcatraz for kidnapping. Those letters also contained accounts of Bulger’s declining health, but some of the 30 letters Bulger sent to Lind were written more recently, detailing his condition nearer in time to his murder.
On July 6, 2018, Bulger wrote Lind that he had been held in isolation for months, with no access to TV, radio, newspapers, or books. He joked that it would be easier for him when he was moved to a prison medical center, which he referred to as the “final stop: Convicts Graveyard.”
“Looking forward to it miss the sun sky + fresh air,” he wrote two weeks later. “Better days ahead.”
Three months later, Bulger was dead.
No one has been charged with Bulger’s slaying, although two Massachusetts men with ties to organized crime have been identified as suspects, according to several law enforcement sources.
Charles Lockett, who retired as warden at Coleman in December, recently told NBC News that the authorities didn’t send Bulger to a federal medical center because he refused to go to an outside hospital to be evaluated by a specialist.
“Quite frankly, I think he wanted to die,” Lockett said, according to the April 29 NBC report. Efforts by the Globe to reach Lockett were unsuccessful.
Yet dozens of letters that Lind and Hopkins received from Bulger over the past few years, shared with the Globe, portray a man who was determined to survive, even as his health deteriorated.
“It’s insane for anyone to think he wanted to die,” Lind said.
In his letters to Hopkins, Bulger wrote that he dreaded going to an outside hospital and sometimes refused because he would be shackled and chained to a “black box” that was heavy and hurt his shoulder.
Hopkins, 86, who received more than 40 letters from Bulger from 2015 to late 2017, also said Bulger clearly didn’t want to die. He nearly always ended his letters by writing that he hoped he or Hopkins would be the “Last Man Standing” among former Alcatraz inmates.
Lind began writing to Bulger in 2014 because he’d had a long friendship with her late father, Alver “A.G.” Bloomquist, who supervised the prison laundry at Alcatraz when Bulger served time there in the late 1950s and early ’60s for bank robbery.
Bulger wrote that working in the laundry room was the “best job I ever had in my life” because her father was a fair, respectful boss and “one of the finest human beings” he ever met.
The two men became friends and Bulger visited Bloomquist in California occasionally, according to his letters. Lind said her father, who died in 2000, was unaware of Bulger’s criminal activities, after his release from prison in 1965.
Lind said Bulger’s letters were often humorous, but also detailed a litany of crimes, including murders.
Bulger fled from Boston in advance of his 1995 federal racketeering indictment, eluding a worldwide manhunt until he and Greig were captured in 2011 in Santa Monica, Calif. Two years later, he was convicted of killing 11 people while running a sprawling criminal organization from the 1970s to the 1990s. Greig is serving more than nine years in prison for helping him evade capture and refusing to testify before grand juries.
Bulger was initially sent to a prison in Arizona, then was moved to Florida in 2014.
In February 2018, Bulger wrote Lind that looking back on his life was “like a dream” and related some of the small consolations that made prison life bearable.
“When I get real down I get up wash sox or T shirt — wring out hang up to dry — look through my albums . . . pictures of people I knew including your father — always cheers me up knew they made the most of life — that’s all you can do — I took the wrong road once and never got off it.”
In a July letter, Bulger recalled what he called one of his favorite memories: the time he fired bullets into the Globe’s building in Dorchester in 1974 to protest the newspaper’s coverage of his South Boston neighborhood’s opposition to busing.
First, Bulger said that he and an associate fired into the Globe’s lobby on Morrissey Boulevard to “send a message,” deliberately missing a watchman. The next night, while police were stationed outside, Bulger attacked from the Southeast Expressway, which passes by the rear of the building.
“Have small arsenal of guns loaded — dark flashes and ski masks on proceed to fire into Globe handguns in each hand fire until empty pick up more,’ Bulger wrote. He said he had proved the “sword more effective then than a pen!”
The letter offers the most detailed available description of the incident, at least from Bulger’s perspective.
Bulger said his fondest memories were of time spent with Greig, who shared his love of animals. In a June 25, 2017, letter to Lind, he wrote about Tiger, a homeless cat. Greig began feeding Tiger twice a day after a Santa Monica neighbor who had been caring for the cat moved to a nursing home, Bulger wrote. Her kindness attracted the attention of another neighbor, who later recognized the fugitives when they were featured on television and tipped off the FBI.
“I predicted feeding that cat will cost me my life — knew we were being noticed for it,” Bulger wrote. “Catherine said if we don’t feed the cat he will starve.”
Bulger said he agreed, saying their love of pets gave them no choice.
In his last letter to Lind, which was undated and arrived in an envelope postmarked Oct. 2, Bulger wrote that he was still waiting for his transfer to a medical center and forgot what day it was after months in solitary, cut off from the news.
“Have experienced much more difficult things and hard times in my life — but isolation on elderly is pretty rough,” wrote Bulger, who turned 89 on Sept. 3. “Never did dream Id ever live this long so many close calls and so many of my friends gone all died violently — none by natural causes.”