Sixty-two years ago Tuesday, Boston was rocked by the sensational news that the office of the Brink’s armored car company in the North End had been robbed of more than $1 million - then the biggest armed robbery in US history. (The final take, counting checks and securities, was $2.7 million.)
Like everyone else in Boston at the time, 15-year-old Thomas Richardson of Weymouth was amazed by the brazen heist, which was quickly dubbed “the crime of the century.’’ He was even more incredulous a few years later when his father, Thomas Francis “Sandy’’ Richardson, a hard-working, if hard-drinking, Boston longshoreman, was accused of being a member of the gang that pulled off the infamous caper.
Sandy Richardson and seven other men were convicted of the Brink’s robbery in 1956, after one of the robbers decided to talk with authorities just before the state statute of limitations on the crime was to run out. After serving 16 years in the state prison in Walpole, the elder Richardson returned to his job as a longshoreman. He seldom spoke about the crime and the family says they never saw a dime of his reputed share of the loot. His three sons, Thomas, James, and William, grew up in the shadow of their father’s notoriety.
Before Sandy Richardson died in 1980 at age 73, son Thomas learned something else astonishing about his father: Sandy was a would-be novelist.
While serving his time at Walpole and working at the prison library, the elder Richardson, who never finished high school, typed out a 324-page manuscript, based on his life growing up in South Boston in the 1930s. The untitled novel tells the story of Jimmy “Butsy’’ O’Reilly (loosely based on Richardson) and a gang of small-time crooks as they frequent speakeasies, chase dames, and plan their next caper.
“It more or less reflects on his experiences growing up in South Boston and the characters he met,’’ said Richardson, 76, who retired after a successful career in auto parts sales and divides his time between Wareham and Florida. “He felt they were outstanding, and he wanted to let other people know them and enjoy them.’’
Butsy and his gang are lighthearted thieves who work very hard at coming up with crimes that often don’t work out, including the time they break into a wealthy man’s apartment only to find another set of burglars arriving. (This, Richardson said, was based on his father’s real experience in a Lynn caper.) The novel is set decades before the Brink’s robbery, but it sets the stage for that heist with characters like “fat guy’’ Angie Pinza and Flip Grogan, possibly based on Brink’s robbers Anthony Pino and Michael Vincent “Vinnie’’ Geagan.
In the novel, Butsy vows revenge on a racketeer named Isadore “Izzy’’ Slobodkin, who is likely based on the actual Jewish-American bootlegger Charles “King’’ Solomon. Izzy winds up dead and Butsy is tried for murder, even while proclaiming his innocence. Will he get the electric chair? Will he give up a life of crime? The novel leaves that last question hanging.
By today’s standards, the novel is sexist and even racist. It is filled with Irish stereotypes; Butsy is always chasing a “dilly,’’ or girl, even as his girlfriend, Madge, patiently waits for him. The prose is replete with casual slurs of Jews, Irish, and Italians. Yet, says Richardson, the tone simply reflects the times. As his brother, James, put it, “it’s written in the ‘South Boston Irish’ language.’’
“It’s a view of what South Boston was before Whitey Bulger,’’ said James, 83 and a lifelong resident of Weymouth. The novel’s language, he said, simply reflected the norms of the day; the Brink’s gang itself, after all, brought together men of Irish, Italian, Polish, and Jewish backgrounds.
Sandy Richardson - his nickname came from his sandy-colored hair - was raised by relatives in South Boston, a tight-knit Irish community that often clashed with authorities but was fiercely loyal to family and friends. He was frequently in trouble with the law. Then on Jan. 17, 1950, with Pino, Geagan, Vincent James Costa, Adolph “Jazz’’ Maffie, James Ignatius “Jimma’’ Faherty, Henry Baker, and three others, he pulled off what many called “the perfect crime’’ at the Brink’s office in the North Terminal Garage on Commercial and Prince streets. No one was hurt in the robbery, and the crime almost went unsolved. However, one of the robbers, Joseph James “Specky’’ O’Keefe, believed he was denied his fair share and broke the code of silence.
The younger Thomas Richardson said his father never bragged about his role in the Brink’s heist, not even after the robbery was turned into the 1978 movie, “The Brink’s Job,’’ starring Peter Falk as Tony Pino and Gerard Murphy as Richardson.
“He never thought of himself as being notorious or a hero or whatever. What happened, he explained to me, was that a bunch of guys got together, and said, ‘Hey, it’s there for the taking, so why not take it?’ ’’ Richardson said.
Sandy was never able to publish his novel. For decades, it sat in his son’s home. Richardson now hopes to find a publisher as a way to recognize a father who was loving and loyal to his wife and children, even if an infamous criminal.
“I feel that he wanted to be recognized as someone who is not bad,’’ the son said. “He enjoyed writing and telling stories. He was kind of a fun-loving guy. He wanted to let people know about his experiences, the good things in life.’’Stephanie Schorow is author of “The Crime of the Century: How the Brink’s Robbers Stole Millions and the Hearts of Boston.’’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.