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Famous Crime Stories

International Scholars > Experience American Culture > Crime Stories

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Famous Crime Stories

Have dinner in prison… Would you believe there is a luxury hotel in a (former) Boston jail? The Liberty Hotel now occupies the former “Charles Street Jail,” also known as the “Suffolk County Jail,” and is located at 215 Charles Street, across from the red line Charles/MGH subway stop. The jail was built in 1851 of massive granite blocks with a unique, central octagonal rotunda and four “wings” of cells for prisoners. Some famous people were held there in the past, including Malcolm X and Sacco and Vanzetti. You can have dinner in the “Clink” restaurant (“clink” is a nickname for jail), and sit in the booths and nooks that were formerly jail cells, have a drink at the bar in the giant rotunda, or simply stop in to take a look around.

If you are fascinated by the actions and motivations of “questionable characters,” you are not alone; this region has had several notorious criminals and sensational crimes that have captured our attention. This fact may not be surprising since we are sometimes unable to discern who the bad guys really are and imagine that but for a few poor choices, they are just like us. Consider, for example, the fact that a former mayor of Boston, James Michael Curley, twice held public office while in prison, his second stint while he was mayor! (This well-known criminal did not just appeal to the citizens of the City of Boston though; he also served as both a congressman and governor of the Commonwealth during his long career.)

Well planned robberies are particularly intriguing crimes, and there have been a number of high profile, local heists that made sensational headlines, like the Brinks Job, which netted a gang of well-organized bank robbers more than two million dollars back in 1950, none of which has ever been recovered. At least one of the suspects had a connection to the Charlestown section of Boston. This area has long been well known for producing proficient bank robbers. “Townies” seem to take great pride in this reputation and in the sophistication and precision of the perfect heist, especially those that net a large gain for the criminal, while causing little or no bodily injury to the victims or perpetrators.

A more recent high profile robbery occurred at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, when thieves masquerading as Boston police officers made off with13 works of art, including those of Rembrandt, Degas, and Manet in 1990. The works were valued at more than half a billion dollars. There was a break in this case many years later when authorities were said to have identified the thieves but since the statute of limitations had expired, no arrests were ever made. It has gone down in history as one of the most expensive art thefts ever.

At the other end of the criminal world, on the violent side, Lizzie Borden was tried in court of law and acquitted in the grizzly killing her father and stepmother with an axe, in the town of Fall River in 1892. The case was sensationalized and a gruesome rhyme continues to be recited to this day, “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.”

Continuing on the theme of violent crime, The Boston Strangler was said to be responsible for 13 murders in the early 1960s. This case made a return to headlines recently when authorities claimed to have used modern day forensics to confirm the identity of the killer. Possibly the Boston area’s most notorious hoodlum, however, is James “Whitey” Bulger. He was on the run for over 15 years and was finally captured during a massive national manhunt. Whitey is famous for being connected to an organized crime outfit known as the Winter Hill Gang, but he was also an informant for the FBI and regularly benefited from that relationship. Interestingly, he is also a brother to the longest-ever serving President of the Massachusetts Senate, Billy Bulger. The two brothers obviously made different career choices, but both were leaders in their fields. Whitey’s capture, indictment, and trial on murder and racketeering charges riveted the Boston area and all of New England.

Newspapers may be becoming obsolete, but crime will always make headlines and lots of us seem to have a fascination with the details of these awful deeds, in the papers, online, or on TV. What that says about our culture is not clear…

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Last Updated: July 2019

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