PEABODY — The Winter Hill gang on Somerville is perhaps best known for being the crime organization that spawned the late Whitey Bulger.
But its origins go back much farther. And Peabody’s Larry Leavitt, in his book “Loved and Feared,” tells the story of one such figure: James J. “Buddy” McLean.
“My father used to tell me stories about him,” said Leavitt, a physical education teacher in the Peabody school system. “He said Buddy was the toughest guy in Boston. He never backed down … and he never lost.”
McLean, who was gunned down in Somerville in 1965, on Halloween night, “sure did a lot of living in his 35 years,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt’s efforts to gain the family’s trust so he could write McLean’s life story were extensive, and what you’ve probably come to expect from those associated with criminals.
“Nobody wanted to talk about him,” said Leavitt. “It took me two years to get Buddy’s family to open up.”
But once the family began talking, “I got a lot of information and a lot of people agreed to talk to me.”
Before he became a teacher 20 years ago, Leavitt was a teamster — which was also one of McLean’s many occupations in life. Leavitt also runs a fitness/self defense center on Foster Street in Peabody.
“The stories my dad told me about Buddy were an immense help for me to stand up to bullies.”
As Leavitt says, McLean was not a bully. He may have finished a lot of fights — and won most of them — but he did not start any.
“He was a longshoreman and a teamster,” Leavitt said. “He pretty much kept to himself.”
But, Leavitt said, McLean was a protege of Joe McDonald, the man who first organized crime in Winter Hill, an area of Somerville on the Mystic River side, and McLean began running McDonald’s bookmaking business.
Leavitt said that while he was a teamster, he had dealings with the late Jimmy Hoffa, the union’s former president, who disappeared in 1974 and is presumed dead. Hoffa was investigated by then-U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for alleged racketeering.
“Jimmy Hoffa loved Buddy,” Leavitt said.
Just like fictional mafioso, “Don” Vito Corleone of “The Godfather,” McLean may have ruled the rackets in Somerville, but he was a benevolent dictator.
“Everybody loved him,” Leavitt said. “Cops loved him. The FBI loved him. He helped people. He kept that neighborhood safe.”
It was all going well until one night in at Salisbury Beach when two members of the Winter Hill gang met with George McLaughlin, a member of a rival gang in Somerville. As the story goes, Leavitt said, McLaughlin tried to grope the girlfriend of one Alex Petricone, a friend of McLean’s. Petricone and his friend proceeded to beat him unconscious, then dumped him outside a local hospital.
“Bernie McLaughlin (George’s brother) went to Buddy and wanted him to give up the two guys who beat his brother, but Buddy wouldn’t.”
According to Leavitt, someone tried to explode a bomb in McLean’s car but did not succeed. McLean blamed Bernie McLaughlin.
On October 31, 1961, “he went up to Bernie and broad daylight, in front of hundreds of witnesses, and shot him right in the face,” Leavitt said.
He was arrested, but those hundreds of witnesses failed to materialize, or failed to recollect what happened, and McLean was never convicted.
As an aside to all this, the other person arrested with McLean for the murder was Petricone. After he was released, McLean helped him flee to California. Petricone ended up taking acting lessons and changing his name to Alex Rocco. Film aficionados will know that Alex Rocco portrayed “Moe Greene” in “The Godfather,” the man — modeled after Las Vegas entrepreneur Bugsy Siegel — who got his eye shot out in a gang war.
The so-called “Irish Gang War” that resulted from McLaughlin’s murder lasted until 1967, and among the lives lost was McLean’s.
Stevie Hughes, a close ally of the McLaughlin Brothers, finally caught up with McLean on Halloween 1965 (exactly four years after Bernie’s murder) and shot McLean to death. Howie Winter then took over the gang, and Bulger succeeded him.
“Whitey was still in Alcatraz while a lot of this was going on,” Leavitt said.
If you like reading about organized crime, you’ll find this book fascinating. It has a lot of familiar local names running through it — guys like Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi, Gennaro Angiulo, Joseph Barboza, and many more.