An interview with Slaughter in the Streets author Don Stradley
In the ring, these boxers were safe.
In the streets of Boston, their bravado and physical toughness made them targets.
Don Stradley’s Slaughter in the Streets: When Boston Became Boxing’s Murder Capital, out now from Boston-based Hamilcar Publications as part of its Hamilcar Noir series, is a thin but relentless true-crime book full of violence in and out of the ring.
Weighing in at a slim 113 pages, this small work of noirish pulp tells a big story—the brawling blue-collar Boston of the last century comes alive through the hopes and dreams of 14 murdered local boxers. From the 1931 killing of Frankie Wallace, aka Frankie Gustin, to the 1984 death of Southie’s favorite son, Frank (the Tank) MacDonald, Stradley tells a story that could only have happened here.
“It is an unusual status to claim, but few cities can match Boston for its number of slain fighters,” Stradley writes. “Of the more than three hundred and fifty professional and amateur fighters murdered worldwide since Gustin’s death in 1931, a shocking amount of those killings took place in Boston and its neighboring towns. Most were gang related. Many were unsolved.”
Stradley, a veteran boxing writer who has contributed frequently to the venerable Ring magazine since 2004, plumbed old news clippings of crimes and ringside reports, and conducted first-person interviews with fighters from the old days to paint a portrait of a long-gone rough-and-tumble town.
“I thought of it as a slideshow with Boston as a character,” the author told DigBoston. “It’s almost like Boston is the instigator in all of it. If these people hadn’t been born in Boston, they would have had totally different lives.”
In a brief but powerful foreword, renowned true crime author T.J. English writes of the brutal manner in which gentrification has paved over these working-class stories and experiences.
“It is useful to remember that the ground beneath these glistening new condos and office towers is saturated with the blood of those who came before,” English writes. “The historical fact that the city of Boston has seen more than its share of … boxers who became intertwined with the criminal underworld is the literary gold that author Don Stradley mines so beautifully in this book.”
The word beautiful may sound odd when describing a murderous volume in which men are shot, stabbed, strangled, and beaten to death with pipes and lead sashes, but Stradley so economically describes the lives of these men that English is right, it is beautiful.
We talked to Stradley about his new book and why boxing creates characters like no other.
Last year you published a book Berserk: The Shocking Life and Death of Edwin Valero about the undefeated Venezuelan champion Edwin Valero, who murdered his wife and killed himself. Why does boxing produce these fascinating colorful yet frightening characters? And why were there so many in Boston?
There seems to be more characters in boxing than, say, baseball and football. You have to dig deeper in those sports to find the bad guys. In boxing it’s all up front. Part of it is fighters and gyms are not too far removed from the speakeasies and illicit gambling parlors, so it’s easy for these characters to mingle.
I’m sure there are parallels in other cities, but the Irishness of Boston had something to do with it too. Boston is so small and there are so many Irish boxers and criminals, of course they would dovetail. And if you grew up in the North End in the Italian community, it was almost a given you might spend some time in jail—it was almost a rite of passage. Just one street, Clark Street in the North End, had eight fighters on the same street. There’s a geographical factor—lots of poor people lived in this small area, and many went into crime and boxing. When the fighter’s boxing career was over, they inevitably got tapped on the shoulders by their buddies who were involved in loan sharking, robberies, and more.
It’s hard to call this individual a favorite, but one of the characters I found to be most memorable was Sammy Lindenbaum—a boxer turned armed robber and abortionist. Did any of these gangsters grow on you?
I have a soft spot for Punchy McLaughlin. Maybe it was his name, or that it took so long to kill him—his hand was blown off, his jaw was blown apart. I developed a soft spot for everybody—even if they were bad guys. I liked these characters and wanted to give them their due. In the Boston crime books of the last 20 years, these guys get a mention—they’re described as boxers who ended up in the trunks of cars with their heads blown off. They deserve more than that.
If Punchy was my favorite, Pretzie was my least favorite—he was a bully, he was everything that was bad about boxing. He bragged about throwing fights. He came out of the chute real fast—boxing was so huge, if you looked like you might be something, you were going to get a lot of attention. He was so fascinated by the crooks, and that’s how it was for these boxers. These are fighters—these are tough guys—but Whitey Bulgar walks in and these guys genuflect. Makes you think, What is toughness worth?
Joe the Animal Barboza will be familiar with people, but they won’t know a lot of other guys. A lot of these guys have been forgotten, but at the time they were a big deal—their funerals were epic. In the North End, the processions would last all day.
One interesting point you make is that in the ’40s and ’50s, a criminal’s boxing career would always be featured in the news coverage they received. It was the time of film noir, and boxing was a signal to the audience that this was a seedy, dangerous world.
It was an instant headline—ex-boxer kills wife, ex-boxer arrested for extortion—almost every week in the newspaper. It was the same story about a boxer in trouble because boxing was so popular—and the crimes were so often bloody and ghoulish.
Boxers were big news. Boxing then was like American Idol—some character comes out of nowhere and becomes famous overnight. That’s how big boxing was back in those days—even minor boxers made headlines. I wish I could have included the boxers and the crimes in New Hampshire and Maine.
Is this mix of bad guys and boxers still happening today? If not in Boston, then in other parts of New England?
It wouldn’t surprise me if the same thing was happening now with, say, the Russian mob—maybe there’s a failed kickboxer or mixed martial arts fighter involved with Russian gangsters. One of the Boston Marathon bombers had boxing in his background—in modern times, maybe it isn’t the mafia but terrorism.
Reading your book, it’s also jarring just how many fight cards were being put on across New England.
If we could transport ourselves to 1946, on a Tuesday night we could pick up a newspaper and go to a fight that night—it might have to be in Holyoke or Providence, but there was live boxing almost every night of the week in New England. Amateur boxing was huge in the North End—there was a mania for boxing. Promoters built careers solely on local talent. For the most part, fight cards featured local talent and local people ate it up.
Tommy Sullivan was a fascinating character—he could sell out the Boston Garden fighting a guy from Cambridge. Even when Marvin Hagler was middleweight champion of the world in the ’80s and fought Vito Antufermo, he couldn’t draw as well in the Boston Garden as Tommy Sullivan.
There were a couple ring fatalities in the ’60s in Boston, the mob figures involved in the business side were busted, it seemed like a lot of people didn’t like boxing anymore. There was a long dry spell, and maybe that’s why so many boxers turned to crime.