Monday, November 12, 2018

Black Mass and Cozy Class: The Unexpected Convergence of Whitey Bulger (1929-2018) and Charlotte Macleod (1922-2005)

"I once received a lovely letter from a lady who told me how she had got this book, made herself a cup of tea and drawn the curtains because it was a dismal cold day.  Then she'd set a fire in the fireplace and sat down and read my book.  Isn't that a nice goal for a writer to think about?  It certainly keeps me at my typewriter."  

--Mystery author Charlotte MacLeod in "Murder, She Writes," Interview with Peter Gorner of the Chicago Tribune, 11 February 1988

His attack was lightning fast.  Whitey seized [Debbie Davis] by the throat with his hands and began to shake her like a rag doll.  Debbie, gasping for breath, was dying....Whitey was still not done with the ghastliness.  He handed Stevie a pair of pliers and and instructed him to yank the teeth from the lifeless Debbie Davis to hamper authorities from ever being able to identify her through dental records....Whitey and Stevie wrapped Debbie in plastic, then dragged her body upstairs and out into the late afternoon light.  They threw the bundle into the trunk of a car and drove off.  Later in the  evening they headed to what would become known as the Bulger burial ground--a stretch of marshland along the Neponset River, beneath a bridge connecting Boston's Dorchester neighborhood to the city of Quincy.

--Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss (2013)

Charlotte MacLeod (1922-2005)
she of the white gloves and hats
and impeccable grammar
Over a two-decade period (1978 to 1998 to be precise) Canadian-American detective novelist Charlotte MacLeod (1922-2005) published 32 crime novels representing no less than four mystery series, all of which to the delight of her fans were brought back into print in the US five years ago by Mysterious Press/Open Road.  Today MacLeod, an Edgar-nominated mystery writer, is considered one of the key progenitors of the modern cozy mystery.  Her books, those who wrote about her were fond of noting, "eschewed gore, graphic violence, sex and vulgar language" while indulging in "a little romance and a lot of laughs" (see the author's obituary in the LA Times). For her part MacLeod pronounced herself a "backwoods Michael Innes" and an author of manners novels with murders, in the style (admittedly folksier) of Dorothy L. Sayers.

How surprising it is, then, that in real life Charlotte MacLeod had a close family connection to the notorious Boston mobster James Joseph "Whitey" Bulger (1929-2018), leader in the Seventies and Eighties of the Winter Hill Gang, a confederation of Boston area organized crime figures of mostly Irish and Italian descent. 

Whitey Bulger's funeral was held in South Boston just three days ago.  The 89-year-old Bulger, a one-time mob informant serving consecutive life sentences for the murders of 11 people he committed while informing to the FBI (and that was only part of his suspected death toll), was savagely beaten to death in prison two weeks ago.  His features after the attack were said to have been so battered as to be unrecognizable.  It was a violent end to a violent life.

Just how far removed Whitey Bulger's real life crimes (not to mention his horrible demise) were from those found in the comfy pages of cozy mysteries this line about Whitey from his New York Times obituary indicates:

[H]e shot men between the eyes, stabbed rivals in the heart with ice picks, strangled women who might betray him and buried victims in secret graveyards after yanking their teeth to thwart identification.

Felon in fedora: Whitey Bulger at
the start of his life in crime in 1953
While there are, to be sure, bizarre and nasty murders in Charlotte MacLeod's books (in Wrack and Rune, for example, a man is killed by having his face shoved in a bucket of quicklime, something you could imagine happening in a Martin Scorsese film), it's all done decidedly tongue in cheek by the Cozy Crime Queen.  In Whitey Bulger's world, on the other hand, tongues were more likely to have been found outside of cheeks, having been bloodily ripped from bodies. Yet Whitey Bulger's highly respected brother William simultaneously rose, during the commission of Whitey's ghoulish carnival of crimes, to become president of the Massachusetts state Senate (1976-1994) and the University of Massachusetts (1995-2003).

William Bulger resigned from the latter position only under pressure from then Governor Mitt Romney and others, after the media spotlight focused on his relationship, about which he was not altogether forthcoming, with his brother Whitey, who was then a fugitive from federal justice. So perhaps the Charlotte MacLeod-Whitey Bulger connection is not so incongruous after all! 

First some family background on Charlotte MacLeod, as it's essential to this story.

Baptist church at
St. Stephen, New Brunswick
where Charlotte McLeod's father
Edward Phillips MacLeod, grew up
Although she grew up in the United States on the South Side of Boston, Charlotte Matilda MacLeod was born on November 12, 1922 in another, rather gentler country: Canada.  Specifically she was born in a flat above a grocery store in the quiet little village of Bath, in the western section of the maritime province of New Brunswick, not far from the Canadian border with US state of Maine. Charlotte's parents--Baptists Edward Phillips MacLeod (1893-1972), a plumber and son of lumber surveyor Alexander MacLeod, and Mabel Maude Heyward (1897-?), daughter of farmer and mail carrier Clarence Edgar Heyward--had wed two years earlier; and Charlotte had a slightly older brother, Walter Ernest.  The young family moved to Massachusetts in 1923, when Charlotte and Walter were toddlers, settling in Weymouth, a city on the South Shore of Boston. There Edward continued lucratively to ply the plumbing trade and two more children, daughters Helen and Alexandria, were born to him and Mabel.

Also moving to the Boston vicinity at about the same time was Edward's sister Marion Cecilia Mackay (1889-1982), wife of John Mackay, a former Halifax, Nova Scotia accountant who in Boston worked as a librarian/archivist for the Boston Herald newspaper.  Marion Mackay likely was the 91-year-old aunt to whom Charlotte MacLeod affectionately dedicated A Pint of Murder (1980), which is set in New Brunswick and is the first of her Alisa Craig mystery novels.

Brotherhood Bible Class, St. Stephen Baptist Church, 1916
Possibly Charlotte MacLeod's father Edward, then 19, was a member 

Among the children of John and Marion Mackay was daughter Ailsa, ten years her cousin Charlotte's senior and a business school graduate and stenographer.  I wonder whether Ailsa Mackay had any connection to the creation of Charlotte's mystery pseudonym Alisa Craig, said to have been drawn from "Ailsa Craig," a spectacular island--actually the plug of an extinct volcano--off the coast of Scotland.  Certainly the MacLeods were a very Scottish family, like so many others in New Brunswick.

the house on Gilmore Street
In the 1930s the MacLeod family moved a 966-square-foot white clapboarded house, originally built in 1918, on a large lot on Gilmore Street in Weymouth.  You can see pictures of the house and its interior here, when it was sold in 2012 for $135,000.*

*(It has since been sold and nicely refurbished and is now estimated to be worth around $330,000; see pics here.) 

There is a kitchen, 9x12, dining room, 9x10, living room, 11x11, master bedroom, 12x13, second bedroom, 7x11 and bonus room, 5x7, plus a single bathroom, a nice enclosed front porch, a basement laundry, a detached single car garage and a storage shed. 

In the 1930s Charlotte and her slightly younger sister, Helen, presumably would have shared the larger upstairs bedroom, while Walter would have occupied the smaller upstairs "bonus room."  Baby sister Alexandria didn't come along until 1937, when Charlotte was fifteen and soon to leave the family nest for college.

the house in Jamaica Plain

The Mackays lived about a dozen miles away from their MacLeod kinfolk, in a pretty white Italianate house built in 1860 in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood in west Boston.  Besides Ailsa, the children in the Mackay family included Donald Alexander Mackay (1914-2005), a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and an accomplished artist and illustrator in the second half of the 20th century.  Also living with the Mackay family in 1940 was Charlotte's widowed grandmother, Matilda Lenora (Hughes) MacLeod, daughter of Canadian Baptists Edward Phillips Hughes, a native Welsh house carpenter and Charlotte Cecilia Yerxa, daughter of a native Dutch farmer.  So Charlotte's family was an admixture of Scottish-English-Welsh-Dutch nationalities, but seemingly in religious persuasion 100% Baptist.

You might be surprised to find there were so many Baptists in Canada (whether of Scottish, English, Welsh or Dutch extraction), yet that remarkable mystery plagiarizer and all-round scoundrel Maurice Balk, a true sociopath about whom I blogged here last year, masqueraded for a time in the 1920s as a Baptist minister in Nova Scotia, another of the maritime provinces.  For all I know he might have ministered to credulous MacLeods and Mackays, Heywards and Hughes, and even the odd Yerxa.

During the Second World War, when her brother Walter and her male Mackay cousins fought the original Axis of Evil overseas (Walter was a POW in the Philippines), Charlotte MacLeod attended the Art Institute of Boston (now merged into Lesley University).  After the war she worked, like her Cousin Donald, as a commercial artist, in her case in the employment of the catchily-named Stop and Shop supermarket chain.  However, in 1952, about the time Whitey Bulger was first arrested in Beantown, Charlotte accepted a copy writing position with a Boston advertising firm. Three decades later she retired at the age of sixty, at which time she had risen to a position as vice-president. Thenceforward, she found plenty of things to occupy her time.

Like PD James, another accomplished career woman turned mystery author, Charlotte MacLeod saw her success in crime writing come later in life, but she did very well for herself in the field from then onward.  James' great breakthrough came with her transatlantic bestseller Innocent Blood (1980), published when she was sixty years old, after eighteen years of periodic crime writing on her part.  Only two years younger than James, MacLeod concurrently enjoyed mystery writing success which was less spectacular but very steady.

Just over four decades ago, in October 1978, the 55-year-old MacLeod published Rest You Merry, the first of her Peter and Helen Shandy series of mysteries, headlined by a professor of horticulture and his librarian wife at the fictional Balaclava Agricultural College in Massachusetts.  The next year came The Family Vault, the first of her "Boston Brahmin" milieu mysteries with genteel Sarah Kelling and her art expert beau Max Bittersohn, while 1980 saw her initial "Alisa Craig" Canadian Mountie Madoc Rhys mystery, A Pint of Murder, set as mentioned in New Brunswick, and 1981 the first of her Grub-and-Stakers mystery series (the less said about this last cray-cray series the better, in my opinion). 

Amazingly, MacLeod kept all four of these series going, like a juggler twirling a multitude of plates, until 1996, 1998, 1992 and 1994 respectively.  Only the onset of Alzheimer's Disease put an end to an impressively prolific, popular and critically praised crime writing career.  MacLeod died in 2005 in a nursing home in Lewiston, Maine, a state which she had made her home for the previous two decades.  Until her health failed, she dwelt at a 200-year-old house, a quaint former inn, in the small town of Lisbon Falls.

in honor of Charlotte MacLeod
a plate of yummy Joe Froggers
most certainly made with molasses
See New England Magazine
for the lore and the (very good!) recipe
Charlotte's brother Walter died three years after Charlotte in 2008, while still living in Weymouth, where he had been employed by the city as a heating engineer.  Their baby sister, Alexandria, died five years after Walter in 2013.  During her sister's years as a mystery writer, Alexandria had loyally served as Charlotte's business manager and typist.  After Charlotte's death, Alexandria described her as a true lady who wore white gloves and large hats and had impeccable grammar.

Of the mysteries which Charlotte wrote, Alexandria pronounced that her sister had written them "specifically for people who did not want blood and guts, at least not a whole lot of it anyway.  Everybody drank tea and ate molasses cookies.  It was that kind of thing."

Presumably it was not over tea and molasses cookies--it was not that kind of thing--that Lindsey Chester Cyr, Charlotte's niece by her other sister, Helen, who died in 1995, made her fateful meeting with Whitey Bulger in 1966, at a Boston cafe where the attractive 20-year-old woman, a part time legal secretary and occasional model, worked as a waitress.

For Lindsey it was love at first sight with the 37-year-old ladykiller.  "He was gorgeous," she recalled.  "There wasn't anything not to be attracted to.  He was blond, blue-eyed, very well-built and handsome." Yet the multiple murderer was also, in Lindsey's eyes, "a perfect gentleman who made her feel safe."  Hey, what's not to like!

again with the hats
MacLeod niece Lindsey Cyr
onetime lover of Whitey Bulger and
the mother of his son Douglas
Lindsey and Whitey quickly launched a romantic relationship, which inadvertently produced a son, Douglas, the next year.  However, Douglas died tragically young from Reye's Syndrome in 1973 (Whitey attended the funeral of the boy, in the upbringing of whom he had been involved).  Lindsey, who was involved with Whitey for about 15 years, first spoke out about their relationship in 2010, a year before the fugitive was arrested and imprisoned for what turned out to be the last seven years of his life.  A film about Bulger, Black Mass, was released in 2015, with Johnny Depp playing Whitey and Dakota Johnson playing Lindsey. In the last decade Lindsey Cyr has continued to talk about her relationship with Whitey, as she did when she pronounced that Black Mass was an "awful" film and loyally declared of Bulger that she will always love him

As far as I know, however, no one had ever connected all this real world drama with the comfortable, tidy life of the great Queen of Cozies, Charlotte MacLeod.  Sometimes very different worlds do indeed collide and truth really is stranger than--or at least every bit as strange as--fiction.

Stay tuned for more on Charlotte MacLeod's mysteries this week, if not the late Whitey Bulger.  Though we occasionally do vintage hard-boiled stuff here, and even sometimes enjoy it, molasses cookies and chatty confidences are more our thing at the home of the Passing Tramp than straight rum and revolting gangster rub-outs.

see Boston Magazine


  1. Charlotte did indeed take the Alisa Craig pseudonym from her aunt's name. Charlotte wanted it to be Ailsa Craig (the Craig being a pun on "crag") but the publisher thought Ailsa too strange and insisted on Alisa. Charlotte told me this herself during a visit to Houston for a signing.

    1. Thanks, dean! Funny, I like Ailsa better than Alisa, but I guess publishers know best! (Or do they?) I thought it was too big a coincidence that it was a family name.

  2. Well, how about that. I always thought that pseudonym was an in-joke for botanists and gardening enthusiasts who no doubt enjoyed her books. Ailsa Craig is an ancient name for an onion variety first grown in Scotland. The name dates back to the late 19th century. I thought she was being extremely clever in coming up with the anagram of the first name. Ah well...

    1. John knows his onions! I wonder if Ailsa Craig is grown on Ailsa Craig!

    2. I'm sure it was first grown there. AND! Oddly enough, it's also the name of a variety of tomato. That particular Ailsa Craig is relatively new, dating back to 1912. I only found out all of this when several years ago I read some obscure mystery that involved gardening (it was probably one of the Rev. Buckle books by Nicholas Brady) and mentioned in passing was the Ailsa Craig onion. I immediately looked it up online to find out how old the variety was because I knew Alisa Craig was Macleod's pseudonym. Made me laugh a lot.

  3. John, I'm sure Charlotte knew that, as she was extremely fond of puns herself. In one of the Sarah Kelling books, there's a sea captain whose surname is "Rovedock." Also witness the heroine in the Grub-and-Stakers series, Dittany Henbit.

  4. This was absolutely fascinating. I read it all, and the piece about the Balk fellow. You do such a great job with this blog.

    1. Thank you so much. I'm not posting as frequently as I used to, but I do try and make things interesting for people with at least weekly posts. There's a lot of human interest among crime writers!

  5. Only you could come up with those details and connections, Curt! I was always mystified by the Ailsa/Alisa anagram, I had to triple check every time I came across that pseudonym.

    1. I'd also like to thank the late Whitey Bulger! Without him this blog piece could never have happened.

    2. I just looked "Craig" up in Barzun and Taylor and they mistakenly list Alisa as "Ailsa" too! It's a better name. Well, at least the editor didn't make Charlotte change it to "Jenny"!