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A look back at why the government may have wanted Bulger dead more than anyone else

On Oct 30, the day before Halloween, infamous Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger met a reportedly gruesome end. The brutality of his death, on his first day after transferring to Hazelton federal penitentiary in West Virginia, was comparable to that endured by many of his victims.

As his attorney J.W. Carney put it in a blunt press release:


I was proud to be appointed by the Federal Court to represent James Bulger.

He was sentenced to life in prison, but as a result of decisions by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, that sentence has been changed to the death penalty.

I’ll have no further comment.


During Bulger’s 2013 trial, Carney audaciously claimed that while Bulger “had an unbelievably lucrative criminal enterprise,” he wasn’t really an FBI informant, but instead “had people on the local police, the state police, and especially federal law enforcement on his payroll.” Carney also claimed that of the 19 murders Bulger was accused of involvement with, he was specifically not guilty of killing two women, Debra Davis and Deborah Hussey. Bulger was eventually convicted in Hussey’s death and 10 others (the court issued a “no finding” on the Davis case).

Along with his collaborator Gerard O’Neill, longtime Boston Globe reporter Dick Lehr penned multiple books covering Bulger’s criminal career, and dismissed Whitey’s claim to have never snitched. In an interview I did with Lehr the semester after he taught me in journalism school in 2014, though, he said it was unfortunate Bulger wasn’t allowed to testify that a deceased federal prosecutor verbally granted him lifetime immunity for his crimes.

“It’s hard to imagine, it’s hard to believe, but let him make his case,” Lehr said. “If he could he’d probably give a network interview.”

The closest it seems Bulger ever came to getting that kind of exposure was on CNN, which aired clips of the mobster speaking over the phone with his lawyer Carney in 2014.

Bulger’s corrupt relationship with FBI agents—before he disappeared for more than a decade, alternating with Osama bin Laden as America’s most wanted man while hiding in plain sight in Santa Monica, California—is well known. Yet other government corruption surrounding his case has received far less attention. For starters, as Lehr wrote in his 2013 book Whitey, a young Bulger was involved with the notorious CIA mind-control program codenamed MK-Ultra. Bulger received his first prison sentence in 1956: 20 years for a string of bank robberies. At 26 years old, he hadn’t yet killed anyone. That would come later, after his participation in Dr. Carl Pfeiffer’s government-sponsored drug experiments at the federal pen in Atlanta.

Along with several other inmates who all scored high on tests for “psychopathic tendencies,” not long after his arrival in Atlanta, Bulger joined an experimental program involving lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and likely other hallucinogens. He eventually tripped on acid more than 50 times in prison before getting kicked out of the program for “being persistently noisy and boisterous to a rather extreme degree.” Bulger would later recount how his “nightmarish” experiences brought him to “the depths of insanity.”

In one trip, turning to another inmate, Bulger saw “the flesh on his face melt and fall off revealing his skull; flesh melt from his hands turning into bare bones; blood spew out of the lightbulbs.” In another, Bulger said he “looked down and saw a cockroach—he exploded into the size of an elephant and I shrunk to the size of an ant. Fear had me screaming and climbing the wall.”

A few years later, then-Harvard professor and soon-to-be professional psychedelic guru Timothy Leary would take psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) with inmates at Concord State Prison. This arguably provided a more humane “set and setting”—referring to mind-“set” and environment— for the trips than Pfeiffer’s.

More recent research in the past decade seems to suggest that under the right conditions, LSD has therapeutic potential. But while Leary and his colleagues have been credited with first highlighting the importance of said “set and setting” to the outcome of a trip, the finding may have been born elsewhere. Those truly responsible were also Harvard-affiliated and even more directly tied to CIA powers than Leary, who once attended West Point and himself said, in 1977, that “the LSD movement was started by the CIA.”

Dr. Robert Hyde of Harvard-affiliated Boston Psychopathic Hospital, later renamed Massachusetts Mental Health Center, is said to have been the first American to take LSD—in 1949, over a decade before Leary’s experiments. The early experiments by Hyde and his colleagues may have been independent at first, but they received around $40,000 a year from the CIA from at least 1952.

“We agreed not to discuss it,” one doctor recalled to an interviewer in 1979.

There is little doubt that the CIA was closely involved in the LSD explosion of the 1960s. Another Boston Psychopathic researcher, Max Rinkel, without mentioning the agency specifically, hinted in 1965 “that much of the black market supply” came from Italy. “All of the Harvard students under his care mentioned that LSD is easily obtainable in Harvard Square, a fact confirmed by several students from other colleges,” the Harvard Crimson reported.

In 1959, Bulger, still in prison, rejoined Pfeiffer’s LSD experiments. But something went wrong. A week after signing up, “Whitey suffered an overdose of some kind,” Lehr writes. Bulger would later denounce Pfeiffer, accusing him of betraying his oath.

“We were recruited by lies and deception,” the gangster wrote. “Encouraged to volunteer to be guinea pigs in a noble humanitarian cause.”

The CIA’s mission was far from humanitarian. Instead, it aimed to weaponize “behavior modification” techniques. Following his participation in LSD experiments, Bulger’s behavior seemingly changed—but perhaps not the way his handlers hoped.

After taking LSD multiple times in the less-than-ideal “set and setting” of prison, Bulger began participating in escape attempts. So many, in fact, that following one a few weeks after his bad trip, he was finally shipped to the notorious Alcatraz penitentiary in San Francisco Bay, along with several other of his problematic escape artist associates. These others would later famously break out of the supposedly impenetrable island prison.

Bulger might’ve escaped with them, but he had another, more political escape planned thanks to his younger brother William. A member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who would later go on to preside over the state Senate, according to Lehr’s book Whitey, William got US Speaker of the House John McCormack to put in a good word for his sibling. In 1965, after serving less than 9 years, Bulger was back on the street—and soon building a criminal empire.

Bulger’s prison LSD experience doesn’t excuse later crimes, but it seems likely that the government contributed to creating a monster. It’s also worth noting that MK-Ultra extended far beyond LSD testing, including in at least one other notorious case stemming from Greater Boston.

While Whitey was doing time in Atlanta, a 16-year-old math prodigy named Ted Kaczynski enrolled at Harvard. Soon, he was reluctantly participating in experiments, likely funded by the CIA, that aimed to develop ambitious interrogation techniques.

Kaczynski, code-named “Lawful,” was told to write an essay on his “personal philosophy of life,” only to have it carefully studied and then demolished by a lawyer. Kaczynski had deceptively been told the attorney was just “another undergraduate subject like himself,” while the impugnment was done in a brightly lit room, in front of a one-way mirror, with electrodes measuring Kaczynski’s heart and respiratory rates. Even as he continued taking part in Dr. Henry Murray’s experiments, Kaczynski began worrying about “mind control.”

Though Kaczynski thought he would be participating in a “debate,” Murray acknowledged that Kaczynski was subjected to “vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive” attacks. Over three decades later, Kaczynski still remembered Murray’s experiment as “a highly unpleasant experience.” That was after he embarked on an extended terror campaign overlapping Bulger’s reign, and had become widely known as the “Unabomber.”

Kaczynski was finally captured after a manifesto he wrote was published in several major newspapers, and his writing style was identified by his brother.

Today, Kaczynski resides at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. Though he’s reportedly “carried on a remarkable correspondence with thousands of people all over the world,” including some published interviews, in 2016 Kaczynski offered to grant a single interview to the right person, presumably in the mainstream media.

Unlike Bulger, if he has anything worthwhile to say, it’s possible he’ll actually follow through— before the government makes a similar decision to shorten his sentence and silence him.

This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, published in DigBoston, and distributed in part on social media through our partnership with Dirty Old Boston. 

Jonathan Riley is a contributing writer to DigBoston and a graduate of Boston University's College of Communication. He covers oddities for BINJ.

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