Boston’s Best Feuds

We’ve been fighters from the start. Boston was founded on a handshake in 1630 when hermit William Blackstone invited the Puritans to live near him. Pretty soon they start arguing over religion; next thing you know, Blackstone gets his house burned down. He leaves town, the Puritans stay. Four centuries on, we’re still prone to a good scrap. Here, our take on the Hub’s 12 greatest brawls. You got a problem with that?

— 12 —
James Curley vs. Boston Brahmins

The Rascal King Sticks It to the Upper Crust, 1903–1949

How It Started: Curley is pinched for taking a civil service exam for a pal. The judge who sends the future mayor to jail is as Brahmin as they come: Francis Cabot Lowell.

How It Endured: Mayor Curley elevates tweaking the city’s old money to an art form—threatening, for example, to sell their beloved Public Garden and use the cash in poorer neighborhoods. The Brahmins exact their revenge via the ballot box: Curley loses a Senate run to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and a gubernatorial bid to Leverett Saltonstall.

Outcome: Today the four-term mayor is memorialized with not one, but two statues near Faneuil Hall.

— 11 —
The McLaughlins vs. The McLeans

The Hub’s Bloodiest Gang War, 1961–1967

How It Started: The McLaughlins are running the Charlestown mob, while the McLeans control Somerville’s Winter Hill gang. Whatever uneasy peace exists between the families is shattered when young Georgie McLaughlin insults a McLean associate’s moll.

How It Endured: After some humdrum car bombings and broad-daylight killings, a couple of McLean hitmen, on the hunt for boss Punchy McLaughlin, disguise themselves as rabbis and lead a shootout at Beth Israel. Punchy is just one of the 43 bodies the gangs send to the morgue over six years.

Outcome: Time magazine notes our local tendency to get carried away when slighted: “Whether they choose firearms, rope, blunt instruments, knives, or a combination of weapons, the Boston badmen almost invariably indulge in overkill.”

— 10 —
The Needham High Rockets vs. The Wellesley High Raiders

Dueling Towns Take Their Beef to the Gridiron, 1882–present

How It Started: Wellesley and Needham have been at odds since the former seceded from the latter more than a century ago. They exercise their enmity in a football game, which they’ve played each Thanksgiving since 1882—the nation’s oldest public high school pigskin rivalry.

How It Endured: Back in the olden days, players nearing the end zone were routinely tackled by spectators. The teams have been known to enlist ringers, including college football players and even one kid’s dad. And more recently, a nasty brawl broke out in the stands when a seventh-grade Needham girl jumped a 40-year-old Wellesley dude.

Outcome: Unsatisfied with the yearly tussle, the towns now dig up other reasons to argue: When Needham was honored by the state for its high recycling rates in 2008, Wellesley went berserk, calling the figures “unreliable.”

— 9 —
Cardinal William O’Connell vs. Bishop Francis Spellman

Catholic Boston’s Holy War, 1932–1939

How It Started: An up-and-comer serving under the flamboyant O’Connell, Spellman becomes the first U.S. priest to be consecrated a bishop at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; the papers say he’s next in line for the cardinal’s gig. But O’Connell has no interest in being upstaged.

How It Endured: O’Connell welcomes Spellman back to Boston with the news that he’ll be assisting with the lowly task of confirming children, then gleefully posts him at a debt-ridden parish in Newton. Opting to work around O’Connell, Spellman befriends powerful Catholics like Joe Kennedy.

Outcome: Spellman’s alliance-building pays off when good pal Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli becomes Pope Pius XII. Spellman is promptly named archbishop of New York.

— 8 —
David D’Alessandro vs. Arthur Winn

CEOs Take Their Fight to the Playground, 1999–2005

How It Started: When developer Winn announces he’ll build Columbus Center, a $500 million residential complex by the Back Bay T stop, everyone’s thrilled. Except D’Alessandro, head of John Hancock, which owns a key sliver of the land.

How It Endured: Miffed because he wasn’t consulted, D’Alessandro refuses pleas to sell. To scuttle the project, he gives the land to the city along with $2 million to build a nice playground.

Outcome: It takes a while, but Winn gets the okay to build around the park. This time the project is stalled by the economy, taking up where D’Alessandro left off.

— 7 —
James Franklin vs. Ben Franklin

Family Feud, Colonial-Style, 1721–1723

How It Started: James is making a name for himself as editor of the New England Courant, but he grows jealous when kid brother Ben shows an early talent for writing, and refuses to let him pen stories for the paper.

How It Endured: Relegated to typesetting and paper-hawking, Ben takes up the pen name “Silence Dogood” and writes secret dispatches for the paper. With the whole town wondering who the brilliant author could be, Ben reveals himself. James gives him a thorough ass-kicking.

Outcome: Paving the way for generations of talented locals who leave in a huff, Ben bolts to escape a “harsh and tyrannical” brother. You’re welcome, Philly.

— 6 —
Mike Demoulas vs. His Brother’s Kids

A Store-bought Throwdown, 1990–2004

How It Started: Brothers George and Mike Demoulas build their folks’ Market Basket grocery chain into a local juggernaut. When George dies in 1971, Mike promises to share the empire with George’s kids. It doesn’t quite work out.

How It Endured: In 1990 George’s kids sue, saying Uncle Mike squirreled away 92 percent of the $2 billion business for himself. The legal war becomes the most expensive in state history. The weirdest, too: Believing a man had bugged the supermarket headquarters, Mike’s lawyers pay $500,000 to an ex- stripper, who tries (and fails) to get the man to say that on tape. And during a hearing, one of Mike’s kids punches one of George’s in the face.

Outcome: After years in court, a jury returns half the fortune to George’s kids…who immediately turn on each other.

— 5 —
Ted Kennedy vs. Rupert Murdoch

The Senator Tangles with a Tycoon, 1986–1999

How It Started: Conservative media mogul Murdoch, then owner of the Herald, and columnist Howie Carr delight in taking shots at Teddy, whom Carr calls, among other things, “Fat Boy.” The senator doesn’t find this funny.

How It Endured: When Murdoch buys Channel 25 in 1986, he applies for a federal waiver allowing him to own both a newspaper and a TV station in the same city. But a certain legislator blocks his path: Kennedy helps sneak into a bill an amendment banning the waiver Murdoch needs. He apparently hopes Murdoch will sell the Herald. Instead, Murdoch gets rid of Channel 25.

Outcome: Kennedy’s amendment is struck down in court, and Murdoch continues to needle his nemesis. When JFK Jr.’s plane crashes near the Vineyard, a banner at the bottom of Murdoch’s SkyNews broadcast reminds viewers that these are the same waters in which Mary Jo Kopechne died.

— 4 —
Edgar Allan Poe vs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Legendary Wordsmiths Get Pissy over Poetry, 1845–1849

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

How It Started: The Boston-born Poe never cared much for his hometown’s snootiness—a trait exemplified by Harvard poet Longfellow. Poe calls him “a determined imitator and a dexterous adapter” of European writers.

How It Endured: In classic Boston fashion, Longfellow gets his friends to do the skirmishing for him: Ralph Waldo Emerson writes off “The Raven” with the insult “I see nothing in it.” Poe is undeterred. Sure, Longfellow “has written brilliant poems,” he admits, but only “by accident.”

Outcome: Though he dies a penniless drunk, Poe gets credit for creating the modern horror and detective genres. Longfellow’s work gets memorized by grade schoolers.

— 3 —
Larry Summers vs. Cornel West

Harvard’s President Disses a Superstar Prof, 2001–2002

How It Started: As West tells it, the trouble began when Summers asked for help ousting a conservative member of the Harvard faculty. West refuses.

How It Endured: Summers turns on West, a star member of the African-American studies program, accusing him of inflating grades and neglecting classes to focus on making hip-hop albums. West calls Summers a “bully” and “the Ariel Sharon of higher education.” Jesse Jackson convenes a press conference; Al Sharpton threatens to sue.

Outcome: West says, “I’m afraid, my brother, that you’ve messed with the wrong brother,” and decamps to Princeton. Summers later shares half-baked ideas about women and science that put him out on his Crimson keister, ending the briefest Harvard presidency since 1862.

— 2 —
Ted Williams vs. Dave Egan

The Kid Goes to War with the Colonel, 1939–1960

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

How It Started: Though the Splendid Splinter nursed a grudge against all Boston media, he reserved special hatred for Egan, a newspaper columnist who dubbed himself “The Colonel.” Before shipping off to the Korean War in 1952, Williams is given keys to the city. Egan takes the opportunity to blast him for such crimes against his country as refusing to ever tip his cap. “We should officially horsewhip [Williams] for the vicious influence that he has had on the childhood of America,” he writes.

How It Endured: Egan doesn’t confine his attacks to moments of public hero worship. He also calls Williams “the prize heel ever to wear a Boston uniform,” “the most overpaid buffoon in the history of baseball,” and “the inventor of the automatic choke.” Williams mostly ignores him—though he calls him “the old drunken bastard” behind his back—and instead grants long, charming interviews with even the smallest out-of-town newspapers.

Outcome: Egan is long gone by the time Williams takes the podium at his Hall of Fame induction in 1966, but when a voice calls out, “What would Dave Egan say now?” witnesses swear Williams mumbles, “Fuck Dave Egan.”

— 1 —
Billy Bulger vs. Alan Dershowitz

The Hub’s Grandest Grudge Match, 1995-Present

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Bulger, the former Senate president, was trained in the art of war in the legislature (and perhaps by the example of a gangster brother). Dershowitz, the Harvard professor and spotlight-loving attorney, has never had an insult cross his mind without it first coming out of his mouth. The two are perfectly matched: quick wit, thin skin, raging sense of self-importance. The arc of their battle, so far.

Resentment Is Sown: In the mid-1980s, Dershowitz becomes convinced Bulger is behind a scheme to shake down his client, a developer looking for permits to build a downtown skyscraper. Though the case never goes to court, Dershowitz relentlessly brands Bulger a crook.

A War of Words: In 1990, Governor Dukakis nominates a Bulger aide to become a district court judge. Dershowitz declares the aide to be a Bulger “henchman” and “thug”—pretty loaded terms, given the line of work pursued by brother Whitey. Bulger calls Dershowitz “exceedingly crafty” and “a true conniver”—comments many consider anti-Semitic.

Alliances Form: In 2003, Governor Romney tries to oust Bulger from his position as president of UMass. Romney suggests he’ll appoint university trustees to force Bulger out, including known Bulger-hater Howie Carr and Dershowitz himself. Dershowitz pens screeds against Bulger (including in this magazine). Bulger finally resigns, but essentially installs his own successor.

A Matter of Honor: At a speech last spring, Bulger says the Globe would print just about any lie Dershowitz could dream up about him. Roused by the claim, Dershowitz challenges Bulger to a debate. “He can debate me or he can apologize to me,” he says. “Since dueling is now off the table, his third option is to simply accept the humiliation of being challenged to a debate and turning it down.” Bulger refuses, but says he’d be happy to talk about Dershowitz’s failings anytime.

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  • Todd

    Loved the red apple story, but Salinger would have said “It took Stephanie and ME a while to find it.”