The Legend of Banquo's Ghost

By the time Martin J. Hanley died—on the second day of the new millennium—he was scarcely even a footnote in the sordid history of Massachusetts politics. The Boston Globe ran a nice obituary, drawn largely from a profile on him the newspaper had done 20 years earlier. But it's doubtful that more than a handful of people recalled either the man himself or the scandals in which he'd figured so prominently.

Who could care about an 85-year-old former deputy banking commissioner and an ancient scheme to fix the rates that small-loans companies could charge in Massachusetts? The wonder is that, 35 years ago, people cared so much. For a while there, Hanley had been front-page material, a symbol of high-level corruption in state government, back in that innocent pre-Watergate era when people really meant it when they said they were shocked to learn the public trust had been abused.

The Martin Hanley I knew, however, wasn't your ordinary garden-variety influence peddler. In the midst of the investigation, after he'd been fingered as the villain of the piece, he suddenly turned against the political establishment, accusing some of the most powerful people in the commonwealth of engaging in a massive cover-up designed to protect their friends and preserve their power. His stand made him a pariah and virtually ensured his own conviction on bribery charges. But he wouldn't let go of it, even after spending four years in prison.

What annoyed him most was the hypocrisy of it all. He never claimed he was innocent nor did he ask to be forgiven “because everybody did it.” Rather, his mission was to expose the crimes that had gone unpunished and the corruption he considered endemic to the system.

His words went unheeded. In 1979, another scandal erupted, and another special commission was formed to get to the bottom of it. When the commission began holding public hearings at the State House, Hanley would show up every day and sit quietly in the back row, his trademark fedora resting in his lap.

His presence was sufficiently unsettling to attract the Globe's attention. “Why does Martin J. Hanley come back to the State House, where he sees the 'same snakes slithering down the corridors' as he did in the late 1950s and early 1960s?” asked staff writer Maria Karagianis. “Why does [he] come back to investigative hearings reminiscent of those in the early 1960s that resulted in his imprisonment?”

“Why does Banquo's ghost come back?” Hanley replied, referring to the specter that haunted Shakespeare's Macbeth. “Curiosity, I suppose.”

I was just 25 years old when I first encountered Marty Hanley. It was the spring of 1971. What brought us together was our mutual contempt for the establishment and outrage over political hypocrisy. Back then it was still possible to get worked up about political hypocrisy. More to the point, it was possible to believe you could make a difference by exposing political hypocrisy, as I and my colleagues at the old Boston After Dark—the predecessor of the Boston Phoenix—were attempting to do.

So, for that matter, was my friend Michael Ansara, who was trying to organize a grassroots movement in Dorchester by mobilizing resentment against Jerome Troy, a corrupt local judge. Among other things, Ansara's group had accused Troy of consorting with felons, including the notorious bribetaker, Martin Hanley. Shortly thereafter, the heavy-set, head-shaven Hanley, dressed in fedora and overcoat and looking like an undercover cop from, say, 1957, had shown up at this motley crew's headquarters and offered to give Ansara all the information he needed to get rid of Troy.

As it turned out, Hanley had a larder full of juicy tidbits, not only about Troy, but about a host of other Massachusetts politicians as well. Ansara knew I'd be interested and introduced him to me. We hit it off immediately. Hanley quickly became an important source for those of us at Boston After Dark who were covering state and local politics.

As a source, he was a gold mine. He knew all the players and their histories. He knew their secret connections, their feuds and alliances, their hidden deals, and the subtle mechanisms they used to move cash here and there. We could hardly believe our good fortune. Understand, these were the days of Vietnam protests, prison riots, and Black Panther shootouts, a time when people chanted “off the pig” in demonstrations and took the idea of revolution seriously. It was the period, right before Watergate, when newspapers challenged the government by publishing the Pentagon Papers and the concept of crusading journalism had real meaning. We were a bunch of naove, idealistic, rabble-rousing radicals, convinced that the entire political system was rotten to the core—if only we could prove it. Here was a veteran of the system, a renegade insider, an Irish pol right out of the Last Hurrah era, not only telling us we were right but volunteering to show us where the bodies were buried.

For the next year or so, Marty helped us rake muck and stir up trouble, providing us with information, leading us to other sources, pointing out promising places to look for stories. He himself wrote a full-fledged exposi for the paper under the pseudonym “X.” The article was filled with all kinds of potentially libelous accusations, but he told us not to worry. No one would dare bring suit over it. He was, of course, right.

You had to wonder what was driving him. He wasn't trying to prove his innocence. He all but told us he was guilty as sin. So what was he looking for—revenge or redemption? I couldn't really tell. With Marty, the two tended to flow together.

In any case, it was all a lot of fun, and I'm sure Marty enjoyed the ride as much as the rest of us did. Along the way, he and I became close friends, our age difference notwithstanding (he was 56 at the time, some 30 years older than I was). When my first child, Jake, was born, Marty insisted on driving my wife and the baby home from the hospital in his big, black Lincoln because our old and porous Jeepster wasn't warm enough. The better I got to know him, the more I liked him. The truth is, he was more interesting than most of the people we were writing about. He had his dark side, no question, but he was also an Irish charmer with an enormous intellect, a rich sense of humor, an indefatigable curiosity, and a fascinating past.

When we weren't talking politics, he'd regale me with stories about his days in Burma and India as a Japanese translator for military intelligence during the Second World War. Or he'd reminisce about the administration of Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, where he got his start in politics. Or he'd discuss the superiority of dogs to people. Or launch into a commentary on Tolstoy, or Dostoyevsky, or Turgenev, quoting from their novels, reflecting on the characters.

He had much in common with those characters. To begin with, he looked like one of them, as people often noted. A great, bald bear of a man with bad teeth, a hooked nose, and wisps of white hair on his chin, he tended to scowl when he wasn't smiling, and he could be physically intimidating. He'd done some boxing in his youth. Now he kept in shape by lifting weights and shadowboxing, punching the air as he jogged along the beach near his house on Cape Cod. To me, he showed nothing but kindness and generosity, but I could sense the volcano inside him, and I'd heard the stories. Once, it was said, he'd used a crowbar to break down the office door of his erstwhile mentor and patron, House Speaker John “The Iron Duke” Thompson, with whom he'd had a falling out. The episode had been reported in the newspapers, and Marty himself mentioned it to me, somehow managing neither to confirm the story nor to deny it.

Alongside all that was something else—a peculiar kind of honesty and integrity. His larceny notwithstanding, he was one of the most honest people I've ever met. He was honest in a way that only someone who's been stripped naked before the world can be honest. He had nothing to hide anymore. He'd lost his honor, his dignity, his livelihood, his family. He was about to lose his freedom as well. All he had left was the truth.

It was, in fact, his insistence on telling the truth—the whole truth—that had landed him in so much trouble. Had he been willing to stick with half-truths, Marty Hanley could have gotten off with a slap on the wrist.

The critical moment came in 1966, as the state was preparing its case. In an extraordinary deal, Marty had agreed to testify before the grand jury investigating the small-loans scandal but only on the condition that he could tell everything he knew. He was playing the role of the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men, saying, in effect, “You want the truth? You can't handle the truth.” He wouldn't be the fall guy, and he wouldn't just name a few scapegoats. When he took the stand, the chips would fall where they may, even if that meant the most powerful politicians in the state were implicated.

Attorney General (later Senator) Edward Brooke had reluctantly accepted his terms, which Marty had insisted be put in writing. His attorney, Robert Muse, and Assistant Attorney General Herbert Travers had signed a document specifying that he'd be allowed to testify about bribery in the Senate as well as the House. The document was then locked away in a bank safe-deposit box that couldn't be opened except by mutual consent—or court order.

There was, of course, a history here. Marty didn't believe anyone was really interested in cleaning up state government. The whole investigation, he thought, was a giant charade designed to fool the public. He was convinced that the Republicans had made a deal with certain powerful Democrats. Far from rooting out corruption, he suspected, the powers that be were intent on covering it up while using the scandal as a pretext to settle old scores. Marty could only guess about the specifics of the deal, but he was determined to throw a monkey wrench into the works.

So, armed with his agreement, he'd gone before the grand jury and testified at length and in detail about the buying of votes in the House. When he finished that portion of his testimony, he was told he could leave. “What about the Senate?” he asked.

He was told the grand jury would get to it later. But within days, the indictments were handed up and the grand jury disbanded. He had been double-crossed. At that moment, Marty had a choice to make. He could shut up and go along, in which case he'd receive the relatively light sentence Muse and Travers had agreed upon. Or he could renounce his testimony and fight—and, in all likelihood, get the book thrown at him.

If Marty hesitated, he didn't show it. Over the next 2 years, he fought back in the two longest criminal trials in Massachusetts history. In both trials, his strategy was built around exposing the cover-up, which he insisted was ongoing. Why else would the Attorney General's Office have failed to honor the agreement signed by Muse and Travers? Why else would the prosecution so adamantly resist his attempts to introduce the agreement as evidence?

It was a losing battle all the way. In the first trial, he couldn't even persuade the judge to look at the agreement. In the second trial, he finally got it out of the bank vault, but only long enough for it to be resealed and sent back.

By then, Marty knew he was a goner. He'd dropped Muse and was serving as his own lawyer. At one point, he even called himself as a witness and proceeded to conduct the examination, alternately standing to ask the questions, then sitting to answer them. The judge let him get away with it, although his performance added new meaning to the phrase “contempt of court.”

And, in the end, he did get the book thrown at him. Convicted on numerous counts of soliciting bribes, receiving bribes, and conspiracy to do both, he was sentenced to 5 years in state prison, followed by an additional year in county jail. (The extra jail time was an unusual and particularly vindictive twist intended, no doubt, to send a message.) The cases were on appeal when I met him, but Marty knew he had almost no chance of winning. So while he was out raising Cain with me and my pals at Boston After Dark, he was also preparing to do hard time in Walpole state prison.

Our muckraking run lasted about a year, and a strange and memorable year it was. One week we'd publish an exposi of corruption in the building department; the next we'd be covering the arrest of Daniel Ellsberg for his release of the Pentagon Papers, or the New Haven trial of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, or the May Day demonstrations in Washington, D.C., where Vietnam veterans threw back their medals in anger over the continuing war.

Somehow it was all linked together, or so we believed, although I'm not sure any of us clearly understood the connections. We thought we were changing the world, and maybe we were in some ways. What we overlooked was the extent to which the world was already changing us.

In May of 1972, I left Boston to become managing editor of Ramparts magazine, the radical monthly based in Berkeley, California. Two months later, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Marty's case, thereby putting an end to the appeals process. He went straight to prison.

Right around that time, a security guard at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., happened upon some burglars who'd broken into the Democratic Party headquarters. By the time Marty finished paying his debt to society, Watergate had played itself out; the President had resigned in disgrace; the role of the press had been transformed; and we'd begun our long slide into a sort of collective cynicism from which we've yet to emerge.

Of course, Marty had always been cynical about government, so he welcomed the change in public attitudes and kept on fighting. When the state's next big political scandal came along, he volunteered his services to the commission investigating it. Meanwhile, he continued to feed stories and tips to any journalist who would listen.

In 1982, Marty had the first of a series of strokes. He recovered from that one but eventually suffered another that put him in nursing homes for the rest of his life. I visited him a few times, once with his friend and former lawyer, Bob Muse. Marty couldn't speak by then, but he still had his sense of humor, and he was as combative as ever. “To hell with fate,” he scribbled in my notebook. “It stinks.” Then he laughed.

His own fate was to outlive most of his old adversaries—and most of his old friends as well. When he finally died on January 2, he was pretty much a forgotten man in political circles, a remnant of another era. Even his funeral was upstaged by that of Elliot Richardson, an old adversary, who was buried on the same day.

Was their era better than ours, or worse? Who knows? It was an era when we still had illusions about politics and government—and still had the capacity for outrage. These days, that outrage is long gone. Who expects politicians to look out for the public interest anymore? We've grown up. When people say they're shocked—shocked!—by an abuse of power, they mean it in the Casablanca sense: laced with irony. What a gain. What a loss.