The Last Larger-Than-Life Outlaw

Boston mobster Whitey Bulger’s arrest ends an era of fascinating fugitives on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Lee Siegel says the decline of the list mirrors the extinction of larger-than-life Hollywood stars and politicians.

06.24.11 8:26 PM ET

As crime goes, so goes the rest of the country. At least that’s how it seems with the apprehension of James “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston criminal mastermind on the lam from the law for 16 years who had been the second-most glamorous—if you will forgive applying that term to sociopaths—fugitive on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, after Osama bin Laden. With Bulger’s arrest, the larger-than-life outlaw has gone the way of the larger-than-life actor, pop singer, athlete, and politician.

Bulger seems to have been an especially vicious criminal. Accused of the murder of 19 people, he is alleged to have killed innocent bystanders along with other criminals, as well as allegedly strangling two girlfriends of his lieutenants. You can only hope that what seems like his certain conviction and imprisonment will, in some way, lessen the grief of the family, lovers, and friends his victims left behind.

But, at the risk of seeming callous, there was always something symbolic about American outlaws, especially the ones who made it onto the Ten Most Wanted list. They were the dark or twisted underside of the American faith in individual will and initiative.

It was hardly a coincidence that the list made its debut in 1950, when sudden prosperity, a feeling of triumph and power after the war, and the growing mass media identified outsize personality with the fulfillment of the American dream. Thanks especially to the media’s new technology of magnification, personality became more powerful than birth, class, or privilege. Anyone could have it. And once they proved they had it, their personality proved even more fundamental than their talent, whatever it was.

It was the year of the humbly born American everyman as president, Harry Truman. In Hollywood, it was the advent of the modern warts-and-all celebrity, as remote, one-dimensional icons like Gable, Hepburn, and Tracy gave way to the more intimate psychological complexity and naturalism of Brando and Monroe, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. You had Sinatra crooning and DiMaggio swinging. Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams ruled the stage. (Quick: Name a larger-than-life playwright at work today.) Everywhere you looked, it seems, larger-than-life personalities held out hope to ordinary people that they might be able to transcend their material givens on the sheer strength of character.

No wonder J. Edgar Hoover got the idea for the Most Wanted List, not from another lawman, or from a legislator, but from a media figure: William Kinsey Hutchinson, the editor in chief of International News Service, which later became United Press International. Hutchinson must have immediately seen the entertainment—oops, I mean news—value of publicizing the ongoing adventures of crime and punishment. For his part, Hoover, ever sensitive to public relations, must have seen that beyond the practical use of the Most Wanted lay the inestimable value of recapturing for the FBI the romantic image that had waned since the bureau’s glory days during Prohibition.

Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed was inspired by Whitey Bulger.

And just as larger-than-life public figures were becoming more accessible as personalities, the FBI’s Most Wanted made every American citizen a potential hero capable of apprehending someone on the list. Willie Sutton, the legendary bank robber and No. 11 on the very first list, was recognized, followed, and fingered by one Arnold Schuster, a 24-year-old clothing salesman and amateur sleuth from Brooklyn.

To this day, the FBI’s description of how a criminal gets on the list seems less like the unfolding of justice than the process behind the Academy Awards. According to the FBI’s website:

The Criminal Investigative Division (CID) at FBI Headquarters calls upon all 56 Field Offices to submit candidates for the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list. The nominees received are reviewed by Special Agents in the CID and the Office of Public Affairs. The selection of the “proposed” candidate(s) is forwarded to the Assistant Director of the CID for his/her approval and then to the FBI’s Director for final approval.

For your consideration: Two burglaries, one armed robbery, and a car theft.

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Then, too, by 1950, the Hays Code, which had censored movies that were too violent or socially provocative, was wearing thin. Film noir was at its height. The savage violence, the large-scale death and maiming of World War II were just beginning to loosen up social mores a la Mad Men. It was the perfect moment for faith in personality, and a secret thrill in personality’s darker regions, to fuse. By 1960, the Ten Most Wanted list was to American folklore what the Top 40 was to American pop music.

Times, however, change. The colorful bank robbers who mostly populated the list in the 1950s and early 1960s—Willie Sutton was said to have read all the Great Books in prison—have given way to Mexican gang-bangers, white-collar perps, and a whack job who killed his wife and kids and blew up his house because his wife was about to divorce him. (Though I shamefully admit to a soft spot for Victor Manuel Gerena,who stole $7 million from a security company in West Hartford, Connecticut, in 1983 after incapacitating two guards with a non-lethal injection. If you know where he is, don’t tell me.)

The decline of the Ten Most Wanted is hardly surprising. Our politicians possess the self-restraint of satyrs, our actors routinely experience character meltdowns in full public view, our athletes have steroids coming out of their ears, and our pop singers are either crowd-sourced creations like Justin Bieber or neo-post-meta figures like Lady Gaga, whose larger-than-life personality lies in the way she brilliantly deconstructs the whole notion of being a larger-than-life personality. Like most of our public figures and celebrities, our “most wanted” criminals are small beer.

So enjoy the short-lived media blitz on the arrest of Whitey Bulger. While we will continue to be afflicted with remorseless sociopaths like Bulger, we won’t be afforded the relief of losing ourselves in the mystery of an outsize criminal personality. The FBI might still want them. But we certainly won’t.