In my career writing about organized crime, it could be said, and has been said, that I have acquired some unusual items. Case in point: Mad Dog’s scrapbook.
Over the years, I became friendly with the notorious gangster Joseph “Mad Dog” Sullivan, referred to by his friends as Sully. When I first met Sully, he had been incarcerated for thirty years. He was serving a life sentence for various murders he had done primarily as a hit man for the Mob back in the 1970s. Sully’s capture in 1982, his trial on murder charges and eventual incarceration were the capstone to a criminal career that was the stuff of legend. When Sully died last year, I wrote a blog entry — Death of a Mad Dog — that can be found elsewhere here on skullfragments.com.
In the course of getting to know Mad Dog Sullivan (I twice visited him in prison and corresponded on a semi-regular basis), I also got to know his wife Gail. She stayed with the convicted gangster throughout his long incarceration, an incredible feat of matrimonial devotion. In speaking with Gail, I learned that, at her husband’s request, she kept a scrapbook over the years of newspaper clippings about Sullivan. I asked her, “Do you think I could have a look at that?” Gail did me one better: she gave it to me. Making me, I guess, the official archivist for the criminal legacy of Joseph “Mad Dog” Sullivan.
One of the things that strikes me while looking through Sully’s scrapbook is the allure that this type of criminal once had in what was referred to back then as the tabloid press. Sullivan was an old school gangster from another era. Even in the early-1980s, he was a throwback. The idea of an Irish American hit man was something out of a 1930s Jimmy Cagney gangster movie. Sure, there was the Westies, another throwback to an earlier era, and in South Boston there was Whitey Bulger, who was still going strong in the 1980s. But Sullivan was a rare breed — an independent contractor. Mostly, he had been hired by the Mafia to do professional hits, for which he was known to be coldly proficient.
With a nickname like ‘Mad Dog’, the newspapers could hardly resist. The name supposedly derived from a State Trooper, when sending his men out to hunt down Sullivan, warned them, ‘Be careful, this man is a mad dog killer.’ A reporter with the New York Post embedded with the troopers used the reference in his article, and it became headline fodder.
Mad Dog’s scrapbook is filled with sensationalized headlines and many photos of Sully, who was ruggedly handsome and undeniably charismatic, in a street tough kind of way. The actor Jon Voight got to know Sully and wanted to play him in a movie. Allegedly, one of Voight’s greatest performances, as an escaped convict in the movie Runaway Train, was based on Joe Sullivan. Having gotten to know Sullivan — having heard him talk and observed his mannerisms — and having seen Voight’s characterization in the movie, I’d say Sully had a case for theft of personality. Voight’s performance is a spot on though perhaps somewhat romanticized interpretation of Sullivan. An even more accurate version is the character Voight plays in the TV series Ray Donovan. You want to know what Joe Sullivan was like — his manner of speech, his physical movements, his hard boiled demeanor — watch Jon Voight in Ray Donovan.
Anyway, the scrapbook is a trip, as they say, a journey down memory lane. Of course, nowhere to be found among these newspaper articles is the man I got to know. I’m not saying Sullivan was a saint, or the kind of person you would want your sons or daughters to emulate, but he was, believe it or not, a good man. A straight shooter (pun intended), and a thoughtful man who, over his many decades of incarceration, had come to understand the full horror of what he had done, and what he had become, and was trying to live out the remainder of his life as a husband, a father, and a decent human being — to the extent that he could while being separated from the outside world.
Among the many items in the scrapbook, there is one article that I know Sully would have felt proud about. In the austere pages of the New York Times, no less, there is an account of Sullivan’s escape from Attica prison in 1971. Sullivan was then, and still is, the only man to ever have escaped from Attica. This occurred a decade before he became the notorious Mad Dog of the tabloid headlines.
Gail made sure that the article on Sully’s escape from Attica occupies the first page of the scrapbook. Amidst the ink-stained accounts of mayhem, death and destruction, this article describes an act of tremendous ingenuity and daring. Though Sully would be re-captured and returned to prison after only a few months of freedom, even so, the act stands. There it is immortalized in the pages of the Old Grey Lady, lovingly pasted onto page one of Mad Dog’s scrapbook.
T.J. English is the author of, among other books, the Irish Mob Trilogy (‘The Westies, Paddy Whacked and Where the Bodies Were Buried).