Irish Gang Wars Bloodied 'Citizen Somerville'

Download Audio
Winter Hill in Somerville in the 1960s when the Irish gang war started. (Courtesy of Bobby Martini)
Winter Hill in Somerville in the 1960s when the Irish gang war started. (Courtesy of Bobby Martini)

In 1961, a bloody gang war broke out between the Winter Hill Gang of Somerville and a rival gang in Charlestown. The fighting lasted more than a decade and by the time it was over more than 60 people had been murdered.

Bobby Martini grew up in Winter Hill and wrote a book about those bloody years called "Citizen Somerville: Growing up with The Winter Hill Gang."

Bobby Martini in Charlestown. (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)
Bobby Martini in Somerville's Winter Hill neighborhood. (Anthony Brooks/WBUR)

As a kid, Martini managed to avoid the worst of the violence, he told told Radio Boston's Anthony Brooks during a recent tour of Martini's old stomping grounds. He grew up to be an MDC cop and now works for the Teamsters.

Still, he knew Howie Winter, the gang's notorious leader, and Martini's father worked in Winter's garage and spent time in jail. Martini saw plenty of violence, and his brother-in-law was shot dead in a hail of gang-related bullets.

"When I was younger, I was doing the book-making because I thought that's what I was supposed to do — lending money and stuff like that," Martini said, "but I never crossed that line to hurting people, you know what I mean? I never thought anyone should be hurt for money."

The neighborhood was different then, Martini said.

"A fellow could come up to us right now, if it was the '60s, and shoot us and there'll be 10 witnesses and no one would ever say nothing," Martini said, laughing. "Today, everyone would say everything."

With the help of co-author Elayne Keratsis, Martini and "Citizen Somerville" are breaking Winter Hill's code of silence.


  • Bobby Martini, author, "Citizen Somerville"


  • Bobby Martini will read from his "Citizen Somerville" at a book signing at the Somerville Public Library on March 12

Book Excerpt: "Citizen Somerville: Growing Up With The Winter Hill Gang"
By Bobby Martini & Elayne Keratsis

1962. My father, Bob Martini Sr., was playing cards with a few Somerville cronies in a second floor apartment located at the Mystic Ave projects. The air was rich with cigarette smoke and cigar fumes although the game stakes were very low. Most of the players were older and ex-military, the projects at that time almost strictly affordable housing for veterans and their families. Bob liked the old guys, they were full of stories about days past and it was a brief respite from his small cramped apartment filled with a wife and seven kids. One old marine tossed some coins to the middle of the table, opened his mouth to proclaim his bet and was reduced to a fit of phlegm filled coughing.

"Citizen Somerville"

“Oh for Chrissakes!” Bob threw his cards down in disgust.

“I keep sayin’ if somebody don’t open a window, we’re never gonna get through this game.”

He shoved his chair away from the table.

“Fine by me,” grumbled the grunt, “I’m losing so bad I might as well stay here until I die.”

The man to his left mumbled, “What you should do is try and win so you can get on an iron lung!”

Another of the old timers leaned his cards into his chest protectively as Bob rounded his corner of the table. He was a retired sailor with a drawer full of medals and a brutal sense of humor.

“Ya, you’re losin’, Bob, that’s why you want to open a window! Don’t think I don’t see ya, comin’ around and readin’ our cards!”

“Uh oh…” murmured someone else. Even in jest, intimating that a Somerville guy was a cheat was one small step above calling him a rat – and everyone knew what kind of response you’d get back for that comment.

But Bob just laughed good-naturedly as he maneuvered his way around the wooden chairs, pretending to grab at the cards.

“Ya, that’s right! He’s my secret partner and we worked it all out before we got here. I told him to wait until I’m finally winnin’ for a change and then to pretend he’s coughin’ up a lung just so I can get up and try to take a look at your….”

The deafening sound of a massive blast reverberated up the side of the building from the street. Bob felt the sturdy floor shudder under his feet, he watched, uncomprehendingly, as a huge sheet of metal and flame shot upward past the window. He started to lose his balance – he reached out to the table to grab hold. Cards and coins jumped up, beers spilled dark across the tablecloth.

“Get down!” Bob yelled at the other players. The men hit the floor instinctively. One elderly (and remarkably spry) fellow dove under the table. In any another town in America, a bunch of army guys would have been flooded with a pool of Pearl Harbor memories, but not here in Somerville.

In this town, a small civil war was waging. As the men lay on the floor covering their heads, they were all thinking the same thing.

“The fuckin’ Irish are at it again!”

They themselves were all Irish, at least in part, but a different generation. They weren’t fighting in this local war. They waited together as if in a foxhole. A moment. Then another. No machine gun fire, no car tires screeching a getaway. Slowly my father started to get to his feet.

“Stay away from the window, Bob!” The phlegmy marine whispered loudly. He pointed a finger toward the glass pane that had cracked clean down the middle.

“Yeah, yeah,” my old man said. “I hear ya.”

Bob ape-walked across the room until he was at an angle to see down to the street without being seen. A small cloud of smoke was hanging in the air over a car and he could see neighbors beginning to venture out.

The guys were all shooting questions toward him.

“What was it?”

“How many dead?”

“Is anyone down there alive?”

Bob motioned for them to get up. “It’s OK, it’s not the building. It’s just a car bomb.”

The man under the table yelled out “Who’s is it?”

“Oh Christ!” The sailor grumbled as his bones creaked upright. “I hope it didn’t hit mine by mistake, the old lady will kill me.”

If the bombers who would eventually claim responsibility for the blast were the ones he figured they were, it was a group notorious for fucking up their murder attempts.

Bob craned his neck closer to the window. “I dunno, can’t see.” But his stomach rolled. He might know but if he did not say, maybe it wouldn’t be true.

The men grunted and slowly pulled themselves up off the floor. They filed out the door and joined the small cadre of residents headed down the stairs to the first floor. A dozen voices questioning each other as they hurried to the bottom and out the front door.

In the street, what was left of a formerly full sized automobile was still smoking. Bob took a deep breath and cautiously stepped forward with a sense of death-dread. He knew the owner of the car very well.

The vehicle belonged to Howie Winter, the reputed head, along with childhood friend Buddy McLean, of Somerville’s Irish mob; the Winter Hill Gang.

Members of the rival McLaughlin Gang from neighboring Charlestown were stepping up efforts to wipe out their Somerville counterparts and car bombings, although unsuccessful to date, seemed to be their favorite manner of execution.

As the smoke cleared and police sirens grew louder, Bob’s lungs released, air rushing out. Howie was not in the car, nor was anyone else. The front seat was just a mass of melted plastic and mangled steel.

“Jesus,” coughed the Marine behind him. “Howie was fuckin’ lucky.”

The others agreed, that luck of the semi-Irish still held occasionally.

Bob shook his head, his fear gone and replaced with his usual bravado.

“Fuckin’ McLaughlin’s, I swear to Christ, they couldn’t bomb a bicycle to bits if they had an atom bomb!”

His friends laughed. From a distance, they saw flashing lights.

“Let’s go play some cards,” the sailor said. “There’s as much smoke down here as there was up there anyway.”

The guys headed back to the card game. The cops would round the corner any second. They hadn’t seen anything and of course they had no idea who the car belonged or why anyone would destroy it, so best not to be questioned. The warriors knew without saying that as soon as the debris was cleared, the wreck’s skeleton towed and cops gone, the card game would end. Then, despite the fact they were not directly involved, the card players would have other business to address.

As they mounted the steps and entered the front door, Bob turned and took one more look at his friend’s car. A photo of the car and Howie removing what few unsinged belongings survived from it would dominate the next day’s front pages in the local papers.

Goddamn, he thought. You were fuckin’ lucky, Howie. Maybe that’s the last time you’ll have to dodge a bullet. Maybe now it’ll all be over.

But really, it was just the beginning.

This segment aired on March 2, 2011.


More from Radio Boston

Listen Live