South End Man
There are Boston stories-the Brink’s Robbery, Cocoanut Grove fire, Boston Strangler, and Sacco & Vanzetti-about which we wouldn’t mind if a million books were written. We can never get enough. It seems unfortunate, though, that, after a brief mention in the media, South Enders incidentally involved in one of these major events often revert to the anonymous "South End Man."
492 people lost their lives in the Cocoanut Grove fire on November 28, 1942. One by one, the bodies were claimed, but by December 8 a lone individual still lay unidentified at the Northern Mortuary, a key in his pocket all there was to go on. Investigators combed through reams of fire documents, coming up with a promising address. Pulling up to 27 Milford Street, two police officers put the key to the test-it opened the door to room 23 on the second floor. The room had been rented by Alexander Dashevsky, a part-time waiter at the Grove. (Paul Benzaquin, 1967)
I checked the city directories, noticing that Dashevsky didn’t stay in one place long-a part-time waiter’s lot in life. In 1940, he was living with his mother on Rochester Street in the New York Streets neighborhood and the following year on Hanson Street, where his occupation is listed as writer, although it was more likely waiter.
Edward A. "Wimpy" Bennett’s occupation was another story. Although he and his brothers, Walter and Billy, hadn’t grown up in the South End, they were in business here, business that allegedly included loansharking and bookmaking-not unusual in the South End in the 1950s-and they were a vital part of the community. Local girls dated them; one even got paid for ironing their girlfriends’ shirts.
Wimpy, 37, nicknamed after the Popeye character, owned a ground floor store at 617 Tremont. The store was covered with ads for a multitude of services: B&P CONTRACTING, General Contractors Cement Work and Masonry our Specialty, Caulking Waterproofing B& B TRUCKING, ALLIED INVESTMENT, INSURANCE... but locals knew the place as "Wimpy Bennett’s key shop." An unsubstantiated rumor was that the keys to the Brink’s garage were cut there, but there was more of a connection to the Brink’s job that that.
On June 4, 1956, more than six years after the robbery, special agents, operating on a tip, entered Wimpy’s store, tore away a section of wall, and removed a hidden "picnic-type cooler." Totals vary, especially given the deterioration of many of the bills, but at last count $54,540 was identified as Brink’s money-all that was ever recovered of the $2,700,000 stolen. Wimpy and Fats Buccelli, who shared the office, were arrested and did time. Both, as it turned out, had visited Specs O’Keefe, one of the robbers, in prison, and Buccelli had been part of a deal to pass bills off in Baltimore.
Word spread fast of a larger amount:
Hard-Working Neighbors Amazed by Nearby Cache
Few of the neighbors near 617 Tremont st. ever dreamed there was $82,000 in the whole world, let alone that amount in their little world in the South End....
The people in the neighborhood are people of the work-a-day world, struggling for the dollars necessary to buy food and clothing, pay bills and provide other necessities.
And within only a few feet of many of them were thousands of the dollars they struggled for daily. So near and yet so far.... (Boston Globe, June 5, 1956)
Two years later, Buccelli was found shot twice in the head in a Cadillac at Chandler and Arlington streets, and in 1967 the three Bennett brothers "disappeared." Wimpy was the first to go.
What got me started on these stories was reading A Rose for Mary, The Hunt for the Real Boston Strangler, in which author Casey Sherman suggests that George Nassar, Albert DeSalvo’s pal at Bridgewater State Prison, may have killed some of the women and that he at one time lived in the South End. Paroled in 1961 after serving time for a Lawrence murder committed at age 15, Nassar became a suspect in the 1964 murder of a North Andover gas station attendant. The police, writes Sherman, "traced Nassar to an address in Boston’s South End" where they found Strangler-like police and doctor disguises in his bedroom closet.
Nothing came of it (Nassar got life at Walpole for the gas station murder), and the only possible South End address I could find was 12 Union Park in 1961. In 1964, it was clear Nassar was living in Mattapan. I did note a South End connection, however. Nassar, like Wimpy Bennett, was close to the Flemmi brothers: Stevie "The Rifleman" and Vincent "The Bear."
Anyone know of a South Ender swept away in the molasses flood?
Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.