The biggest Boston story in 20 years*

Amy Bishop

The strange case of Amy Bishop is rapidly morphing into the biggest Boston news story in many years — the biggest, perhaps, since 20 years ago, when Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife, Carol, and jumped to his death as authorities were closing in.

At first, the story appeared neither to be local nor all that atypical as such things go. Bishop reportedly shot three colleagues to death at a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama, supposedly in response to not having received tenure.

But soon the Boston Globe broke two mind-boggling stories — that she had killed her brother with a shotgun when she was just 18 21 years old, and that she had come under suspicion in the attempted mail-bombing of one of her professors at Harvard University.

(Today we even learn there’s a Northeastern University angle. Bishop and her husband, James Anderson, are said to have met when they were undergraduates at Northeastern. From what we know so far, she apparently was not weaponized during her time as an undergrad.)

I’ve been thinking hard about whether there has been a bigger local story in the post-Stuart years. Yes, the 9/11 attacks began at Logan Airport, but that angle was quickly subsumed into the larger national story. Louise Woodward? A big one, yes, but not nearly as big as this may become.

At moments like this, it always makes sense to think about what we’ve learned from the past and how that might apply in the present situation. The Stuart case, you may recall, was a media fiasco. Nearly everyone went along for the ride when Stuart blamed the shooting on a black man who set up on him and his wife as they were driving home from a childbirth class at Brigham & Women’s Hospital.

In fact, Stuart had shot his wife for insurance money so he could open a restaurant, then shot himself. That neither law-enforcement officials nor the media questioned his initial story set back race relations in a significant way, and stained the legacy of then-mayor Ray Flynn, who’d made racial harmony his top priority.

In the Bishop case, no one is questioning that she shot fellow faculty members on Friday. Still, the fact that she was never charged — never mind convicted — in the earlier incidents ought to give us pause. (The killing of her brother was ruled an accident, though the reasons are unclear. A Boston Herald story about a man who says Bishop threatened him with a gun right after the shooting certainly raises questions.)

The Globe showed a lot of enterprise in digging out those stories about Bishop’s background. But it may be a while before we know how they fit into the larger picture.

*Update: Andy Smith asks, “wasn’t that priest thing kind of a big deal?” Indeed it was, and I’m glad I threw this out there before writing a more-considered version for the Guardian tonight.

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33 thoughts on “The biggest Boston story in 20 years*

  1. Michael Pahre

    Dan: Correction to your post: she was 21 when she shot her 18-year-old brother. Both were students at Northeastern at the time of the shooting (he a freshman, her year as yet unclear but likely junior/seinor). So she was “weaponized” at the time of her Northeastern enrollment, just not necessarily “weaponized on campus.”

    As for the gist of your argument that this may be the biggest Boston news story in a long time, I think you’re a bit premature — although I agree that the story looks to have legs.

    I’m willing to bet that there will be a bunch of law-enforcement officials with egg on their face very soon: Braintree police officers and/or former chief; Norfolk County DA’s office prosecutors; Bureau ATF investigators… others? And the case file disappeared soon afterwards?

    But it’s hard to move from what initially appears to be (alleged) major-league screw ups to a big story/scandal.

  2. George F. Snell III

    Hi Dan: While it is a fascinating story with many layers, I think calling it the biggest Boston story in 20 years is a bit much. Does it really hold a candle to 9/11, Catholic church abuses, the election of our first black governor, the Big Dig and many other stories? How about one of the biggest “crime” stories in the last 20 years?

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @George: Totally agree on the Catholic Church story, and I’ve updated my item to reflect that. The Big Dig? No. That was never even remotely as big a story as it should have been, with the sole exception of the woman who was killed when the ceiling tile fell. As I said, 9/11 was not fundamentally a Boston story. Deval Patrick’s election was a big story, but not a megastory.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Ron: All I can say is “wow.” That is absolutely the next angle to be explored. (For those of you who may not know what Ron is referring to, Congressman Delahunt was the Norfolk County district attorney at the time that Bishop shot and killed her brother.)

  3. BP Myers

    I agree it is a very big story. All that’s missing right now is a dog’s plaintive wail in the nighttime and a kept houseboy.

    I was intrigued by the swiftness that the current police chief in Braintree threw his former chief under the bus, all but accusing him of providing the Bishop family special treatment. He intimated too that as a patrol officer at the time, he and other officers thought something about it stank.

    But I don’t recall him or the others going public about it at the time, when it might have made a difference, and wonder if this is another case where the Thin Blue Line might have hindered the public safety.

  4. Bill Toscano

    Dan: I am just not seeing your infatuation with this story. Clearly you love it, and while a female shooter is a really different angle, I don’t think it’s anywhere near the top of Boston stories — assuming you are evaluating it in terms of its interest to Boston residents.

    The two World Series, the Celtics, the Patriots, even though those were sports, subsume it.

    I think 9/11 stands alone, regardless of it being a national story and I agree with Andy, and with you, on the priest scandal.

    I would put the Big Dig above this, because it’s something that people in Boston have dealt with for so long.

    I’d pop the Gates arrest up there as well, in terms of Boston stories, as well as a number of political stories, specifically Romney and Kerry.

    I’ll be honest. Maybe I am missing the point. I am not in Boston any more, but I am trying to look at it from a Boston point of view, and I don’t see it.

    Just my opinion.

  5. Joel Brown

    As a fellow writer I hate to complicate your Guardian deadline, Dan, but I don’t think this is anywhere near as big as you think. It’s going to make a heck of a book for someone, but it’s basically an isolated-oddball crime story. At most, more along the lines of the Craigslist killer, another one that hasn’t been mentioned.

    Even if there’s a coverup exposed that wings someone like Delahunt, it’s still basically an isolated case – without the hot-button issues that give it wider significance, like race in the Stuart case or priest sex abuse. Scientist denied tenure? Not so much with the sexy. I don’t even think it will come near the Woodward case.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Joel: You’re not complicating my life at all. You’re just wrong. :-)

      I’ll concede this will have to keep mushrooming for my prediction to come true. But I think all the signs are there.

  6. Bill Toscano

    Dan: How do you judge “big.”

    In the “Count Globe and Herald front page headlines” department, it’s pretty high up there. Not as much recently.

    It certainly impacts people every day, though again, moreso in the past.

  7. Jenn Lord Paluzzi

    I’ll throw a couple other big crime stories on the fire:

    The international manhunt for Whitey Bulger?

    The bizarre Clark Rockefeller kidnapping case?

    And over in MetroWest, the Entwistle murder case, which brought over as many journalists from Great Britain as the Woodward case?

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Jenn: I’ve long harbored a theory that the Whitey Bulger story appeals only to a certain small subset of journalists, and that every time the Globe or the Herald run a big piece on Bulger, they lose another 10 readers. I mean aside from the initial reports from which we actually learned something.

  8. Jack Sullivan

    I’ve never taken you to be a knee-jerk analyst, Dan, but I think the immediacy of this issue has clouded your judgment. It’s somewhat like looking at today’s athletes and crowning them the best ever because we have color video. I think the Big Dig costing 8 times its initial $2B budget plus the decade-long interruption of life as we know it places it pretty high on the list. I’d also refer you to the 1994 Salvi shooting as a crime story that resonated around the country. Ted Kennedy’s death, JFK Jr.’s crash, Kerry’s near-miss for the White House, Scott Brown’s victory, Worcester firefighter deaths which prompted a president to come to the funerals, the near-collapse of the Globe, Sox win in ’04 and the Swedish nanny dismemberment are all stories across the spectrum I’d say held our attention much more intensely than this over the past two decades. Clearly, it’s all subjective, which is why AP polls editors as to the Top 10 stories each year. I’d have to disagree with you on this one, though, and wonder what has triggered this visceral reaction in one of the more normally even-keeled observers.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Jack: You’ve got a few good ones on your list and a few head-scratchers. Ted Kennedy’s death? Seriously? An old man got sick and died. Scott Brown’s victory? Really? And do we still think the Globe was in any real danger of collapsing?

      You’re right in observing that the Worcester firefighters and the Salvi shootings were huge stories, definitely up there with this one. But I was always puzzled at the lack of attention given the Swedish nanny — it’s not like it was uncovered, but it was certainly undercovered given its luridness.

      And I will ask you as I have asked others: When has the Big Dig ever been as big a story as it should have been? Maybe for a couple of weeks after the ceiling tile fell. That was it.

      I will say it again: With the Bishop case, I’m looking at the angles that have yet to be explored. I think we’re still at the starting line.

  9. Nial Lynch

    *…could this story also push Bill Delahunt into deciding not to run for re-election?*

    Nah, he’s just getting sick of the job and hasn’t been the same since his goldfish died last summer.

    The righty bloggers have been all over the Delahunt connection since Saturday.

  10. Ron Newman

    Dan, you still may want to delete or edit ‘apparently was not weaponized during her time as an undergrad’, since she killed her brother while she was an NU undergrad.

  11. Brigid Alverson

    Dan, I want to second your Whitey Bulger theory. Every time I see a story about him (the Globe had a particularly pointless one a few weeks ago), I roll my eyes and think “Did they have nothing better to write about today?” There are millions of interesting stories out there that actually affect real people; why not cover them?

  12. Nial Lynch

    Dan- I think that your overrating of this story stems from the murder in the academy aspect involved. Take a poll two stops south on the Orange Line from NU and it doesn’t crack the top 200.

  13. George F. Snell III

    Come on, Dan. You don’t think Scott Brown’s election is an enormous story? It has been one of the biggest national stories of the year! I have to agree with Jack Sullivan. This has quirky crime story written all over it – but biggest story of the last 20 years? No way.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @George: I think I may have overlooked a few, but certainly not that one. Even though I’m a political junkie, it’s hard for me to imagine any election story, even one with a surprising outcome, as a mega-story.

  14. Jack Sullivan

    Dan, Kennedy’s death is not just an old man getting sick and dying. It was the precursor of a seismic political shift in Congress and in every election in every state. It was the death of the Senate’s most influential, polarizing, effective, reviled, well-known (pick any or all) member in its history and the end of a century-long political dynasty if you go back to Honey Fitz. Four living presidents attended the funeral. And it triggered the most stunning electoral result in memory, one that is reverberating across the nation and could potentially derail a popularly elected president’s entire agenda. In your scorecard, you say the Bishop shooting is dominant for its unanswered questions. Then combine Brown and Kennedy if you like into one story and you have so much more resonance. And while I didn’t list Whitey, I’d have to disagree because he is the biggest by number mass murderer in the history of the state who did it with FBI indulgence. These are both open to argument, sure, but head-scratcher? I’d say ranking a shooting spree by a crazy genius who can only deal with her emotions through the business end of a gun is more in that vein. This is more akin to Mucko McDermott and the Craigslist killer. Much will be forgotten after the trial.

  15. BP Myers

    “a seismic political shift . . . the most stunning electoral result in memory . . . reverberating across the nation”

    Wow. Hyperbole, much?

    “the Senate’s most influential, polarizing, effective, reviled, well-known (pick any or all) member in its history”

    Joe McCarthy would like a word. Henry Clay is on line two. And Lyndon Johnson would like to see you in the bathroom.

    In terms of “century-long political dynasties,” well, we don’t hear much about the Adams’ anymore, or the Lee’s. And there’s already talk about Joe III running, so (much as I hate to admit it) don’t count them out yet.

  16. Jack Sullivan

    @BP, I won’t belabor this because I certainly have expressed my views pretty completely. But if Brown’s victory, where an unknown Republican overcame a 30-point deficit in a month to win in one of in the most Democratic state that gave Obama one of his biggest margins of victory and has triggered the retirement of at least four highly visible Congressional Democrats, is neither stunning nor seismic to you, I’d love to hear your definition.

  17. BP Myers

    “But if Brown’s victory . . . is neither stunning nor seismic to you, I’d love to hear your definition.”

    Sunsets are stunning. Earthquakes are seismic. And if Kennedy had lived, he would have been re-elected.

    What does that tell you?

    And, taking nothing away from Brown’s well-earned victory, you make no mention of the sheer incompetence of his opposition.

    But we’ll have lots of time between now and his next campaign in two years to see just how “stunning” and “seismic” his election was. He could just as easily be a footnote. But only time will tell.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      To which I would add: Scott Brown is hardly the first Massachusetts Republican to be elected to a significant statewide office. Mitt Romney did it as recently as 2002. A little unusual that the Republicans would capture a U.S. Senate seat rather than the governor’s office, but that’s politics.

  18. Sean Griffin

    Who are the four Dems retiring? Kennedy, Bayh (Dodd announced a couple of weeks before Brown’s win)….Meanwhile on the other side of the aisle, at least 3 Republicans: Buyer, Diaz-Bialart and Shadegg announced their retirements (Shadegg is back in for some reason). How does this create a “Brown changed everything storyline?

  19. Chris Daly

    Hi, Dan —

    Hats off to you for launching this interesting discussion. (Just in terms of crime, how about the Gardner heist? The biggest unsolved art theft in world history…)

    Anyway, I think your readers are pointing toward a discussion people seem to want to engage: What WERE the biggest Boston stories of the past 20 years?

  20. Bill Toscano

    Hi, Dan.

    Running a little behind. I am sorry.

    *****
    An old man got sick and died.
    *****

    I know sometimes you use different ways of making a point, but to me a death like this is also a summation of a life, and there is a small group of people who have had an impact like Ted Kennedy did.

    Granted, it was somewhat expected, but a major story nonetheless. It’s not in the top five, but it’s a good story.

    I think Scott Brown’s importance will be seen down the road. It will take a bit to see just how important that was.

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