The death last week of William “Lefty” Gilday provided another journey to the past. Lefty Gilday was a career criminal, a murderer–a cop killer–, a bank robber, the target of the largest manhunt in the history of New England, a baseball player, a jailhouse lawyer, a relic of the confluence of opposition to the Vietnam war, radical leftist politics, and criminal opportunism. He died at the age of 82 after almost 41 years of incarceration for his role in the murder of Boston police officer Walter Schroeder during a robbery of the State Street Bank in Brighton on September 23, 1970. He robbed the bank with other members of the Weather Underground, an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which included other ex-cons and two Brandeis students, Susan Saxe and Katherine Ann Power. They robbed the bank to obtain funds for their political activities, netting $26,585. Gilday was arrested five days after the robbery, tried, and sentenced to death. His death sentence was vacated by the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia, which struck down death penalties across the United States. Saxe eluded capture for five years, eventually being tried, convicted, and sentenced to seven years in prison. (Saxe was represented by Nancy Gertner, who later became a United States District Court judge and, among many accomplishments, presided over the copyright infringement trial of Joel Tenenbaum mentioned in the preceding post.) Power turned herself in 1993, 23 years after the robbery, and served six years in prison.
I may have met Gilday when I did legal work in the Massachusetts prisons from 1975-1977, but I’m not certain of it. I met and had ongoing relationships with many notorious criminals, jailhouse lawyers, and larger-than-life personalities in those years. If I did encounter Gilday it was brief and one-off, but he was part of the fabric of that time and place. In the ethos of prison culture shaped by revolutionary rhetoric Gilday possessed cache. The notoriety of his crimes, status as a prison elder, and skill as a jailhouse lawyer meant one often heard his name inside the joint. He also received frequent mentions in the press: when co-defendant and fellow revolutionary Stanley Bond accidentally blew himself up inside Walpole State Prison, when Suxan Saxe was apprehended and tried, when Power turned herself in. News of his death, and of his incomplete attempt at remorse when he was near life’s-end, brought it all back.
These articles provide some background:
- A Bank is Robbed, A Cop is Killed, A Movement is Hung, The Harvard Crimson, 5-Oct-70
- The Revolutionary and the Radical Lawyer, Nancy Gertner (book excerpt)
- Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, People Magazine, 4-Oct-93
- Apologetic in the End, William Gilday Dies, The Boston Globe, 16-Sep-11