The North End of seventy five years ago was a very different place than it is today and, like many inner city neighborhoods, it had its secrets and kept them closely guarded. North Enders protected their own, sometimes to a fault, and in the daily struggle to make a few bucks and put food on the table, some bizarre behavior was either overlooked or got lost in the fog of urban, tenement life.
This story is about one of the strangest and most dangerous people I have ever known, a fellow we used to call “Lenny Quahog” or “Lenny the Clam” because he used to shuck quahogs at the religious feasts.
Lenny was a few years older than me and grew up on Prince Street across from the Polcari playground. He had a younger brother who was about my age, a guy we called “Mike the Preacher” because he hung around the Baptist Bethel on Hanover Street. The building they lived in was infested with rats and we used to slam open the cellar door and watch the rats scurry away. His family was poorer than most and Lenny was always hustling, trying to make a buck. I had three run-ins with Lenny that have stuck with me and haunted me throughout my life.
My first encounter with Lenny occurred when I was around eight years old. I was hanging around the playground next to his house on Prince Street when he struck up a conversation. “How would you like to buy a real U.S. Army bayonet?” he said. “My father brought it home from the war.” “How much?” I asked and when he said ten dollars my face sank. I think I had a quarter in my pocket, which was a lot for me at that time. Lenny sensed my dismay and upped the offer. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll throw in a hand grenade as well, same price.” Well, the offer was too tempting to pass up. I went home, snuck into my parents’ bedroom and went to the bureau drawer where my father kept a roll of cash next to his “38”. I took ten, brought it back to the playground, gave it to Lenny and waited. He went inside his building and told me to wait, which I did, but he never returned. I later heard he pulled the same scam on several other kids.
The next episode happened a few years later. At that time, which was the mid 1950s, there was a horse barn on North Margin Street across from St. Mary’s School. A grumpy, twisted old man was the caretaker. We knew to avoid him, but who could resist seeing real horses in a barn, so we would dare one another to go inside and peek. He kept the wagons on the first level and the horses up a ramp on the second floor. You could rent a horse and wagon for a day and use it to deliver produce and meat from the Quincy Market to the shops on Salem Street.
One Friday morning, on a beautiful summer day, I saw Lenny driving a delivery wagon filled with watermelons. He saw me staring at him and asked if I wanted a ride. That sounded great, I had never ridden on a real horse-drawn wagon before and I hopped up. Lenny sat on the left, the driver’s side, with the reins in one hand and a long, thin whip in the other. I was riding shotgun. We went slowly down Salem Street, stopping frequently to deliver watermelons, and I watched transfixed as Lenny gently whipped the horse’s bottom. When we got to the corner of Parmenter Street he pulled back on the reins, set a wooden brake and said, “Watch this.” The horse’s enormous rear end was just a few feet in front of us. Lenny reached over, pushed one cheek aside, stuck his hand deep into the horse’s rectum and pulled out a handful of horse manure. He then held it up for me to see and squeezed it so it oozed through his fingers. All the while he was smiling at me with a weird, sinister grin. Since I was almost in front of my grandmother’s house I jumped down, happy to get away from Lenny.
The last encounter, and the most frightening, happened at Union Wharf a year or so later. After the wharf burned down in a spectacular fire in 1952, the older kids built a clubhouse out of wood and cardboard under the burned timers. We called it the Burnt Wharf and would hang out there after school, playing cards, fishing for crabs from the granite foundation blocks, and swimming naked in the summer. It was great fun.
Lenny was a loner and never hung around with any particular group of guys so I was surprised to see him there one summer day. No one else was around and we all knew enough to avoid Lenny, but he beckoned to me to come and look into the water. He was standing on one of the stone blocks that made up the foundation of the old wharf, the very place from where we used to swim at low tide. Very cautiously I went over and looked at where he was pointing. What I saw shocked me more than anything I had ever seen before or since. Since the tide was low the water was about eight feet deep and very clear. Down in the depths I saw six or seven small animals, a mix of cats and dogs, floating vertically, lined up in a row like candles on a macabre, undersea altar. Lenny had tied bricks to their tails, thrown them in and watched them drown. I could still see small bubbles coming from the mouths of some of the animals and could only imagine how they desperately tried pawing their way to the surface. When I looked up, Lenny was staring at me with that same sardonic grin, and I could see in his eyes that I was soon going to be joining that drowned menagerie. Luckily I escaped and ran home as fast as I could, shaking in fear the entire way.
Lenny died in 2008 while serving a life sentence in state prison for rape and murder. The state police investigating his case were convinced he was a serial killer who may have been responsible for the murders and rapes of scores of young women both in Boston and other states. Lenny had a boat named the Mala Femina that he kept at a slip on Northern Avenue near Jimmy’s Harborside restaurant. He would pick up young girls at the seedy bars along the waterfront, ply them with liquor and offer them a ride on his boat, a ride from which they would never return. Others he would dump in the reeds along the Lynn Marsh Road in Revere. Lenny never admitted to any of the other murders, but after seeing those pathetic drowned animals in the water at Union Wharf, there is no doubt in my mind that he was capable of the most horrific cruelty.
The question I’ve struggled with all these years is, should I have told someone about what I saw in the water at Union Wharf? Would it have saved the lives of some of those missing girls? I still don’t have an answer.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.