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The Sins of the Fathers

All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence

by Fox Butterfield
Knopf, 383 pp., $27.50

I tremble for my country,” Thomas Jefferson, the slave-owning patriarch of American democracy, once declared, “when I reflect that God is just.”

Jefferson was a wise man and a very cautious optimist in regard to human nature. He was not a pious man; his reference to God’s justice refers to his understanding of the almost mystical degree to which nothing is free in this world, that the weight of history exercises a specific gravity from which we cannot escape. He, unlike so many other revolutionaries, realized this thoroughly. Neither ideology nor insight gives us the strength to unbind ourselves from the past. Birds fly, we walk step by step, toward a horizon limited by our vision, and every step is paid for. History is not forgiving. It punishes the oversight, the unperceived injustice along with the desperate crime. Bismarck is supposed to have said that God protects fools, children, and the United States. Master Jefferson knew better.

Though he seems never to have publicly abandoned the defense of African slavery in principle, Jefferson understood that one day a judgment would be forthcoming. He may also have understood that judgments are usually executed by forces as blind or random or foolish as those that incur them.

Anyone who lives in hope that we may one day better understand the mixture of psychological, historical, and social pathology that so dominates so large a part of our contemporary urban landscape would do well to read Fox Butterfield’s story of the Boskets, an old South Carolina family. The Boskets can count among their forebears some of the founding grandees of that proud state, names that suggest the antebellum grandeur so beloved there. The best known of today’s Boskets is named Willie. Willie Bosket lives in a cell in Woodbourne Prison in upstate New York specially constructed to contain him. He is serving three consecutive twenty-five year to life sentences there, and since it is his practice to attack with lethal intent any prison officer he can get his hands on, he is very likely to serve the whole lot, which would get him out of prison at the age of approximately one hundred, in around 2062.

His first incarceration took place when he was nine years of age. Then he was committed to New York’s Wiltwyck reformatory as a PINS, or Person In Need of Supervision, after a history of truancy and variously vicious petty crimes. Wiltwyck, in northern Westchester County, had been named by the Dutch and translates as “home of the wild ones.” In 1972, a year of great enthusiasm among social reformers, Wiltwyck had a good reputation and high morale. It failed to help Willie Bosket.

Willie is, the reader will not be surprised to learn, one of the African-American Boskets, descended from masters and their slaves. At one of his trials, Bosket boasted of having committed over two thousand crimes by the age of fifteen. He has killed and come close to killing an extraordinary number of citizens.

I’m only a monster that the system created,” says Willie Bosket. But who is he really? How did he become what he is? What, if anything, does his existence tell us about “the system”?

Bosket does not really believe himself to be a monster. In calling himself one, he is employing the quasi-Marxist lingo of the black revolution. That diction is itself now a kind of historical artifact. It developed during the years when some members of the mainly white American left and an elite of hip black criminals engaged in a heady and highly publicized game of mutual manipulation. Aging progressives will remember those years, perhaps with nostalgia, probably with embarrassment. Who can forget the cool young San Francisco matrons, bored with the Opera Guild, who took up visiting San Quentin and fell head over heels in love with slick young outlaws there, earning themselves a brief self-regard and the covert contempt and resentment of the objects of their benefaction? The period came to an end in a process of mutual and not entirely nonviolent disillusionment when the white supporters discovered that headbreakers will sometimes break heads and thieves often steal, while the criminals, obsessed naturally enough with money and power, found that their slumming friends could provide nothing like the access to wealth and influence they had imagined.

To what degree is Willie Bosket—and the thousands of young black men like him—right in saying that the system “created” them? White criminals say the same thing and no one believes them or pays attention. In his talks with Fox Butterfield, Bosket himself offers American “racism” as the reason for his predicament. Probably he believes his own charges. But every-one has an alibi and the process of blaming everyone but ourselves for the results of our actions has been intellectually established in some very respectable circles. Bosket, Butterfield demonstrates, is a person of considerable intelligence and charm; it’s hard not to like him—unless you happen to find yourself between him and the gratification of his immediate impulse.

If we were to accept completely Willie Bosket’s version of his life, in which racism alone turned him against the society and its law, then we would have to believe, as some professed to during the Sixties, that men like him are the vanguard of resistance to racism. But experience and human nature argue against that completely heroic reading. When we consider Bosket’s criminal career, it is his impulsiveness and readiness for maximum violence that strike us most. At the same time, for reasons which Butterfield makes clear, there is a degree of truth in the claims Willie Bosket makes to be the product of racism and the representative of resistance to it. This is not good news for anyone. It nevertheless is, as the old song says, “a sign of judgment.” If Willie Bosket is not The Man With the Hoe, he is an even worse avenger, the man with nothing to lose.

Willie Bosket’s father, Butch, was also what we call a “career criminal.” He was, in Butterfield’s account, every bit as intelligent and likable as his son, if not more so. Spending the better part of his life in prison for a Milwaukee double murder, he took a high school equivalency diploma and went on to become the only man to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from college while serving time. For a while, Butch Bosket’s life looked as though it would be a rare success story, that of a murderer and convict transformed into a productive citizen. That things ended badly for Butch, as they seem to have for Willie, is part of the mystery All God’s Children examines. Butch’s career as a prisoner, like his son’s, started at Wiltwyck. He had been exactly the same age. Nine.

In his attempt to get to the bottom of the Boskets’ tendency toward violence and misfortune, Butterfield goes back to the roots of their time in America, to where their story begins, in Edgefield County, South Carolina.

Greater Edgefield County, he establishes, was early on the most violent district of an extremely violent section of America. Settled by tough, touchy Scotch-Irish who followed the Shenandoah Valley south, it was bloody from the first years. The Scotch-Irish, whom today we know as Ulster Protestants, were specialists in settling hostile regions and subduing the inhabitants. The journey to America was a second migration for them; their first had been from the Scottish border country to Northern Ireland in the seventeenth century. There they were encouraged to use every means to put fear of God and King into the wild “mere Irish,” to establish a loyal “ascendency” in which they would support themselves at the natives’ expense. Bloody had been their settlement in County Antrim, and bloody would be their settlement in the back country of South Carolina.

As they had taken on the local Irish they took on the Cherokee, in an exchange of massacres, ambushes, and genocidal battles in which both sides attempted not merely to defeat but to extirpate each other. The Cherokee lost and moved out, leaving the Scotch-Irish confronted with each other, each clan jealous of its neighbor, obsessed with the concept of “honor.” The end of the Cherokee war only ushered in a new period of mayhem.

Homeless veterans [of the Indian wars] formed outlaw gangs,” Butterfield writes, “that abducted young women from their villages and tortured wealthy planters and merchants to make them reveal where they had hidden their valuables. Infuriated by this lawlessness, the more respectable settlers formed themselves into ‘Regulators’ to break up the gangs. It was the first organized vigilante justice in America.”

The Regulators were so brutal, Butterfield quotes a local historian as stating, “They introduced the strain of violence and extremism that was to be the curse of the upcountry and the nemesis of South Carolina” for more than a century.

The advent of the American Revolution brought the citizens of “Bloody Edgefield” as it was already called, more to fight about. Families took sides and people rallied to the cause their kinfolk had chosen. Nowhere was the civil war between Tories and “Whigs,” as the partisans of American independence were called, so harsh and unsparing. Massachusetts may remember Concord Green and Bunker Hill; Edgefield County remembers the Cloud Creek Massacre, one slaughter among many, in which the local Tories killed twenty-eight surrendered prisoners in cold blood. The end of the war brought a period of retribution and any Tories unwise or reckless enough to remain in Edgefield were lynched or put to the sword.

Through the antebellum period, the country maintained its tradition of headlong combativeness. Butterfield cites statistics demonstrating that the murder rate in old South Carolina was four times that of Massachusetts, then the most urban, industrialized state with a large proletarian and immigrant population. The rate in Edgefield County, he tells us, was perhaps twice that of the state. Mutilations and bushwhackings were common elements of life for the poorer whites.

Behind this brutality lay an ethic of “primal honor” brought with the Scotch-Irish to the new world. It had its roots in the blood feuds between families and clans dating to the Middle Ages. Above all, honor meant reputation; a man’s worth resided in the opinion of others. Honor also meant valor; a man had to be prepared to fight to defend his honor if challenged or insulted. This concern with honor produced “rough and tumble” [the popular eye-gouging, nose-biting style of wrestling] and an abundance of assaults and murders among the proletariat in the backcountry.

Edgefield typified the up-country South,” Butterfield writes, “yet there was also something that set it apart, that made Edgefield’s residents even more pugnacious, reckless and prone to shed blood. By the middle of the nineteenth century mere mention that a person hailed from Edgefield was enough to explain his character to other South Carolinians.”

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