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 …

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