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.”

We have a sort of honorable crime,” wrote an Edgefield lawyer by way of explanation. “Whenever the Southern dagger is drawn, there is something manly and chivalrous in the use of it.”

Among the upper classes dueling thrived. Butterfield quotes the historian Lawrence Stone writing on the ancestors of the back-country South Carolina settlers:

The behavior of the propertied classes, like that of the poor, was characterized by the ferocity, childishness and lack of self-control of the Homeric age…. The educational and social system of the age inculcated ideals of honour and generosity. Impulsiveness was not reproved, readiness to repay an injury real or imagined a sign of spirit…. Moreover, a gentleman carried a weapon at all times, and did not hesitate to use it.

If this uncannily suggests a street ethos of South Central Los Angeles, the southside of Chicago, and Harlem, that is precisely Butterfield’s point. The black population of the antebellum South, while violently subject to the Scotch-Irish slave owners, nevertheless absorbed and internalized their values, particularly on the subject of manliness and “honor.” By this reasoning the sensitivity of black youths in northern cities to “disrespecting,” or “dissing” for short, has its origins in the codes of the Old South.

The law affords no remedy that can satisfy the feelings of a true man,” Andrew Jackson of South Carolina, our seventh president, was told by his mother. (His mother, mind you.) The fierce old harridan’s sentiments would bring cheers from all too many kids in the inner city. And the marginal status of blacks, plus their bad experience of white policing, would make them even less inclined to seek recourse to the law.

Moreover, says Butterfield, writing about the slave days, “There is…evidence that honor was coming to be prized among slaves and that honor bred violence among African-Americans just as it did among white Southerners. Whites believed that slaves had no honor, but the bondsmen did not see it that way. They had been stripped of all their earthly possessions, even their families and their humanity. For many of the slaves all that was left was personal honor. And it was hard to avoid the constant example of the masters….”

For whatever it may be worth, there was also a considerable infusion of the Scotch-Irish strain into the African-American population, as slave masters took advantage of bondswomen. Every lady, the southern diarist Mary Chesnut, who was the wife of a planter, wrote in 1850, seems to know the father of every slave on every plantation but her own.

Though his principal subjects are Butch and Willie Bosket, Butterfield spends a great deal of time documenting conditions that prevailed in their ancestral country during slavery, Reconstruction, and the times that followed. Much of what he has to say is fascinating, and his argument that the violence that marked the lives of Butch and Willie is somehow a reflection of “bloody Edgefield” is persuasive.

He picks up the story of the African-American Boskets with the first recorded member of the line, Ruben, born at some point in the 1820s, who became the slave of John Bauskett or Baskett or Bosket in 1834. The slave Boskets were sold off to a South Carolina Pickens. Then Ruben’s son Aaron, the great-great-grandfather of Willie Bosket, was sold again at the age of ten to yet another planter, along with his older sister. The children never saw their parents again.

Aaron, at seventeen, saw the Jubilee, the coming of freedom of 1863. In June 1865, a company of black soldiers, the Thirty-Third Regiment, United States Colored Troops, occupied Edgefield. Everyone knew about General W.T. Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, which provided liberated slaves with forty acres and a mule, confiscated from proscribed rebels. But as it turned out, the new president, Andrew Johnson, rescinded Sherman’s order after Lincoln’s death. Aaron and his fellow slaves, who desired their own land above all else, became sharecroppers increasingly subjected to the restored and not-a-whit less violent rule of their old masters.

…1865 did not mark the end of the war in Edgefield. Instead it brought the beginning of a new guerrilla war of terrorism directed against blacks. Ironically, these pogroms were made easier after 1865 because blacks were no longer slaves; they were no longer valuable property protected by their masters.

Little by little the black voters were frightened from the polls; the new black officials and their white Republican allies were scattered, without support from Washington; the Freedman’s Bureau with its idealistic Yankee schoolmasters and schoolmistresses was forced out of the South. Reconstruction failed and died.

The former slave and sharecropper Aaron Bosket, illiterate, cheated by the whites, stayed on in poverty. Aaron was the father of Clifton, nick-named Pud, whose mother was half-white. All his life Aaron had tried to accommodate the dangerous white racism that prevailed by adopting a humble posture.

Pud,” Butterfield writes, “would take a different course. He would not be meek and humble like his father; he would not emigrate. As he was growing up in the 1890s, the most turbulent, dangerous decade yet for blacks in Edgefield, his quest for self-respect would lead him into violence.”

The 1890s saw two linked developments. One was the coming to majority of a generation of African Americans who had been born free, who could remember blacks playing a governing role in places like Edgefield and who were not quite so ready to render absolute deference to the former slave owners. The other was an epidemic of lynchings not seen before or since. Almost every week one occurred somewhere in the South. South Carolina had seventeen in 1898.

Pud Bosket was a representative of the new post-servile generation, whose rise was perceived by the whites as a threat that called for violent repression.

Suddenly, white Southerners moved to disenfranchise the few remaining black voters; they erected a new system of Jim Crow laws to segregate the races; and they lynched thousands of African-Americans.

The repression notwithstanding, Pud was not the accommodating figure his father had been.

Where Aaron was innately cautious, Pud was bold and tough, a man you did not cross…. He was also very active, with a great intensity, and radiated a kind of nervous energy.

Twenty-one in 1910, Pud Bosket saw the rise of the blues, the period when the heroic black badmen flourished, legendary figures like Railroad Bill and Stagolee, whose deeds and adventures were sung and recounted from Baltimore to Texas. Pud himself was something of a local legend in Edgefield, an armed robber who did time on the chain gang. Whites called him bad. African-Americans did too, but they pronounced the word differently, admiringly. Baad.

Although the victims of these black desperadoes were overwhelmingly other blacks, they became a source of pride to the poorest part of the community and figures to emulate in the eyes of many rootless, impoverished young men.

Butterfield quotes W.E.B. Du Bois’s statement of 1903 that “there can be no doubt that crime among Negroes has sensibly increased in the last thirty years.” Significantly, he did not cite poverty as the root cause but rather the southern police system which had been organized “to deal with blacks alone, and tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police. Thus grew up a double system of justice which erred on the white side of undue leniency…and erred on the black side by undue severity, and injustice…. Thus Negroes came to look upon courts as instruments of injustice and oppression, and upon those convicted in them as martyrs and victims.”

Pud Bosket died, literally drinking bad whisky, in 1924. In 1930 his widow, Frances, looking for work during the Depression, took her three children to Augusta, Georgia. Among them was James, Willie Bosket’s grandfather.

That James grew up fatherless, But terfield says, did not make him unusual in the ghetto of Augusta. One half to two thirds of the households on the ten blocks of the Boskets’ neighborhood were headed by women. In those days before welfare legislation, the women worked hard.

James resembled his father. He “had an intelligent mind and a hyperactive disposition. Everything he did he did quickly, as if he had an internal metronome that was set too fast.”

This combination of high intelligence and “hyperactivity” would become characteristic of the male Boskets henceforth and so would life outside the law. James Bosket, Willie Bosket’s grandfather, beat his family, shot at his wife in their Augusta home, finally became an armed robber and ended up in prison in New Jersey.

James’s son Willie James, called Butch, was raised by relatives in Augusta, while his father did time and his mother decamped to Chicago. “A black-and-white picture of Butch as a two-year-old shows a husky, rugged, strong-looking boy,” Butterfield tells us. “His face was square, his expression tense and unsmiling. There is hurt and anger blazing in his eyes.”

If Augusta was not one of the toughest towns in the South, it contained one of the South’s toughest ghettoes. Butch became a tough, street-fighting kid. He dropped out of his segregated, hard-scrabble school and, in December 1949, at the age of eight, was arrested for robbing a woman at knife point. In court his grandparents, with whom he lived, declared him uncontrollable. To get him out of the reach of Georgia law they sent him to his mother, who was now in Harlem and the mother of four more children, living with an alcoholic construction worker. He was not particularly welcome. At one point, when he was nine years old, his mother “dressed him in a good suit, gave him a quarter and told him never to come back.” For several days he rode the subways. In no time at all, he was in trouble again.

In 1950, a New York judge declared him a legally neglected child and ordered him sent to the Children’s Center of the welfare department. It was the first of the many institutions in which he would spend his life.

Butch Bosket was to live out a very strange destiny indeed, an only-in-America story of the most surreal variety. He would develop what Butterfield calls “a truculent, belligerent exterior” to cover his inward rage and confusion. In 1951, he would precede his own son at Wiltwyck, in the days when Mrs. Roosevelt still made trips across the river from Hyde Park to read Kipling’s Just So stories to the reform school kids. The dedicated staff at Wiltwyck found Butch sympathetic and attractive but also “hell on wheels.”

By 1951, most of the children at Wiltwyck were black or Hispanic. A talented social worker there saw Butch as being much like the others, only more so.

He was extreme,” she said, “in both being brighter and more gifted than most of the children, and he was a little madder, a little more quite at the edge…. He had lots of charm, and also some kindness and goodness, which made it hard to stay angry at him.”

Intelligence, impulsiveness, a measure of madness, lots of charm. These were the elements that would characterize Butch Bosket to the end of his days. Butch made a number of friends at Wiltwyck and learned to read and write. Butterfield believes his years there, between the ages of nine and thirteen, were the happiest of his life. In 1954, Butch’s father James got out of prison in Ohio, where he had served another sentence for armed robbery, and took Butch to a new home in the Bronx.

For me,” Butch said later, “that meant back to a home that was not a home, and streets where the first law is survival.” At home were Butch’s father, a violent alcoholic, and his mother, a prostitute. A few weeks after leaving Wiltwyck he put a knife to the throat of a Queens cab driver and took the cabbie’s twenty-five dollars. The pattern of precocious violence continued throughout Butch’s young life, which he spent between prison and various mental institutions. During one period of freedom he met Laura Roane, who like himself was partly descended from Southern aristocracy and whose forebears included Patrick Henry, renowned for his insistence on extreme options. In December 1962 Laura would give birth to Willie Bosket. But by then Butch was doing life in Wisconsin for a double murder.

Butch spent the next eighteen years behind bars, where he transformed himself into a prison intellectual. In January 1980 he took a college degree and became the first prisoner ever to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. This achievement brought him considerable celebrity. From prison he made the acquaintance of a number of people who commenced to campaign on behalf of his freedom. He had grown to be an extremely attractive and wellspoken man, prepared to discuss the classics and reflect on his own situation. Women from outside the walls, including one quite well-to-do and well known, fell for him. Butterfield describes how he gained his freedom and commenced, with the breathtaking, catastrophic energy of the doomed, to turn his triumphant release, in a matter of weeks, into a grisly farce of disaster and death.

Meanwhile, his son Willie Bosket, on the streets of New York was headed for the special cell in Woodbourne Prison as his career in crime took him from juvenile strong-arming to murder. As a child, he was so appealing that the Wiltwyck School used his photograph on its posters. As restless and impulsive as his father and grandfather and great-grandfather, introduced to sex through sodomy by his grandfather, he had never had much of a chance. In 1988 he stabbed a prison guard, coming within a hair of killing the man. Nor was this the first time he had assaulted a prison officer. At his trial in the case, he served as his own attorney, amazing judge and jury with his quickness and wit. The New York Times did a feature on him, the most feared, the most violent prisoner in the New York system. Thus did the last of the Boskets preserve his honor.

All God’s Children is a memorable book. The tragic picture it offers of blighted hope and arrested childhood is enough to make a reader weep. In it poor, black America and the relatively privileged majority seem to face each other through a glass wall, the menacing utterances and recriminations of each meaningless and inaudible to the other.

A few weeks ago, in Washington, a celebrated unfrocked African-American Catholic priest, George Stallings, shouted out his celebration of the Honorable Louis Farrakhan as leader of the forthcoming march on Washington by one million black men. Farrakhan, the priest said, was the only man who could lead and command such a march. Shouting in an exaggeration of the African-American preaching style, he bellowed the question,

What do you want, some milquetoast, sissy-faggot to lead you to the promised land? What’s wrong with you anyhow?”

A cry of approval answered him.

He sounded part war chief, part Ian Paisley, echoing the incantations of the African savannah and the Covenant of the Glen. If his words were meant to draw applause from a black audience, they were also calculated to shock and trouble whites. Broadcast to the largely white liberal audience on NPR’s All Things Considered, no doubt they did. Stallings had succumbed to the old machismo of the disinherited, the formula of a man insisting on his honor. We can doubt whether many listeners to All Things Considered responded with respect.

Increasingly we abandon hope in each other. History is hell to unmake everywhere, even here, as Master Jefferson understood. But is it really impossible, given our resources, to change the things that need to be changed?

Butterfield explores the historical and psychological factors involved in the story of the Bosket family with sympathy and originality. He tentatively suggests what might, at this late stage, be done, but offers no comprehensive solution and no easy answers.

…Boiled down to its core, everything criminologists have learned about crime in recent research is that most adolescents who become delinquents, and the over-whelming majority of adults who commit violent crimes, started very young. They were the impulsive, aggressive, irritable children who would not obey their parents, bullied their neighbors and acted out when they got to school. Because they are accustomed to getting their way by physical force, they see no reason to change. They actually like the way they act, and this makes it increasingly difficult to reverse their antisocial proclivities. After age eleven or twelve, their cases seem intractable. This was the case with Butch and Willie.

…Modern research suggests that there are positive alternative treatments. Many factors go into producing personality: temperament, the genetic component you are born with; the neighborhood in which you grow up; and perhaps most important, the style of your parents.

Parenting skills can be taught,” Butterfield says.

Some model programs to teach these parenting skills, or home skills, are already in place in cities across the country. They take time, and the results can be frustratingly slow, but there are practical ways to extend these programs on a large scale, if we have the political will.

Butterfield invokes the European model of the government-sponsored “home health visitor” who observes whether children are being brought up in dangerous conditions. He raises the possibility of some kind of early warning system for prospective sociopaths, and he ends by reminding his readers that some “experts” have called for licensing parents “just as we require drivers to get automoblie licenses.”

Butterfield is far too astute an observer to present such solutions, valid as they may be in theory, with much real optimism. Given the present hostility of American “political will” to foreign models of social engineering—not to mention the extensive distrust by privileged and underprivileged alike of government “interference”—anything beyond the most limited expectations would seem, for the moment, premature.

Butterfield adds this anecdote about Willie Bosket’s niece to a thoughtful epilogue:

Danielle, who has a smile as big as Willie’s, was in a class for the intellectually gifted. When a visitor dropped by their apartment, Danielle always begged for long, trick words to spell. She was hard to stump. But at the age of twelve, she was arrested by the police and sent to Spofford [a juvenile lock-up in New York]. She had been playing hooky, not coming home for days at a time, and was finally charged with assaulting a man on the subway at 3 AM. He had dissed her, so she pulled an advertising poster off the wall and swung it at him. A judge in Manhattan Family Court reluctantly ordered her to a juvenile group home on Long Island. A court officer who saw the potential in her, and remembered Willie, broke down in tears.