From Out of the South

A review of All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence by Fox Butterfield

If posterity knows what it is doing, this book will be considered a classic of the violent decades, as the era of Reagan and Bush and Clinton (the froth of Iran-Contra and the Gulf War and Whitewater having subsided) may be remembered. How did our inner-city neighborhoods fall into the hell that is milked for blood and profit every night on the eleven o'clock news? What has gone wrong with young black men? Why have so many followed the path of increasingly lethal impulsivity traced in Fist Stick Knife Gun, Geoffrey Canada's recent "personal history of violence in America"? We have heard the answers: poverty and racism and drugs, urbanization and the fractured family, the NRA, the media. And most of us are tired of them--or, rather, of their attached politics. All God's Children, by coming at today's violence through history's, northern urban violence through southern rural violence, black violence through white, puts the whole problem into a suggestive new context. The ghosts of touchy white cavaliers may loom over black city kids who kill for being "dissed." Butterfield quotes a white southerner, William Faulkner: "The past is not dead. It isn't even past."

On April 16th, 1988, at approximately 12:42 p.m. in the visiting room of the Shawangunk [New York] state prison, prison guard Earl Porter felt a vicious hate-filled thrust as an eleven-inch stiletto blade was plunged into his chest to the hilt, just a fraction of an inch from penetrating his heart. The heart had definitely been the target. And as the stiletto blade invaded the chest cavity of prison guard Earl Porter, in search of his most vital organ, Bosket's most vital organ was singing a song of hateful joy.
To this day, the only regret Bosket has is not having killed prison guard Earl Porter and spitting on his corpse --not because he was Earl Porter, but because he was the system.

Willie Bosket, who had murdered two men and claimed to have committed 2,000 crimes by age fifteen, wrote that in a letter to the deputy superintendent of Shawangunk. At Bosket's trial the prosecutor read this admission of guilt to the jury. Refusing counsel, Bosket mounted his own defense. His legs bound by heavy shackles that clattered gloomily across the courtroom floor, his arms handcuffed in front of him, the handcuffs chained to his waist, a further chain connecting these chains to his shackles, Bosket read from the same letter.

Why am I so bitter? Why am I so angry towards the system? . . . The reason is because . . . Willie Bosket has been incarcerated since he was nine years old and was raised by his surrogate mother, the criminal justice system. . . . This being the case, Bosket is only a monster created by the system he now haunts.

Reading Bosket's testimony, and thinking that his story might throw light on the epidemic of violence among black youths, E. R. Shipp, an African-American editor at The New York Times, asked one of her reporters, Fox Butterfield, to investigate. It was a felicitous, though unlikely, choice. One of the last American reporters to be evacuated from Saigon in 1975, Butterfield, who holds a graduate degree in East Asian studies, had spent much of his Times career covering Vietnam and China. But he had lived in the pre-civil-rights-era South, where Willie Bosket's roots also lay. And Butterfield's father had been an American historian, someone who believed in the explanatory significance of origins. "You could not be raised in his house without imbibing his reverence for the power of history," Butterfield writes. "It was his inspiration . . . that sent me searching into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to find out why late-twentieth-century America has become plagued with violence."

Willie Bosket opened a door on a besetting national problem. "Any so-called civilized society," he wrote in answer to a letter from Butterfield asking to tell his story, "should be extremely concerned with the sociological, criminological, penological, and hereditary implications involved in the Willie Bosket case."

Searching for the causes of Bosket's violence in his family history, Butterfield discovered that his father (whom Willie had never met) was a murderer who had been sent to the same reform school at the same age as Willie. His grandfather had a criminal record. His great-grandfather was a "legendary badman." The surface of Bosket's story kept giving way, sending Butterfield deeper into the past.

It was known as "Bloody Edgefield." From the earliest days of settlement the upcountry South Carolina county was the scene of violence and mayhem. The people of Edgefield were mostly Scotch-Irish refugees from war and oppression. Benjamin Franklin called their Pennsylvania cousins "white savages," to which assessment Butterfield adds "tough, blunt, touchy, hard-drinking, and pugnacious." They lived by a medieval code of honor: if you insulted a man, cheated him, or cast a covetous eye upon his wife, he would kill you.

After Cherokee Indians laid waste the county in 1760, gangs of brigands sprang up in Edgefield, abducting women and torturing planters and merchants for their valuables. The settlers, outraged, formed into bands of "Regulators" to suppress the gangs. "It was the first organized vigilante justice in America," Butterfield writes. These Regulators, according to one historian Butterfield quotes, "introduced the strain of violence and extremism that was to be the curse of the upcountry and the nemesis of South Carolina." They punished with the ferocious sadism of the righteous--once giving 500 lashes to a suspected horse thief, for example. This pre-political violence got caught up in the American Revolution, with Revolutionaries and Tories both settling old scores through sanctioned murder.

Peace brought no respite to Edgefield. Parson Weems, best known for his hagiographic biography of George Washington, wrote a tract called The Devil in Petticoats, or God's Revenge Against Husband Killing, about a famous Edgefield murderer. She was Becky Cotton, who skewered her first husband, poisoned her second, and axed her third. Under the spell of her tears and her beauty, a jury acquitted her. Judgment eventually took the shape of one of her own brothers, who murdered her.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, according to one study, rural South Carolina had a murder rate four times as high as that of urban Massachusetts. The rate in Edgefield was thought by one scholar to be perhaps twice that of South Carolina as a whole. Whereas New York City averaged three to seven murders per 100,000 people, Edgefield's antebellum murder rate was estimated at eighteen per 100,000--higher than the rate today in the most violent state in the country, Louisiana.

This was white-on-white violence--over land, women, implacable honor. Yet from their fields and shacks the slaves were watching, learning the bloody code. Among them was Aaron Bosket, Willie's great-great-grandfather. He was owned by Francis Pickens, who, as the governor of South Carolina, helped to ignite the Civil War by ordering his militia to seize federal property in Charleston. A slave under white masters, Aaron after the war was a sharecropper under white landowners. Cheated of money for his crops, terrorized into deferring to all whites, Aaron dared not express his anger. His son "Pud" was different.

It is an extraordinary historical detail: as late as 1910 white landlords would give each of their black sharecroppers a few lashes of the whip in a little ritual of degradation--a flesh-memory of slavery. At twenty-one Pud Bosket would not endure it. "This is the last nigger you're going to whip," he said, as he grabbed the whip away from the landlord. After defying a white man Pud could not get work, and resorted to stealing from local merchants, for which he got a year on the chain gang. Defiance, however, secured his self-respect. "Don't step on my reputation," he told one man, who paid for his mistake by being thrown so hard against a barn wall that the barn collapsed around him. "My name is all I got, so I got to keep it. I'm a man of respect."

A flaw in Butterfield's architecture is that "respect," the black version of white "honor," grows harder to discern in the turbid motivations of subsequent generations of Boskets. Pud's son, James, was a robber, a kidnapper, and a child molester: like the well-balanced Irishman, no doubt he had chips on both shoulders, but offended pride did not appear to be the reason for his crimes. His son, Butch, did indeed commit one of his three murders when a man "dissed" him, but the other two lacked that motive. As for Willie, Butch's son, he is violence's child. Raised on the streets of Harlem, Willie is volcanically touchy, but his killings sprang more from the motiveless malignity of today's anomic urban condition than from the history-tinctured motive of "respect."

Ordinary people--storekeepers, subway drunks, lonely women--were the Boskets' victims, and it is a problem of All God's Children that they play only bit parts on the garish Bosket stage. Dangerously much is made of criminals. It is a convention of imaginative literature--in Paradise Lost, Satan is the compelling character--that has been transposed to factual narratives, with questionable moral results. It somehow seems wrong, for example, that one finishes this book feeling sorry for the Boskets' wasted promise. Butch, who murdered the white woman who helped him try to escape from prison before shooting himself in the head, was the first convict ever to be named to Phi Beta Kappa. Though he never got past the third grade, Willie has a near-genius-level IQ. As the letter quoted earlier indicates, the word for him is not "literate" but "literary." One regrets the waste of talent even while one wishes that murderers like this were not made so fascinating in books like this.

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This wildly inventive short film takes you on a whirling, spinning tour of the Big Apple

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City

Video

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In