From Out of the South
by Jack Beatty
ALL GOD'S CHILDREN:
by Fox Butterfield.
The Bosket Family
and the American Tradition
Knopf, 416 pages,
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.