What Makes Willie Bosket Kill


The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence

By Fox Butterfield

Knopf 389pp $27.50

There's gonna be a lot of white chalk/

And brains on the sidewalk....

Through the lyrics of such gangsta rappers as Junior M.A.F.I.A., we've heard a lot about the street ethos of hotheaded young men, ready with a gun or knife for anyone who disrespects them. But to Fox Butterfield, it's nothing new: This mix of homicidal rage and intense concern for one's reputation reminds him of nothing so much as the violent habits and "code of honor" of the pre-Civil War Southern elite. "We have a sort of honorable crime.... Whenever the Southern dagger is drawn, there is something manly and chivalrous in the use of it," he quotes a 19th century lawyer from Edgefield, S.C., as saying.

As it turns out, Edgefield is not only a place with a remarkable record of violence among the white gentry. It is also the ancestral home of an African American family, the Boskets--whose progeny includes Willie Bosket Jr., one of the most brutal and notorious criminals of recent years. In All God's Children, Butterfield, a New York Times reporter, tells how his investigation of Willie Bosket led him to examine the man's past--and his family's.

"What emerged was not just a portrait of the Boskets, but a new account of the origin and growth of violence in the United States," Butterfield promises in his prologue. And for about half of the book, he delivers just that: a theory backed up by fascinating historical discoveries tying many of today's urban ills to America's bloody, rural past. Sad to say, what starts out so well ends up a disappointment, its thesis all but overwhelmed by anecdotal detail.

It's almost as if Butterfield had written two books. His exploration of the folkways of the Old South is, of course, not original: Violence was felt to be "the only really decent relief for wounded honor," wrote W.J. Cash in his seminal 1941 work, The Mind of the South. Still, Butterfield's is a fascinating chronicle.

In "bloody Edgefield," honor became a compelling passion: Street fights were common, and a killing did not necessarily stain a man's reputation. Contributing to the region's attitude toward violence was slavery. And along with brutal treatment, slaves received something else: their white masters' code of honor.

With emancipation, the Boskets tried to avoid white-supremacist ire by keeping a low profile. But by the early 1900s, Pud Bosket had turned to thievery as a career and brawling as a pastime. With the legal system in the hands of whites who regarded every black defendant as guilty, a reputation for lawbreaking became akin to a badge of honor among blacks. Before his death in a car crash in 1924, Pud would earn his badge, establishing himself as one of the "baddest" men around.

"Don't step on my reputation. My name is all I got," Pud asserted. Pud's exploits became an inspiration to his son, James, and his grandson, Butch, who by 9 had a criminal record. The childhood arrest led Butch's grandmother to ship him in 1950 to New York City, where his mother had moved. And it's about here in the narrative that Butterfield also goes astray, becoming all but submerged in the details.

A history of truancy and parental neglect led to Butch's first incarceration and the beginning of a lifetime of institutionalization. Butterfield tracks Butch's crimes, his treatment by social workers and psychologists, and his life in and out of prison. By 1962, at 22, Butch had been sentenced to life for a double murder in Milwaukee.

Shortly thereafter, Butch's wife gave birth to his son, Willie. Like his father, of whom he knew little, Willie's most effective schooling came from the streets. Soon, his truancy, fierce tantrums, and penchant for running away led to committal to a series of institutions, including several where his father had been.

When Willie was 13, a family court judge ordered him released. Willie immediately went on a frenzied subway- crime spree, killing two passengers whom he robbed. Ratted on by an accomplice and sentenced in 1978 to a mere five years for his crimes, Willie made history when the New York State legislature passed the "Willie Bosket law" that allowed kids as young as 13 to be tried for murder in adult criminal courts.

Later, convicted of attempted assault and sent to an adult prison, he launched "an orgy of attacks" on the corrections system. He repeatedly set fire to his cell, assaulted guards, and, in 1988, stabbed one. At his trial, where he admitted the stabbing, Willie told the jury: "Many more Willie Boskets are being created within the juvenile and prison systems.... Bosket is only a monster created by the system he now haunts."

Remarkable stories, to be sure. But if we believe Willie's statement that the penal system created him, what has the Southern code of honor to do with his violent life? After neglecting his thesis for more than 200 pages, the author abruptly states that "the old code has been transmuted into the strictures of the street." Huh? It's a pity: There would be a certain what-goes-around-comes-around pleasure in pinning today's urban violence on the group that spawned the Ku Klux Klan. But as we watch the Bosket family generations go by, they seem ever less connected to Southern folkways. Like elusive cavalry leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Old South has given its pursuer the slip.

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