Conversing with “All God’s Children” Author Fox Butterfield

All God's Children In 1988, then-New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield was assigned to write an article about a young, black man confined at Woodbourne Correctional Facility north of New York City in Sullivan County. His name was Willie Bosket who, by the time he was 16, had murdered two people and, by his own admission, committed more than 2000 crimes, including armed robberies and stabbings.

Bosket had been sentenced to five years in prison, the maximum allowable by law for a juvenile offender at the time, for the cold-blooded murder of two men on a New York subway. So long was his criminal history and so heinous his crimes, they led New York State to change its juvenile justice law to allow juveniles as young as 13 to be treated as adults in cases of violent crimes.

The law became known as the Willie Bosket law, and New York State was the first state in the nation to pass such draconian legislation aimed at prosecuting violent children.

The law and stiff sentences didn’t prevent Bosket from continuing his violence spree behind bars. When in 1988, while shackled, he stabbed a prison guard with a homemade knife. Willie Bosket earned the reputation of being possibly the most violent criminal in New York State history. Today, he remains behind bars, serving three consecutive life sentences in solitary confinement.

In “All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence,” Butterfield traces the history of the Bosket family back to the American Revolution and the county of Edgefield, South Carolina. In the process, he uncovers the roots of violence in the United States, revealing that it “had little to do with race or class, with poverty or education, with television or the fractured family.” Rather, “it grew out of a proud culture that flourished in the antebellum rural South, a tradition shaped by whites.”

In a conversation with Peggy Barmore of School-Stories.org, Butterfield discusses the challenges and research that went into writing about Willie Bosket’s path to prison, which paralleled that of Bosket’s father, Butch. In the process, the reader learns not only about the evolution of the state’s and nation’s juvenile justice system, but the history of many of the country’s iconic institutions and some of its leaders and luminaries.

(Editor’s Note: The dialogue that follows has been edited for clarity, length and readability.)

BARMORE: What is the connection between All God’s Children and public education?
BUTTERFIELD: I was going to ask you that. Both Willie and his father, for sure, had IQs in the genius range. Not that they were tested. Neither one went to school very much when they were young. They were so difficult to deal with and so impatient that they did terribly at school. And they both basically got kicked out and sent off to these various versions of reform school. Willie and his father at one point ended up in the same place, Wiltwyck, which was the best of its kind, literally, in the country among people who studied the juvenile justice system. They both did get exposed to some pretty good teachers of various kinds. But, it shows how difficult it is when kids are coming out of such problematic homes or families that they haven’t done very well in normal public schools how extremely difficult it is to deal with them. Willie was about as smart as anybody I ever met, not in terms of level of education, but just plain smart. He could read your mind. You’d be thinking of something, and he knew what it was. By all accounts, his father was even smarter than he was.

BARMORE: What do you see as the role of public education in the juvenile justice system?
BUTTERFIELD: There should be a bigger role for educating people like Willie and his father. Public education is not able to be much of an impact on them because we’re getting them too late. Unfortunately, their destiny seems largely determined by the time they’re 5, 6 or 7. It’s because of the family itself. Whether it’s just the social process within a family – that you learn by modeling the people you’re closest to, in this case your parents or your older brothers and sisters – or, the other component which you never used to be able to say out loud in this country until the last three or four years when it’s suddenly becoming okay, genetic behavior. I mean there are certain genes that code with certain types of behavior that lead to crime – impulsivity and that kind of thing. Clearly something to this, but it’s almost undoubtedly true that it’s not just genes and that it’s not just the environment, i.e., the family, but a combination of the two. You need to have both the family environment and the family gene. Genes alone won’t produce this. If a person was born into a good family, they probably won’t go the wrong direction.

BARMORE: Clarify the role of the family.
BUTTERFIELD: We know statistically now from not just around the U.S., but from around the UK, from Sweden, New Zealand and Australia, and France, that essentially five percent of families account for 90 percent of all crime. We’re talking about a very small percentage of all families having a grossly disproportionate number of criminals. This has nothing to do with nationality, has nothing to do with race, it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with class. It’s something that’s going on inside the family. What is it within the family? Are they learning this psychologically from their parents and their older siblings or is it something genetic?

Society ends up paying this huge cost because the prison system in this country is costing maybe $200 billion a year. It stops people from being criminals while they’re locked up. But when they get back on the streets, they tend to reoffend.

BARMORE: Is there a school-to jail-pipeline?
BUTTERFIELD: Willie never got much beyond second grade before he was expelled for being violent. He was always out of control and teachers didn’t really know what to do with him. And even though he got the very, very best teachers in someplace like Wiltwyck, which was experienced in dealing with kids like him, he would deliberately sabotage the best efforts to do something for him.

BARMORE: How did you come to write about Willie?
BUTTERFIELD: I was assigned to write the story about Willie by the first African American woman editor at the NY Times. Willie was on trial again. He was making statements during the proceedings that were very provocative. She assigned me to do the story. I didn’t know that she’d offered the story to four or five other people, and they’d all turned it down. I spent the first 15 years at the NY Times overseas in Asia. When I came back, they somehow pushed this on me. I’d never covered the criminal justice system, never been inside a prison one way or the other, so this was all new to me.

BARMORE: What did they want to know?
BUTTERFIELD: They wanted to find out what made Willie tick, and there was this possible connection to his father. They had lived nearly identical lives and people who dealt with them said they were both exceptionally smart. And they had both been at Wiltwyck. The question was what’s going on here. The amount of knowledge about Willie at the time wasn’t really that great. But at the period I was writing about him, he’d become the classic really bad delinquent kid in this state, and the state changed its laws. New York State became one of the first states in the country to pass one of these persistent felony offender laws: If you committed three violent felonies, the third one would automatically get you life in prison without parole.

That law became known as the Willie Bosket law, and NYS was the first state in the country to pass such a law and it was the direct result of what Willie did.
Other states copied that. One of the reasons we’ve had these huge increases in incarceration way back to the 70s and early 80s is because of these kinds of laws, which turned smaller offenses and shorter sentences into really long ones – often life sentences. Willie was a seminal figure at that point. He was interesting to me because he was simply an interesting person. You also had broader significance in terms of what he did lead to a change in the legal system. That was less interesting to me, but it was interesting to other people.

BARMORE: Was your first encounter with Willie for the book?
BUTTERFIELD: Yes, when I called up the spokesman for the New York Department of Correction, a first step to try and get an interview with an inmate, he said absolutely not, “Willie’s in maximum security and in insolation. He receives no visitors and certainly no press. We’re not going to allow any press to go interview him.”

I appealed to several people and got the same answer every time. So, I had to get creative. I read in one of the articles about Willie about this woman who had first been one of Willie’s social workers when he was in Brooklyn, right before he went and murdered those people on a subway. Because of her connection to Willie, she went to his father who was still in prison, and she carried on a correspondence with the father. She thought she had a kind of proprietary interest in Willie and his father.

If you’ve spent time in prison, you know there’s a group of women who it’s like they’re prison groupies – women who get all dressed up, put on makeup, wear outfits that are all too tight. They’re having these kinds of strange affairs with men who are locked up in prison.

She was one of those groupies. She was very smart, well educated. In her mind, she had become obsessed sexually or otherwise with Willie and his father. She felt that she kind of owned the story, and she herself had started writing a book about them. She never had gotten very far with it. I wrote to her and she said to come to visit her. I went to see her. She said the trick to get to see Willie is to write to him, explain what I’m doing and he will definitely want to see you and he will put you on his personal visitors list. He’s allowed to receive visitors at a certain very narrow time during the week. When you get there, don’t tell them you’re a journalist. Just go in as his personal visitor. So, I did that. They had built this wing of a prison just for Willie: solitary confinement within the solitary confinement block. It was quite a production to get into the prison and to be lead around quarters and past many, many different gates and further and further in and then through the solitary confinement blocks. It was all pretty spooky.

BARMORE: How did you keep track of your interview notes?
BUTTERFIELD: I took a relatively small, relatively inconspicuous notebook. I didn’t know what they would do. But, they never took it away from me. The guards, because I wore a suit and tie in those days, thought I was one of Willie’s lawyers. They took a look at me and thought that I was an attorney. So, they let me in. That started a series of 40 or 50 visits I made with Willie. Each one of them would be the maximum number of hours that I could. It would be like six hours a day, and the room where I had to sit was half the size of his cell. It was so narrow that I had to scrunch up my knees and sit on a stiff back stool. I couldn’t get up and go to the bathroom, and I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to. I had to be there at 8 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon. I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t get anything to eat. I did that dozens of times. It was difficult, but Willie was very, very interested in collaborating or cooperating with me. He was very grandiose. He knew that he was in some sense an important person and that he had an interesting story to tell.

BARMORE: How cooperative was he?
BUTTERFIELD: HE was extremely cooperative, and he began giving me the names of people I ought to interview. And, he agreed to give me written permission to get access to a lot of his records. With his permission, I was able to get access to an extraordinary trove of records about him and, ultimately, he did the same thing for his father. He was his father’s only survivor, so he could give me permission to get access to his father’s records. I was also helped with this because several of those people who ran the departments within the Department of Correction wanted to find out what was going on. They were helpful. The actual Department of Correction was not helpful. The man who was head of the Department of Parole for the State of New York had been involved before in some of this Willie stuff. So, he wanted to know. He gave me access to all this parole stuff not just for Willie, but also for his father going back to the 50s. Parole records were kept much better than they are today. Every week, Willie’s father would have to go see his parole agent, and he would type up a 10-page, single-spaced typewritten report of everything he had done. The parole agent was very thorough, so he incorporated the previous parole reports for wherever the father had been. So, there was this long-running, hundreds of thousands pages of stuff. It was really remarkable to get access to all this stuff. I couldn’t have done the book without this.

BARMORE: What form did the permission take?
BUTTERFIELD: It was a letter – multiple letters – depending on what I was doing. But, I also got access to both Willie’s and his father’s psychiatric records. I had access to Willie’s juvenile records, which are normally completely sealed, because Willie gave them to me. What I couldn’t get on my own, Willie would send out for. They would come to Willie, and he would turn them over to me. He’s still in the same place after all this years, still in the same cell. He’s been in that place for a long time.

BARMORE: Tell me about the research.
BUTTERFIELD: When I wrote the first thing, it was a big front-page story in the NY Times. One of the things that happens is that because New York City is the center of the book publishing industry, people called and wanted to make a book out of it. I already had a literary agent. I’d already written a book that won a national book award. A friend I knew who was an editor at Knopf made me a very generous offer. This was a substantial book. I knew the barebones stuff about Willie’s father. But, Willie had never met his father in person because his father had been locked up since before Willie was born. He had ended up corresponding with the father. So, they had this strange kind of written relationship. Ultimately, Willie blew off because his father had become an Uncle Tom, gotten all soft on him. Willie gave me access to all of the letters from the father. And, Sylvia, the woman who knew both of them, gave me access to a lot of the letters she had received from Butch and from Willie. The mystery at that point was where in the heck did the father come from. Willie had this idea in his mind, that the name Bosket must be a French-West Indian name and that his father had come from one of the French Islands in the Caribbean, which was really not remotely true.

It took at least a year of work by me to discover through Willie’s grandmother, his father’s mother, who was living in Manhattan, but who really didn’t like to talk about what went on because her life had been so miserable and was nothing to be proud of that she thought that Willie’s father’s father had come from South Carolina.

I had a friend who was a very prominent Southern historian in Georgia advise me to start looking in the Georgia State Archives. I didn’t find anything in it. He suggested I start looking at some census records. I was able to find where the family had been, going back to the 1920s and 30s, in Augusta. I went to Augusta and this friend of mine, the Southern historian, suggested I go and see a couple of people who taught Southern history at what was then called Augusta Junior College. There was a fascinating woman there whose family history was Irish. Her family had settled in Augusta. Where she grew up, all her neighbors were black, which was very unusual. Her family was working class, but she had become a professor of history. It turned out that one of her neighbors who was still alive had known Willie’s grandmother, grandfather, and the family; remembered them; and had even remembered little Butch when he was very young in Augusta.

It was where the written record and the still living memory of people intersected for the first time. I then was able to find out that the family had come from Edgefield in South Carolina. That was like an explosion because then it turned out that Edgefield had been written about. Although it was a very small place, it was all-out-of-proportion important in South Carolina and Southern history because it had been sort of the political capitol of South Carolina for a very long time. Even at that point, it still had one of South Carolina’s two senators, Strom Thurmond, who was from Edgefield.

I was given an introduction to a man I took to calling the emperor of Edgefield because his family had dominated Edgefield for two centuries, and he still lives in the house that his ancestors owned before the Civil War. He still has working in his house multiple people whose ancestors were slaves of his ancestors before the Civil War. One thing began leading to another. It was pretty remarkable. And, it turns out that Edgefield had been written about so much because it was the most violent county in the country. It was like stumbling into a gold mine. When I hit Edgefield, I really hit a gold mine. I had no idea when I started that one thing would lead to another, and then boom. It was pretty exciting.

***
When I started, I was really hoping just to go back to Butch and find out what made him tick. I did not have the remotest conception that I would be able to go back to the American Revolution, in essence, and to go back to slave times. It wasn’t until I got down to Georgia and then to Augusta that I found out that the family had come from Edgefield. Then, I discovered what Edgefield was.
***
Then the notion of honor wasn’t very unfamiliar to me from studying history. The criminal justice side was absolutely new. I really had no idea that the book would end up being able to reach so far back and come up with so much.

BARMORE: Did you have a timeline when you started writing the book?
BUTTERFIELD: I never had an exact timeline in mind. It was like you keep opening a box, then another box and finding another box buried inside of that and another box buried inside of that. But each one of those boxes was really, really interesting, and it ultimately is what made realizing that this huge amount of violence by blacks, this large homicide rate among blacks, really traces its origins back to large amounts of homicide among whites in the South. That there was a white origin to all this, and this white culture of honor, which was an import from the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That just changed the nature of the book. It was no longer about a bad little black kid in Harlem. It had an interesting way of diffusing what would have been brutal criticism for me as a white person writing about a black family.

BARMORE: How long did it take you to write the book?
BUTTERFIELD: Five years, it might have been six. I started to work on it in 1988-89. Ultimately, they gave me a year off, really 10 months, to write the book. I’d been doing the research. I was stealing nights and weekends when I could to do the research. Where Willie was in prison in the Catskills is about a seven-hour drive from where I live outside of Boston. So, I would drive down on Friday late, get there at almost midnight. Then be at the prison Saturday morning at 8 and stay there all day. Then they started letting me come back on Sundays, so I would get two 6-to-8 hour interviews with him each weekend that I went there. It became very grueling. The long drive, it was very repetitive and Willie was hard to keep on message. Willie’s mind raced and he wanted to talk about whatever he wanted to talk about, and I usually had questions I wanted to ask him. And, he’d get the interview off in the wrong direction very quickly. Ultimately we did make a lot of progress.

BARMORE: What was your process?
BUTTERFIELD: All I could do was take pieces of paper. I was putting stuff in file folders and file cabinets. And, I was collecting huge amounts of written material from the juvenile records, the jail and prison records, probation and parole records, and then interviews with the various teachers, social workers, and police officers. That said, a lot of law enforcement people were very cooperative. The prosecutor who tried Willie that first time for those murders was very cooperative with me, and he opened the door to a number of other law enforcement people in NYS that would not otherwise have opened.

There were funny things that happened that I did not know at the time. One of the judges who had seen Willie at family court in Brooklyn, I went and saw her and she was more than willing to help. That woman went on to become quite famous independently of the book. Her name was Judy Sheindlin — Judge Judy. She was the primary source for the book. She had dealt with Willie over and over again in family court. And in the middle of my writing the book, she got the television offer. I was not surprised. In person, she was just like she was on TV.

BARMORE: How did delving into the mind of such a violent individual affect you? There’s a lot of violence in the book and some very disturbing scenes, including the rape of a child.
BUTTERFIELD: Which Butch ended up doing after he’d seemingly gotten a real education, gotten his college degree, graduated Phi Beta Kappa and seemed to have been straightening out. He took this terrible wrong turn at the very end. I could not believe when I was doing the research that that’s what really happened. But I talked to enough of the police, prosecutors and social workers involved in the case that it finally became crystal clear to me that really is what happened.

The law enforcement people were extremely helpful. They didn’t try to cover anything up. They didn’t stall me or try to push me off. I couldn’t have gotten stuff without their help. It became very difficult for me when I began writing certain chapters because it seemed over and over that Willie and Butch, when confronted with a choice, they would always make the wrong decision. And I kept having the sense that there was a compulsion in them to make the wrong choice, to take the wrong road. And that final one that Butch took, I really had a hard time sleeping for a week or so when I knew I had to write that part of the chapter. I just did not want to put it on paper. It was really horrendous. I got very depressed – not clinically depressed – but I felt depressed.

BARMORE: Why did you include it?
BUTTERFIELD: I was being honest to the record. I was being honest about everything. They grew up in families where they were very damaged.
There were so many horror stories. When I was in Augusta and discovered this woman of Irish descent who was teaching at Augusta Junior College, she introduced me to one of her black neighbors, a woman who at that time was in her early 90s. She lived in an area of Augusta that was called the Terry for Negro Territory. I found there were city directories that were kept for commercial purposes. In the Augusta Junior College Library, they had the old directories going back to the 1900s. They listed every block on every street, and they listed who lived there: the head of the household; the person’s name, age and occupation; and other people who lived in the house — their names, ages, occupations if they had them, and their marital status. It was like having a mini census right there: year by year, street by street. So, I could look and see in that area what was going on. The startling thing when I looked was that in the streets around where Willie’s family had lived, when I looked to see who was living next to them, women headed the vast majority of families. Why were there no men living in the family? I asked. She said, “We was women without mens.” To me, that was an incredibly powerful statement. It struck me that it was a direct holdover from the incredible destruction that slavery had caused to the black family. It was very hard to recover from.

BARMORE: How was the book received?
BUTTERFIELD: That was the remarkable thing. There was no criticism from any of the usual places that you’d think. You would think that a lot of blacks would have been offended by my writing about Willie this way. You’d think that black intellectuals would have been offended. I certainly did. And, I expected American Right-wing people to go after me for glorifying a black criminal. But none of that happened. I did a lot of radio and television shows. I had no idea what the audience would be as they’re calling in. A black woman called in from the South and said, “Thank you so much for writing this book. It helped us to understand what happened.” I was flabbergasted because I expected a lot of criticism.

What really was surprising was almost everybody had that same kind of reaction. It was like light bulbs going off. It kind of happened to me when I was doing the writing, and I kept opening another box and finding stuff inside and stuff made sense that hadn’t made sense. I knew intellectually that the United States has a much lower rate of property crime than almost every country in Western Europe — I mean automobile thefts, breaking and entering in houses, burglaries, pickpocketing — but much higher rates of violent crimes. Astonishingly higher. That’s been true going back several hundred years. As you start plotting these homicide rates state by state, you could see that the states with the high homicide rates as far back as you could trace them into the 19th century are still the highest. And states with the lowest rates are still the lowest, and they haven’t changed very much. So, there’s something in the culture of those communities and families that’s driving this. It was a big journey for me as I was going along. I didn’t know where this thing was heading until I was pretty well into it. And, it certainly wasn’t what my editor expected when she assigned me the story.

BARMORE: What are you working on now?
BUTTERFIELD: I’m writing about a white family who has 60 members who’ve been in prison. You can now say they’re from Oregon. I’ve been able to trace the family back to Tennessee before the Civil War. They were Scotch Irish, but after the Civil War, they moved from Tennessee to Texas and most of their early criminal stuff was done in Texas. Moving didn’t make any difference because it was the family itself that was the problem. We’re not talking about a family in the Mafia sense. We’re just talking about a dysfunctional family. They were poor white trash. Until two years ago, nobody in the family had ever graduated from high school in a hundred years.

BARMORE: Explain the title.
BUTTERFIELD: It has a dual origin. James Baldwin was a benefactor of Wiltwyck. There was a benefit concert at Symphony Hall and Baldwin wrote in the program for it, “For these are all our children. We will profit by or pay for whatever they become.” It was also a line from old Negro spirituals. I wanted to have that connection in there.

BARMORE: What’s your message for the next generation of journalists?
BUTTERFIELD: I got very lucky. It’s harder to do what I did now than it was 20 years ago because the criminal justice system doesn’t keep as good records. In Oregon, the stuff is all kept in computers, and they keep deleting stuff from the computer files. So a lot of the material that was there is now gone. For the white family I’m writing about, it’s just gone. We’re not keeping as accurate records as we did when we had paper records.

BARMORE: What lessons can education policymakers take away from the book?
BUTTERFIELD: I’m not the one to ask that. But there is something that’s been on my mind. For kids like Willie or Butch or the white family I’m writing about which has so many members in prison, they make the Boskets look like nothing by comparison. They’ve got a bunch of murderers in the family, too, who are serving life sentences without parole. It’s almost too late by the time they get to first grade or to second grade. What you really need is some way to separate the kid from his parents and his siblings. The family that I’m writing about, they learned this behavior quite specifically from their parents — the mothers as well as the fathers. The fathers and the mothers take them out to commit crimes with them when they were very young. They take them out burglarize, to rob stores or to carjack somebody, literally. So the kids grow up thinking that’s what you’re supposed to do. Once they get out of prison, they go right back to their family — that group of people that they learned to commit crimes with. And they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. And they kind of glory in that. We talk about family values and how important family values are. What we forget is there can be family values that are really good, but there are also family values that are really bad. The family that I’m writing about now has really bad family values. So, the best answer is something we don’t know how to do and that is to separate members of the family. Criminologists are starting to experiment with this very thing.

BARMORE: Did the book live up to your expectations?
BUTTERFIELD: The book itself in terms of what I was able to find and what I was able to write was much greater than I imagined I could do. I was incredibly fortunate to find so much material. I’m a manic researcher, I just keep going and going, and I kept finding more and more material to get. It was very gratifying.
And the reception was much better than I expected. I expected getting slammed. But that did not happen. People were able to look at the story that I was trying to tell and understand it.

Only disappointing thing was that it couldn’t get made into a movie or television. It was just too difficult a story to tell. Hollywood is not prepared to do a movie about a black family that has an unhappy ending.

One Comment on “Conversing with “All God’s Children” Author Fox Butterfield”

  1. Thank you for this information. This book, All God’s Children, changed my life. I can only hope that my work compares to Butterfield’s.

    Amazing!

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