Fox Butterfield
Fox Butterfield
All God's Children:  The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence
ISBN: 0380728621
All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence
Mr. Butterfield talked about his recent book, All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, published by Alfred A Knopf. It focuses on Willie Bosket, who was convicted of murdering several people on a New York subway when he was fifteen years old. Mr. Butterfield examined the Bosket family history as a way to demonstrate the source of Mr. Bosket's violent behavior. In his book, he argues that the origins of violence in the United States are geographically located in the antebellum South.
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TRANSCRIPT
All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence
Program Air Date: March 31, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Fox Butterfield, what is "All God's Children" about?
FOX BUTTERFIELD, AUTHOR, "ALL GOD'S CHILDREN": It started out as a story about a young man named Willie Bosket, who, as a boy, murdered a series of people on the subway in New York. And when I began to look into his record, I found that his father had also been convicted of murder. And then I found that his grandfather and great-grandfather had also been violent criminals. And eventually, I traced the family back to a county in South Carolina which has long been known to historians as being one of, or perhaps the most violent county in the country. So where I started out looking at one young boy in Harlem, I ended up, really, in a way, with a history of violence in America.

And it opened up a way to understand violence in a very different fashion than we normally do -- that violence does not grow out of the causes that we usually associate it with. It turned out murder is not something new that grows out of our cities. It didn't have anything to do with race or with poverty or with the broken family or with television. In fact, it had a very different origin. The high homicide rates that characterize the United States really have a geographical origin in the white, rural pre-Civil War South.
LAMB:Ask you first about this person right here, this picture. Who is this?
BUTTERFIELD: That's Willie. As a boy of 15, he murdered several people on the subway in New York. And before that he already had a kind of legendary criminal record. He had committed, by his own count, 2,000 crimes, including 200 armed robberies. Later, as an adult, when he was in prison, he continued to commit crimes in prison. He attacked his guards, he threw feces on them, bit their fingers and, in one case, stabbed a guard in the chest with a homemade shank.
LAMB:Where is he today?
BUTTERFIELD: Today he's in a cell in a prison in central New York state. It's actually the most solitary confinement of any prisoner in the entire country. They have built a special cell just for Willie. The guards actually call him Hannibal Lecter, as -- like the character in the movie. When you go to the prison, you have to go through the regular prison and then you have to go through the normal solitary confinement block. Then you go through another set of doors and gates and then you come to the area where they have Willie.

He's kept in a kind of Plexiglas cage. The iron bars are covered over with extra heavy Plexiglas so he can't throw anything out or bite his guards. He's not allowed to have books, newspapers, magazines. He can't listen to the radio or watch TV. In fact, there are four TV cameras kept trained on him from outside his cage 24 hours a day, even if he wants to take a shower or go to the bathroom, to keep him under watch. And the guards are not supposed to speak to him. It's really total solitary. They even removed the light fixtures from the ceiling of his cell because at one point, he took to eating the light bulbs to show how violent he really could be.
LAMB:How many hours have you talked with him?
BUTTERFIELD: I think I spent over 300 hours talking to Willie.
LAMB:Where?
BUTTERFIELD: They set up an arrangement so that when he's in his cage, you can be just outside his cage in a very small area within the larger cell block. And you have to talk through some really sort of pinprick-size holes in the Plexiglas which are covered over with a couple of layers of heavy wire mesh that you would use to protect against raccoons.
LAMB:Have you ever been in the same room with him...
BUTTERFIELD: No. You can't. You ...
LAMB:... right inside ...
BUTTERFIELD: No. That's not allowed. But I've been, you know, six inches away from him, but he's on the other side of the partition.
LAMB:What's he like? And how old is he today?
BUTTERFIELD: Willie today is 33. Despite his enormous record of violence, he can be personally very charming. He's very smart. His IQ is near the genius level. His father, amazingly, was the only inmate in American history ever to graduate from college Phi Beta Kappa while he was incarcerated. His father actually earned a straight-A average from the University of Kansas with a joint major in computer science and psychology while he was incarcerated at Leavenworth federal penitentiary.
LAMB:Now is this a picture here of Willie?
BUTTERFIELD: That's of Willie when he was defending himself in one of his many trials -- actually, where he had stabbed a prison guard.
LAMB:Why did he defend himself?
BUTTERFIELD: Willie thought he made a very good lawyer. In fact, several judges complimented him on being a remarkable lawyer. The picture on the top is Willie arriving at the courthouse to go on trial. They're having to pull him out of the van with shackles on him. He didn't want to go into the courthouse. He always acts as obstreperous a way as he can. It's to live up to his reputation as being the most violent inmate in New York state or American history.
LAMB:How many people did he kill?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, he's only been convicted of killing two people. He acknowledges that he killed several more than that. In the incident in the prison, he narrowly missed killing the guard. That's a picture of Willie when he was a boy convicted of murder. He was imprisoned till he was 21. Then he got out for only a couple of months and he was rearrested for an assault and robbery charge, and that's a picture of him at 21 when he's just been picked up on the assault and robbery charge.
LAMB:What about this one?
BUTTERFIELD: That's a picture of Willie in his late 20s in the visitors room at one of the many prisons in New York state that he's been in, but he's in prison in that picture.
LAMB:Where was he born?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, he was born in Harlem. He had a normal delivery and, as a child, what was exceptional about him was that at first, he was very bright; second, that he always seemed to be getting in trouble. And his mother couldn't understand it. But she did frequently -- when she looked at him, he reminded her of Willie's father, of her husband.

And she would say to Willie, “Willie, when you grow up, you're going to be bad. You're going to be real bad, just like your father.” She didn't at first tell him what his father had done. She wanted to protect him from that terrible truth. So Willie's imagination ran wild and he began to wonder what his father had done. And when he was about six, he saw a picture on his grandmother's dresser of a man in prison fatigues and he asked who it was. And his grandmother said, “That's your father. He's in prison. He killed two men.”

And so Willie, in a rather perverse kind of way, thought this was great. His father was the baddest man you could be. And that's a picture of Willie's father, Butch Bosket, while he was at Leavenworth, at that time, doing time for a federal bank robbery charge.
LAMB:Did Willie and his father Butch ever meet?
BUTTERFIELD: No. They never met. And amazingly, they looked very much like each other. People who knew them both -- the relatives always said that Willie looked just like his father. They were both incredibly smart. They had a lot of mannerisms that are alike: the way their eyes looked, the way their mouths worked. But they never met. The first time they ever got in touch was when Willie had been arrested at the age of 15 for murder and he was in a juvenile prison. The warden, in effect, arranged for Willie to get in touch with his father.
LAMB:How?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, initially, there was a strange coincidence. Willie didn't know where his father was. He only knew this legend, that his father was a murderer. And then The New York Daily News ran a story on the front page identifying Willie's father as a man in prison in New York state. And Willie wrote to the man thinking, “`God this is my father,” and he was very excited. It turned out to be a man with the same name as Willie's father, but it was a relative, another man, who was also in prison for murder, but who was a cousin of Willie's father. And he wrote back to Willie and said, “I can find your father. I think I know where he is.” And that other man got a letter to Willie's father at Leavenworth. Willie's father then finally got in touch with him.
LAMB:If you spent 300 hours with Willie Bosket, what are your impressions of him? And what kind of things did you talk to him about?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, the first thing that surprised me was how smart he is. I spent a lot of my adult career working in -- that's Willie as a small boy, and the bottom picture's of Willie with one of his teachers in a reform school when he was a small boy.

Willie was incredibly bright, incredibly charming. When he found out I'd worked in Asia, he began quoting to me from Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-tung and it wasn't just jail house rhetoric; he was quoting quite accurately. And when I talked to him about what I was trying to do, to understand why he was so violent, he got enthusiastic about the project. He said that he would like to cooperate, and the reason was because he had a niece -- at that time, she was seven -- named Danielle who was very bright also, but who was beginning to get in trouble.

She was playing hooky at school, she was staying out from home, she was being sent to the family court, even at the age of seven. And Willie was worried she was going to follow his path. And he thought maybe if I could understand what had happened to him, why he was so violent, it might, in some fashion, save her. So he gave me the records that he had collected over the years: his juvenile criminal records, his psychiatric records. Things that normally would be sealed and that a writer -- researcher would never find, he provided to me. And then I set out to try to find his family. And when I would find information, I would come back, usually, and tell it to him and we'd talk it over.
LAMB:Do you have all those 300 hours on tape?
BUTTERFIELD: No. I couldn't take a tape recorder into the prison. It was all, you know, pen and paper.
LAMB:Where's the prison located?
BUTTERFIELD: The prison is in the Catskills. It's in a place called Woodbourne. Oddly, it's not a maximum-security prison, but it's where they could build the most secure confinement area just for Willie.
LAMB:What has he done that requires this maximum-security cell, this cage that he's in?
BUTTERFIELD: While he's been in prison -- it wasn't just what he did on the outside, it's what he's done in prison. Every opportunity he got, he was waging what he called a war on his guards. It was a war with the system. He thought that the criminal justice system was like a surrogate mother because he's been locked up since he was nine years old, either in a juvenile reformatory or an adult prison. And so he sees all the guards as his enemy and he wants to prove that he's the toughest, meanest guy there ever was. So when he had an opportunity, he would throw hot coffee on a guard or he would throw feces on them. Or if a nurse was giving him his medication, sometimes he would bite the nurse's finger. As I say, one time, he actually pulled out a shank and stabbed a guard. Me...
LAMB:How did he get a shank in jail?
BUTTERFIELD: That's a good question. So -- what he actually did was, he removed a small rod from underneath the typewriter that they gave him to type up one of his legal cases on and he ground down the point of the rod from under the typewriter and it was like a very large ice pick, which he somehow managed to secret under the bottom of his foot. While -- and he was being taken from his cell -- it wasn't the same cell that I saw him in, but a different cell at that time -- to the visitor's room.

And he was supposedly frisked, but the guards didn't frisk the bottom of his foot. They took off his shoes and looked in his shoes. They forgot to pad the bottom of his feet. So he went into the visitor's room, where he was actually being interviewed by a young journalist. During the interview, he said, “I've got a shank,” and he went out and he pulled the shank out and walked up behind a guard and stabbed him right in the chest.
LAMB:Did he kill him?
BUTTERFIELD: No. He just missed. If the -- very luckily -- if that ice pick-size rod had been a little thicker, he would have killed the guard, because it missed -- it came within half an inch of his heart. As it was, the guard almost bled to death. It was a terrible incident. And this was a man he didn't even know. In fact, he'd never seen the guard before. He didn't know the guard's name. There was no personal animus. It was just -- what Willie said was his war with the system.
LAMB:And has he read your book?
BUTTERFIELD: He has read my book now. It was -- one of the few things that I've been able to actually get to him or give to him was this was the book. I wasn't sure that he'd be able to receive it. And I couldn't hand it to him. I had to take it to the prison and it had to go through official clearance by the prison. But he has read it.
LAMB:Has he given any reaction to it?
BUTTERFIELD: He says he believes the stories are accurate and he says that I've told the truth, which is as much as I can hope for.
LAMB:Will he ever be out of that cell?
BUTTERFIELD: No. I seriously doubt it. He certainly will never be out of prison. He has three life sentences, which are tacked on one after the other. And he also now has about 70 years in solitary confinement, which is something given to him by the prison system rather than by a judge. And he will probably remain in that cell forever.
LAMB:Is this a good idea?
BUTTERFIELD: A good idea? To keep him there?
LAMB:I mean, from all you've learned in this, is it a good idea to have him that confined?
BUTTERFIELD: I think that -- I mean, eventually, if he could go, say, five years without any incidents of violence, maybe the prison system would be willing to consider putting him back in what they call general population. But in a very strange way, Willie doesn't want that, because that would undermine -- undercut his reputation of being the worst prisoner ever. And he lives on his reputation.
LAMB:There's so many names. Excuse me if I get the wrong sequence and all that, but is it Willie that swallowed the toenail clipper?
BUTTERFIELD: Yes. Willie swallowed the toenail clipper. At various times while he's been in prison, he's swallowed lots of objects: the tops of pens or the pens themselves, toenail clippers, razor blades, light bulbs. This was a way either to show how violent he could be or an effort to get himself out of the cell or the prison he was in and get transferred to a hospital ward, where he thought maybe he could have a chance to escape.
LAMB:What happened exactly on the toenail clipper thing? Because I know he...
BUTTERFIELD: The toenail clipper eventually worked it -- I mean, they took him to a hospital ward, they X-rayed him, they saw where it was in his bowel and eventually it actually -- we was able to pass it through and it came out.
LAMB:Did he get what he wanted to out of swallowing it?
BUTTERFIELD: To the extent that it gave him some measure of satisfaction and proved how tough he was, yes, but nothing else.
LAMB:There's a similar story you tell about his father, Butch, who was in prison, and wanted to escape and used salt. Explain that story.
BUTTERFIELD: His father, after many years of being in prison, really tried to go straight. He worked very hard to get a college degree, to get an education, although he'd never been to school, really, as a boy, because his father, too, had been locked up at the age of 9. In fact, both Willie and his father were sent to the same reform school at exactly the same age, 9. And his father spent all those years locked up. But as an adult, he began to get an education and he found that he was very good at school. And that's a picture of Butch at Leavenworth receiving his Phi Beta Kappa degree, the first and he remains the only inmate ever to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from college while in prison.
LAMB:The salt.
BUTTERFIELD: Butch finally got out. He used his education as a way to get out. The prison system felt that he had been rehabilitated and he got two jobs, not just one. He got one job working in an aerospace company as a computer programmer. This was in Milwaukee. He also got a job teaching a course at the University of Wisconsin for computer science for undergraduates. He seemed to be doing well. And then, suddenly, he was rearrested. It was a charge of sexually assaulting a young girl. He said he was innocent, but he despaired and he plotted with the girl's mother, who claimed that Butch was innocent and he resorted to an old prison ruse, that if you swallow enough salt, it will cause a kind of ulcer in your stomach and make you cough up blood. The guard ...
LAMB:How did he get the salt?
BUTTERFIELD: He saved up enough salt from these little packets that the provided with his lunches and he swallowed them all at once and he did then cough up blood and the prison authorities didn't know what had happened, so they took him to a hospital. And it happened to be kind of an unguarded hospital. And he then arranged with his girlfriend to come in disguised as a nurse.
LAMB:Now she was a white...
BUTTERFIELD: She was a white woman who was a beautician and she came in, she put on a nurse's uniform and she brought two guns in. She managed to disarm the sheriff's deputy who was guarding Butch in the prison -- I mean, in the hospital room. And they got the handcuffs off of Butch, put them on the sheriff's deputy, chained the sheriff's deputy to the wall and then they took off.

And they would have made a clean break except for a small irony. When they turned out of the hospital room, they turned to the right instead of to the left. If they'd gone left and gone down the stairs, they would have gotten right to his girlfriend's car, which was sitting there. But because they went the other direction, when they came out they were on the wrong side of the hospital. It was a huge hospital complex and they got lost. They wandered around for a while, and by that time, the sheriff's deputies were alerted that he was on the loose, so the sheriff's deputies closed in and Butch used all the bullets that he had to shoot out with the sheriff's deputies except for the last two. When he realized he was down to his last two bullets, he took the gun and put it to the head of his girlfriend and killed her and then he put it to his own head and shot himself.
LAMB:What year was this?
BUTTERFIELD: That was 1985.
LAMB:Who is Butch's father?
BUTTERFIELD: Butch's father was named James. James had been born in South Carolina; was brought to Augusta, Georgia, as a young boy. Grew up very, very poor and turned to a life of crime as a young man when his marriage wasn't working out. James had married a woman and they'd had a child, Butch. James walked off and abandoned that child at, really, the age of just a few months. And then, in a terrible turn of events, the mother also abandoned Butch when he was a tiny little -- really still a baby. And Butch was left to grow up on his own, largely on the streets of Augusta in a very poor section of town.
LAMB:Who took care of him?
BUTTERFIELD: He had a grandmother who would take care of him, but he -- in a way, nobody was taking care of him because his grandmother had to work. She was a laundress for a white family and he was left alone during the day. He would go out and beg and he soon joined a gang. He would rob stores. And we know from the records that are preserved that by the age of 9, he actually had a gunshot wound in one leg and he had a case of gonorrhea. This was diagnosed by a doctor.
LAMB:His father James did what then?
BUTTERFIELD: His father James took a train north from Augusta to Washington and began robbing stores and was caught and put in prison a number of times for armed robbery.
LAMB:How did he die?
BUTTERFIELD: In the end, he died probably -- it's not quite clear, but probably died of alcoholism, died by trouble with his liver from alcohol when he was in his late 50s.
LAMB:And who was his father?
BUTTERFIELD: His father was a man who was called Pud Bosket, who, in some ways is the most interesting member of the family. Pud was born in 1889 in a little town -- or, outside a little town in South Carolina. And his family were sharecroppers. His father had been a slave. And Pud grew up in the 1890s, which, in many ways, was the worst decade for Afro-Americans in American history. It was a period which we remember now for lynching. It was the height of lynching. It was a period when the Jim Crow laws were imposed, segregation, when blacks lost the right to vote. Now there's a picture in here of a hanging in the town where Pud was brought up. It's one of his cousins who was hung there, the first man to be hung in that county, and Pud was at the hanging.
LAMB:What's Pud's real name?
BUTTERFIELD: Pud's real name was Clifton.
LAMB:What was Pud short for?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, it was -- Pudding was what it was -- a nickname that he was given from the time he was a boy. He never got any education. The family was really dirt poor, sharecroppers. He went to work farming a white man's land and he became very resentful of the way his family and blacks were being treated. And where he worked, the white farmer would still whip his hands. This was still legal in South Carolina 30, 40 years after the end of the Civil War. It was kind of a vestige of slavery. And one day, Pud got tired of that and he turned around as the white man was going to whip him and he grabbed the whip from the white man's hand and he said, “Don't step on my reputation.”

And after that, he could never get another job because no white person wanted to employ him. So he began robbing stores and got put on the chain gang. But instead of becoming an outlaw, he became a kind of folk hero to other African-Americans in that community. It was period that there were a number of such -- sort of black bad men heroes that were springing alive all over the South. These were the people who were celebrated in the early blues songs. It was a period when African-Americans were really in deep trouble because of this crisis of lynching and the Jim Crow laws and poverty and racism, and -- and one of the few avenues that they had the sort of thing that Pud did.
LAMB:Whatever happened to him?
BUTTERFIELD: Pud, after this life of robbing stores and being on the chain gang -- when he was out, at one point he was carrying moonshine liquor from a still and selling it and he was actually working with a white man. And the white man was driving the car and actually teaching -- trying to teach Pud to drive and they were drunk. It was a Sunday morning and the car crashed and the two of them were thrown out of the car on a dirt road. And when they were found, they were lying there by the side of the road -- one had his neck broke and the other had his head smashed in. But between them was an empty jar of corn whiskey. They had drunk it down to the end, and that's the way they died.
LAMB:What year was this?
BUTTERFIELD: That was 1924. And at that time, Pud had a little boy, James, whose mother then took him from the rural South Carolina countryside into Augusta, Georgia, which was the nearest city, to try to find some kind of job, because she couldn't support them -- she couldn't work as a sharecropper herself. Women just weren't given the land and weren't considered able to do the work.
LAMB:Let's go back over the list again. Willie is alive and in prison in New York.
BUTTERFIELD: Willie's the only male member of the family who's alive. He's in New York in prison and his father Butch died in the shootout with sheriff's deputies in Milwaukee, 1985. And Butch's father, James, died. He had grown up in the South and then the great-grandfather, Pud, who had been born in 1889 in South Carolina and had become, really, the first man in the family to get in trouble with the law -- he died in 1924.
LAMB:Who was Pud's father?
BUTTERFIELD: Pud's father was a man named Aaron, who was born a slave, whose family had been bought and sold a number of times, who was himself, as a young slave boy, was bought and sold several times. And I was very lucky to be able to trace the family back that far and actually back to Aaron's father, who had been probably born in Maryland. Somewhere -- Maryland or Virginia, we're not quite sure where, and then sold off as a very young slave boy and put into what was called the long-distance slave trade; was sent in a coffle with other slaves, chained up and ended up being sold in South Carolina. And the family was bought and sold three or four times. At one point, one of their owners was a man named Bosket, which is where they got their surname from, from the white slave owner. Later, they were sold to a man named Francis Pickens, who actually became governor of South Carolina and, as governor, led South Carolina into secession. It was the governor who ordered the shots fired on Ft. Sumter.
LAMB:The subtitle of your book is "The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence," and I wondered if that's the reason that you talked about this violent act.
BUTTERFIELD: Well, this is Preston Brooks in one of the most famous incidents in American history. Preston Brooks was a congressman from South Carolina from this little county called Edgefield. And in 1856, he was very upset when a famous senator from Massachusetts named Charles Sumner, who was the leading abolitionist, gave a speech in which Sumner excoriated South Carolina for upholding slavery and also attacked one of Brooks' relatives who was a senator from South Carolina -- a senator named Butler. This was offense to the family's honor, and honor was incredibly important to Southerners in the 19th century.

So Preston Brooks thought this over and he wanted to avenge his family and his state's honor, so he walked over from the floor of the House to the Senate -- it was at noontime -- and unfortunately, there were still some ladies in the visitor's gallery, and so as a matter of honor, he had to wait till the ladies left. Then he walked up to Senator Sumner's desk and Preston Brooks had a gold-headed gutta-percha cane, a walking stick he used because he'd been wounded in a duel in the knee -- in an earlier duel in South Carolina. And he went up and he began flogging Senator Sumner right on the floor of the Senate and flogged him so hard that he left the cane just in shreds.

And Sumner was left largely paralyzed. Brooks resigned his seat, went back to South Carolina, but he was unanimously re-elected. In fact, some local merchants bought him another cane and then they inscribed it, “Hit him again.” And -- but for a lot of people in the North, this was regarded as the first act of the Civil War. The attack on Sumner was seen as, you know, a vicious criminal act.
LAMB:What year?
BUTTERFIELD: 1856.
LAMB:And Charles Sumner was from Massachusetts?
BUTTERFIELD: Charles Sumner was from Massachusetts. If anybody goes to Boston today and they drive from the airport into the city, they have to go through the Sumner Tunnel.
LAMB:And that's where you live now.
BUTTERFIELD: That's where I live now. There's a local reminder in Boston of that incident right there, the Sumner Tunnel, where the traffic always gets stuck.
LAMB:How did you find your way to Boston?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, I've worked for The New York Times for, now, 27 years. I worked a lot of that time in Asia, but as an adult, I started -- my family moved to Boston, and I consider Boston my home. And I'm lucky enough now that I have a job where I can live in Boston and work for The New York Times. I have a national assignment writing about sort of the causes of crime and violence and what do we do about it.
LAMB:What countries have you lived in the world?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, I lived in Taiwan as a graduate student studying Chinese, and then I began working there for The New York Times. I was in Vietnam for three years during the war. I was in Japan for almost three years. I was in Hong Kong for four years. And I opened a New York Times bureau in China in Beijing in 1979 after we normalized relations with China.
LAMB:How many books have you written?
BUTTERFIELD: I've written two books on my own -- a previous book on China, which was called "China: Alive in the Bitter Sea."
LAMB:You're also listed as an author with Neil Sheehan, N.E.W. Kenworthy and Hedrick Smith on the Pentagon Papers.
BUTTERFIELD: Right. I was one of the four reporters at The New York Times who participated in the Pentagon Papers project, which is now actually -- we're coming up on the 25th anniversary. In the spring of 1971, Hedrick Smith -- I mean -- I'm sorry -- Neil Sheehan got the papers. And this was the secret history of the Vietnam War that Secretary of Defense McNamara had commissioned to be done within the Defense Department, which included lots of secret documents. And we began pouring over these and, eventually, produced a series of articles. And you may recall that President Nixon was rather unhappy about this, and he moved through the court system, eventually went to the Supreme Court and temporarily stopped us from publishing them.
LAMB:Where were you born?
BUTTERFIELD: I was born in the South. I lived in Virginia as a boy. Actually, my father was teaching at William and Mary in Williamsburg. In those days, Williamsburg was a very small town; it's gotten a lot bigger since then. So I grew up in the old Tidewater -- Virginia, rural South in the days of segregation.
LAMB:Where did you go to college?
BUTTERFIELD: When I was just at the end of high school, my family moved to Boston. My father got a job teaching at Harvard, and I actually ended up going to Harvard.
LAMB:What did you study?
BUTTERFIELD: Oddly enough, I studied Chinese history and went on in graduate school and studied some more. But ended up becoming a journalist instead of teaching as a professor myself.
LAMB:Why journalism?
BUTTERFIELD: I found that I was spending too much time in the library in sort of the dusty stacks doing research, and I wanted to get out and have a more active life.
LAMB:But why, you know, The New York Times and writing? Is there any influence in your life that took you in that direction?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, I had always enjoyed reading newspapers, and some of my friends said to me, `”You spend so much time reading newspapers, you ought to work for one.”
LAMB:What about your parents? What influence did they have on you?
BUTTERFIELD: Oh, I think my father had enormous influence that I didn't appreciate at the time. My father was an American historian. And his heroes were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. And my father was always taking us around to old houses or battlefields and teaching us to go back to the beginning of things to see where they came from. And I realized as I was doing the research for this book, when I started with young Willie Bosket as a 15-year-old on the streets of Harlem and wanted to find out why he was so violent and why America was so violent, I began going backwards in time. And eventually, in this book, I've gone back all the way to the American Revolution in South Carolina.
LAMB:You dedicate your book to Elizabeth, Ethan, Sarah and Sam. Who are those people?
BUTTERFIELD: My family. Elizabeth Marin, who's a journalist for The Los Angeles Times. Ethan, Sarah and Sam are my three kids.
LAMB:How old are the kids?
BUTTERFIELD: Ethan is 19, Sarah is 16 and Sam is about to be six.
LAMB:Any of them thinking of journalism?
BUTTERFIELD: Not so far.
LAMB:Would you encourage them to go into journalism?
BUTTERFIELD: I might. The older two clearly want to do something very different than what their father did. Sam's too young to know better.
LAMB:Go back to the first moment that you knew about Willie Bosket. What year?
BUTTERFIELD: Actually, I was sitting in the newsroom at The New York Times in New York, minding my own business, when an editor came through the room. And she walked past my desk and she dropped some notes on my desk, and she said, “Here's a story I'd like you to do.” It was about Willie, who was, at that point, on trial for stabbing the guard in prison. And she wanted me to try to find out why he was so violent. At that time, he was representing himself as his own lawyer, and he'd given a rather extraordinary speech in the courtroom describing himself as a monster created by the system. And in his opening statement to the jury, he acknowledged that he had stabbed the guard. In fact, he took pride in it. He said, “There's no question that I did it. I did it.” The quest -- he said, “The thing that you need to look at is: Why did I do this?”

You know, he tried to turn it around and put the criminal justice system on trial. This is a picture of Willie, in fact, acting as his lawyer during that time when he's shouting at the judge. He did several times, he did a very good job of defending himself. And in one case, he actually got himself off. It was an instance where he had gotten in a fight in a courtroom with the court officers and had attacked them. And they finally secured him. But it happened in front of a judge and the district attorney and a number of assistant district attorneys, lots of other witnesses, but Willie actually won that case and got off.
LAMB:How?
BUTTERFIELD: He simply was very clever, and he was a better lawyer than the judge was a witness in the case. When the judge was called to be a witness, Willie was able to, in essence, trick him out of the testimony that he should have given.
LAMB:What was the date that the story was dropped in your lap in The New York Times newsroom?
BUTTERFIELD: That was all the way back in 1989, so I worked on the book, really, for six years.
LAMB:How did you go about it?
BUTTERFIELD: You know, when I started, I was very reluctant. I did not want to glorify a criminal. I was very concerned that some journalists who get involved with criminals end up turning them into saints or end up trying to go to the parole board to help spring them out of prison, and I didn't want to do that. Also, I'd never been in a prison in this country, and my own background was in Asian studies. I'd spent 15 years living and working in Asia. But when I went there and I saw how articulate Willie was and that he had these records that were available that you normally wouldn't get, I thought there might be a story to do. And I began looking into his background, and then I learned about his father having also been convicted of murder and having been sent to the same reform school at the same age, and it seemed like a very powerful tale which might help us understand why we're in this predicament we are today.

You know, one of the surprise things is that when you look at crime rates now, most crimes rates in the United States are not all that different from those in Western Europe, the countries that we usually compare ourselves to. There's more burglary in London now than there is in New York. There are more car thefts in France per capita than there are in the United States. But in murder, we're off the charts. If you look at young people in this country, young people commit homicide at a rate 60 times that of young people in England. And there's something very wrong there. And if other crime rates are that close, why do we commit so much violence? As I went back in this story, I found an explanation going way back into South Carolina into the early history of the country.
LAMB:What is the explanation?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, I think the explanation has a lot to do with what white Southerners in the 19th century called honor. Or reputation. It was the notion that a person derives their worth from the opinion of others so that if somebody insults you or your family, you have to take action. White Southerners in the antebellum South did not believe in going to court. Andrew Jackson's mother -- and Andrew Jackson was born in the western part of South Carolina -- she once said to him when he was a boy, “A true gentleman does not go to court. If somebody insults you, you always settle them cases yourself.”

And, in fact, we know that in the South, that among the upper classes, this notion of honor led to dueling. In South Carolina, dueling was outlawed in 1812, but it continued on. In fact, the code book for duelists in South Carolina was written by the governor of the state. In it, he said that he deplored the Christian doctrine of turning the other cheek; he said that because such forgiveness is utterly repugnant to human feelings. This is a picture from an old illustrated magazine of the consequences of a duel. Dueling stopped in the North, but it continued on in the South into and after the Civil War. As I say, this governor of South Carolina actually wrote the code book for duelists, and he said that turning the other cheek was a notion utterly repugnant to human feelings because mere words can never be satisfaction for swords.

Among the less affluent and less educated, honor led to a game that they called rough and tumble or a savage form of what was known then as “wrastling.” And the object of this was to chomp off your opponent's nose or ears or even chew off their fingers or gouge out their eyes. Again, this practice was outlawed in South Carolina back at the early part of the 19th century, but it continued. They made it a capital crime, but only if you gouged out the eyes or chewed off the fingers. The nose and the ears were OK.
LAMB:You say back in the notes on sources that much of the voluminous primary material on Butch and Willie -- Butch being Willie's father -- is normally confidential, and it was a rare luxury to have access to it. How did you get access to it?
BUTTERFIELD: First, because Willie had some of his juvenile criminal records and some of his psychiatric records. And then where there were gaps -- and there were lots of them -- Willie would write letters of permission for me to apply to get some of these from some of the other juvenile facilities where he had been. In fact, he cooperated with me in getting some of his records from the New York state Division for Youth. That's the youth justice agency. He also wrote letters of permission so I could get access to his father's records. And under the Freedom of Information Act, I got things like the FBI records, the state prison records, and I ended up with thousands of pages of documents which normally, we wouldn't be able to see.
LAMB:Under the chapter Willie, Chapter 16, you say these these three sources, and earlier, you say Willie's behavior in prison in '85 and '86, are taken from three sources: disciplinary reports written by his guards, the transcript of his later trial for arson and assault at Midstate Prison and the transcript of a hearing to determine whether Willie was a persistent felon. These three sources totaled nearly 3,000 pages. Did you read all 3,000 pages?
BUTTERFIELD: Yes. I mean, I had to.
LAMB:Where?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, I made Xeroxed copies of them or I got the original documents, whatever it was. So I've got a number of file cabinets filled with these documents.
LAMB:Two hundred people, you interviewed.
BUTTERFIELD: Yes.
LAMB:Who are the principal ones that gave you valuable information and all that?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, some of the most interesting ones were very elderly people in South Carolina who remembered back to the 1890s and to the turn of the century, what, for me, was the crucial decade in this whole process, where black Southerners began to adapt some of these notions from white Southerners. We were just talking about honor. We can come back to that. But a number of the people that I talked to were in their 90s, several people over 100; one man who was still living in the house that his great-grandfather had built at the time of the American Revolution. And he remembered his great-grandfather, if that seems possible. This is a man who was well over 100 himself.
LAMB:Did anyone not want to talk to you?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, there were certainly some people who didn't want to talk to me, but in the end, I'd say the vast majority did.
LAMB:Did Willie every marry?
BUTTERFIELD: Willie was very briefly married at one point in his life. He was 21 when he got out of prison from having been in juvenile. Before he was rearrested, he was out for about two months. He married a woman, but they had no children and he was back in prison shortly thereafter, and she later divorced him.
LAMB:Where is she now?
BUTTERFIELD: She lives in New York, but he has no contact with her.
LAMB:Did you have contact with her?
BUTTERFIELD: I talked to her and to her mother.
LAMB:What about Butch, Willie's father? Did he marry?
BUTTERFIELD: Butch, his father, married a woman named Laura, who became Willie's mother, who lives in Harlem. That's Butch in prison at Leavenworth. And Willie's mother was reluctant to cooperate, because this has not been a happy life for her. After all, her husband committed murder. In fact, she was with him when he committed murder in Milwaukee back in 1961.
LAMB:Tell that story, please.
BUTTERFIELD: They had traveled from New York to the Midwest. Butch was on parole at the time from a prison sentence in New York. But he absconded from his parole and was traveling around, actually selling pornographic pictures, which, in the early 60s, was something fairly serious. But they had run out of money and Laura was pregnant, and he was also trying to get a job. And when he was in Milwaukee, he was down to his last few dollars and Laura was pregnant. She needed something to eat. And he went into a pawn shop and he tried to sell the last few pornographic pictures that he had. And the man said, “Well, I like these, but I don't have any money right now. Come back tomorrow morning.”

So Butch came back the next morning. He walked in happily and said, “Have you got my money?” And the pawn broker said, “Never seen you before,” you know, “Get out of here.” And Butch was furious and he grabbed a knife. He would later deny it was his own knife, but he said he found the knife on the counter, and he stabbed the pawn broker in the chest. And there was another customer who'd walked into the shop, and he stabbed him -- killed both men almost instantly in this kind of rage at having been insulted. He felt that his respect had been called into question here, that they were insulting him.

And this is where I find it a tie-in to this old white Southern notion of honor. Just in the same way that white Southerners talked about honor and reputation, I think African-Americans picked that idea up in a way. And that the important point here is that white Southerners -- and it's the attitude towards the law. White Southerners saw themselves above the law. Honor and slavery gave them that idea. But blacks in the 19th century found themselves outside the law. They couldn't go to court to seek redress because the sheriffs, the police, the judges and the juries were all controlled by whites. So their only recourse, really, was to take things into their own hands. And this is what I saw happening with Willie's great-grandfather, the man we called Pud Bosket. When he got tired of the white man whipping him and he grabbed the whip out of the white man's hand and said, “Don't step on my reputation,” he was using that same language that white Southerners had used. And his son James would later -- when he would start to get in trouble, would use those same words, “reputation” and then “respect.”
LAMB:How many different places did you go to see, physically, either the prisons or the maximum security cells?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, Willie himself, since I've known him, since 1989, he's been in the same prison and in the same exact cell now since '89. He hasn't moved at all.
LAMB:Did you go to any other prisons?
BUTTERFIELD: I visited some prisons in Wisconsin where his father had been. I also went to Leavenworth, where his father had been. And I went to a couple of prisons where some inmates are now -- who had been in prison with his father -- to talk about his father; one man who's still in a federal prison in Texas who had been one of his father's best friends at Leavenworth.
LAMB:How do you find the prison authorities when you try to talk to them or you want to talk to prisoners? Are they cooperative?
BUTTERFIELD: When they know what I'm doing, they've -- I would say on the whole, they've been very cooperative, I mean, as long as I don't try to break any rules and I'm not carrying contraband and I'm there for an interview and they know exactly what I'm doing. On the whole, the people have been extremely cooperative.
LAMB:Anybody in the process want money from you in order to talk to you?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, yes. And, I mean, that's something that people put their hands out, and I've had to say, “I'm sorry. I can't do it.”
LAMB:Did Willie want any money?
BUTTERFIELD: Willie -- well, when we started, New York state had the “Son of Sam” law that was put into effect after this one man had killed a series of people in New York. And the law was to prevent criminals from profiting by writing books or doing movies about, you know, their exploits. During the course of the book, the Supreme Court has overturned that law. New York state has been trying to get another one in place that would meet the Supreme Court's requirements. So when I started with Willie, I mean, he could not in any way receive money, and that hasn't been an issue with him.
LAMB:You told me before we just started here briefly that ABC has bought the rights to the miniseries?
BUTTERFIELD: Yes. Just very recently, ABC has agreed to make this into a miniseries, but obviously, it will take some time.
LAMB:How many different shows do you think you'll get out of this?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, that's up to them. I really have no idea. They've talked about a minimum of two shows.
LAMB:What do you think attracts them to this?
BUTTERFIELD: I hope it's because it's a very powerful story which gets at the roots of violence in America, that this -- violence is not something that just started in our cities recently; that, in fact, these very high homicide rates which characterize American violence go back a long way. What we're learning is that these high homicide rates go back into the 19th and even into the 18th century, perhaps. The county where Willie's family came from, Edgefield, was a small county. Its largest town was a village of 300 people. But in the 19th century, it had a homicide rate as high as New York state today -- New York City today, which is flabbergasting when you think about it. That's Edgefield County in South Carolina in the area just north of Augusta, across the Savannah River and partway up towards Columbia, the capital.
LAMB:Is Strom Thurmond from this area?
BUTTERFIELD: Yes, indeed. In fact, this is one of the great stories. Strom Thurmond's father was a man named J. William Thurmond, who was the prosecutor or district attorney or, as in South Carolina, they call them the solicitor, for Edgefield County in 1896-1897. And one spring day in 1897, when J. William Thurmond was sitting in his office at the courthouse, a traveling salesman came by and began berating Thurmond. The traveling salesman was drunk and he was insulting Thurmond about his politics and he called him a liar and a scoundrel. And this was an affront to honor. This was this old Southern notion of honor. And so Thurmond reached into his jacket pocket, and Southern gentlemen in those days always had their jackets tailored with a pistol pocket inside. He pulled out his Colt revolver and he shot the man dead on the spot.

And although Thurmond was the district attorney for the county, he was put on trial for murder, but the jury acquitted him in 35 minutes because he pled self-defense; it had been an affront to his honor. It was a clear violation of that code. And at that time, the political boss of South Carolina, who was also from Edgefield, was a man named "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman sort of the first populist racist governor, sort of antecedent to George Wallace. And there's a picture of "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, who boasted to the end of his days that -- he said -- he would always say, “I am from Edgefield,” as if that explained everything.

And at that time, Tillman was very powerful. He had been governor and then senator. And he went to the president of the United States and he got the president to make J. William Thurmond the US attorney for South Carolina as a kind of reward for having been charged with murder. Murder was no bar to high office in those days in Edgefield. If it was committed in the name of honor, it was acceptable.
LAMB:In the state of New York, had there been capital punishment at the time of Willie's prosecution, would he be dead today?
BUTTERFIELD: If New York was executing criminals, he almost certainly would. New York, only last year, as you know, restored the death penalty. During the time when Willie was committing his violent acts, there was no death penalty. In fact, a lot of prosecutors and politicians used Willie as an example of an argument for restoring the death penalty. They would say Willie is a walking, talking advertisement for the death penalty.
LAMB:How much does it cost to keep him alive?
BUTTERFIELD: A very great deal. I mean, the way they've got him now, it's well over $100,000 a year. It's a very expensive proposition. You could send a lot of kids to college for that much money.
LAMB:When he killed, who did he kill?
BUTTERFIELD: He killed several people that he didn't know -- poor people, actually; Hispanic people on the subway in Harlem. They were people that he was attempting to rob as a 15-year-old. And when they moved and he thought they were resisting him or that they were dissing him, as kids now say, he shot them.
LAMB:How many?
BUTTERFIELD: He was convicted of killing two. He was also convicted of attempted murder of a third, but he almost undoubtedly killed several other people that he was simply not charged with because there was no proof.
LAMB:How did he get caught?
BUTTERFIELD: He got caught because he did it too often, and the police began developing a profile of who he was. And he discarded one man's wallet near his house. And the police put two and two together and did a very good job. It was in the early days of the use of computers, and they figured out probably who he was. He had a record of committing lots of other robberies on the subway, so they knew his name and where he lived. And when they picked him up, he actually admitted that he'd done this -- unintentionally, but he admitted it. He was boasting of it in a way. Willie had made it his mission in life from early on, when he found out what his father had done, to make himself the most violent criminal that he could.

Now this is one of these very surprising things which I came on in the research. You know, most of us know that if your father is a doctor, a lawyer or a farmer, policeman, when you grow up, you're probably going to go into their line of work. What doesn't occur to us, because we don't have that experience, is that if your father is a violent criminal who's been in prison, that also is going to have a very powerful, if perverse, attraction for you. That's exactly what happened with Willie. When he found out his father was a violent criminal in prison for murder, Willie wanted to emulate him. In fact, he began telling his teachers and his schoolmates, “Don't mess with me. My father was a murderer. When I grow up, I'm going to be just like him.”
LAMB:Where did you get the name?
BUTTERFIELD: "All God's Children" came from Willie's great-great-grandfather. It was a saying that he had probably from an old spiritual. And he was referring to the fact that everybody who lived in that county really owned part of it. Even though he'd been a slave and hadn't been able to own land, he, too, was from Edgefield.
LAMB:If we'd have seen you in Peking or in Hong Kong or in Taiwan and somebody said, “Fox Butterfield, in a couple years, you're going to have a book on the Bosket family,” what would you have said then?
BUTTERFIELD: I'd have been very skeptical.
LAMB:Why?
BUTTERFIELD: Because I thought I was going to go on writing about Asia and was interested in living and working in Asia.
LAMB:What changed that?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, partly was, I wanted my two older children who were born in Hong Kong, I wanted them to see their own country. I wanted to come back here. And then once I came back here, I began to feel that the problem of violence was something that we didn't understand very well. And as somebody who grew up in the South, I remembered as a boy a lot of stories that had something to do with violence. I couldn't put all these pieces together. And when I came home after years abroad and saw this violence, I was very uncomfortable. It seemed, in a way, as if I'd come back to a different country. It wasn't the country that I remembered. And so I wanted to try to figure it out. And then I hoped that this study, this book, would be a way to get at that.
LAMB:How hard was this to write?
BUTTERFIELD: The research was always very interesting. It was intellectually challenging to try to track down the people, some of them in their 90s or over 100, who'd lived some of these stories, people who'd witnessed hangings back in Edgefield at the turn of the century, even before. That was interesting reporting. But the writing was very, very difficult because I knew, in the end, what happened to these men, and it was very sad and very tragic and awful, and it was terrible for their victims, too. I don't want to suggest for a minute, you know, that these people were not responsible for what they did. Clearly, I mean, Willie had choices along the way, and he made his choices, although he would probably tell you that they were compulsions.
LAMB:Where do you write?
BUTTERFIELD: I wrote the book at home in a little office in my house, which is outside of Boston.
LAMB:If we saw you there, what's around you?
BUTTERFIELD: Lots of file cabinets and the floor littered with piles of paper that I could never put away.
LAMB:What do you write on or with?
BUTTERFIELD: I write on a computer. And I ended up with so many footnotes that the computer wasn't accepting them anymore.
LAMB:How would you characterize the whole process of writing -- easy, hard?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, it was very hard some days to get up in the morning and want to sit down at the computer, because the story was so sad for everybody. But in the end, I felt that there was an important point here about where violence comes from in America, and so I wanted to tell that story. It wasn't a sense of mission, but I felt it was important to get it out, that violence is not something that grows out of our cities.

In fact, there's some good news here, which we haven't talked about, and that is that -- go back and look at violence in this country, we know now that we're not nearly as violent as our ancestors were. There are some very good recent historical studies in England and Holland and Germany and Italy which show that violence in the Middle Ages was 10 times worse than it is now. The rate of homicide in London in Chaucer's time was 10 times what it is in current London. And from the 15th and 16th centuries onward, there was kind of a civilizing process. As the power of the state grew and courts spread, people didn't have to settle disputes out among themselves; they had another way of doing it.

And in the 19th century, this process really sped up with the Industrial Revolution. As people went to work in factories, they had to be more disciplined to answer to the foreman, the bell or the whistle. The spread of public schools in the 19th century, institutions like the YMCA, Sunday schools -- all these made us a much more orderly people. So we now know, in fact, that in our big cities in this country -- take New York or Philadelphia, Boston -- the homicide rate in 1960 was only about half what it had been in 1850. So for a full century, our cities were getting safer.
LAMB:Did you like Willie?
BUTTERFIELD: Well, I would say it's an ambivalent relationship. I mean, he's very charming; he's articulate; he's smart; he can be funny. But you also know how violent he is and you know what he's done, and that's not very likeable.
LAMB:Our guest is Fox Butterfield, and this is what the book looks like, and a picture of Willie on the cover. "All God's Children." How old is he in this picture?
BUTTERFIELD: He was 15 at that time.
LAMB:Thank you for joining us.
BUTTERFIELD: Thank you very much.


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