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Getting to the Root of Violence in America

November 16, 1995|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fox Butterfield will return to the Catskills in the next couple of weeks, to a prison that from a distance, he says, resembles a medieval monastery. It is the home of Willie James Bosket Jr., the most feared criminal in New York history.

The first time Butterfield entered Woodbourne state prison was in 1989. The New York Times reporter was ushered through grim corridors and electronically controlled gates to a secluded cell designed to contain Bosket, a self-described monster.

The front of his cell was shielded with a hard, transparent shell to prevent Bosket from throwing excrement at guards. The electrical outlets were removed because of his tendency to eat light bulbs.

Bosket quoted from Mao and Ho Chi Minh when he learned that Butterfield had spent 15 years in Asia as a correspondent for the New York Times. During the next five years, the two of them would spend about 200 hours speaking to each other through tiny holes punched into the Plexiglass window that separated them.

They were from divergent pasts. Butterfield graduated from Harvard. His father was a teacher of American history. Bosket had spent most of his life in institutions. His father was a murderer. One man white, in jacket and tie; one man black, in prison greens and shackles. The two sons became not friends but partners in a book titled "All God's Children" (Knopf), released last month.

Sharing his father's passion for history, Butterfield, 56, with little information to work from, began gathering shards of details and weaving together a family history through five generations to a time of slavery and a place of intemperate violence. What he uncovered is reflected in the book's subtitle: "The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence."

For Butterfield, the newspaper's national correspondent covering crime and violence, it was an opportunity to perform a case study on a man who by age 9 had set a man on fire and was stealing cars. By 15, he had killed two men in a New York City subway and laid claim to 25 stabbings and 200 armed robberies. He boasted that he had committed some 2,000 crimes.

He became a poster boy for juvenile crime and deadly streets when he was sentenced to only five years for the murders. In 1978, New York passed its Juvenile Offender Law, allowing children as young as 13 to be tried as adults for murder. It was known as the Willie Bosket Law and remains the toughest in the nation addressing violent crimes committed by adolescents.

For Bosket, 32, the book was a chance to understand how he had become in his words a "monster created by the system." He told Butterfield that once while lying awake, he felt something within him--separate but a part of him--and he wondered if it was the presence of his father.

Bosket never met his father, but he heard about him and looked like him. When he would misbehave as a child, his mother would tell him, "You're going to end up just like your father."

Butterfield was apprehensive at first. He didn't want to glorify Bosket, didn't want to become his mouthpiece. "Willie's crimes were particularly vicious, but I felt that maybe through this story of somebody who was extraordinarily violent, there was a prism here, a way to understand what has happened with violence in America."

*

The choir was rehearsing the day Butterfield pulled up to the rural, South Carolina church in search of the grave of Bosket's great-great-grandfather Aaron. Butterfield had pieced together Bosket's paternal lineage but knew few details.

He introduced himself to the choir and explained his mission. A woman told him to wait, and for about an hour, Butterfield stood outside the church as the sun lowered over the tops of pines. A car finally pulled up. It was filled with Boskets.

They were suspicious at first (and later told him they had come with guns), but they helped him fill in the family tree.

Emancipation had freed Aaron, whom Butterfield describes as a "meek and humble" man. His son, Clifton, known as Pud, was different. It was Pud who stood his ground to the white man's whip. He wanted self-respect and dignity, which led him to violence.

In 1910, according to Butterfield, Pud was working as a sharecropper when the landowner, in an act to demonstrate his authority, lined up the workers before they took to the fields and lashed them with a whip. Pud stood last in line.

He grabbed the whip and pulled the landowner off the wagon. "This is the last nigger you're going to whip," he said, and walked away.

It earned him a reputation that made it difficult to find work. Later that year, he broke into two stores and was sentenced to a year on the chain gang. Eventually, Pud would have more brushes with the law. He died in a car crash in 1924.

Upon his death, Butterfield writes, friends gathered around a campfire. One friend proclaimed, "The legend is gone. The baddest man in Saluda is gone."

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