All God’s Children by Fox Butterfield (New York: Knopf, 1995)
reviewed by Frank W Sweet
Willie Bosket, Jr. is considered the most dangerous man in New York’s prison system. He is kept in permanent solitary confinement behind solid steel and bulletproof lexan. A tiny slot opens to slide food in and empty dishes out. The warden calls him “Hannibal Lecter”. Indeed, Thomas Harris, author of The Silence of the Lambs might well have been thinking of Bosket when he wrote about the fictional killer’s cell.
Despite the precautions surrounding the brilliant, charming, charismatic Bosket, he never stops trying to murder his guards. Sometimes he succeeds. For years he was transferred from one prison to the next because wherever he landed, correctional officers were rightly terrified of him. His lethal violence began when he was five years old. By age fifteen, he had committed over two thousand violent crimes, including two hundred armed robberies and twenty-five stabbings. His favorite act was to cut a man’s eye out with a knife. In childhood, he was released to kill again and again because he was feared by the very authorities who had him in custody. Once he even cowed a judge into testifying under oath that the judge could not remember that Bosket had attacked and seriously injured lawyers and bailiffs, and then escaped from a court trial over which the judge himself was presiding.
Because Bosket has some African ancestry, most Anglophone Americans would categorize him as “African-American”, despite his light complexion and his having as many European ancestors as Africans. In the 1990s, Bosket attracted the interest of E.R. Shipp, a Black activist editor at the New York Times. Ship had won a Pulitzer for writing sympathetically about affirmative action, Johnnie Cochran, O. J. Simpson, and the Million Man March. She ordered one of her reporters, Fox Butterfield, to write a story explaining that Bosket the monster was just another victim of “White racism”.
Butterfield complied by writing this book despite his ignorance of historiography, forensic psychology, criminology, or genetics. It is an entertaining but preposterous polemic that blames both 18th-century code duello and early 20th-century Jim Crow for somehow creating a late 20th-century sociopath. My five objections to the book are: it is fiction sold as fact; it conflates social violence with predation; it conflates resource predation with process predation; it is slanted; and it draws illogical or irrational conclusions.
It is fiction sold as fact. Over and over, from the 18th century to the 20th, the book tells us what individuals thought to themselves: what Preston Brooks thought when he attacked Charles Sumner, what Louis Wigfall thought, even what people on their deathbeds thought. Butterfield, the author, could not have read the minds of long-dead individuals. His tales may conceivably be accurate but that is not the point. Narrating the innermost thoughts of historical figures is entertaining historical fiction, but it is not history.
It conflates social violence with predation. Butterfield claims that the social violence of the antebellum south’s sense of personal honor [see Bertram Wyatt-Brown Southern Honor (Oxford UK, 2007)] leads to criminal predation today. Butterfield’s ignorance of even rudimentary forensic psychology makes the claim ludicrous. Loud public social violence (duelling) does not cause silent sneaky muggings. If anything, upper-class antebellum southerners were harsh towards crime precisely because of their inflated sense of honor. “Rehabilitation” after all was a Yankee notion; southerners simply hanged thugs. Most Americans today find duelling for honor to be distasteful, even immature. But to suggest that its acceptance by the wealthy two centuries ago causes armed robbery or rape today is absurd without solid evidence. And Butterfield presents no evidence at all connecting the two.
It conflates resource predation with process predation. The term violent crime is too clumsy for serious discourse. (Especially when an untrained dilletante such as Butterfield equates 18th-century formal dueling with “violent crime”.) Some people use violence to gain loot (money, jewelry, guns, drugs). Causing pain is not their goal. They leave after taking your wallet. These criminals are called “resource predators”. Others use violence because they enjoy inflicting pain. They are not interested in your money. Their goal is to hurt. They are called “process predators”. Bosket is a process predator. He likes to kill. Butterfield traces Bosket’s process predation sociopathy to occasional resource predation in his paternal lineage. But no evidence suggests that one leads to the other, not even in the sense of parental upbringing.
It is slanted. Here is the most egregious example. Bosket planned the murder of a corrections officer by stabbing him through the heart with a stilleto made from a sharpened toothbrush handle. Biding his time until the opportunity arose, Bosket then struck with lightning speed and lethal accuracy. This led the authorities thenceforth to video Bosket continually. They caught on tape his next attempted murder of a guard. Butterfield laments that by being filmed in the act, “Willie [Bosket] had been at the wrong place at the wrong time”.
It draws illogical or irrational conclusions. It often draws opposite results from the same cause. For example, it claims that Jim Crow era Whites were violent because the courts were lenient towards Whites. But it also claims that Blacks of the time were violent because courts were harsh towards Blacks. It often draws the same result from opposite causes. For example, it claims that Bosket’s sociopathy derived from the oppression suffered by numerous his slave ancestors. It also derives Bosket’s sociopathy from the oppression inflicted by his equally numerous slaveowning ancestors.
Incidentally, logic is not Butterfield’s strong suit. The Butterfield effect (a mental defect that reverses cause and effect) was named in his honor. Reporters coined the term when Butterfield wrote a series of stories for the Times with such titles as “More Inmates, Despite Drop In Crime”, “Number in Prison Grows Despite Crime Reduction”, and “Crime Keeps on Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling”. To Butterfield, it was an inexplicable “paradox” that more criminals in prison coincided with less crime in neighborhoods. More silly examples of the Butterfield Effect: Why are you hitting the gas pedal when light turns green, since the car is speeding up? Why are you hitting the brake when the light turns red, since the car is slowing down? Just Google “the Butterfield effect” for more funny examples.
In conclusion, I would rather have been poked in the eye with a sharp stick than have wasted hours of my remaining time on earth reading this book. It left me with a feeling of sadness and horror. Not that monsters like Bosket exist out there; every parent knows this. But sadness and horror that readers actually buy such soul-crushing ignorance.
For a book review that has essentially the same complaints as above, but expresses them in a much kinder, gentler way, see this article.
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Frank W. Sweet is an NRA-certified firearms instructor who teaches the safe and effective use of handguns for self-defense. He was awarded an M.A. in Civil War Studies in military history from American Military University in 2001. He is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), Six Gems of Forgotten Civil War History (ISBN 9780939479023), and of numerous published historical essays. To receive a schedule of his firearms training courses, email to email@example.com. The information above should not be construed as legal advice.
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