Two Theories On Criminal Violence In All God’s Children

David Zimet


In giving an in-depth history of the Bosket family, the book All God’s Children by Fox Butterfield gives the reader a perspective into how a legacy of violent men began, and how the tradition of street toughness was passed down through four generations. The book also takes a brief survey of crime and punishment in the black community, and looks into the circumstances surrounding several criminal incidents. In the context of this paper, I will examine the roots and foreground causes for the criminal behavior of Pud, James, Butch, and Willie Bosket, as well as the other criminals discussed in the book, using two theories of criminology. One of the theories I will use is the one proposed by Jack Katz regarding the seductive quality of crime, while the other is the Differential Association theory developed by Edwin Sutherland.

In his theory, Katz talks about two different situations that can be found many times in the actions and motivations of the four Bosket men. One is the situation of the badass, who feels he must fight and be violent to earn respect and maintain his reputation. This reputation of being a badass was something that became very important to the Bosket men, becoming over time something similar to a family trade. The other is the situation of the righteous criminal, who is seduced into breaking the law by a belief that he holds the higher moral ground through his criminal actions.

Sutherland’s theory explains how criminals come to learn their criminal behavior through a learning process not unlike one that would transpire at a school, and then the lessons they learn are reinforced through direct observations of the values they learned being played out in the street by their peers. These two theories are not really at contrast with one another, but rather complement each other to give a more complete analysis of the crimes recounted in the course of the book.

The first theory I will examine is that from Katz’s book Seductions of Crime. Katz’s theory can be shown to apply well to the Boskets and other criminals in All God’s Children. His description of the way of the badass is straight to the heart of Butterfield’s assessment of many of the situations that arise throughout the Boskets’ careers. Katz claims that, “[o]ne can develop a systematic understanding of the ways of the badass by distinguishing among three levels or degrees of intimidating aggression.” Katz claims that the badass is, "someone who is “real bad” must be tough, not easily influenced, highly impressionable, or anxious about the opinions that others hold of him; in a phrase, he must not be morally malleable.” This is illustrated in several instances by Butch and Willie. One example is when Willie writes his father for the first time, his father responded with the advice that, “[s]cholarship, reason, and control…were absolutely essential to preventing a violent outburst that could result in more time in prison.” Instead of heeding his father’s advice, Willie discarded his former opinions of his father as a role model, and chose remain on his path of conflict with the system.

According to Katz, the second stage in becoming a badass is the construction of alien aspects in oneself. He claims that one way of doing this is to be “bad” in the street sense, which he says is “a collectively celebrated way of being that transcends good and evil.” This is the rationale that Katz uses to explain the badass’ need for a brutal reputation. This reputation is something that nearly all the Bosket’s consciously sought to cultivate.

Pud Bosket, is the great-grandfather of Willie, lived by the ruffian code that Katz ascribes to being a part of the badass persona. His brother Dandy said of Pud, “’He didn’t bother nobody, but if you pushed him, you had to beat him…[s]tep on his foot, at a dance or walking by, just brush him, and there’d be a fight. He wasn’t never scared.” After beating a man who had come to fight with Dandy over his sister (Dandy’s wife), Pud said, “Don’t step on my reputation. My name is all I got, so I got to keep it. I’m a man of respect.” This statement reveals that part of the reason behind Pud’s violence is his need to maintain his tough-guy image.

Willie, Pud’s great-grandson, also felt strongly about being known as a badass. Even when he was very young, he was so concerned with being tough that it got to the point where, “…teachers often told him he was crazy right to his face…On the street, being called a “crazy nigger” was high praise. A “crazy nigger” was someone who developed a reputation for being unpredictably violent and aggressive.” Butterfield himself here argues the same point as Katz, saying that Willie felt that there was an attitude towards a “crazy nigger” on the street that compelled people to, “…show deference to a person like that.”

Cruelty is also expressive of Katz’s third element of the badass persona, that of meanness. Katz describes this element of being a badass, saying that, “[e]ither alone or in combination with a posture of toughness, the perfection of an alien way is not sufficient to achieve the awesomely deviant presence of the badass,” and that in addition to being merely tough, “…the would-be badass must add a measure of meanness.” The author of All God’s Children relates the following anecdote regarding Willie, writing, “There was one wino on the block whom the boys liked to tease. They urinated in a wine bottle, then gave it to him to drink when he woke up. In the highly charged atmosphere of the street, Willie always tried to outdo the other boys, who were bigger than he was. It was a matter of preserving his respect. So he took penny nails and stuck them in the man’s bare feet.” This illustrates how Willie consciously tried to cultivate the mean reputation that Katz claims is a key part of the badass persona.

Another seduction of crime that Katz mentions is that of righteous slaughter. Sadly, with all the violence described in the book, there are several examples of this attitude that can be found as well. One example of this attitude of morally righteous killing can be found in chapter four of Butterfield’s book. In this chapter he relates the story of Will Herrin, a sharecropper on a white landowner’s farm in Saluda, South Carolina. Butterfield describes how Herrin had worked his farm year after year, only to be told by the landowner that the expenses incurred during the season accounted for any profit that might have been made from the crop. In this way, the landlord was able to scam Herrin out of all the profits from his hard work.

Herrin found the landowner’s annual thievery intolerable, and after one particularly excellent crop, he could take no more. His honor had been unforgivably offended by the landlord, and he went into the field and shot the man, Emanuel Carver, who died from the wound. Herrin had come to think of the situation between the landowner and himself as a struggle between good and evil, and felt that he was fighting for the side of good. Therefore he was able to justify his crime as a righteous killing that set to order the injustice that had been taking place. While most people today would agree that Herrin had been wronged and was morally justified in wishing to take revenge, and also that he had no means of legally getting compensation, it is still true that his crime was a wrong act. He was seduced by the framing of the situation into believing that murder would be the right and just action.

The other theory that I will use to analyze the criminal behavior in All God’s Children is Differential Association theory. This theory is a subset of the category of theories known as Social Learning, and it is very involved with learning’s role as an important cause of criminal activity. Differential association defines learning as involving the application of rewards and punishments, and claims that people tend to associate with groups or individuals that reward their behavior. According to the theory, people learn to define those behaviors that are rewarded as positive behaviors, and learn to repeat these behaviors. Sutherland’s definition of the theory states that when criminal behavior is learned, the learning can include techniques to use in committing a given crime, as well as attitudes, motives, drives, and rationalizations for the criminal activity. This last assertion is key to understanding how Differential Association applies to All God’s Children.

One example in the text is that of James Bosket, Pud’s son. Butterfield writes that James followed by learning from his father’s example, much as those who become lawyers or doctors after their father’s example. He claims that, “James was pursuing the old dream. It was just that his father had beaten and robbed people,” and that James had, “…told his relatives, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a bad man, just like my father.’” Like his father before him, James took to carrying a knife with him at all times, and would sharpen it wherever he was, regardless of company. While his habit was not directly criminal, it shows that the traditions associated with Pud’s deviant tendencies towards violence were learned successfully by the son from the father.

Butch, James’ son, learned some of his violent behavior from life in the streets. Butterfield’s belief that Butch learned behaviors from what took place in his environment in the following passage:

One day, Butch saw two men get into a fight, after an exchange of insults. Each with one hand locked to the other’s and a knife in the free hand, they fought it out. They kept cutting each other until one fell down dead in a pool of blood. Butch was not learning reading, writing, or arithmetic in school, but he was carefully absorbing the lessons of the street. Nothing was more strongly impressed upon him than the need for a boy to fight, and that fighting was socially approved. It was the way the adults he knew lived, and they encouraged the little boys to fight, too.

Butterfield himself concurs here that a learning principle like that of Differential Association is in action here, by claiming that Butch absorbed these examples as he would have a lesson in a classroom. Certainly Butch’s later behavior, including that of stabbing two men to death, shows that this may have had some sort of impact on his values.

Willie grew up idolizing his father Butch for his criminal past. Rose Niles, one of Willie’s teachers at the correctional facility called Wiltwyck, related that when once, after she told Willie that he would be a doctor or lawyer someday, he told her about his father. She came to realize that Willie idolized his father, and he was always saying how great Butch was. According to Butterfield, Willie told Niles, “’He’s in jail for killing two men,” Willie told her. “When I grow up, I want to be just like him.’ This scared Niles. She surmised that Willie believed violence was a way to get close to his father, to get in prison like him.” These feelings indicate that through learning about his father, and during his time in correctional facilities, Willie had learned that criminal behavior was a positive and rewarding path to choose.

Many passages in All God’s Children directly describe Butch and Willie learning violent behaviors from their guardians, both through instruction and from beatings. Many of Willie’s lessons on violence as a method of resolution came from his mother Laura, who had a hard time keeping him under control. In the book, it says that when problems arose, “…she slapped him around… or she would give him a whipping with a belt.” These beatings only reinforced Willie’s belief that the best way to settle problem situations was through physical violence.

One example of one of the Boskets learning positive incentives for violence was the time that Butch was faced with conflict in his neighborhood. Butterfield recounts:

One time, Percy said to Butch, “There’s a boy from King Street, and I know you can kick his ass. Here’s a dollar if you do it.” Butch was afraid at first. The other boy was bigger than he was, two years older, and everyone knew he was mean. Percy sensed Butch’s reluctance and gave him a pep talk. “If you want to be a man, you got to fight to get respect. Now people know me, and they know I don’t take no shit from nobody. But if anyone bothers me, I’d shoot them in a heartbeat.” To demonstrate, Percy snapped his fingers. “Just like that, bam. Better them dead than me.” Even Butch’s grandmother supported his fighting when challenged. “I tell my children to fight it out,” she told her neighbors. “If Butch don’t fight, I’m gonna beat him myself.” So Butch, more afraid not to fight, fought the other boy.

This example shows Butch being taught that violence is the most acceptable means of solving a conflict. Percy’s offering him money gives Butch a positive reward, while his grandmother’s admonitory threats provide reinforcement through the absence of punishment for violent behavior. These lessons teach Butch that violence, although it is criminal behavior, is actually socially acceptable.

There are some situations in which both of these theories can be seen to accurately describe part of what is happening in a situation. There are several in the book, but there are two that one that best shows both theories determining a man’s behavior.

One transpired as Willie went out to the yard to fight another boy who had threatened to sodomize him. As he went out to the yard, another juvenile at Wiltwyck said to him, “’What are you doing, man? Richard will kill you. He’s much bigger than you.’” Drawing on information gathered during his interviews with Willie, Butterfield writes that, “…Willie remembered the the rules of the street and what his mother had taught him. ‘Don’t be bullied,’ she had said. ‘Hit back. To get respect, you’ve got to be the toughest.’” Willie’s righteous anger in response to the other boy’s attempt to violate and psychologically emasculate him combined with his mother’s lessons, and he went out and beat the other boy to the point of needing medical treatment.

The clearest example of all, however, is the moment at which Butch decides to kill the two men in the pawnshop. Both of the theories stand out in Butterfield’s prose, which follows below:

Just at that moment, Butch happened to glimpse [the stolen] photographs behind the cash register. He reached around to reclaim them, and Hurwitz started pushing and grabbing him, to get him out of the shop. Now everything in Butch’s life came together at once. Here was a man calling him a liar, and trying to hustle him, of all people, and flinging insults at him. From the time he was a small boy, he had learned that disrespect was the worst thing a man could do to you. He had been taught to fight, to use physical violence to meet a threat. It was a tradition as old as the country his family came from, as old as Edgefield. “This man is just trying to take advantage of me,” was the thought racing through Butch’s mind. “He’s disrespecting me.”

The next thing Butch can clearly recall is standing in front of the two bodies, covered in blood from the knife wounds he has inflicted. A lifetime of reinforcement towards violent behavior, and the need to defend his self-image as a badass and a man deserving respect had become so integrated into his psyche that his actions came almost as though reflexive. He had been trained all his life to use violence to resolve conflict, and so the passions of the moment were able to overwhelm and seduce him into following through with the murders.

While recounting the violent history of the Bosket family, Fox Butterfield recounts gives the reader look into how the Bosket men came to value a reputation of being tough and mean, as well as how they came to pass these values down to their children through four generations. Using this case study, as well as cases covered in a brief survey of crime throughout the black community, All God’s Children gives the reader a good look at what factors are influential and causative in several kinds of violent crimes. Throughout the book, the roots and foreground causes can be well explained using the two theories of criminology I have chosen to analyze. If one considers the seductive quality of violent crime as a righteous killer or badass protecting one’s reputation, and the repeated lessons in many neighborhoods on the value of violence as a means of setting disputes, it becomes much easier to understand how Butterfield’s subjects came to commit the crimes they did.