The American Tragedy of Willie Bosket

The story of Willie Bosket, now serving a life sentence, due only to be released from solitary confinement in 2062,  and once described as New York state’s most dangerous prison inmate, is the kind of tale all too easily described as an American tragedy. Fox Butterfield‘s All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence makes this quite clear: it’s the story of a life derailed early by a seemingly inherited streak of violence that went back through his father, who was guilty of a double homicide, to his grandfather, who among other things had done jail time for kidnapping and sodomizing a young boy, to his great-grandfather, a Reconstruction Era freeman in the endlessly violent Edgefield county of South Carolina.

We are by now familiar with stories like Willie’s: broken homes and families struggle in crime-ridden neighborhoods; their members afflicted by senseless acts of violence and yet partaking of them because they are bound by codes of honor that stress such acts as responses to ostensible disrespect; troubled children sent from one underfunded reformatory institution to the other, all of whom keep ‘passing the trash’; the easy availability of guns, which facilitate the unthinking killing of innocents; the inability of legal, penal, and judicial systems to accommodate psychologically afflicted and troubled souls.

For all of that, reading Willie Bosket’s story is still saddening and even terrifying. His fearsome anger, which found expression in savage acts directed at all those around him–and in two senseless killings on the New York City subways–is but one component of this tale. There is the dreadful knowledge that Willie, like his father Butch, had intelligence in ample measure; there just was no way for it, given his past and his surroundings, to be expressed coherently over a period of time long enough to have made it his salvation. As Butch’s tragic tale–one of the almost complete redemption of a murderer by the pursuit of knowledge–shows, derailments of reform by the influence of the time spent in jail is all too easy.  And then there is the heartbreak of the photos that show Willie as a seemingly angelic young boy with a smile that could have melted any one’s heart.

Many social institutions are indicted in this tale: racism, of course, but there are jails too, those finishing houses which take criminals in the making and apply the final touches. Surprisingly enough, there are heroes too: those dedicated social workers, therapists, counselors, and teachers who tried to help Willie, tried to compensate for the lack of love in his life, tried to provide an alternative table of values to the one he had come to internalize. That system had taught him that to inspire fear was his highest calling, that the lives of those who got in the way were worth little, that his inheritance of violence and aggression was not a disease to be cured but a badge of honor to be worn with pride.

America, like most other nations, holds within its borders and histories, the usual mingling of the tragic and the sublime, of the horrifying and the inspiring. Willie Bosket’s story belongs to the debit side of that ledger; it is a cautionary tale and a shaming one, of a human being who was perhaps afflicted before he was born, who could never break free of himself, who now, as he sits, alone in a jail cell, can do little but reflect on a life gone terribly bad.

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