You are here: / Contributing Writers / PureHistory: Book Club / All God’s children

All God’s children


Fox Butterfield – Bibliography

Fox Butterfield in 2013, (born 1939 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania) is an American journalist who spent much of his 30-year career reporting for The New York Times.

Butterfield served as Times bureau chief in SaigonTokyoHong KongBeijing, and Boston and as a correspondent in Washington and New York. During that time, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize as a member of The New York Times team that published the Pentagon Papers, the Pentagon’s secret history of the Vietnam War, in 1971.

Butterfield won a 1983 National Book Award for Nonfiction for China: Alive in the Bitter Sea.   He also wrote All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence (1995) about the child criminal Willie Bosket.

In 1990, Butterfield wrote an article on the election of the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, future president of the United States Barack Obama.

Butterfield is the eponym for “The Butterfield Effect”, used to refer to a person who “makes a statement that is ludicrous on its face, yet it reveals what the speaker truly believes,” especially if expressing a supposed paradox when a causal relationship should be obvious.   The particular article that sparked this was titled “More Inmates, Despite Drop In Crime” by Butterfield in the New York Times on Nov. 8, 2004.

Butterfield is the son of Lyman Henry Butterfield, a historian and a director of the Institute of Early American History and Culturein Williamsburg, Va.   The Canadian industrialist Cyrus S. Eaton was one of Fox Butterfield’s grandfathers.

Butterfield received a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude, master’s degree, and doctorate of philosophy in Chinese history from Harvard University.

In 1988, Butterfield married Elizabeth Mehren, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times.  He has two children, Ethan and Sarah, from a previous marriage and a son, Sam, with Mehren.  Michael Moriarty played Fox Butterfield in the 1993 television movieBorn Too Soon, based on Mehren’s book about their daughter Emily, who was born prematurely in the late 1980s. Mehren was played by Pamela Reed. The couple live in Hingham, Massachusetts, about which Butterfield has sometimes written in The Times.


Butterfield was noted for writing a sequence of articles discussing the “paradox” of crime rates falling while the prison population grew due to tougher sentencing guidelines, without ever considering the possibility that the tougher sentencing guidelines may have reduced crime by causing criminals to be imprisoned.   “The Butterfield Effect” is often brought up by James Taranto in his column for the online editorial page of the Wall Street Journal called Best of the Web Today, typically bringing up a headline which displays the effect with the joke “Fox Butterfield, Is That You?”.


  • China: Alive in the Bitter Sea (1982)
  • All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence (1995)

All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence by Fox Butterfield, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

A startling examination of an American heritage of violence – a legacy from the pre-Revolutionary white rural South to today’s urban America – that helps answer the question of how America became so violent. The tradition is reflected in the experiences of one black family, the Boskets, from the days of slavery to the present. This tragic family history culminates in the twentieth century with the seemingly inevitable destruction of two potentially valuable lives: those of Willie Bosket and his father, each first incarcerated at age nine, each ultimately convicted of murder. The saga begins with Willie Bosket’s first known American ancestors, slaves in Edgefield, South Carolina – a place of epic violence, a place where white men were quick to fight to the death for the minutest trespass on their honor. Finally, we see how the lava-flow of violence, and its explosive admixture along the way with white racism, erupts in the lives of the Boskets of our own day – especially Willie Bosket, whose IQ breached the genius level (his father was the only person ever to earn a Ph.D. in prison) and whose boyhood charm was such that some of his elementary school teachers had visions of him as president of the United States. And yet, by Willie’s own count he had by adolescence committed two hundred armed robberies and twenty-five stabbings. In his fifteenth year he shot and killed two men on the Manhattan subway. At age twenty-five he stabbed a prison guard he did not know. For him as for his father before him, prison has become his whole world, his surrogate mother. He has been deemed the most violent criminal in New York State history. Constantly manacled because he is considered so dangerous, thedazzlingly articulate Willie nevertheless seemed, when Fox Butterfield first met him, to have made prison his palace. Trying to make sense of Willie’s life, of his father’s life, of the Bosket family history back through time, Butterfield reveals the roots of the violence that threatens our future and considers what we might do to stem it.

Willie Bosket

William James “Willie” Bosket, Jr. (born December 9, 1962) is a convicted murderer, whose crimes, committed while he was still a minor, led to a change in New York state law (with all other states eventually following suit), so that juveniles as young as 13 could be tried as an adult for murder and would face the same penalties.   He has been in either prison or reformatories for all but 18 months since 1971, and is presently serving three consecutive sentences of 25 years to life at Woodbourne Correctional Facility.

Early life 

Bosket was born in Harlem. His father, Willie Sr. (Butch), killed two people in a Milwaukee pawn shop shortly after his son was conceived and was sentenced to life in prison. His mother, Laura, had nothing to do with him, leaving Bosket to fend for himself. Early on, he gained a reputation as a violent child–a reputation on which he prided himself; he told juvenile authorities that one day he would be a killer just like his father. He was in and out of various reformatories from age nine onward. However, at the time the prevailing view was that a juvenile was incapable of committing a crime, so he always ended up back home. Nonetheless, it was believed early on that he would make good on his prediction that he would kill someone.

The crimes that changed the law

On Sunday, March 19, 1978, Bosket, then fifteen years old, shot dead Noel Perez on the #3 New York City subway train during an attempted robbery near the last stop at 148 Street. Eight days later, Bosket and another accomplice shot dead another man, Moises Perez (no relation to his first victim) in another attempted robbery at the back of another #3 train at the 145 Street station (cornering the victim at one of only two short platform stations in the NYC Subway system at the time). In between, Bosket and his accomplice shot a NYC Subway employee working in the Lenox Terminal yard and committed two other armed robberies, one of them on the A train.

Bosket was tried for the murders in New York City’s family court. As the trial was underway, Bosket surprised his own lawyer by pleading guilty to all three murders. He was sentenced to a maximum of five years in a state youth facility. Although prosecutors tried to get a longer sentence, five years was the most they could get under the law of the time.

The short length of Bosket’s sentence caused a huge public outcry. Governor Hugh Carey had opposed efforts by his opponent in that year’s gubernatorial election, Perry Duryea, to have juveniles tried as adults for certain crimes. However, after reading a report on Bosket’s sentence, Carey called the state legislature into special session to pass the Juvenile Offender Act of 1978. Under this act, children as young as thirteen years old could be tried in an adult court for crimes such as murder, and receive the same penalties as adults. New York was the first state to enact a law of this nature; nearly all of the other 49 state legislatures have since followed suit.

Subsequent crimes

A year after he began serving his sentence for the three murders, Bosket tried to break out of the youth facility. He was sentenced to four years in state prison; escaping from a correctional facility is a felony in New York, even if the facility is a youth facility. He was returned to the Division of Youth in 1979, and was released in 1983. After 100 days he was arrested when a man living in his apartment complex claimed Bosket had robbed and assaulted him. Then while awaiting trial on that crime, Bosket assaulted several court officers. He was found guilty of attempted assault for the dispute in the apartment and sentenced to seven years in prison. While in prison, he got into numerous altercations with prison guards. Indicted for one of those incidents, he was convicted of assault and arson. Under New York’s habitual offender law, he was sentenced to 25 years to life. In 1989, he drew an additional 25-years-to-life sentence for stabbing a guard at maximum-security Shawangunk Correctional Facility.   After the 1988 assault, Bosket was transferred to Woodbourne Correctional Facility, where in April 1989 he drew a third sentence for assaulting a guard with a chain.

Since the 1988 assault, Bosket (NYSDOCS inmate number 84A6391) has been housed in solitary confinement. Although Woodbourne is normally a medium-security prison, Bosket is housed in a specially-built plexiglass-lined cell with four video cameras watching him at all times. Since he has a history of swallowing objects, his cell has been stripped of everything except a cot and a toilet. The guards are not allowed to speak to him. He is only allowed out of his cell for one hour a day, and is shackled with a tow chain. Although he is allowed visitors, they must speak to him through a window in his cell. He will not be eligible for parole until 2062–all but assuring he will die in prison.

Although Bosket once declared “war” on a prison system that he claimed made him a “monster,” he has not had a disciplinary violation since 1994. However, according to a 2008 report in The New York Times, due to his numerous incidents of violence during the 1980’s and 1990’s, he is not slated to move into the general population until 2046. He is evaluated periodically, and may join the general population before 2046; otherwise, he will likely die in solitary confinement. Department spokesman Erik Kriss told the Times, “This guy was violent or threatening violence every day. Granted, it was awhile ago, but there are consequences for being violent in prison.”

In 1995, New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield wrote All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence (ISBN 0-307-28033-0), an examination of the escalating violence and criminality in succeeding generations of the Bosket family.

PureHistory ℗ is your source to learn about the broad and beautiful spectrum of our shared History.