- The Boy MurderersWhat Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn Really Teach
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Throughout March of 1884, the biggest news story in the city of Cincinnati was the trial of William Berner, whom the newspapers, in bold, black headlines, called “THE BOY MURDERER.” Neither his defense nor the prosecution disputed the facts of his case. On Christmas Eve 1883, Berner and an older black accomplice named Joe Palmer had killed and robbed their employer, a farmer named Kirk with a reputation for carrying a bankroll of tens and twenties. They had killed him so many ways, in fact, that the prosecutor swore out multiple counts of murder for the one killing: one count for striking Kirk with a hammer; one count for hitting him in the head with [End Page 43] a club; one count for looping a noose around his neck and strangling him, “one pulling at each end.”
Finally Berner and Palmer “divided the money” they found on Kirk, roughly two hundred and forty dollars, threw his body in the back of a wagon and rode to town, where they bought Christmas gifts for their families and sweethearts. They were arrested shortly after.
The courtroom where Berner stood trial was standing room only; boys crowded the outside windows and packed the corridor. Newspaper sketch artists portrayed a clean-cut, blue-eyed boy, a figure so small that his feet could not reach the floor underneath his chair. In one striking embellishment, a courtroom artist showed Berner propping his right foot atop a human skull, the mashed and lacerated remains of “old man Kirk.” Other newspapers reminded their readers that Berner was no boy, that he was seventeen, his arms sinewy and his hands rough from day labor. All the newspapers, however, which agreed on virtually nothing else, could agree on the anticipated outcome of the trial: Berner was clearly guilty of murder, and “we should be able to try and hang a murderer in ten days,” one editorial writer argued.
When the paid jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, not murder, and a sentence of twenty years in prison, not capital punishment, an “indignation meeting” was immediately convened at the great downtown Music Hall. Over six thousand people filled the hall the evening of March 28. Observers spoke of a “cosmopolitan audience” where all nationalities, races, and classes were represented, “every man . . . honest and determined; every man . . . ready for his work.” “Everyone appeared to be in good humor,” wrote one newspaper columnist. As the crowd exited the music hall, they turned in the direction of the Hamilton County courthouse and attacked it. Within a few hours, the “magnificent and costly” building was burned to the ground, William Berner had been spirited away for his own safety, and police Gatling guns had killed several dozen rioters and wounded hundreds of others.
In the days that followed, as the state militia patrolled downtown Cincinnati, the national press focused on three aspects of the story: first, that the individual responsible for transforming a peaceful protest into a riot was a black man named Gus Gaines, forty, single, a plasterer. Second, that the mob was a righteous one: the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote the words “AT LAST” above its front-page coverage of the event. Third, that among the dead and wounded there existed “a very large proportion of uncouth boys.” Sandwiched between armed police and their “own natures made morbid by [End Page 44] the habit of reading,” these teenagers had effectively become “the victims as well as the patrons of the literature of crime.”
Six months later and seven hundred miles to the northeast, the author known as Mark Twain was in “hell.” He too was struggling with a child, an uncouth, undereducated boy who hated the law, who smoked, swore, robbed, who, even in that boy’s own estimation, “might come to be a murderer myself.” The boy’s best friend was an older black man who also hated the law and who made it possible for the white child to hate the law too. His...