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Reviewed by:
  • Kansas Charley: The Story of a Nineteenth-Century Boy Murderer
  • David B. Wolcott
Kansas Charley: The Story of a Nineteenth-Century Boy Murderer. By Joan Jacobs Brumberg ( New York: Viking, 2003. xiv plus 273 pp. $24.95).

On April 22, 1892, the new state of Wyoming hanged seventeen-year-old Charley Miller for the murders of two young men riding with him in a Union Pacific boxcar. "Kansas Charley" was fifteen years old when he committed the crime. This case is little remembered today, but Charley's execution generated front-page headlines from New York to San Francisco in the 1890s. Now, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a scholar known for her work on the cultures of adolescent girls and young women, has reconstructed his life and death in a microhistory that illuminates boys' historical experiences.

Brumberg roots her study in a question that many people asked in the late 1990s during an apparent nationwide outbreak of school shootings: "were there ever boy murderers before?" (4). Yes. The real questions that drive Brumberg's [End Page 795] book involve what factors contributed to boy murderers' actions, how their contemporaries understood them, and what courts and legal system did with them. In contrast to older models of social history, Brumberg does not seek to show that Charley Miller was typical of late nineteenth-century boys generally. Instead, she suggests that he encapsulates particular patterns. He represents, as Brumberg writes, "the flip side of the famous Horatio Alger story, a challenge, in fact, to the myth that opportunity and success come easily in America" (7).

To accomplish this, Brumberg has conducted prodigious research in libraries and archives across the United States, following Charley's path as he "rode the rails" around the country. She has reconstructed Charley's life, primarily through trial transcripts and newspaper coverage. In addition, Brumberg utilizes archival records, local histories, and genealogical resources to reconstruct the lives of people and institutions whose paths Charley crossed in New York City, Kansas, Wyoming, and elsewhere.

This book is at its best when it shows how Charley's life and death intersected with larger issues of late nineteenth-century life such as youth, transience, ideals of success, social reform, and frontier politics. For instance, Charley's life provides a example for examining the difficulties of working-class immigrant childhood. Orphaned at age six, Charley and his siblings were committed to the New York Orphans Asylum, which sought to place them with rural families in the west. While his sister and brother used placement to climb toward comfortable, respectable lives, Charley was not so lucky. He moved from family to family, placement to placement, and finally ran away to "tramp" across the country in railroad freight cars.

Charley's story also highlights the disparity between the limited prospects open to boys like himself and the apparent world of opportunities available to the boys who would become his victims. Coming of age in St. Joseph, Missouri, both embodied ideals of upward mobility when they set off together to find their fortunes in Wyoming. Although they sported new clothes and carried large bankrolls, they opted to save money by bumming rides on the railroads. There, they briefly traveled with Charley Miller, but the social separation between them kept them from becoming friends. Ultimately Charley shot them as they slept and robbed them.

Furthermore, larger political contexts shaped debates over clemency for Charley after he was sentenced to death. Saving Charley's life became a pet cause for female social activists. Both individually and as representatives of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, women petitioned the governor to commute the young murderer's sentence. In Wyoming, the first state to grant woman suffrage, this became a test of whether women actually had enough political power to overcome the demands of leading male citizens that the governor impose a strict rule of law. In the end, Charley made the governor's choice easier by escaping twice and thereby losing the public sympathy he otherwise enjoyed.

The book is not as successful when it tries to understand Charley's psychology. Brumberg emphasizes how Charley's lifelong bedwetting led to beatings by the staff at the Orphan's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 795-797
Launched on MUSE
2005-03-22
Open Access
No
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