KANSAS CHARLEY by Joan Jacobs Brumberg


The Story of a 19th-Century Boy Murderer
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The sad, instructive saga of a boy hanged in 1892 for a double homicide he committed at age 15.

Brumberg (The Body Project, 1997, etc.) has sunk her spade into a mother lode of information about the alarming case of Charles Miller, an almost archetypal orphan born in 1874 in New York City to a mother who died of consumption when he was five and an alcoholic father who committed suicide. Charley and his three siblings entered the New York Orphan Asylum, where he suffered the humiliation of chronic bedwetting, a condition that did not endear him to the families who took him in. He bounced from one abusive situation to another until he ran off to hop trains. Adopting the moniker “Kansas Charley” (he’d lived briefly in the Cyclone State), the boy learned firsthand the roughness of the road when he was gang-raped by some older men. Later, in Wyoming, he ran into two better-off young men, Waldo Emerson and Ross Fishbaugh, heading west for fun and adventure. They had some kind of falling-out (over alcohol? sex? class conflict?), and one morning while the other two were sleeping, Charley shot and hurriedly robbed them both. Later, penitent, he surrendered in Kansas and was returned to Cheyenne, where he endured a long incarceration (twice escaping), a sensational trial, failed appeals, brief celebrity (his jailers gave the press virtually free access, and he penned his own accounts, sometimes in pathetic verse), and death by hanging before 60 witnesses. Brumberg (Women’s Studies/Cornell) appends a chapter containing familiar arguments against executing juveniles, including some cautionary words about such contemporary incidents as the Columbine shootings and the DC sniper attacks. Authorial clichés—twice the case reminds her of a hot potato—and an overall lack of craft diminish the narrative’s power.

A fascinating, well-researched story whose telling glimmers rather than glistens.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-670-03228-X
Page count: 280pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2003