Kansas Charley: The Boy Murderer


Most Americans regard ?kids who kill? as a modern phenomenon, but the tragic tale of ?Kansas Charley? shows that violent boys are a long-standing problem. Charles Miller was a seventeen?year?old orphan who was hanged in Wyoming in 1892 for a horrific double murder committed when he was only fifteen. This true story takes us into a world of poverty and abuse, revealing the people and places that shaped Charley?s behavior, his crime and his punishment. The author brings to life a thought?provoking chapter in the ...
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Kansas Charley: The Boy Murderer

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Most Americans regard “kids who kill” as a modern phenomenon, but the tragic tale of “Kansas Charley” shows that violent boys are a long-standing problem. Charles Miller was a seventeen–year–old orphan who was hanged in Wyoming in 1892 for a horrific double murder committed when he was only fifteen. This true story takes us into a world of poverty and abuse, revealing the people and places that shaped Charley’s behavior, his crime and his punishment. The author brings to life a thought–provoking chapter in the history of the juvenile justice system.
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What People Are Saying

Janet Reno
"Joan Jacobs Brumberg has done a remarkable job of researching the life and death of Charles Miller. This sad story makes clear that youth violence is not new to the United States and that we must renew our efforts to prevent it, as well as build juvenile justice systems that hold youthful offenders• accountable in a just, effective, and compassionate manner thc.t allows no excuse for killing." --Janet Reno, Former U.S. Attorney General
David Kaczynski
"In the tradition of In Cold Blood, Kansas Charley is a significant contribution to our understanding of the inner reality and social context of murder." - James Garbarino, PH.D., Author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them
"Kansas Charley is a timeless version of male adolescent humanity, clearly recognizable to anyone who's had significant exposure to abused and neglected children. It tells an old story with an unmistakable, disturbing contemporary resonance." --David Kaczynski, Executive Director, New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty
Stephen K. Harper
"For anyone who is interested in America's history of children, its juvenile death penalty, or its vision of childhood, Kansas Charley is an insightful and provocative place to start." --Stephen K. Harper, Director, Juvenile Death Penalty Initiative
Lawrence Steinberg
"Brumberg's riveting tale of Charley's life and death is not only spectacularly told and compellingly written history-it is one of the most thought provoking and engaging analyses of juvenile justice policy to be published in recent years. No contemporary scholar writes about the history of adolescence in America with more insight, more skill, or more clarity than Brumberg." --Laurence Steinberg, Distinguished Professor, Temple University, and Director, MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Juvenile Justice
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786753376
  • Publisher: Argo-Navis
  • Publication date: 5/22/2012
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Joan Jacobs Brumberg is the award-winning author of Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa and The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. She is a professor at Cornell University.

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Read an Excerpt

Kansas Charley

The Boy Murderer
By Joan Jacobs Brumberg

Penguin Books

Copyright © 2004 Joan Jacobs Brumberg
All right reserved.

ISBN: 014200488X

Chapter One

The Cradle of Youth

At the end of the nineteenth century, two streams of childhood experience collided visibly on the streets of New York City. There were pampered, middle-class children pushed about in fancy carriages by proud parents eager to show them off, but also plenty of poor children, alone or with only minimal supervision, collecting coal, rifling through piles of garbage, and looking for small handouts. The pampered child had a full stomach, smelled sweet, and clutched a toy-a sharp contrast to those with dirty, open palms, anxious about the next meal, and hoping to bring a few coins home to the family. The sons and daughters of the American middle class had already begun to experience the pleasures we associate with modern childhood: reliable and constant care by adults; time for play; prolonged schooling extending into the adolescent years. Their mothers, assisted at home by domestic servants, had enough leisure to attend "Child Study Clubs," where they read and discussed the latest scientific ideas about child-raising that were percolating into the middle class. The child-study movement, along with the new specialty of pediatrics, popularized the idea that childhood was a distinct stage of life andthat adolescents, in particular, progressed through a sequence of distinct developmental stages that their parents needed to recognize and understand. (G. Stanley Hall, a Clark University psychologist, first advanced the idea that storm and stress were absolutely normal in adolescence.) When youthful exuberance or disrespect had to be tamed or corrected, this generation of parents was more likely than any before them to spare the rod and spoil the child. Expectations had changed: middle-class youngsters-even adolescents-were no longer expected to do much work. They had become "emotionally priceless but economically useless," an exchange that felt comfortable, even desirable, to many middle-class Americans who put their children at the center of their universe.

This kind of thinking was alien in a less affluent, more traditional America, where children were still regarded as mini-adults expected to function like cogs in the wheel of the family's economic machinery. Among the urban poor, but also among farm families, children as young as six or seven had to assist in the support of their parents and their siblings rather than studying and socializing at the local schoolhouse. A remarkable number of them were also separated from their parents, even left homeless, because of periodic unemployment, chronic illness, and high mortality rates. Dependent on begging and rudimentary forms of charity, these urban street urchins were regarded as an economic problem-even a social threat-but not as priceless. If they were taken in by other families, their desirability more often then not hinged on what kind of slot they could fill in someone else's family economy. Children like these still had utility, and the chores they were assigned were far more demanding than the make-work invented by middle-class parents to justify paying their youngsters a weekly allowance.

The idea that childhood in a civilized society ought to be prolonged and protected-a time for personal growth and development-was a luxury of the privileged. Although poor parents certainly loved their children, they had neither time nor resources to invest in pampering them. Poor children expected less of adults, and they learned to survive without many of the emotional and material supports provided to their peers in more secure environments. Even when they were very small, life was precarious, demanding, and harsh, a reality that left its unpleasant imprint on Charley Miller.

Charley was born on November 20, 1874, in a small, dark apartment at 248 West 37th Street in Manhattan, a tenement crowded with a mix of German and Irish immigrant families, all anxious to make a better life in America. His parents, Frederick and Marie Elise Muller, named him "Karl" and spoke German to him, their third child. An older girl, Caroline, had been born in 1872, on the trip to America, and Frederick, the father's namesake, followed in 1873. When the Mullers first arrived, they probably headed for Kleindeutschland, a bustling German community on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where the conversation, newspapers, even the tastes and smells all felt familiar. Only Vienna and Berlin had larger German populations than New York City at this time, so there were plenty of other German-speaking families to help the young couple adjust to life in the great metropolis.

Despite the advantages provided by this ethnic "city within a city," the Mullers' American experience soured within five years, in part because of Frederick's inability to find work as a Pallischer or nickel-plater. In the 1870s and 1880s, nickel was still applied as a coating to dishes, candlesticks, and cutlery, all made in a variety of New York factories and shops, but Muller never had much luck finding regular employment in any of them. In order to keep food on the table, he began to work in a neighborhood saloon, an economic expedient which was his undoing. Like many immigrants stressed by the transition to a new environment, he turned to alcohol-probably cheap beer-to soothe the pain of an insecure existence, which became even worse with the birth of William, a fourth child in 1877. Then, three years later, on January 20, 1880-with four children under the age of ten-his wife, thirty-year-old Marie, died suddenly of a "miscarriage and septicemia," an infection of the blood. (The official description may well have hidden a botched abortion performed to prevent the birth of a fifth child.) Karl Muller, the boy who became Charley Miller and then Kansas Charley, was five at the time of his mother's death.

Fathers with children to raise on their own were fairly commonplace in this era because of the high maternal mortality rate. Although it was an unhappy last resort, many men in Muller's situation surrendered their children to orphan asylums, in the hopes of being able to live with them again once they had accumulated enough resources to provide for their care. After the passage of the New York State Children's Law of 1875, which gave per-capita subsidies to children's institutions, the orphan asylum became a more popular choice than the poorhouse and the dole. At the asylum in Albany, one of the nation's largest, most of the children had one parent alive. (To reflect common practice, there were institutions called "half orphan" asylums.)

Frederick Muller chose not to give up his children even temporarily. Instead, he looked for help among the other families in the tenement at 346 West 37th Street, where he moved after his wife's untimely death. In the new location, there were at least a half-dozen adult women staying at home, many with children, but their ability to keep track of someone else's kids was limited because they had daily wages to earn-as laundresses taking in soiled garments and bedclothes, or as silk winders, warpers, and weavers, all forms of work that brought extra money into their struggling households. The Muller children were expected to help their father, who continued to earn a pitiful living at the nearby saloon. Fred and Charley-now six and five-were old enough to look for valuable material dropped or discarded on the street. And Caroline, at only eight, was a competent, obedient child, able to provide a semblance of care for her brothers, especially three-year-old Willie. Caroline was not the only young girl in the neighborhood who stayed at home to prepare meals, do the wash, and carry water and slops. Although the New York state legislature passed a mandatory-school law in 1875, it went unenforced for decades, especially in New York City's immigrant quarters.

With Carrie acting as a little mother, Muller continued to drown his sorrows in drink and lose his temper with the children. Instead of providing them with the solace and comfort they needed after the loss of their mother, he became despondent and spoke of killing himself. Perhaps Muller tried to find himself another German-speaking wife, but he certainly was no catch: he was responsible for four small children, had no material resources, and lacked any marketable skills. On March 25, 1881, the forty-four-year-old father of four committed suicide by drinking Paris Green, a cheap, readily available insecticide that was close to 45 percent arsenic. Because the poison did not work efficiently, Muller lingered, ending up in a New York City hospital, an unexpected development that generated the family's American newspaper debut: "Frederick Muller, a nickel plater, residing at No. 346 West Thirty-Seventh Street died yesterday at Roosevelt Hospital from the effects of Paris Green, which he had swallowed the previous evening with suicidal intent. His wife died some months ago, and at time since [ever since] Muller had been subject to fits of despondency and had frequently threatened his life."

Suicide was not well understood in the 1880s. For some Americans it connoted crime and immorality; for others it was increasingly regarded as a symptom of insanity and mental disease. Among the German immigrants of New York, it was not uncommon. They had the highest incidence of any ethnic group in this era. For the Muller children, however, it must have been more devastating than the loss of their mother only fourteen months before. In all likelihood, the children were told that their mother had died in childbirth, that she was taken by God to a better place. But there was no easy way to sweeten the fact that their father killed himself, probably in their apartment, leaving them alone. Within the tenement and neighborhood where they lived, news of the event was upsetting, generating concern about what would become of the youngsters. Somehow, the neighbors who watched Frederick's decline managed to overlook his sinfulness and bury him, along with Marie, in the Lutheran cemetery instead of the anonymous potter's field, the final resting place of the truly indigent and isolated.

Authorities at Roosevelt Hospital probably were responsible for bringing the Muller children to the attention of the New York Orphan Asylum (NYOA). Admission there was not guaranteed, however; it was granted only at the discretion of the Executive Committee of the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York, a group of six estimable matrons who received applications every Wednesday, from ten to noon, at the East 29th Street home of one of its well-heeled members. Apparently, when the case was presented, the children of Frederick and Marie Muller were deemed worthy of care and protection despite their father's disreputable end. Only six days after his death, on April 1, 1881, they were admitted to the asylum on West 73rd Street, between Eleventh Avenue and Riverside Drive. There, in new surroundings, only a few miles from the dark rooms where they experienced a potent mixture of loss and abandonment, they became Carrie, Fred, Charley, and Willie Miller, and they probably never spoke much German again. Charley was now six years old.

Founded in 1806, the New York Orphan Asylum was a mature presence in New York City when the Muller children were taken in. By this time, the asylum cared for nearly two hundred children, ranging from infants to early adolescents. Children of German descent were the largest group. The annual report for 1882 stated proudly that "the fair hair and blue eyes of Germany" were met "at every turn" within the asylum. Visually, at least, the Miller children fit in.

In keeping with the Victorian ideal that the care of children and the home should be a women's special responsibility, the board of directors and the trustees of the asylum were almost entirely women, both married and single, who combined a sense of civic responsibility with solid bank accounts. Since there still were many restrictions on women's equality in matters of law and commerce, a few men served as an Advisory Committee. Not all these women were rich, but the organization clearly had its fair share of wealthy benefactresses, women with family names like Auchincloss and Sloane Coffin, who represented the city's elite and gave significant annual contributions as well as tangible gifts, many reflecting the latest middle-class ideas about the special needs of children. There were donations intended to please the orphan's appetites-such as apples and oranges, candies and fruitcakes-but also objects intended for play, sociability, and learning: pails and tea sets, drawing slates, blocks, dolls, wagons, and books. Unlike middle-class children, the orphans did not own their own toys; they were expected to share.

There was little need for the Miller children to worry now about being hungry: they got their food at set hours, in reasonable amounts. They also had clean, individual beds, set out in long rows, as well as a basic wardrobe and a place to store it: four shirts (or chemises in Carrie's case); two suits of clothes and four pairs of stockings, all marked with their names. Even though they were required to wear aprons when they were playing, their clothes were washed regularly. In fact, they had to change their underwear twice a week and bathe every Saturday. In the asylum, well-scrubbed faces and clean clothing were considered important outward signs of good character and morality.

Although these middle-class hygienic routines were unfamiliar at first, everything was so orderly and predictable that it probably afforded the Miller children a sense of security after the wrenching events of the previous two years. Each morning, when the boys were awakened at 6 a.m., they were greeted and directed by the boy's caretaker. Immediately they aired their beds, opened windows, washed, dressed, and prayed. (Carrie did exactly the same under the direction of the girl's caretaker.) Then the children were led to chapel for a service conducted by George E. Dunlap, the asylum superintendent, usually accompanied by his wife, Harriet, the asylum matron. Breakfast and school followed. Classes were held from 8:30 to 10 a.m., and from 10:30 to noon. After lunch, there were classes again from 1:30 until 3 p.m., and, when they finally ended, a brief opportunity to use the playroom (where toys were stored) or the outside yard before another round of evening chapel, supper, and private prayers. Occasionally, the routine was broken with an exciting trip to Central Park, the American Institute Fair, or even P. T. Barnum's circus.

Wary about visitors who might upset the routine, the asylum opened its doors only once or twice a year for public "exercises," which took the form of recitations, poems, choruses, duets, and calisthenics. After one such performance, the New York Herald lauded the "chubby and happy set of juveniles" on display.


Excerpted from Kansas Charley by Joan Jacobs Brumberg Copyright © 2004 by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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