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On a September evening in 1890, when he was only fifteen years old, he shot and killed two young men in a boxcar headed for Wyoming. His trial lasted just three days, ending in a death sentence that resulted in his controversial 1892 hanging in Cheyenne.
Most Americans regard "kids who kill" as a problem unique to our...
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On a September evening in 1890, when he was only fifteen years old, he shot and killed two young men in a boxcar headed for Wyoming. His trial lasted just three days, ending in a death sentence that resulted in his controversial 1892 hanging in Cheyenne.
Most Americans regard "kids who kill" as a problem unique to our era, but the moving tale of Kansas Charley reminds us that it is a long-standing issue. In this narrative Brumberg takes us into a world of poverty, tragedy, and abuse, revealing the people and places that shaped Charles Miller's behavior, his crime, and his punishment.
Kansas Charley brings to life a thought-provoking chapter in American history and in the history of the juvenile justice system. It also sheds light on our contemporary predicament, encouraging us to think about what it means to continue to uphold the juvenile death penalty in the twenty-first century. Brumberg tells Miller's story with clarity and compassion, suggesting that then, as now, the decision to execute is often politically motivated.
The year was 1892, and the place Cheyenne, capital city of the new state of Wyoming. Charley Miller was small and fair-haired—with steely blue eyes—an orphan from New York City, who had been calling himself “Kansas Charley” for a number of years. Equipped with this cocky nickname and a stylish black felt hat, he began at fourteen to tramp the country on his own, looking for both work and adventure. Instead, at fifteen, he killed two boys in a Union Pacific boxcar and was sentenced to death for that crime in a Wyoming court after a short but well-publicized trial. By the night of April 21, 1892, the eve of his execution, Miller was seventeen. He had been confined to the Laramie County Jail for nearly eighteen months, and he was so accustomed to the place that it felt like the home he had longed for but never really had.
Despite his horrible crime, and the ways in which he was demonized by the press, Charley was popular with both his jailers and fellow inmates. In addition to Sheriff Kelley’s doughnut runs to a local restaurant on his behalf, there were good times with Mr. Sharpless, the deputy, whose job it was to watch him and keep him occupied on the final evening of his life. Oscar Sharpless was a Civil War veteran who had survived some hard times himself. When he arrived at the boy’s cell that evening for the “death watch,” Charley was sitting on his cot playing one of his two harmonicas. He was fond of composing poems and ballads and putting them to music, so Sharpless sat down to listen before they began a card game of Seven Up.
Sharpless noted that the walls of the cell were covered with clippings from newspapers: engravings of men on horses; advertisements with pictures of the most fashionable new shoes, topcoats, and mustache waxes; illustrated covers from the popular dime novels that Charley liked to read. There were also some elaborately decorated, handmade signs with sayings, such as “Home Sweet Home” and “What Is Home Without a Mother?”
When the songs were over, the boy showed the deputy his latest creation, a poem written for Sheriff Kelley, and then copied into an autograph book—the kind young people Charley’s age carried around for collecting signatures and sentimental verses when they left school or moved to a new town. Instead of “roses are red, violets are blue,” Sharpless read the words of a boy about to die:
They talk about daring exploits
Which they say I have done,
And keep right on talking
’Cause I am to be hung.
Now tell me which is worse,
With your own will and breath.
Don’t speak too fast, but—
Life sentence or death?
Charley had been telling people lately that he preferred hanging to confinement in the penitentiary, but in his final poem he begged Sheriff Kelley to make sure that the execution was speedy—that it would not hurt:
All I ask of Sheriff Kelley
That is to do his work good;
And not have me suffering
In this western neighborhood.
With the reading over, Sharpless suggested that Charley cut the deck and start playing cards as a way of passing time. As they played, the boy alternated between doughnuts, which he gulped down quickly, and cigarettes, smoked intensely until their heat burned his hand. At one point, he stopped to clean off his sticky fingers and wondered aloud if the governor of Wyoming might still grant him clemency in the final hour. Sharpless, eating a doughnut himself, said little in response, but at the end of the third hand, when the score was Sharpless six, Miller three, he proposed a wager that would be a good distraction for his tense and frightened charge. “Your chances for life are shown by the standing of this game,” he told Charley Miller. “If you win [tonight] your sentence will be commuted. If you lose you will be hanged.” With that incentive, the two played until midnight, and the boy was buoyed up when he won eight games in succession. Despite the diversion, Charley was never really very hopeful. Before the evening was out, he admitted to Mr. Sharpless: “I think the die is cast, that I shall be hanged tomorrow, but I want here and now to say that Kansas Charley will walk to the doom which cruel fate has made necessary with as much firmness and composure as he would go to a wedding.” When the deputy finally left, Charley did one more thing before going to sleep. Using some of the old brown paper sacks that he usually saved for composing and drawing, he assembled the belongings that made up his small “estate” and sorted them into bundles marked with the names of a number of people important to him. With this accomplished, he undressed, put on his nightclothes, and went to bed.
The following morning, Charley Miller was executed by the state of Wyoming. A gallery of invited guests watched his slight body—he only stood about five feet four inches tall and weighed less than 120 pounds—drop with great velocity, and then jerk upward, until he was strangled and his neck broken. It was the first execution in the history of the new state of Wyoming. And it was also the first time that anyone had been legally executed in Wyoming since the 1870s.
A newspaper in Cheyenne recognized how unique the case was: “The criminal history of America discloses no parallel case to that of Charley Miller. It will ever remain a question as to whether the ends of justice have been satisfied by hanging him. It can safely be said that young Miller never enjoyed the comforts or was surrounded by the civilizing influences of a Christian home, but at the same time it is equally true that the fault was his alone.” Oscar Sharpless, who walked to the scaffold behind Charley, was disturbed by what happened to the youngster who had beaten him at cards the night before. “I know it is justice,” the veteran said to some others who watched the execution. “I have been in thirty-six battles and have seen my comrades fall by my side, but this hurts me worst of all.”
Who was Charley Miller? How and why did a boy his age come to be hanged in Cheyenne? These and many other questions followed me from the moment I first saw a ten-line notice of his execution in the New York World of April 23, 1892. I was poking around in nineteenth-century newspapers in the University Library at Cornell looking for evidence of youthful homicide in the American past. It was only a few days after the tragic school shooting at Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1998, and I was motivated by the question posed by the students in my class on the “History of American Childhood”: “Were there ever boy murderers before?”
Except for the murder of Bobby Franks by teenagers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in the 1920s, I seemed to have historical amnesia about boy murderers, like most Americans. Yet, within weeks of the provocative student question, I would find dozens of cases involving homicidal adolescent boys whom I had never heard of before. It quickly became apparent, however, that, unlike today, schools were rarely the setting for adolescent homicide in the nineteenth century, because most boys that age were in the workplace, not in school. Although four adolescent males in Canton, Massachusetts, stoned their teacher, Etta Barstow, to death in 1870, there was no subsequent string of “copy-cat” incidents. When I found cases of youthful male homicide, almost all were boys acting alone, and their weapons included pitchforks, shovels, knives, guns, even string.
Because I am a historian, accustomed to spending time at the microfilm machines in research libraries, I began to look for Charley Miller’s name in other newspapers in the 1890s in order to see if they made any mention of his case. In fact, they did: Charley Miller’s execution was widely reported, and all the reports used similar language to talk about him. He was billed as “the boy murderer” not because he had killed two other boys but because of his own youth, a factor that made his behavior all the more troubling and fascinating. His picture was published on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, Rocky Mountain News (Denver), Chicago Daily Tribune, and New York World. Then, as now, the horror of homicide by the young drew public attention, and provoked heated debate about what was wrong with both the perpetrator and American society.
Charley Miller’s story grabbed me immediately, because it neatly undercut any assumption that “kids who kill” are a distinctly modern phenomenon. In the wake of well-publicized boy violence in America—but also in Bootle (England), Calgary (Canada), Erfurt (Germany), Kobe (Japan), and Volgograd (Russia)—most experts in the press, on television, and in the academy are quick to imply that murder by young boys is something new, generated by late-twentieth-century cultural life, and without historical precedent. Some American commentators have suggested that we must protect ourselves from a strain of “superpredators” while others claim that homicidal youth are a symbol of our current cultural confusion and loss of discipline.
In public discussions about “kids who kill” there has been the presumption that juvenile homicide is generated principally by violent images in contemporary media combined with the easy availability of guns. Although I do not reject that theory completely, Charley Miller’s story confirms that long before Rambo and The Matrix there were homicidal boys—and also well-meaning adults who pointed an accusatory finger at cheap, sensational fiction, the influential popular culture of that day, as the cause. I began to look at Charley more closely, telling my students about what I found. There were actually many cases to talk about, but Charley quickly became the best case, because my historical detective work was producing a rich file of documentary material that made it possible for me to imagine him as a real boy, and more than just a name.
Charley Miller was a murderer—there is no doubt of that—but, like most boys who kill today, he was not a psychopath, a fact that made his story even more relevant and important. He never tortured small children, killed cats, or found sexual satisfaction in the act of murder. Charley’s crime was commonplace: it was an adolescent impulse killing and a robbery, similar to many we see today. And it was rooted in the particular social and economic circumstances of being young, poor, and male in late-nineteenth-century America.
Until the fatal incident in the Union Pacific boxcar, Charley Miller was absolutely ordinary and, by and large, ignored. There were thousands of poor boys just like him in the 1890s, and he only garnered special attention because of his age at the time of his crime and execution. His notoriety, fueled by an enterprising commercial press anxious to sell newspapers, made it possible for me to reconstruct his life even if the facts and details were sometimes carelessly reported. I trailed Charley Miller—step by step, month by month—from birth until his execution in Cheyenne seventeen years later. In early adolescence, Charley was a rolling stone, moving from place to place, making his way around and across the country, on his own, in search of a youthful dream. There was real detective work involved in trailing him, and in that process, I got to walk the streets he walked, and survey the cornfields he once helped to plow.
Although I admit to some degree of intuitive reconstruction at certain moments in this story, my historical imagination was always constrained by the facts and sources I uncovered in pursuit of Charley. I have been absolutely true to his words, recorded in interviews, on the witness stand, and in his poems and ballads. The fact that Charley’s voice survived helped me understand what kind of young man he was, what made him tick. Though I wish he had said more, his terse, gruff assertions feel like a familiar form of adolescent verbal swagger, allowing me to see how boyish he really was. In this respect, his case provides a unique perspective on the long-standing connection between adolescent boys and violence in American life. Despite the passage of more than a century, Charley’s experience rings true in terms of the way young males behave when they are stressed by harsh, unfortunate circumstances and face only a bleak future. Not all juvenile murderers are poor today, but they are often social outcasts with feelings of hurt and resentment that Charley would have understood.
Until now, very few Americans have ever heard of Charley Miller. If my readers take this as a romantic tribute to a forgotten boy murderer, they are mistaken. My intention is not to glamorize Charley or his crime: the murder he committed was undeniably ugly and merited serious punishment. In reconstructing his life (and the lives of his victims), I tried to understand him—both as an adolescent boy and as a historical figure—and it’s the blending of the two that gives the story its meaning. The more I learned about Charley Miller, the more I realized that his grim tale was the flip side of the famous Horatio Alger story, a challenge, in fact, to the myth that opportunity and success come easily in America.
For the boy who called himself “Kansas Charley,” the American experience was about emotional and economic scarcity, not opportunity. In the end, vested economic interests and local politics, not charity or forgiveness, determined his fate. In many ways, both large and small, his experience anticipated the thorny mix of social, economic, and legal issues that surround juvenile homicide and juvenile justice today. That’s the point of my retelling. If there are moments in Charley’s story when you feel a sense of déjà vu, you are not alone.
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 and that 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. Asylum directors and supporters adored this kind of positive publicity and tended to blow their own horn in their annual reports: “The voice of joy and health has been clearly sounded in our Institution throughout the whole of the past year,” they announced in 1883. Public impressions were important, because there were many in the city (and the nation) who did not believe in the effectiveness of orphan asylums. Consequently, on those few occasions when their charges were out in public, the adults who ran the asylum made order, decorum, and a sweet, neat appearance paramount concerns.
The Miller children must have recognized quickly that propriety, compliance, and piety were valued in this new environment. Whatever they had learned from their parents about Jesus was now reinforced on a daily basis through required prayers as well as exposure to moralistic evangelical religious texts, such as the Wide Awake, a popular magazine that was a part of the Chautauqua Young Folk’s Reading Union. (Even asylum youngsters were urged to give the few pennies they might have—usually gifts from relatives or visiting trustees—to save the heathen in foreign lands.) Education in the asylum generally stuck to the basics, since there were some Americans, then as now, who thought that the children of the poor should not be indulged in frivolous or stimulating subjects such as music, art, or literature. When music was first introduced into the asylum in 1881, the year the Millers matriculated, trustees felt that they had to justify the innovation, known as the “tonic sol-fa” notation system, on the grounds that music was healthful for children and not simply enjoyable.
In general, asylum teachers taught only the rudiments—reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, grammar, and geography—because so many orphans left the asylum at a young age, and this was likely to be the only formal education they would ever receive. Most children did leave soon after their twelfth birthday, the moment when they were placed out on indenture into families with good credentials. (These were established by trustworthy sources, almost always Protestant clergymen.) In an indenture, the orphan and the employer had a three-month trial period; if things worked to the satisfaction of both, the employer then paid twenty-five dollars to the alma mater, where it was kept in trust until the youngster was eighteen and ready to get a start in life.
The Miller children absorbed what the asylum had to offer, including a sense of the structure of authority in the idealized middle-class home. In order to model what youngsters were likely to find on the outside, Mr. and Mrs. Dunlap’s responsibilities were set up to mirror those of a normal father and mother. Mr. Dunlap supervised all male employees and boy orphans, buildings and grounds, official record-keeping, and financial accounts; Mrs. Dunlap was in charge of housekeeping—food, clothes, and bedding—as well as direction of all things concerned with female orphans and female employees. The annual reports were explicit about the Dunlaps’ role as surrogate parents: “From time to time entertainment and relaxation are provided, and the Superintendent and his wife do all in their power to act the part of true parents to these orphans.” The organizational directives also made it clear that the Superintendent, like a good father, was the head of this huge artificial family, and that his authority prevailed.
There was one exception, however, which would have consequences for Charley Miller. On questions requiring medical judgments, such as the severity of an illness, the need for a quarantine, or methods for treating certain behavioral problems, Dunlap was likely to defer to the asylum physician, John L. Campbell. Dr. Campbell, an 1845 graduate of Union College, received his medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City in 1850, and by 1881 had been with the asylum for over fifteen years. In 1890, he was elected to the prestigious New York Academy of Medicine. Campbell always maintained a private practice at 259 West 42nd Street, a reasonable walk from the asylum where he spent most of his professional life.
The Dunlaps worked hand in hand with Dr. Campbell to modernize the asylum and keep it free from contagious diseases, the kind that could devastate an institution with so many young children in close proximity to one another. At the instigation of Campbell, the board authorized expenditures for improvements in plumbing and drainage, including refitting of the water closets. Campbell encouraged the staff to be absolutely fastidious about personal hygiene—their own as well as the orphans’—and vigilant about the cleanliness of all communal areas involving food and bodily fluids. Given the well- known carelessness of children, and the fact that so many poor youngsters had no prior experience with indoor plumbing, the boy’s and girl’s caretakers were required personally to flush all the water closets at least four times a day. Together, the Dunlaps and Dr. Campbell lived and modeled the idea that “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Just like powerful parents, Mr. and Mrs. Dunlap loomed large in the minds of the children because they dispensed special treats as well as punishments. The asylum had its own reward system: for those who were quiet and mindful there was an occasional apple, a piece of rock candy; for responsible older girls, an opportunity to assist with infants in the nursery; for those who performed especially well in their schoolwork, a “Roll of Honor” where names were inscribed. Those who remained on the honor roll for an entire year won copper and silver medals entitling them to read alone in the evenings. In the case of misbehavior, boys were taken to Mr. Dunlap, girls to his wife, and both used vocal chastisement and moral suasion initially.
Yet everyone knew that Mr. Dunlap maintained his own higher court, where some children were whipped. Although asylum regulations maintained that “no teacher, or employee, shall under any circumstance, strike or maltreat a child,” the superintendent was allowed to inflict corporal punishment if “necessary for the maintenance of good discipline.” When a whipping did occur, the offending child’s teacher or caretaker was supposed to be at the superintendent’s side in order to make sure that the punishment was not excessive. Naturally enough, stories of beatings by Dunlap and company were repeated among the children, making most of them wary of bringing any particular notice to themselves, no matter how badly they needed emotional attention. Although the asylum provided ample food and a modest education, it was not a sanctuary where emotional wounds were healed, or tears brushed away by the soft embrace of a loving adult.
Carrie was the first of the Miller children to be noticed in any special way. She was actually “placed out” of the asylum at the age of ten, two years before the conventional age for this momentous transition. Female orphans were easier to place than boys, especially when they had well-honed domestic skills the way Carrie did. In the 1880s, the demand for adolescent girls to help with domestic work was so heavy that the managers of the asylum in New York City felt the need to tell the public that it was not an employment agency for female servants, even though its graduates were “good little seamstresses” by the time they left. In addition to cleaning, ironing, and sweeping, ten- year-old Carrie could darn and mend, piece together a simple garment, and tend a kitchen garden. She may also have been one of the coveted helpers in the asylum nursery, a role that was excellent preparation for placement with a young family desiring a pleasant girl.
A perfect family appeared on the scene in the fall of 1882, when Esther Mead Weaver, a young mother with a six-month-old son, came to New York City to visit her parents and introduce them to their new grandchild. Esther and her husband, George, lived in Ilion, an upstate New York city of almost five thousand people on the Erie Canal. George Weaver graduated from Syracuse University in 1878 and tried his hand at teaching for two years in Troy, New York, but this failed to satisfy his entrepreneurial spirit. He quickly moved from the classroom to the print shop to become editor of the Ilion Citizen. In addition to writing and editing the weekly, Weaver did commercial jobbing, experimented with new typographies, and applied for patents for his many inventions. Under his energetic leadership, the paper expanded its advertising by 25 percent and it soon claimed to be the “best looking paper” in Herkimer County.
The Weavers were expansive in other ways: they expected to have more children, and they eventually did. (Between 1882 and 1889, they had four.) With this prospect in mind, Esther Weaver envisioned the possibility of domestic help, an idea that led her to the New York Orphan Asylum, where, she was told by her friends, good helpers were likely to be found. Carrie Miller must have been well recommended and attractive because the match was arranged quickly. Carrie left Manhattan, the asylum, and her three younger brothers in December 1882, just in time for the Weaver baby’s first Christmas at home in Ilion. A year later, she was listed in the Ilion census, living with the Weavers and helping with the baby but also attending school. To the Weavers’ credit, Carrie Miller attended school until she was sixteen, an opportunity that was unusual among poor and working- class adolescent girls.
Fred, the next oldest of the Miller children, left the asylum in 1886 in a very different way when he was almost thirteen. Fred was sent westward by train with a group of orphans under the care and supervision of an agent representing the Children’s Aid Society of New York (CAS). The “orphan trains” were the brainchild of Charles Loring Brace, the son of a prominent Connecticut family, who founded the CAS in 1853 and wrote The Dangerous Classes of New York in 1880. Brace was opposed to orphanages because he believed that home care was superior to institutional care. He feared that the regimentation of the asylum did little to build the kind of self-reliance that practical living required. The best solution, he maintained, was to remove poor children from vicious urban environments and send them westward to live in farm homes where, he assumed, the families were welcoming, generous, and anxious for their labor. It was an idealistic, pastoral solution that allegedly cost a tenth of what it did to maintain a child in an asylum. Between 1853 and 1893, over ninety thousand American youngsters were placed in this way, 91 percent of them in New York State, New Jersey, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, and Michigan.
Whatever Brace’s differences with orphan asylums, the CAS collaborated with NYOA to send youngsters west for placement. According to the annual reports of the asylum, the male youngsters in their care sorely wanted this opportunity: “The boys, God bless them! [They] begin to look so eagerly toward the West, emulating the successful career of those already gone, that we often find them rebelling against indenture nearer home.” Placement out west was attractive because it raised the prospect of land ownership, a point that the asylum board repeatedly hammered into its annual reports to benefactors: “The letters received from our boys in the West are always interesting. One boy placed on a farm in 1880 at the age of twelve now owns 168 acres of land, and another owns three town lots worth $500.”
On June 9, 1886, Fred Miller left the asylum for the last time, leaving Charley and Willie behind, as he headed out on an orphan train bound for St. Louis and then on to Kansas. The children ate food provided by the CAS and slept in their seats until they reached their destination three days later. The CAS agent who accompanied them made sure that they were all washed and had their hair combed so that they would look their best. Now they faced the critical moment—known as “the distribution”—when local farmers and their families came to see if there were any among them whose age, size, appearance, and general demeanor were appealing enough to take the boys home. Sometimes, there were announcements of an upcoming distribution in the newspapers or a poster in a local church. CAS placements were free, so news of an event like this could generate a sizable crowd to watch the selection process. Recognizing that this might be their chance for adoption, the children were understandably excited, but also nervous about how they would fare in what was, ultimately, a competition. In order to calm them, the CAS agent talked enthusiastically about their future prospects and handed out Bibles, a conventional prop, so that each child could carry one onto the stage of the opera house, church, or auditorium where the distributions typically took place.
Although nothing is known about Fred’s reaction to the distribution, there was a great deal of preparation for it in Leonardville, the Kansas town where he found himself on June 12. Founded only five years earlier, Leonardville was a small Riley County village, overshadowed by neighboring Manhattan, a town of three thousand, twenty-six miles to the southeast. Leonardville was thought to be coming into its own, however, because of its fortuitous location on the Kansas Central, a division of the Union Pacific Railroad, the great national highway that spanned the continent when it was completed in 1869. One of the men on the committee responsible for bringing in the New York orphans was John Crans, a physician, who had his house moved by a mule team from nearby Riley in order to take advantage of the developing action in Leonardville. By the time Fred Miller arrived, Leonardville had two banks, four general stores, both telegraph and express offices, and a money-order post office with two rural-delivery routes. Most of the people were hardworking farmers earning their livelihood from the state’s celebrated fertile soil—sometimes called the “golden grain belt”—but there were also enterprising merchants, such as the Erpelding and Sikes families, whose stores on the main street sold a wide variety of staples and desirable manufactured goods.
Leonardville’s only newspaper, the weekly Monitor, offered repeated reminders about the arrival of the orphan train bearing Fred Miller: “Don’t forget that the New York boys will be here a week from Saturday.” And: “The New York boys will meet the public at the schoolhouse. They are hunting homes with the farmers.” In this town, as in many others throughout the Midwest, there was enormous optimism about the human shipment coming from the great metropolis. The Monitor assured everyone that the New York City orphans were “all bright, well trained, and very fairly educated.” As a result, there was considerable disappointment when there were not enough to go around. “The number brought in last Friday was entirely inadequate to supply the demand and a large number were disappointed,” explained the local newspaper editor, Preston Loofbourrow, whose prose reverberated with his zeal for the project: “The boys were all taken to good homes, and will no doubt grow up to be worthy members of society.” Loofbourrow was quick to claim a promising orphan for himself. That boy was Fred Miller, whom he intended to have work at his side, as a helper, in the printing trade.
Within weeks, Fred was comfortably settled in the Loofbourrows’ home smack in the center of town, enjoying the kindness and the stimulation of his new employer, a hardworking man with many talents. The son of an abolitionist, Loofbourrow graduated from Liber College in Jay County, Indiana, and served briefly with Company E of the 139th Indiana Infantry in the Civil War. Afterward, he taught school for a number of years in a variety of situations that familiarized him with boys and their ways. In addition to editing the weekly Monitor, he was a farmer, an amateur attorney, an insurance agent, and a Republican of conviction. He was also the local postmaster and a representative of the 58th District in the Kansas legislature, both at the same time. The Loofbourrow family—including his wife, Sarah, and their daughter, Orpha, who was almost fourteen— were active members of the Methodist Episcopal church. (Another daughter, Mary, had died at age two.) Preston and Sarah had never had a son of their own, so the prospect of having a good, healthy adolescent boy around the house held out emotional as well as economic promise. When a CAS agent came to observe the situation a few months later, he told his colleagues back in New York: “Fred has a good home is happy and contented and intends to learn printing.”
Newspaper offices and print shops were an important center of community information and activity in nineteenth-century America, as well as a place where adolescent boys had a significant role running errands, sweeping floors, and carting papers from storage to the pressroom. They could also learn specific trade activities that were the start of a printing career, such as how to wash ink off used type and then distribute the type back into the typesetter’s case. A galley boy carried type that was already set in a shallow wooden tray to a proof press, where a print was made, read, and then corrected by the foreman, before the type was set in a metal frame on the press. Boys also fed blank sheets into the machine press and then removed them to be dried—a process called “flying the press.” And, before electrification, a strong teenager pulled or cranked the newspaper press by hand. Boys also worked the treadle press with their feet, producing attention-getting handbills, fancy trade cards, and impressive business stationery, the kind of small jobs that kept many newspaper operations solvent. Author William Dean Howells, who spent his youth in his father’s Ohio print shop, admitted there was a “halo of romance about the old-fashioned country [printing] office” that was hard for him to shake even as he matured. “The printing office was the center of civic and social interest,” he explained, and although the place was gritty—the walls were blotched with ink and the floor was littered with refuse—it was frequented by visitors all the time, most notably schoolgirls and young ladies, who appeared in noisy, chattering groups on publication day.
Fred enjoyed this new life, regardless of whether or not he understood the opportunity in it. He took to the work easily, confirming that his schooling in the New York Orphan Asylum had prepared him sufficiently to become a printer. When he was not in the shop, he made friends among his peers in the village, and he quickly felt comfortable in his new home. Sarah Loofbourrow, who had no comparisons to make with any other sons, cooked good hearty meals and enjoyed Fred’s liveliness. Some years later, Preston Loofbourrow reflected on what the orphan train meant to him and his wife: “Fred was selected by ourself [sic] from the number and has been a member of our family since that time. He has been a remarkably industrious, faithful and upright boy ever since, as the entire community will attest.” On another occasion, he told the Children’s Aid Society how pleased he was with Fred, now sixteen: “He has no bad habits and detests the use of intoxicants and tobacco.” Because Fred was so industrious and reliable, Loofbourrow began to train him to keep the books and handle his money. He was a boy with “push and snap,” he said, worthy of being treated like a son.
Fred’s placement was so satisfactory that the Loofbourrows tried to help his brothers as well. Their attempts to assist Charley were not successful, though their later efforts on behalf of Willie, the youngest child, were. When Willie Miller was twelve and it was time for him to the leave the asylum, Preston and Sarah requested him because they knew it would make “their Fred” happy. As teenagers, they would play together in Leonardville’s brass band. Preston never considered Willie any match to Fred—he told the CAS that the youngest Miller was “better adapted to the farm” than to the print shop (a judgment about his spelling and writing) and that he had a “somewhat peculiar disposition and manner” (he liked to tell odd jokes and laugh boisterously). Yet Willie remained with the Loofbourrrows, accompanying them in 1894 to a new home in Willow Springs, Missouri. Both boys were raised by Mrs. Loofbourrow and treated as if they were her own sons. For Fred in particular, the unflagging loyalty of Preston and Sarah provided important emotional stability in the early 1890s, when Charley was in the national news for the terrible double murder. Even then, Sarah Loofbourrow told the cas “We still think everything of Fred.”
While Carrie, Fred, and Willie Miller were resilient and capable of responding successfully to the challenges posed by life after the loss of their parents, six-year-old Charley was not. In the asylum, he wet his bed, a behavior that was not easily ignored or excused after an initial period of adjustment, and as he matured. Wet sheets and nightclothes were an extra burden for the asylum laundress and offensive to caretakers who upheld middle-class expectations that children his age were supposed to control their bladders. They recognized that poor children accustomed to backyard outhouses had to be retrained to use water closets correctly, but Charley seemed unable to control himself even when he was reminded and awakened at night. For Charley, wet sheets were probably humiliating, and they led, eventually, to a cure that may have been traumatic. For fastidious sanitarians such as the Dunlaps, Charley’s bedwetting had to stop. They had no tolerance for the smell of stale urine, because they were always on guard for any odor that reflected badly on their management. They could make Charley wash his own sheets—a punishment based on the idea that humiliation was a good deterrent—but as long as Charley was small, he was unable to get the soaked bedding clean on his own. Despite asylum regulations, Superintendent Dunlap eventually turned to corporal punishment. When asked about his upbringing in the New York Orphan Asylum, Charley consistently told the same story: “I was whipped very often.” When asked why, he replied: “Because I had a disease I couldn’t stop it.”
Charley’s understanding of his bedwetting as a disease suggests that Dr. John Campbell got involved. Campbell understood that Charley’s wet sheets were a symptom of a condition known as enuresis or involuntary incontinence, and he was disturbed that the boy’s symptom continued even as he approached the age for placing out. Medical science proposed a wide variety of causes for enuresis nocturna, the kind that occurred during sleep: local irritations and infections; organic defects in the urethra, kidney, bladder, or penis; even the embarrassing business of onanism or masturbation, known then as “self- abuse.”
Uncertain whether it was problematic plumbing or debased morals in Charley’s case, Campbell probably turned to Nocturnal Enuresis and Incontinence of Urine (1869) by Dr. Frederick Snelling. Here, in the definitive work on the disorder, he learned that Charley’s problem was “one of the most loathsome and repulsive weaknesses that can befall a child.” Snelling felt, however, that each case of enuresis was different, and that it was up to the attending physician to decide if the point of origin was principally organic or nervous (what we now call psychological). Snelling was generally not in favor of the scoldings, humiliations, and punishments that bedwetting traditionally generated, because, like most up-to-date doctors of his day, he assumed some biological cause that compromised Charley’s self-control. When Dunlap’s whipping did not work, Campbell must have agreed to step in, since Charley’s bedwetting had been going on for a number of years.
Assuming that John Campbell read Snelling, it is likely that he began to look for a cause in Charley’s maturing twelve-year-old body. This required a physical examination to determine if an organic defect or disease existed. Charley’s genitals and rectum had to be checked, as well as the color, specific gravity, and organic ingredients of his urine. If Charley displayed “much nervous irritability” (what we call today attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD), Campbell might have tried a daily dose of a solution of morphine to tamp down his patient’s rambunctiousness. More often, bedwetters were denied liquids at night and given a bland, soft diet in order to reduce irritating acidity in the urine.
Because Victorian medicine implicated self-abuse in bedwetting, Charley’s genitals were a focus of Campbell’s clinical probing. Masturbation in children was regarded with special horror because it was a form of precocious sexuality that violated middle-class notions of childhood innocence. Believed to be most prevalent in boys between the ages of eight and sixteen, masturbation was thought to deplete seminal reserves that needed to be saved for reproduction in the married state. Little girls were thought less likely to indulge, because—like their idealized mothers—they were believed to be more pure and less sexual than boys, no matter what their age.
Charley was now coming into puberty, the time of life that psychologist G. Stanley Hall portrayed as a landmark in the development of masculinity. It was also a perilous stage, because the possibility of masturbation increased with sexual awakening. Almost everywhere—in popular treatises, advice to mothers, serious medical books— masturbation in youth was cast as a dangerous practice, carrying with it a sequence of physical and social ills including infertility, venereal disease, marital unhappiness, crime, insanity, and premature death. This kind of medical domino theory was not the invention of medical charlatans or crackpots. It was absolutely mainstream, and physicians with international reputations, such as Englishman Henry Maudsley, joined the war against it. Known for his pioneering work in classifying diseases of the mind, Maudsley reported that masturbation was common among the insane, a finding that many took to mean that it was causative in what came to be known as “masturbatory induced insanity.”
Young men and adolescent boys in the nineteenth century internalized this fear of masturbation, so much so that any expression of autoeroticism caused them enormous guilt and anxiety. In newspapers and magazines they saw a myriad of worrisome advertisements for pills and nostrums claiming to help men resist the evils of the practice, also known as “the solitary vice.” Theodore Dreiser, born in 1871—only three years before Charley Miller—regarded it all as “religious and moral piffle” when he was older, but he admitted that, in his youth, he was genuinely terrified by the prospect of sickness, brain trouble, and total physical collapse, all because he touched himself every two or three days, when he fantasized about the baker’s daughter. The young Dreiser believed that if he managed to reach adulthood at all, he would end up an emaciated, sunken-eyed fellow, a pathetic victim of his own “youthful excess.”
But as bad as masturbation was supposed to be, physicians in Campbell’s generation were never really clear about its relationship to bedwetting. Some proposed that urine was passed involuntarily while masturbating in bed; others asserted that urination while sleeping caused discomfort and irritation, which then led to masturbation. A striking number of post–Civil War physicians, many of them well known and based in New York City and Philadelphia, posited that the prepuce, the foreskin of the penis, needed special scrutiny because it could be diseased, stimulate masturbation, and then generate a wide range of organic diseases including enuresis. Abraham Jacobi, the highly regarded president of the American Pediatric Society, advised that an irritated foreskin was the primary cause of masturbation; M. J. Moses, his colleague in New York City, was confident that a long prepuce contributed to masturbation. Although these Victorian doctors had no clear understanding of normal variation in the foreskin, their pervasive anxiety about sexuality and genitalia led them to perceive it as a site of enormous problems.
In the Miller case, Campbell suspected a condition known as phimosis, conceptualized as a type of strangulation of the male sex organ. In phimosis, the foreskin was elongated in such a way that it constricted the orifice of the penis and led to irritation. Joseph Howe, professor of clinical surgery at Bellevue Hospital Medical College and a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine, reported that phimosis in children produced both incontinence and “a tendency to handle the parts.” C. E. Nichols, a physician from Troy, New York, recommended a way to treat it. In the Medical Record for 1879, he explained that he had had good results with surgery on a fifteen-year-old with “an unusually long and somewhat thickened prepuce” who was unable to control himself day or night. Because examination for the condition was so painful, Nichols chloroformed his patient and then took the opportunity to remove surgically a liberal piece of his foreskin. After the circumcision, Nichols claimed that the Troy boy’s enuresis disappeared totally, something that Dr. Campbell probably read with enormous interest, given his problems with Charley Miller.
As shocking as it may seem today, the decision to circumcise Charley at age twelve was a logical intervention based on the most progressive medical theory of the day. In both New York City and England there were physicians touting the idea that circumcision eliminated both bedwetting and masturbation. Jewish men were often proffered as proof of the claim. Dr. Moses, a Jew, claimed that, though masturbation was not “entirely absent” among his people, he had “never [seen] an instance in a Jewish child of very tender years” except where the organic condition of phimosis existed. Dr. Norman Chapman, a Kansas City Protestant, called for circumcision on broader hygienic grounds. “Moses was a good sanitarian,” he explained in 1882. All of these ideas influenced John Campbell as he considered the recalcitrant case of the second-oldest Miller boy. In the end, he probably reasoned that, if circumcision did not cure Charley’s chronic bedwetting, at least it was a sanitary precaution, a way to help him stay clean. For cultural as well as scientific reasons, Charley was circumcised at the New York Orphan Asylum in a last-ditch effort to cure him of his “loathsome” habit. Except for American Jews, who maintained a ritual form of circumcision performed by a mohel at an event called a bris, the practice was still relatively unusual in the United States in the 1880s. Most babies were born at home, and most male infants remained uncircumcised until the early twentieth century, when the spread of hospitals and rigorous sanitary protocols normalized cutting the foreskin, making it a secular rather than a religious act. Well into the twentieth century, circumcision among non-Jews was confined to the carriage trades, while poor, working-class boys like Fred and Willie Miller grew into manhood with uncut foreskins.
Charley’s penis never again looked like that of his brothers or most other boys in his social class and generation. His circumcision was a souvenir of the asylum that he always carried with him, although its exact meaning for him is hard to discern. If the procedure was done without chloroform, he probably experienced his surgery as a painful trauma, the memory of which lingered and festered. On the other hand, he may have been made “insensible” with an anesthetic, after Dr. Campbell explained to him that he was going to undergo a medical procedure that would make him better and take away his humiliating problem.
Today, we understand that, although recalcitrant bedwetting may be the result of organic problems, it is also a symptom of deep dependency needs associated with early loss, lack of sustained connection to a parent or caregiver, and profound trauma. Charley’s caretakers at the asylum did what they thought was best for him, but their understanding of enuresis and child psychology was severely limited by their cultural preoccupations with order, personal hygiene, and control of sexuality in the young. The asylum physician found more hope in surgical treatments that altered the body than in any form of talking therapy that eased Charley’s emotional anxieties or sense of abandonment. When Charley finally left the NYOA for good in 1887, his body had been changed, but his noxious habit persisted, and it continued to affect his life, making it less and less likely that he would ever share in the security and success his siblings were beginning to enjoy.
Soon after his twelfth birthday, in December 1886, Charley was placed out in the home of Lyman Babcock, a thirty-one-year-old farmer who lived in the Kempsville district of Virginia’s Princess Anne County. Babcock’s need for extra labor was supposed to be Charley’s big opportunity, but it was a bad match from the start. Babcock’s household included his wife, Adelia, who was ten years his senior; their eight-year-old daughter, Minnie; and two older adolescent stepchildren from Adelia’s first marriage. (The Babcocks also had some hired hands and at least one servant girl to help them with the backb reaking work of their successful 180-acre farm, most of it in apples and peaches, corn, sweet potatoes, and oats.) There were four horses requiring daily attention, as well as a milch cow, sheep, pigs, poultry, and bees, all perfect assignments for a young boy who was supposed to help fill the family larder, smokehouse, and table. But Charley was unfamiliar with this kind of work and ill-at-ease around farm animals. He never said much about his time at the Babcocks’ except that it did not work out because of his “disease.” He arrived from New York City in the midst of an uncharacteristically heavy snowstorm and was gone before the full bloom of a Virginia spring.
After a few months back in the asylum, Charley was placed out again. This time he was sent west on an orphan train much like the one that took his brother Fred to Kansas a year earlier. According to modern social-work protocols, Charley’s next home placement should have been carefully investigated and precautions taken to ensure his success. But standards were different in the nineteenth century, and the boy’s caretakers felt he was lucky to have any opportunity to start life afresh in a better physical environment. The CAS agent on Charley’s particular train in March 1887 was probably Charles R. Fry, who in later years made his headquarters in the Palmer House in Chicago. As the society’s “resident Western agent and superintendent of emigration” to the West, Fry was estimated to travel over thirty thousand miles a year, mostly by train, seeking out families and communities willing to take in needy orphans and indigent children, sometimes known as “street rats.” Fry’s reputation rested on the quantity of placements he made, not their quality.
At the end of March 1887, before the snow evaporated and the mud hardened, an orphan train bearing Charley Miller arrived in St. Charles, Winona County, Minnesota, a town of fewer than a thousand people serviced by the Winona and St. Peter line. (This line hooked up with the Chicago and Northwestern coming out of Chicago.) The trip from New York City with eighteen other boys and girls was grueling, and the distribution lengthy, because Agent Fry chose to speak about the CAS and its mission before turning to the drama of the selection. According to Charles Loring Brace, the very sight of the “worn faces” of the city children was always a call to action: “People who were childless came forward to adopt children; others who had not intended to take any into their families, were induced to apply for them; and many who really wanted the children’s labor pressed forward to obtain it.” In St. Charles that day, a family who fit the latter description had their eyes on Charley Miller. The boy’s blue eyes and fair hair, inherited from his German parents, were an attraction in rural Minnesota, where a majority of the people were of German, Norwegian, and Swedish extraction.
Charley was taken home that Friday afternoon by William and Nancy Booth, a couple in their early fifties, who owned a 160-acre farm seven miles north of Chatfield in Olmsted County, southeast of Rochester, now the home of the Mayo Clinic. In the 1880s, Chatfield was a busy little agricultural town of about eleven hundred people, surrounded by a number of mills that harnessed the power of the Root River to grind local wheat. Farmers in the surrounding countryside also grew corn, oats, and barley, while their wives and daughters produced butter, still a barter commodity. Some of the locals had a vision of a grander, richer Chatfield. To that end, they experimented with a cooperative creamery to produce butter and cheese for sale, and they also began to build sidewalks, a sure way to draw in farm wives and their daughters to the local mercantile establishments.
On the drive there by wagon, a distance of twelve miles that took about three hours, Charley was surprised to learn that he would be alone with the Booths, because their six children were all grown. They said they needed a boy his age to help them bring in the wheat, oats, barley, and potatoes that were essential to their livelihood. And they openly lamented the fact that, the year before, in 1886, they had spent $150—a tenth of their total income—on hired hands to help them out. What they wanted now was a boy whom they did not have to pay cash wages. Their eldest son, Elmer, who lived with his own family nearby, came along to St. Charles to help his parents consider the pickings and make a good selection.
The Booths were exactly the kind of family that Charles Loring Brace predicted would be drawn to the possibility of acquiring free labor but also “doing good” at the same time. Nancy Booth was a longtime member of the United Brethren, a pietistic group with a church less than a mile from her farm. She wanted Charley to go to Sunday school there and mix with other farm boys his age who were upstanding and hardworking. William Booth told the new arrival that Chatfield could be his great opportunity, that he hoped he would “stay and be contented.” Booth offered as an incentive “a good ranch or a farm” when Charley reached the age of twenty-one, but that kind of economic incentive was probably wasted on twelve-year-old Charley, who was tired and frightened by the strangeness of his new surroundings. The Booth farmhouse was a long way from the busy village, and Minnesota’s wide-open landscape and its noticeable quiet felt unfamiliar, even foreboding, compared with the orphanage.
Charley’s future depended on how he got along in the Booth household, and whether or not he fit in. Unfortunately, there was little time for pleasantries or emotional adjustment, because the demands of farm life were intense and the growing season was so short. Plowing, sowing, threshing, corn husking, and haying were always done with a sense of urgency, each stage so dependent on time and weather. Even in the winter, the Booths had to prepare for the next step in the agricultural cycle and also provide continuous care for their numerous work animals—both mules and horses—as well as sheep and pigs raised to be slaughtered for their own table and for sale. From four milch cows, Nancy Booth consistently churned three hundred pounds of butter a year, some of which she exchanged with neighboring families, some of which she sold.
Within days, Charley was thrown into a busy routine of farm labor that he never forgot. In every account thereafter, he claimed that he began plowing the Booths’ farm almost immediately, “walking in a furrow behind the plow, morning until night.” (The claim seems hyperbolic, since the ground in Minnesota was still frozen at the time of his arrival.) Charley plainly never liked the muck and mire of the barnyard, or the process of feeding and grooming animals. During his first summer at the Booths’, outdoor work was particularly onerous because the weather was so hot and dry, and the chinch bugs so numerous that his face and eyes were covered with them. In Son of the Middle Border, an account of farm life in this era, Hamlin Garland captured how Charley must have felt after a day in the Booths’ fields: “You can scarcely limp home to supper, and it seems you cannot possibly go on another day—but you do—at least I did.”
Some adolescent boys enjoyed demanding farm labor because they gained a sense of responsibility from mastering jobs, such as driving a team of horses, usually reserved for adult men. But the orphan boy from Manhattan’s West Side never found any pleasure in working the Booths’ land or being with their valuable animals. Neither did he make any friends among the boys who lived on the adjacent McGuire and Halloran farms, and there is no evidence that he ever fished with them for bass on the Root River or had time to meander down the two streams that bisected the Booths’ property. William did hire some extra farmhands after Charley’s arrival, but their presence did not help. Charley still found life at the Booths’ burdensome, emotionally harsh and socially isolated. He missed his brothers, and there seemed to be no one amusing to talk to. Charley also felt that he did not get to go to school enough, and that the Booths “used” him badly. When asked to specify the nature of the ill-treatment, he said: “Whipping me and didn’t clothe me.” When asked why he was whipped, Charley said again that it was his “disease.” Charley’s wet sheets probably put the kybosh on any adoption plans, but it was also clear that he did not want to stay on the farm because of the work demands, the Booths’ austerity, and William’s harsh response to his bedwetting. Although a visit by agent Charles Fry reported back to New York that Charley was “a good boy” who was “doing well in an excellent home,” trouble was brewing. Charley had already started writing to his brother Fred in Kansas with complaints that he was mistreated and poorly clothed. He mentioned that he would like to leave Chatfield and come stay with Fred in Leonardville, an indication of his deep connection to his older brother. At first, the Loofbourrows were uncertain what to make of these complaints, but the complaints kept coming, and they were eventually corroborated by a local teacher.
In the winter of 1888, when work at the Booths’ was temporarily suspended because of the cold and snow, Charley—now thirteen—managed to attend a local school, a square frame building set down in an open field, less than a mile from the Booth farm. For two months, he mixed with approximately thirty other children, ranging in age from five to twenty-one, at School 57 in the Elmira Township, taught by a young woman who either boarded with a farm family or lived nearby. Although the name of the teacher at this one- room schoolhouse remains unknown, it is likely that she was unmarried, not more than twenty-five years of age, and a graduate of a high school or summer training institute, not the Winona State Normal School. (Winona’s graduates were the crème de la crème of teachers in this area of the state, and they generally taught in towns, as opposed to rural schoolhouses.) Even rural teachers, however, were held to a certain standard in Minnesota: they had to take examinations, both written and oral, and they had to adhere to rules and responsibilities set out by the districts. In addition to being responsible for a daily curriculum and keeping the temperature in the schoolroom between sixty-five and seventy degrees (no small feat in a Minnesota winter), rural schoolteachers were supposed to keep records on each individual student. Unfortunately, no records from School 57 survive.
According to the superintendent of schools in Olmsted County, in the summer of 1885 eight people were qualified to teach in the county: Lucy Bowers, Carrie Armstrong, Phebe Sprague, Emma Outcolt, Anna Forster, Annie Tisdale, Mattie Forster, and Mary Dooley. Any one of these young women may have been Charley’s angel, the person who verified his account of hard times and physical abuse in the home of William and Nancy Booth. Somehow, Charley managed to reach out to his teacher and tell her about his situation. He must have presented his story in a convincing manner—perhaps he showed her proof of his beatings—because the teacher became sufficiently sympathetic to write a number of letters on Charley’s behalf to Preston Loofbourrow in Kansas. Although the letters do not survive, they validated Charley’s unhappy story and prompted Fred’s guardian to contact the Children’s Aid Society in New York City to see what could be done to ease the boy’s distress.
Charley had been with the Booths slightly more than a year, but it felt like an eternity to an unhappy thirteen-year-old hoping for a happy reunion with his older brother. In desperation, he tried to run away at least twice. Once he fled secretly to his teacher’s home, but his whereabouts were uncovered by one of the Booths’ married daughters, who saw him, as she drove by in her wagon, on the teacher’s front porch. According to Charley, Booth’s daughter “told the old man about it,” and that prompted William and Elmer to come fetch him: “They didn’t say anything until I got outside. They said they ought to take me and tie me to a tree and cowhide me.” In order to avoid what they threatened, Charley agreed to return with them to the isolated farm.
A few days later, William Booth received a letter from the Children’s Aid Society, advising him that he could not hold the New York orphan against his will. As a result, Booth abandoned whatever plans he once had to adopt Charley and quickly returned the youngster—much like an unsatisfactory purchase—to the place where he had gotten him. Without any explanation or even a backward glance, he left Charley alone at the St. Charles railroad depot, without any food or money, and without a train ticket home. It was an overwhelming and probably terrifying moment for a youngster who was accustomed to a modicum of security, daily food, a bed, and clothes that were warm enough. Even if Charley and his sheets were a constant problem for Booth and his wife, it was a harsh response, not in keeping with the vision of Charles Loring Brace. Booth’s silent abandonment suggested that he felt no responsibility to nurture and protect Charley, and that, whatever value the boy might have had as a farm laborer, he was not worth the trouble.
Charley did what he needed to do in order to survive. “I started out in the country looking for work,” Charley explained matter-of-factly about what it was like to be left totally on his own at the age of thirteen: “Met a farmer who asked me what I was crying about, and he gave me a job on his farm.” His nameless savior was subject to periodic drinking binges, but he never touched the boy, and he also provided sufficient food while Charley waited, for months, hoping to get assistance from either Kansas or New York City. And then the long-awaited letter arrived: “I got a letter while I was there. It had $5 in it. It was the New York letter, and [it] told me to call at the depot and get a ticket.” Janet T. Sherman, treasurer of the New York Orphan Society, a member of the committee that had originally admitted the four Miller children to the asylum, financed the arrangements that made Charley’s departure and reunion with his brother possible. The two had not seen each other in more than two years, so Charley was raring to go. In October 1888, he arrived safely in Kansas, where, under Preston Loofbourrow’s able direction, he wrote a polite letter to New York indicating that he was very “thankful for what the [Children’s Aid] Society had done for him.”
Leonardville felt distinctly different from Chatfield, even though it was an even smaller agricultural center. There was still too much talk about weather and animals for Charley’s taste, but he liked the fact that the house where he lived with the Loofbourrows was in the center of the village, just a stone’s throw away from the busy post office and stores, and only a half-mile to the spot where the railroad stopped to bring in travelers. The print shop where the Monitor was produced was also centrally located, and open to daily visitors with stories and jokes to tell. Charley must have realized that his older brother had been much luckier than he: Fred didn’t have to perform hard physical labor, and Mr. Loofbourrow was nothing like William Booth. Fred’s situation seemed more like an apprenticeship, a chance to use his head, work alongside his guardian, but also have some fun. (At this point in 1888, eleven-year-old Willie was still at the New York Orphan Asylum.)
In Kansas, everyone expected things to improve for Charley, especially in the firm, competent hands of Preston Loofbourrow, who was having such success with Fred. Almost immediately Loofbourrow put Charley to work at the Monitor, but he also allowed the two brothers time to talk alone and to socialize with other young people. In November 1888, Charley turned fourteen with Fred at his side. After a few months, however, for reasons that were never entirely clear, the Loofbourrows arranged a change of residence for Charley, probably because they did not need his help and one of their friends did.
Charley was sent to live in the home of James and Mary Elizabeth Colt in Randolph, a tiny settlement on the Big Blue River, less than five miles away, a distance that would allow the brothers to remain in touch. (Charley could hop on the local trunk railroad to go back and forth.) James Colt was also a printer, but he had been in poor health for some time, and he also had a string of daughters living at home: Mary, Bertha, Florence, and Sadie. In theory, Charley was a valuable addition, because he could do things to assist in the shop that girls generally did not do. And if the unpleasant business of wet sheets intruded, Mrs. Colt had four daughters to help with the washing, whereas Sarah Loofbourrow had only one. In terms of the Colt family economy, Charley’s new placement made good sense.
Colt, just like Loofbourrow, was a Republican newspaper editor and also the local postmaster. A graduate of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, he was a former minister in the Methodist Episcopal church, and someone who would provide Charley with an appropriate moral environment. Colt’s newspaper, the Enterprise, was a county weekly, known for being a wholesome affair, the kind the family could read together around the dinner table or in the parlor: “It is a paper no parent need to be afraid to place in the hands of children, nothing tending to the slightest degree of impurity being admitted to its columns.” At the Enterprise, Charley would have a chance to learn the printer’s trade in much the same way as Fred. Loofbourrow clearly wanted the younger Miller boy to develop a marketable skill, a way to make a living, so that he might someday assist his older brother in a successful printing-and-jobbing operation, a likely pathway into the middle class.
To do the work, Charley had to be literate, focused, and able to take orders, none of which seemed out of his reach at this point. The Loofbourrows probably said good things about him to the Colts, and the Colts trusted their judgment, since it was unlikely that someone like Preston Loofbourrow would try to pass off a worthless boy on a valuable friend and neighbor. Yet, after five months at the Colts’, Charley was unable to cope and he ran away. In this case, there was no complaint about “whipping.” Loofbourrow had made certain that the Colts were not the kind to abuse the boy physically even if he did wet his bed. Fred said that “his brother [had] behaved badly [at the Colts] and would not remain settled anywhere”; Loofbourrow thought the boy left Randolph because he was “restless and dissatisfied.”
Charley’s account was more explicit. When asked why he left his promising situation with the Randolph printer and preacher, Charley later said: “Because he did not clothe me.” The issue seemed to be clothes that were attractive and well fitting, rather than clothes to keep him warm. Clothes were important to Charley, and they would figure prominently in his life as it unfolded. Whatever he was given as a wardrobe by the Colts felt sadly inadequate, causing him to become disgruntled. Because he was earning no wages, he knew that he would be unable to buy the kind of pants, jackets, and hats worn by the young men he had seen getting on and off the Union Pacific or advertised by smart haberdashers in the big-city newspapers that circulated in town. In small places like Leonardville and Randolph, advertisements were as interesting as the news, informing boys like Charley about what was in style and escalating their desire. At this point— Charley was now fourteen—his two old suits from the asylum were both tight and threadbare, because they were hand-me-downs to begin with. Angry with the Colts for their refusal to give him the clothes he wanted, Charley took his revenge in an adolescent way. He stole some shirts and a valise from the former preacher and hit the road, heading north on the Union Pacific to Omaha and Council Bluffs, larger cities where he hoped to find work in order to buy himself the kind of clothes that spoke of status and respectability.
On the way out of Randolph, the strong prairie winds blew open the valise and carried away nearly every stitch of clothing Charley owned, including some of the stolen shirts. Despite this unlucky accident and the anger he felt toward the Colts and their penny- pinching ways, Kansas was planted indelibly in his mind. He would adopt the state and regard it as “home” no matter what happened, wherever he went. He would also continue to write to Fred, a sign of his steadfast commitment to the family of his birth. Although his childhood was essentially over, the fourteen-year-old remained strangely optimistic about his future as he made his way east on his own, this time to see what a reunion with his beloved sister, Carrie, might bring.
Posted November 4, 2003
This well-written and tightly argued book offers the reader both a compelling narrative of nineteenth-century boyhood and a new way to consider contemporary juvenile violence and its consequences. Not only is it an excellent read and a real page turner, it is also a deeply thoughtful book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.