Kansas Charley: The Story of a Nineteenth-Century Boy Murderer.Kansas Charley: The Story of a Nineteenth-Century Boy Murderer. By Joan Jacobs Brumberg (New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of : Viking, 2003. xiv plus 273 pp. $24.95).
On April 22, 1892, the new state of Wyoming hanged seventeen-year-old Charley Miller for the murders of two young men riding with him in a Union Pacific boxcar. "Kansas Charley" was fifteen years old when he committed the crime. This case is little remembered today, but Charley's execution generated front-page headlines from New York to San Francisco San Francisco (săn frănsĭs`kō), city (1990 pop. 723,959), coextensive with San Francisco co., W Calif., on the tip of a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, which are connected by the strait known as the Golden in the 1890s. Now, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a scholar known for her work on the cultures of adolescent girls and young women, has reconstructed his life and death in a microhistory that illuminates boys' historical experiences.
Brumberg roots her study in a question that many people asked in the late 1990s during an apparent nationwide outbreak of school shootings: "were there ever boy murderers before?" (4). Yes. The real questions that drive Brumberg's book involve what factors contributed to boy murderers' actions, how their contemporaries understood them, and what courts and legal system did with them. In contrast to older models of social history, Brumberg does not seek to show that Charley Miller was typical of late nineteenth-century boys generally. Instead, she suggests that he encapsulates particular patterns. He represents, as Brumberg writes, "the flip side Flip side
In the context of general equities, opposite side to a proposition or position (buy, if sell is the proposition and vice versa). of the famous Horatio Alger story, a challenge, in fact, to the myth that opportunity and success come easily in America" (7).
To accomplish this, Brumberg has conducted prodigious pro·di·gious
1. Impressively great in size, force, or extent; enormous: a prodigious storm.
2. Extraordinary; marvelous: a prodigious talent.
3. research in libraries and archives across the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area. , following Charley's path as he "rode the rails" around the country. She has reconstructed Charley's life, primarily through trial transcripts and newspaper coverage. In addition, Brumberg utilizes archival records, local histories, and genealogical ge·ne·al·o·gy
n. pl. ge·ne·al·o·gies
1. A record or table of the descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor or ancestors; a family tree.
2. Direct descent from an ancestor; lineage or pedigree. resources to reconstruct the lives of people and institutions whose paths Charley crossed in New York City New York City: see New York, city.
New York City
City (pop., 2000: 8,008,278), southeastern New York, at the mouth of the Hudson River. The largest city in the U.S. , Kansas, Wyoming, and elsewhere.
This book is at its best when it shows how Charley's life and death intersected with larger issues of late nineteenth-century life such as youth, transience, ideals of success, social reform, and frontier politics. For instance, Charley's life provides a example for examining the difficulties of working-class immigrant childhood. Orphaned at age six, Charley and his siblings were committed to the New York Orphans Asylum, which sought to place them with rural families in the west. While his sister and brother used placement to climb toward comfortable, respectable lives, Charley was not so lucky. He moved from family to family, placement to placement, and finally ran away to "tramp" across the country in railroad freight cars.
Charley's story also highlights the disparity between the limited prospects open to boys like himself and the apparent world of opportunities available to the boys who would become his victims. Coming of age in St. Joseph, Missouri, both embodied ideals of upward mobility upward mobility
The state of being upwardly mobile.
movement from a lower to a higher economic and social status when they set off together to find their fortunes in Wyoming. Although they sported new clothes and carried large bankrolls, they opted to save money by bumming rides on the railroads. There, they briefly traveled with Charley Miller, but the social separation between them kept them from becoming friends. Ultimately Charley shot them as they slept and robbed them.
Furthermore, larger political contexts shaped debates over clemency Leniency or mercy. A power given to a public official, such as a governor or the president, to in some way lower or moderate the harshness of punishment imposed upon a prisoner.
Clemency is considered to be an act of grace. for Charley after he was sentenced to death. Saving Charley's life became a pet cause for female social activists. Both individually and as representatives of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), organization that seeks to upgrade moral life, especially through abstinence from alcohol. The National WCTU of the United States was founded (1874) in Cleveland, Ohio, as a result of the Woman's Temperance Crusade that , women petitioned the governor to commute the young murderer's sentence. In Wyoming, the first state to grant woman suffrage woman suffrage, the right of women to vote. Throughout the latter part of the 19th cent. the issue of women's voting rights was an important phase of feminism. , this became a test of whether women actually had enough political power to overcome the demands of leading male citizens that the governor impose a strict rule of law. In the end, Charley made the governor's choice easier by escaping twice and thereby losing the public sympathy he otherwise enjoyed.
The book is not as successful when it tries to understand Charley's psychology. Brumberg emphasizes how Charley's lifelong bedwetting led to beatings by the staff at the Orphan's Asylum and ultimately to an attempt to correct the problem surgically by circumcision circumcision (sûr'kəmsĭzh`ən), operation to remove the foreskin covering the glans of the penis. It dates back to prehistoric times and was widespread throughout the Middle East as a religious rite before it was introduced among the at age twelve. When his incontinence persisted, it left him at odds with his placement families who had to wash the soiled linens. Brumberg explains how these problems would have been understood in the late nineteenth century and suggests how bedwetting, together with other difficulties Charley faced, may have created a youth uniquely disconnected from other people. Yet at the same time, she encounters a difficulty of historical methods. Historians may be able to understand the contexts of our subject's lives thoroughly, but our sources rarely allow us to look inside our subject's heads; her psychological analysis of Charley is not fully convincing.
This reservation aside, I like this book a lot. In addition to its scholarly merits, it is a highly readable account, one that would be useful in classrooms on an array of subjects. Furthermore, its narrative structure and inherent interest should make it highly accessible to general audiences, and it will help show readers how historical analysis can inform questions about the present.
Does this book explain why some kids kill? No, but that would be an unrealistic expectation. Moreover, Charley's own taciturn tac·i·turn
Habitually untalkative. See Synonyms at silent.
[French taciturne, from Old French, from Latin taciturnus, from tacitus, silent; see tacit. nature--which led courts and observers at the time to conclude that he felt no remorse--creates additional challenges for the scholar to explain his actions. According to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.
2. In keeping with: according to instructions.
3. his own accounts, Charley never understood why he did what he did. This book does, however, suggest a confluence confluence /con·flu·ence/ (kon´floo-ins)
1. a running together; a meeting of streams.con´fluent
2. in embryology, the flowing of cells, a component process of gastrulation. of risk factors that increased the likelihood that Charley would become violent. Furthermore this book does demonstrate how youth violence resonates in the cultures of its times. In 1890s Wyoming, calls for law and order by leading citizens generated enormous pressure on the governor to carry out Charley's execution. Similarly, in 1990s America, concerns about rampant crime have led state governments to the increasingly transfer juvenile offenders to criminal courts, and to persistently apply the death penalty to youths under age eighteen. Both then and now, this book reminds us, the judicial treatment of young offenders was less about the kids themselves than about how these kids were constructed in the larger discourses about them.
David B. Wolcott
Miami University Miami University, main campus at Oxford, Ohio; coeducational; state supported; chartered 1809, opened 1824. The library has extensive collections in literature and American history, including the William Holmes McGuffey Library and Museum and the Edgar W. , Ohio