Kansas Charley Summary
by Joan Jacobs Brumberg

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Kansas Charley

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

On April 20, 1892, Sheriff Kelley of Cheyenne, Wyoming, sent out “gilt-edged” invitations to the hanging of Charles Miller (aka “Kansas Charley”) on April 22 at 11 a.m. at the county courthouse. Kansas Charley, born Karl Muller, began his sad life on November 20, 1874, in a dark Manhattan tenement crowded with German and Irish immigrant families.

Charley’s mother died when he was five, and following his father’s suicide not long afterwards, Charley was put with his two brothers and a sister in the New York Orphan Asylum. From then on the siblings generally did well, traveling west on the orphan trains to live with decent families. Charley never adjusted. Besides having a somewhat romantic temperament, he was cursed by enuresis (incontinence), a distressing condition that humiliated him and made settling in with surrogate parents virtually impossible.

Always hungry and longing for decent clothes, Charley took to hopping freights. In September, 1890, he found himself in a Union Pacific freight car full of lumber with two middle-class boys out for adventure, Waldo Emerson and Ross Fishbaugh. With no real explanation ever given for his actions, Charley shot both young men in their sleep and left the train in Hillsdale, Wyoming. Disturbed by what he had done, Charley confessed to his brother Fred in Kansas and turned himself in to the police.

The trial was controversial, complicated by political and feminist interventions. Author and professor Joan Jacobs Brumberg lays out these issues clearly and pleads for a more enlightened treatment of juvenile offenders in the contemporary court system.