October 1, 2003

Kansas Charley Explores Youth Violence

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Prof. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, history, human development, gender studies and the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow, has spent 20 years studying the history of girls and female adolescence. She decided to turn to boys after the recent series of school shootings prompted questions from students about the history of male murderers.

Her research brought her to Charles Miller, the subject of her new book Kansas Charley: The Story of a Nineteenth Century Boy Murderer.

Miller’s life and 1892 hanging are the main focuses of the book, which draws parallels to current juvenile death penalty issues. Brumberg decided to focus on Miller because of his classification as an “adolescent impulse killer,” similar to the males involved with the school shootings around the nation.

Brumberg wrote about the circumstances of Miller’s childhood, growing up poor, abused and orphaned in New York City and the public response to his three-day trial and hanging at the age of 17 in Cheyenne, Wyo. for a crime he committed when he was 15.

Miller began referring to himself as “Kansas Charley” by the time he was 14, traveling the roads and living unsupervised by adults, performing odd jobs in order to survive and pursue his dream of becoming a cowboy out West.

In the book, Brumberg analyzes why Miller received the death penalty for murdering two young men in a boxcar traveling west to Wyoming, and the role his trial had on public opinion. “The prospect of seeing a blond, blue-eyed boy hang by the neck unnerved many 19th-century Americans,” Brumberg said. “Miller was more valuable dead as a symbol of order and restraint than as a lifer in the penitentiary.”

Although the book was initially written in response to the school shootings in the 1990s, in the book’s afterward Brumberg draws parallels between Miller’s case and the use of the death penalty in 2003. “Americans have an ugly history of executing poor children. In the United States, we have been killing our children for more than three centuries,” she said.

The book’s publication coincides with the upcoming trial of another adolescent male murderer, that of Lee Boyd Malvo, the sole accomplice in the Washington-area sniper shootings of 2002. “My retelling of Charley’s story at this point in time is intended to remind us that the continued use of the juvenile death penalty is a particularly vicious kind of racial and social class discrimination against the erring sons of the dispossessed. Charley’s case mocks the canonical idea that we provide equal, disinterested treatment before the law,” Brumberg said.

Brumberg described two general reasons why she thinks that the juvenile death penalty should be abolished, “whether we should continue to be one of only four industrialized nations to use the juvenile death penalty,” she said. One reason is based on behavioral sciences research which shows the relatively unstable decision-making capacities of adolescents, similar to the abilities of the mentally retarded; the other cites the prevalence of the death penalty among poor, non-white, “throw-away kids” with few resources.


Brumberg has won numerous prizes for her other books, which include Fasting Girls and The Body Project. She embarked Monday on a national book tour which will be followed by a lecture at Cornell on Nov. 6, kicking off a two-day symposium for undergraduates entitled “Rethinking the Criminalization of Youth.”

Other speakers at the event, which will “examine the problem of youth violence and the history and current use of the juvenile death penalty,” include former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ’60.

Archived article by Aliza Wasserman