Charles Miller, AKA Kansas Charley

By Kaily Carson

Content Warning: suicide, murder

At the National Orphan Train Complex, visitors will occasionally question the ratio of “good” to “bad” placement stories. We are able to document that the placing statistics for Orphan Train Riders closely mirror the statistics of the current foster care system. One out of every five children who rode the Orphan Train probably had a less than ideal placement. This could have involved anything from being overworked to all types of mistreatment. The placing agency and any local citizen involved in the placements (Children’s Aid Society local committee or the local Catholic priest) had the responsibility to keep an eye on these Riders and intervene in their welfare if necessary. Obviously, that was easier said than done. One Rider in particular, that many on our board were actually acquainted with as an adult, talked about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her new “mother.” However, she hoped that when people heard her story, they would focus more on the adult she became: a good wife, mother, and citizen of her community.

Now, for one of the more notorious “bad” stories: “Kansas Charley” Miller. He was born Karl or Charles Miller on November 20, 1874 in a Manhattan, New York tenement, to Frederick and Marie Elise Miller. His parents were German and Irish immigrants, and the family spoke German. Charley had two older siblings: Caroline and Fred. The family later added another son, William. After their mother’s death, Charley’s father tried to keep the family together, but could not find work and began drinking heavily. After his father committed suicide, the children were taken to the Children’s Aid Society. Charley was only six years old.

 According to a book published in 2003 by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, “Kansas Charley”, Charles Miller was first placed out in Princess Ann County, Virginia, by the Children’s Aid Society. This placement expected a great deal of labor from the twelve-year-old boy and lasted less than six months. Not only did he have no experience doing such work, he also was not interested in doing such work.

After time back in New York, Charley rode an Orphan Train to St. Charles, Minnesota, accompanied by Agent Charles R. Fry.  Charley was small for his age with blue eyes and fair hair. The farm family of William and Nancy Booth, whose birth children were now adults, did not want to continue to pay hired hands to help with the farm labor. Charley was to provide this service for room and board. Of course, he had little to no experience working with the land and raising crops. Another reason why placements for Charley were doomed before they had a chance at success was his “disease.” Charley was a long-term bed wetter. Many remedies had been administered during his time at the CAS, some very cruel, with no success. These treatments only served to crush the psyche of the young boy.

Charley ran away from the Booth farm and worked for another area farmer, who provided adequately for the boy’s physical needs. Eventually, he received word from the CAS that he should join his older brother Fred, a Rider to Leonardville, Kansas, on the Preston Loofbourrow farm. Later, Charley’s brother William was also sent for by the Loofbourrow family. By the time Charley turned 14, he was sent to live with friends of the Loofbourrows, James and Mary Elizabeth Colt in Randolph, Kansas. If you have been counting, this is the fifth family for Charley in less than 2 years. His adolescent mind dreamed about having things he saw in advertisements and from seeing more well-to-do citizens in the community. But the Colt family did not wish to provide nice clothing; they were looking for additional labor for their printing business, and once again, Charley ran away. It was about this time that Charley tagged himself “Kansas Charley.”

Charley tramped across the Midwest on the railroad, visiting cities like Omaha, Des Moines, and Chicago. He picked up the lingo from other tramps, earned a bit of money doing odd jobs, and in general, enjoyed his newly acquired lifestyle. Charley intended to go back to Rochester, New York, where his sister was well situated working as a domestic. He took work as a deckhand on a freighter headed for Rochester. His sister Caroline and her employers tried to help Charley when he appeared on their doorstep. He found work and was able to participate in the lower fringes of society, and pleased to clothe himself decently by his standards. He turned 15 and when the wanderlust overtook him, he headed west to become a cowboy. He became fully engaged in thievery to make his way across the country, spending time in the Holmesburg, Pennsylvania, House of Corrections. His six-week term of incarceration exposed him to hardened criminals who shared violent stories of life on the streets. Tramping from Pittsburgh to Kansas City, Charley was brutalized by a group of tramps. This contributed to Charley’s angst about his ever present “disease” and led to him becoming paranoid about protecting himself. He bought a gun in a pawnshop for $1.25, more than half of what he had ever made in one week’s wages. He rummaged through trash bins and ate from kitchen scraps at hotels. He periodically wrote letters to his brother, Fred and sister, Caroline.  He was on the run, hungry, and armed.

When Charley arrived in Omaha, he heard about jobs for cowboys in Wyoming. His plan was to hop a Union Pacific train and head to Wyoming to find work. The box car he found himself traveling in was occupied by two young men of modest means, Waldo Emerson and Ross Fishbaugh from St. Joseph, Missouri. They had purchased new clothes for their adventure, had some cash in their pockets, and were also armed. Emerson also carried a handsome silver pocket watch. Neither had any qualms about flaunting their position over the young tramp.

In Sidney, Nebraska, the two young gentlemen wished to be separated from the poorly dressed, ill-kept Charley. They were spending cash freely, enjoying food and strong drink, while Charley was left to sift through trash and beg for nourishment. By complete coincidence, the three travelers found themselves together again in the same boxcar. The vibe among the three was now more tense than when they first met, mostly on Charley’s end. The young gentlemen had dismissed him completely. Somewhere between Pine Bluff and Hillsdale, Wyoming, a starving,  inebriated, and smoldering Charley Miller took the lives of the two young gentlemen. He stole a knife and the pocket watch from Emerson. From Fishbaugh he took forty-five paper dollars, two silver dollars, a knife, and a .38 revolver. Charley left behind his own .32. Today doctors and psychologists study the effects of home life and health on a growing child; back then, the child was simply considered “bad.”

Charley immediately headed into Hillsdale. He did not know the bodies had been quickly discovered, with Fishbaugh still alive. When that train arrived in Cheyenne, the boxcar murder was the story of the day. Fishbaugh never recovered and the local authorities began the job of trying to determine how and why the men had been killed. Papers on the bodies led to quick notification of the families in St. Joe. Charley arrived on a passenger train to Cheyenne just hours after the train carrying the dead men. He ate, bought a new shirt, had his hair cut, and found a new friend with whom to spend time drinking. He hired on with some sheepherders, but four days later had made it back to Leonardville, Kansas and his brother Fred.

During the course of the next few days, all the papers carried the story of the murders along with wild speculations about who could have committed the crimes. During a time of great anguish, Charley confessed to Fred that he was the guilty party. Fred’s foster father assisted him in traveling to Manhattan, Kansas, to turn himself in to authorities. Much discussion ensued about the age of the accused murderer, his circumstances, and how society might be affected. After a three- day trial in Wyoming, Charley Miller, Orphan Train Rider and 19th century boy murderer, was sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out April 23, 1892. Charley’s adolescent and still developing brain was only 18 years old.