Kansas Charley was buried in the Potter’s Field in Cheyenne, a section of the Lakeview Cemetery set aside for burying the poor. (Charles Fournier/The Modern West Podcast)

Charley Miller was a hobo, riding a train to Wyoming and hoping to become a cowboy, like a hero in one of the Western novels he liked to read. He called himself “Kansas Charley” and no doubt wanted to escape what was an undeniably miserable life.

Opinion

But that dream soon evaporated. When Charley climbed out of a boxcar east of Cheyenne, he left behind two young men he had killed as they slept.

The year was 1890, and Wyoming had celebrated statehood only a few months before. Kansas Charley became a wanted man almost as soon as he stepped foot on Cowboy State soil.

Charley was 15 years old. Less than two years later, he became the first person executed by the state of Wyoming.

I never knew Charley existed until I heard the recent episode of “The Modern West” podcast, produced by Wyoming Public Media and PRX. The episode called “Stranger on the Side of the Road” is the first of the three-part “Cowboy Up” series. 

WyoFile’s new State Government Editor Tennessee Watson, a former Wyoming Public Radio reporter, details Charley’s life in her excellent exploration of the state’s juvenile justice system. As a former New York City teacher, Watson says she knows how troubled kids can fall through the cracks in huge cities.

“I thought Wyoming, with its can-do neighborly spirit, might be different,” she says. “But it turns out kids really aren’t better taken care of here. Rather than troubled kids getting help, they’re incarcerated, or worse, they take their own lives at rates well above the national average.”

“Stranger on the side of the road” is episode one in the three-part “Cowboy Up” series from the Modern West Podcast (Eda Uzunlar/The Modern West Podcast)

Watson explores other Wyoming youth crimes, including the 1982 murder of a Native American hitch-hiker by 17-year-old Donald Davis and another teen. 

Davis slit the throat of the victim, whom the teens also robbed, and he’s still in the Wyoming State Penitentiary, hoping to eventually be paroled. Because of new policy on brain development and trauma when sentencing juvenile offenders, his case may set a legal precedent in Wyoming.

But thanks to Watson, my mind is stuck in the 1890s, wondering how Wyoming could possibly execute a 17-year-old boy. I’m a sucker for courtroom dramas from any era, and while Charley callously took two lives, he was also a victim. He never had much of a chance at a decent life.

Charley was born in New York City in 1874. When he was 5, his mother died of an infection, and a year later his alcoholic father committed suicide. Charley and his three siblings were placed in an orphanage. 

While his sister and two brothers were quickly adopted, Charley was a chronic bedwetter whom no one wanted. He was sent on an “orphan train” to live on a farm with a Minnesota couple.

But once his bedwetting was discovered, they whipped the boy. At 13, he was dropped off at the depot without food, money or even a train ticket.

The boy rode the rails with other tramps, working wherever he could. In Omaha, Charley was gang-raped in a boxcar by older men; he bought a pistol for protection.

Charley eventually met two young men who were also traveling West for adventure. When later questioned about why he shot and then robbed them, he explained that he was drunk, hungry and poor.

Whatever the reason, Charley couldn’t live with the guilt. After a few days in Cheyenne he traveled to Kansas, where he confessed his crime to his brothers. Their adopted father took him to the nearest sheriff to repeat his story, and he did so with remorse.

The sheriff sat Charley down in his parlor and brought in a newspaper editor, who listened to the teen’s tale without telling him it would be published. The shocking account was subsequently picked up by papers from New York City to San Francisco. When it was splashed on the front pages of Cheyenne’s dailies, readers — and potential jurors — knew he’d confessed before he was returned to Wyoming.

Charged with first-degree murder, Charley was given a public defender who had never worked on a capital case. Heck, Frank Taggart wasn’t even admitted to the Wyoming bar, and he was going up against experienced prosecutor Walter Stoll.

Charley pleaded not guilty. Stoll’s witnesses included the victims’ parents. They testified about the saintly behavior of their boys, who had the misfortune to encounter a drunken demon named Kansas Charley.

With the prosecutor laying out a damning case, Taggart had his client take the stand. There was no mention of Charley’s previous trauma or the fact that he had turned himself in. 

Taggart asked Charley about the train trip, and he recalled meeting “these two young fellows.” His lawyer asked who they were, and Charley calmly said, “The ones that I killed.”

Dime novels like “Deadwood Dick” inspired Charles Miller to take the name Kansas Charley, and to head further west to Wyoming. (Johannsen Collection/Rare Books and Special Collections, Northern Illinois University.)

So much for any lingering “reasonable doubt” that Charley did it. The next day, Taggart changed his strategy to try to prove his client was legally insane. He coaxed Charley to admit that he masturbated up to four times a day. (More than a century ago, some doctors attributed many medical maladies to masturbation.)

Charley’s all-male jury wasn’t swayed. After his conviction, he was sentenced to death.

In addition to his pathetic defense, what amazes me is the trial’s extensive press coverage, which led to a national debate about the severity of his sentence. Many believed state-sanctioned killing of a teen wasn’t justified, even in the wild-and-wooly West. 

It wasn’t a universal feeling. “He is utterly lacking in moral responsibility,” one writer claimed in a letter to the editor of a Cheyenne paper. “Remorse has never visited him for the murder of his innocent and defenseless victims.”

But there was also a petition asking the governor to reduce or commute Charley’s sentence. “Oh, don’t you think he is too young to have such a dreadful fate?” stated a Missouri letter-writer. “I know the crime was awful. But this poor boy was wholly blind to the crime and his own poor soul’s condition.”

Unmoved, Acting Gov. Amos Barber let the sentence stand. On April 22, 1892, 17-year-old Charley died by hanging outside the Laramie County Courthouse.

Unlike Tom Horn, the most infamous killer in Wyoming’s early years, Charley Miller’s legacy wasn’t kept alive in a string of books, movies and TV shows.What we know about him today is largely based on the exhaustive research of Joan Jacobs Brumberg, who wrote “Kansas Charley: The Story of a 19th-Century Boy Murderer.”

It’s an excellent read. Brumberg shows how cattle barons who controlled Wyoming politics overpowered those who advocated for leniency. By hanging the young murderer, the newest state’s motto might as well have been “No Mercy.”

Charley would not be executed today. But it took more than a century after he was laid to rest in a pauper’s grave for Wyoming to ban capital punishment for offenders under 18 at the time of their crimes. 

Watson’s reporting shines an important light on a piece of Wyoming history that has been overlooked, but deserves our attention today. 

“You’d think we would have looked at why Charley did what he did, and how we could have helped him. But have we?” the journalist asks Lauren McLane, a University of Wyoming law professor. Her answer is stunning, and should provoke a new statewide conversation.

“I mean, 2021 in Wyoming for juvenile justice is 1892,” McLane says. “We’re still right where we started, in my mind.”

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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