Like every other atrocity that human beings have perpetrated against their own kind, child-snatching is undoubtedly as old as the species. We know this, among other ways, from the folktales of the world. The evil faeries who steal newborns from their cradles and leave changelings in their place; the bat-winged she-demons like Lilith and Lamia who prey on babies in the night; the demonic pipers who lure little boys and girls away from home forever–these and other such supernatural beings are nightmare projections of a primal parental fear that stretches back to time immemorial. The historical evidence, too, leaves no doubt that children have always made ripe targets for predators, who have kept them as tribal captives, sold them into slavery, or used them as sexual or sacrificial victims.
It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, however, that a shocking new form of child-snatching appeared on the scene. It was a crime that left a lasting mark on the culture, inducing such acute parental anxiety that, forever after, mothers and fathers would warn their little ones to “never take candy from a stranger.” For a half century, its victim’s name was as well known to Americans as those of Etan Patz and JonBenet Ramsey would be to a later generation. That name was Charley Ross, and his abduction was the first kidnapping for ransom in the history of the United States.
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Christian Ross, a Philadelphia dry-goods merchant who lived with his family in the suburb of Germantown, was seated at home on the afternoon of Saturday, June 27, 1874, when his five-year-old son, Walter, who had been playing outside, entered with some candy in hand. “A man in a wagon,” he explained, had given a piece to both him and his four-year-old brother, Charley. Asked if he “knew who the man was,” Walter shook his head. Questioned further, he said that neither he nor Charley had asked for the candy; the man had simply offered it to them.
“The only thought that occurred to me,” Ross later commented ruefully, “was that someone fond of children had, as an act of kindness, given the candy to the boys.” He gave have no more thought to the matter. It would be another few days before its sinister import became clear.
On Wednesday, the first of July, Mr. Ross arrived home from his store around 6:00 in the evening. His sons were nowhere to be seen. A maidservant had last seen them out on the sidewalk, playing with some friends. Assuming, as he later explained, that they “must be somewhere in the neighborhood,” Mr. Ross went about his business, feeling “no uneasiness until tea-time,” when he went outside to call for them. Receiving no response, he set off in search of them,“not a little worried, though still believing there was no serious cause for alarm.” All that changed when he spoke to a neighbor, a woman named Mary Kidder. A few hours earlier, Mrs. Kidder, looking out her open window, had noticed a wagon drawn up at the curb outside the Ross home and seen Walter and Charley talking to the driver and another man who sat beside him. When she glanced through the window shortly afterwards, she saw the wagon drive away with the two boys.
Now “greatly alarmed,” Mr. Ross was hurrying to the police station when he saw Walter coming towards him in the company of a man, who identified himself as Mr. Henry Peacock and explained that he had found the boy, crying and lost, in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Asked about Charley, Walter told a story that fully justified his father’s mounting fears. A few hours earlier, a man with a reddish moustache and eyeglasses–the same person who had given the boys candy on Saturday–drove up to the Ross house in a buggy. Seated beside him was another, older man, also wearing spectacles, and distinguished by what Walter described as a funny-looking “monkey nose.” Offering to buy the brothers firecrackers for the fourth of July, the two men helped them into the wagon and drove away, Charley squeezed between the driver and his companion, Walter seated on the second man’s knee. After a drive of some distance, the wagon came to a halt in front of a cigar store with fireworks displayed in its window. Walter was given twenty-five cents and told to go inside and buy firecrackers for himself and Charley. When he emerged from the store a short time later, the wagon was gone.
Leaving Walter in the care of a relative, Mr. Ross immediately notified the police. Unaware that a crime without precedent in U.S. history had just been perpetrated in their city, the officers assured Ross that his son had undoubtedly been taken for a ride by a pair of drunken fools, who would surely release him once they sobered up. The terrible truth became clear on July 3, when, after placing a newspaper ad offering $300 for his son’s safe return, Ross received the first of an eventual twenty-three crudely misspelled, barely literate ransom letters. “We is got him,” this one read in part, “and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand. You will hav two pay us befor you git him from us, and pay us a big cent to. If you put the cops hunting for him you is only defeeting yu own end.” The second letter, which arrived two days later, specified the amount of the “big cent” the abductors were demanding: $20,000 (roughly $400,000 in today’s dollars). “You will see yu child dead or alive,” the letter read. “If we get yu money yu see get him live if no momney get him ded.”
Police and other authorities urged Ross not to pay. Doing so would set a dangerous precedent and encourage other kidnappers; no child in the city would be safe. Ross reluctantly agreed. In the following weeks, he engaged in protracted negotiations with his son’s captors, responding to their letters via personal ads in the newspapers, playing for time while police launched a massive manhunt. Every steamship, canal boat, ferry, stagecoach, and covered wagon traveling into or out of the city was searched. Officers staked out railroad depots and public gathering places; scoured stone-quarries, abandoned factories, and vacant buildings; raided gypsy camps, brothels, and other “abodes of vice.” Eventually, they undertook the extraordinary step of conducting a house-to-house search of the entire city.
By then, the kidnapping of Little Charley Ross had gone from a local story to a nationwide sensation. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was brought in to assist with the search. More than half-a-million circulars bearing a woodcut likeness of the missing boy were distributed throughout the country, eliciting thousands of useless tips, false clues, and crackpot suggestions from spiritualists, astrologists, soothsayers, and other assorted cranks. One enterprising New York City music publisher rushed out a song with the tear-jerking title, “Bring Back Our Darling.” The sheet music, adorned with the now-familiar portrait of Little Charley Ross, quickly sold thousands of copies. P. T. Barnum, hoping to recoup his investment by exhibiting Charley in his traveling show, offered a $10,000 reward for the boy’s safe return. Supposed sightings of the missing child flooded in from every part of the United States. The entire population, so one observer remarked, seemed to have been “turned into a universal detective police,” a “massive public posse.” Even with the whole country on the lookout for Charley’s kidnappers, however, they continued to elude capture.
The first significant break in the case occurred in early August, when an informant supplied the New York City police with the names of two likely suspects, a couple of professional thieves named William Mosher and Douglass. A fruitless, five-month hunt for the pair ended in a climax worthy of a Victorian melodrama. On the night of December 13, 1874, the two reprobates were shot while burglarizing a house on Long Island. Mosher died instantly. Douglass, mortally wounded, confessed that he and his cohort had stolen Charley Ross, though he claimed not to know the child’s present whereabouts. “I have been a very wicked man,” he gasped before breathing his last. Brought to New York to view the bodies, little Walter Ross had no trouble identifying Mosher, whose deformed nose, partly eaten away by cancer, made him unmistakable.
Mosher’s brother-in-law, a former NYPD cop named William Westervelt, was ultimately tried and convicted for conspiring in the abduction but stoutly maintained his innocence to the end. Shortly before his trial, Pennsylvania became the first state to pass a law changing kidnapping from a misdemeanor into a felony.
Christian Ross would spend the rest of his life and every penny at his disposal in an obsessive search for his lost son. To help bankroll his efforts–and to keep the case before the public eye–he would write a bestselling history of the abduction. But though people claiming to be Charley Ross would continue to pop up for the next fifty years, the stolen boy’s fate would never be learned.
Harold Schechter is the author of historical true crime books and editor of an anthology of American true crime writing published by the Library of America. His book The Mad Sculptor was a 2015 Edgar nominee. His most recent book is Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men.