The child-snatchers

The child-snatchers

Playing to our insecurities both as children and parents, kidnapping remains a rare but particularly scary crims, writes Nell Darby

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history


Child kidnapping, for a ransom, is luckily a relatively unusual occurrence. However, there have been particular cases that have remained in the public consciousness, as a kind of horror story to scare others with long after they have taken place. The most notable historic cases of child kidnapping have been in America. In what is regarded as the first high-profile American kidnapping case that involved both a ransom and extensive press coverage, the victim was never found. Today, it remains a high-profile unsolved case.

Charley Ross
Charley Ross, who was kidnapped in Philadelphia: his case is said to have led to the saying ‘never take candy from strangers’

It was a summer’s day in 1874, 1 July, and two little boys were playing in their front yard. Charles Ross, known as Charley, was four years old, and his brother Walter was a year his senior. They lived in Germantown, a prosperous part of Philadelphia, with their parents, Christian Ross and Sarah, and their siblings – Augusta, Henry, Sophia, Marian and Anne.

As they were playing, a horse-drawn carriage drew up by the yard, and the boys saw two men looking at them from it. ‘Would you like to take a ride with us?’ one of them asked. ‘We’ll give you some candy and fireworks if you do.’ Sweets and toys? It was an irresistible offer for two children, and they excitedly got into the carriage. The horses drew off, and the carriage made its way through the city until they reached a particular store. Walter was given 25 cents and told to go in and buy some fireworks – but when he went into the store, the carriage drew off again, with Charley still inside, and he was never seen again.

Charley Ross’s kidnapping resulted in press attention
Charley Ross’s kidnapping resulted in press attention not just in the US, but in Britain. Three years after he was taken, there were rumours he had been ‘found’ in Loughton, Essex

It seemed such an innocuous occurrence in more innocent times. However, why would one brother be taken and the other left? And was this a chance event, or had the family been targeted? The answer appeared to come when notes started arriving for Charley’s brother Christian. These were semi-literate, badly spelled notes posted from various post offices, requesting that a ransom of $20,000 be paid – and threats were made against Charley’s life if his father refused to pay. The kidnappers had apparently chosen Charley deliberately, believing that the Ross family was rich because they had a large house, and Christian owned a dry goods shop. What they didn’t know was that the stock market crash the year before had ruined Christian’s finances, leaving him heavily in debt. He could not have paid the ransom; and instead, he went straight to the police.

Press coverage of the case was intense, and it attracted many people wanting to help. The famous Pinkerton’s detective agency – formed in Chicago around 20 years earlier – got involved, printing flyers and posters to further publicise the case. Others made efforts to pay the ransom, only to find that the kidnappers never turned up to take the money. Finally, the ransom notes also stopped.

Germantown, Philadelphia
A historic depiction of Germantown, Philadelphia, the affluent area where the Ross family lived

Five months later, a judge’s house in Brooklyn, New York, was burgled, and the burglars were caught in the act; one man was killed instantly, while the other died a few hours later. These men were Bill Mosher and Joe Douglas; Joe survived long enough to allegedly admit that the two men had been responsible for kidnapping Charley Ross. Whether Charley was alive or dead was left hanging. Horribly, after the men’s death, little Walter Ross, who must have been traumatised by the loss of his little brother, was taken to view the burglars’ bodies, to see if he recognised them. He was sure that they were his brother’s kidnappers – Bill Mosher had a nose deformed by syphilis or cancer, and Walter had previously described it as a ‘monkey nose’. Now, he saw that same nose again.

kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jransom noteCharles Lindbergh Jr
From left: A contemporary poster after the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr; the ransom note for him; and the boy himself, just two weeks before he was kidnapped

Unfortunately, the men Walter had identified were dead – they would not be able to say where Charley was. It looked like the story had reached a dead end, and despite Christian writing a book about his son two years later, and giving lectures about the case, press and public interest naturally ebbed, although it remained a cause celèbre. Christian died in 1897, and his wife in 1912, still none the wiser as to what had happened to their son; six years after his kidnapping, they had still listed him on the US census as a now ten-year-old boy, clearly showing how they still hoped he was alive, and how he was still very much part of their family (he was, sadly, not the only child they lost; their youngest child, Winslow, born six years after his brother’s disappearance, died at six months old).

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Charles Lindbergh had to testify
Charles Lindbergh had to testify at the 1935 trial of the man accused of killing his baby son

This was the first high-profile child-kidnapping case conducted for a ransom in the US, but it wouldn’t be the last. Edward Cudahy Jr, the son of a wealthy packing company owner, was kidnapped in Nebraska in 1900, when he was 16. His kidnappers sent a note to his father demanding $25,000 and referring to the Charley Ross case. In this case, however, Edward’s father paid the ransom, and his son was released unharmed. Interestingly, the press took against Edward Cudahy Sr for paying the money, calling him a bad citizen, and suggesting that he was blasé about paying such a large sum, as though it was pocket money to him. In 1927, a 12-year-old Californian, Marion Parker, was kidnapped from her school by a man posing as a colleague of her father, a banker. He sent a series of ransom notes to her parents, asking for the relatively small amount of $1,500.

 Edward Cudahy Jr
Edward Cudahy Jr, whose kidnappers in 1900 referred to the Charley Ross case

When Marion’s father, Perry, went to pay the ransom, he thought he could see his daughter sitting in the car with her kidnapper; but after handing the money over, the abductor, William Hickman, pushed her out of the car. What Perry found when he reached her was the body of his daughter, who had been killed and mutilated some 12 hours earlier. The brutality of this crime, and the horror of her father being the first to see the murdered child, ensured that it would be remembered years later; it also emerged that the kidnapper was a bitter former employee of Perry Parker, and that Parker had been responsible for Hickman’s earlier arrest and conviction for forgery, which he had undergone time in prison for. Hickman was hanged the following year for Marion’s murder.

In 1932 came the most infamous of all the cases – the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr, the toddler son of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. This was a particularly audacious crime, as the child was abducted from his own cot in the Lindbergh family home in New Jersey. A ransom note was found on the windowsill, demanding $50,000 in an assortment of notes. The status of the Lindberghs meant that the case got a huge amount of publicity, with the president, Herbert Hoover, being notified. Further ransom notes were sent; the Lindberghs offered a reward for information – but despite a ransom being paid, there was no happy ending. Two months after he had been abducted, the body of Charles Lindbergh Jr was discovered by a truck driver less than five miles from the Lindberghs’ home. He had been murdered, killed by a blow to the head that had fractured his skull. German immigrant Richard Hauptmann was later found guilty of the kidnapping, and executed, despite the evidence against him being circumstantial.

These cases share a common theme: that of the desire for money, and the recognition that parents will do anything to try and guarantee the safety of their children. It is a particularly cruel crime, one that exploits parental love, and shows how individuals can become so warped by their jealousy of those they see as being wealthy that they will commit horrific crimes on those too young to fight back. In the case of Charley Ross, he and his brother Walter were very young and still innocent, trusting two men and believing that they were going to be bought treats. In Marion Parker’s case, both she and the staff at her school trusted a man who had worked with her father, and who told a plausible story to get her to leave with him. And in Charles Lindbergh’s case, the fame of the father was enough to motivate someone to kidnap and kill a 20-month-old child from what should have been the safety of his own bedroom and his own cot. Kidnapping a child for money is a relatively rare occurrence, and because of this, and the particular horror of this crime to parents and non-parents alike, it remains one that always catches the public’s attention.

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