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The Kidnapping of Charley Ross

by Doug MacGowan

American crime lore has made the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., the most infamous of kidnappings for ransom in history. But it was not the first. The first kidnapping linked to ransom demands is most likely the July 1874 disappearance of 4-year-old Charley Ross from Philadelphia. If not the first, it definitely was the first to be widely known via newspapers across the country.

charley ross

1924 Newspaper article about the kidnapping of Charley Ross 50 years earlier. Credit: NYT.

Kidnapping of Charley Ross

On July 1, 1874, Charley and his 5-year-old brother Walter were playing in the front yard of their father’s upscale home in Germantown, an affluent neighborhood in Philadelphia. Two men in a buggy pulled up beside the boys and asked them if they wanted to go buy some fireworks for the Independence Day holiday. Sources differ on whether or not the children knew the men or if they were total strangers. Regardless, Walter and Charley climbed into the buggy which then rambled through the streets into areas the two boys had never visited before. Eventually, they stopped in front of a shop and the two men gave Walter 25 cents to go into a nearby store and buy fireworks. Walter got out of the buggy and it sped away with Charley Ross still inside.

The Boy in the Box: America’s Unknown Child

The boys’ father Christian knew nothing about the kidnapping until told by a neighbor—who stated she had seen both boys in a buggy driven by two men she had never seen before. Christian panicked as Walter and Charley remained missing. But he decided not to alert his wife, who was temporarily staying in Atlantic City. And she did remain ignorant of the crime until she read a newspaper advertisement pleading for information about the missing boys.

Walter’s Return

Everyone felt some hope when Walter returned to his home sometime after his disappearance. How he survived and where he was during his absence is no longer known, presuming Walter knew and related the information. But the hope Walter brought vanished when he related the tale of the two men and told his parents that he had no idea where Charley was.

On the 3rd, Christian received a badly spelled ransom demand:

“Mr. Ross- be not uneasy you son charly bruster he al writ we as got him and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand. You wil hav two pay us befor you git him from us. an pay us a big cent to. if you put the cops hunting for him yu is only defeeting yu own end. we is got him fitt so no living power can gits him from us a live. if any aproch is maid to his hidin place that is the signil for his instant anihilation. if yu regard his lif puts no one to search for him you money can fech him out alive an no other existin powers don’t deceve yuself and think the detectives can git him from us for that is one imposebel yu here from us in few day.”

Regardless of the threat within the note, Christian contacted the police for help in getting his son back. Another letter, still written by an almost illiterate author, arrived a few days later and spelled out that they needed to be paid $20,000 for the safe return of Charley Ross.

Dead End

Despite tireless efforts by police and the Ross family, a deal with the kidnappers never happened and soon all possible clues led nowhere.

As 1875 approached, the police got a possible lead in the case on December 13th. Two men were interrupted while breaking into a Brooklyn home and in the confusion, one was shot dead and the other fatally wounded—expiring a few hours after the shooting. Before he died, though, the survivor said that he and his now-dead partner had stolen Charley Ross, although he had no idea where Charley was now.

The police tried to use the thief’s scant clues to track Charley down, but it was to no avail.

The populace eventually lost interest in the case, although two maestros would pen songs, “Bring Back Our Darling” and “I Want To See Mamma Once More,” about the case.

Christian went on for 23 years trying to bring Charley or his body back home. When he died in 1897, he was no closer to a solution than the day Charley disappeared.

As time passed, boys and men of the appropriate ages would claim to be Charley Ross wanting to become a part of the wealthy Ross family.

None were successful, leaving the first U.S. ransom-driven kidnapping case unsolved to this day.

The Lineup , pulled 5/4/17.
Historic Germantown , pulled 5/4/17.
Crime Museum website, pulled 5/4/17.

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