Candy From Strangers: First U.S. Kidnapping for Ransom

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On July 1, 1874, way before Amber alerts and the open acknowledgment of child trafficking, a four-year-old boy named Charley Ross from Germantown, PA, had the tragic distinction of being the first kidnapping victim held for ransom in United States history. Two strange men coaxed him and his eight-year-old brother, Walter, into their wagon with promises of candy (it’s purported that this is where the expression “don’t take candy from strangers” originated.) They sent the older brother into a store, and when he emerged, the wagon, the two men, and his little brother were gone, never to be seen again.

Christian Ross thought his boys were outside playing in a neighbor’s yard. Luckily, a stranger returned his older son Walter to him. The tale Walter told his father made all the blood drain from his face. He immediately contacted the police, who told him drunks had probably taken the kid as a lark and would return him once they sobered up. (Can you imagine telling a frantic parent this as consolation?)

Speaking of epic insensitivity, Ross didn’t deign to share this news with his wife, who was in Atlantic City at the time of the abduction. She discovered her baby had been stolen when she happened upon a newspaper ad pleading for Charley’s safe return.

On July 3, two days after the abduction, Ross received a letter saying that his son Charley would be returned for a sum of money. Then on July 7, another letter arrived demanding $20,000, along with instructions for paying the kidnappers. The police advised Ross not to pay, believing it would set a dangerous precedent for any future kidnapping cases (easy for them to say when it’s not their child, huh?) Since this was completely uncharted territory (kidnapping wasn’t even a crime in Pennsylvania at the time — this was very quickly remedied) Ross agreed.

Walter was able to identify both of the abductors, so the police knew fairly quickly who they were looking for — two common crooks named William Mosher and Joseph Douglas. They seemingly vanished after abducting the younger Ross child. Christian Ross maintained communication with them through newspaper ads and letters, hoping to string them along with vague promises of cash until he could get his son back.

Mosher and Douglas were both shot to death during the commission of a robbery in December of 1874. Douglas confessed to kidnapping Charley Ross as he lay dying, though he said he didn’t know the child’s whereabouts. He claimed Mosher did, but Mosher had already died. Walter Ross was asked to identify the two men in the morgue as the abductors, which he did.

Christian Ross searched for his son Charley all over the United States, and elsewhere, for the rest of his life. He started issuing certificates to brown-eyed blonde males so he could prove they’d been checked once previously. Despite all his efforts, and those of his wife and son Walter after his death, Charley was lost forever.

The Ross ransom letters went up for auction on November 14, 2013. The winner paid 20,000 for the letters, ironically the same sum as the ransom demanded in the letter of July 7, 1874.

is a news junkie and history buff randomly alternating between bouts of crankiness and amusement during the Apocalypse. Come along!

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