It was July 1, 1874 when four-year-old Charley Ross played with his brother, Walter, in their front yard for the last time. Though their mother and eldest siblings were away, the boys were surrounded by an array of familiar faces—a pair of caretakers, a cook, a gardener, and two of their sisters. But it was the arrival of two other familiar faces that turned their playtime into an infamous 20th-century crime scene.
When a horse and buggy approached the Ross’ Philadelphia home, Charley and Walter recognized its two male passengers. The men had given them candy the week before (much to their father’s dismay), then made a second appearance near the local school. At this point, Charley and Walter hardly considered them strangers. They eagerly accepted the men’s offer for a trip to the fireworks store and hopped aboard the buggy. No one noticed.
While Walter went into the store to purchase firecrackers, the carriage suddenly left without him—but with Charley still inside. The boys’ father, Christian K. Ross, reported the incident to the police, though there seemed to be little hope that his son would ever be found.
A break in the case came two days later when the Ross family received the first of many ransom notes. The demands grew increasingly bizarre as time passed, but they all asked for roughly the same thing—zero police involvement and $20,000.
It was an impossible sum of money: Despite the size of the Ross' house and the success of Christian’s small business, the family was still recovering from a stock market crash ten years earlier. Unable to afford the kidnappers’ ransom, Christian saw no other option but to continue collaborating with the police and praying for new leads.
The longer Charley remained missing, the bigger the case became. A media frenzy spread across the entire country: People wrote songs, Christian published a book, and Pinkerton detectives eventually joined the nationwide manhunt. Until the Lindbergh baby's abduction in 1932, it was the only kidnapping for ransom to ever receive such widespread U.S. attention. But unlike baby Lindbergh, Charley Ross was never found.
Author Norman Zierold recounts this landmark American crime in Little Charley Ross. The following excerpt includes one of the ransom notes and details the extensive efforts to bring Charley home.
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