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Before the Lindbergh Kidnapping, There Was the Abduction of Charley Ross

The four-year-old's 1874 disappearance was America’s first widely publicized kidnapping for ransom.


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. 

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  • One result of the media frenzy: "Bring Back Our Darling," a popular song composed in Charley's honor.

    Photo Credit: Find A Grave

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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 Defy All the Devils (formerly titled Little Charley Ross). The following excerpt includes one of the ransom notes and details the extensive efforts to bring Charley home.

Read on for an excerpt of Defy All the Devils, and then download the book. 




Defy All the Devils

By Norman Zierold

The Herald had pointed out disturbing facts which could not be wished away. Despite the efforts of a police force of eight hundred men, criminals were defying the law with impunity. They were using the public mails to set their terms. Not one clue had they dropped. Not one blunder had they committed. More than two weeks after the crime, the police were no better off than on the day of the abduction. Horse and buggy had disappeared as completely as rain that sinks into the earth. Of the abductors and their young prey there was not a trace of a trace. The leader of the criminals, it was clear, was a man of cunning and skill, a mastermind at work.

The mastermind left his victims hanging through the fourteenth, when the personal he had asked for appeared in the Public Ledger. When no reply arrived, the authorities repeated the same personal in the Ledger columns of July 15. Once again the day passed without word. Not until Thursday, July 16, was there an answer. Letter number six, the first not deposited in the main post office, had been dropped into a letter box on Delaware Avenue near Spruce Street.

Related:  7 Chilling Books About Real-Life Kidnappings

Phila., July 16—Ros: the reason we did not respond to yu answer was we had to go a bit out in the country an the blasted old orse give out so we could not get back in time. We went as much as anything to se how Charley was. Yu have our word that he is yet safe—in health an no harm done him thoug he is uneasy to get home with Walter. he is afraid he won’t get home in time to go to Atlantic City with his mother when Sofy comes back. Ros, yu understand the condition the money was to be given us. We wold glady give yu Charley befor we got the mony but that wold be imposible under the existing circumstances. Yu must satisfy yuself that yu wil get him after we git the mony an find it corect and no sly marks put on the notes. We told yu we wold place him in yu hands in 5 ours after we fond the mony corect but that we can not do but our word for it that yu shall have him insid of 10 ours an may our blasted sols be eternaly damed if we do not keep our word with yu—as we said befor after we gits the mony we have no further use for the child but we have a big object in restoring him to yu safe and sound. We shall be redy we think by Saturday to efect a change with yu (the child for the mony). Ros—we want to impres upon yu mind the grate danger in efecting this change—the danger lies intirely with yuself if yu wish to make a change an absolute certainty yu must comply in every particular as we instruct yu then a failure is imposible. the first place, yu must not let the detectives no how yu are to setle this bisiness (not that we fear them at all) in aresting one of us for as we told yu that is imposible—but they wil secretly interfear in this bisiness in some underhanded way to prevent the mony from findin its way to us—we are going to deal with yu alone an yu only, an if yu call in any others to give you a counter advice from ours then yu mistake wil be yu own misfortune. let yu friends advise yu and not the detectives they study their own interest an the interest of society. yu have a duty to perform to yuself that stands paramount to all else in the world an if yu ever expect to regain yu child a live, yu alone with the advice of yu friends must perform it. we wil give you this much incite into our bisiness—that if any arest is made it wil be an inocent person who wil be ignorant of the part he is actin. but it is imaterial with us wether it be an inocent person or one of our own party the moment any arest is made or any clandestine movements in transmiting this mony to us it will be conclusive evidence with us that yu have broken yu faith with us an that our we pledge our selves befor all the gods in the universe if there be an god exist that yu child shal die an we wil give yu an oculd prof of it an then all further business with us ceases. (yu have answered al that is necesary at present. we have yu word for it.) we want yu to nail this mony up in a smal strong ruf box an have it were yu can git it at a minutes notice. mark on it (Drugs for H H H.)
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  • A sketch of four-year-old Charley.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The letter displayed again the writer’s uncanny ability to put himself in Ross’s shoes. He should let his friends advise him and not the detectives, who followed their own interest and that of society, said the text, summing up with remarkable accuracy the father’s dilemma. As matters appeared to be drawing to a perilous close, he dismissed any doubts he might have had about the writers’ possession of the boy. They spoke of little Charley’s anxiety about being home in time to go to join his mother in Atlantic City, a family matter which only he could have brought to their attention. Apparently the abductors had separated themselves from the boy, putting him in the care of others, and at some distance. Apparently, too, they were able to travel about the countryside without danger of detection. The hopelessness of the situation was stifling. And now Ross was left to wait.

When the terms of the delivery leaked to the public—the public offered advice, which was duly reported in the papers. A farsighted Connecticut pedagogue said the ransom notes should be marked, and after delivery every grocery store and banker’s counter in the land should be carefully watched. Another amateur sleuth suggested turning over counterfeit notes in the ransom box.

The authorities prepared a box with the designated markings, DRUGS FOR H. H. H., but apart from this decoy, police and the public committee devised ways to trap the criminals. Their intention was to allow the box, filled with counterfeit bills, to be taken and then to follow the caller and arrest those with whom he established contact, this despite the fact that the letter clearly said such deception would lead to the arrest of innocent third parties and to the certain death of the child—on the other hand, the criminals had sworn that compliance with their plan of exchange would deliver the boy within ten hours into the hands of his family.

The scene now was a page torn from classical tragedy. On a man and his wife a terrifying choice had been thrust. Would they risk the life of their child for the common weal? With aching hearts Christian and Sarah Ross answered yes. On Friday evening, July 17, after the children had been put to bed, officers secreted themselves in the Ross house and took their positions. A terrifying silence pervaded the atmosphere. Having made their painful decision, the courageous father and mother waited. At midnight a pounding at the door roused them from their restless vigil. Signaling to the officers, Ross went slowly forth while Mrs. Ross, trembling, stood at the head of the stairs. Ross flung open the door. Two strangers appeared, come to give him information they thought might lead to the recovery of the boy. The information was useless.

Related: The Chilling Disappearance of Brianna Maitland

So the harrowing watch continued. Saturday, the day designated for the exchange, passed with agonizing slowness for the Ross household on Washington Lane. A few days earlier a New Jersey paper had printed startling news that the lost boy had been found on a Jersey ferryboat. Now, as Philadelphia journals repeated the story, friends of Mrs. Ross rushed to her house to embrace and congratulate her, but that weary, worn woman had already learned that the rumor was false. Another rumor, that the abductors were captured and locked in the Town Hall in Germantown, likewise turned out to be unfounded.

The previous afternoon, while Ross paid a brief visit to his neglected store, a group of spiritualists came to Washington Lane and persuaded Mrs. Ross that they had inside knowledge of the boy’s whereabouts. With her permission they saddled a pair of horses from the Ross stable and rode off, saying they would bring back little Charley. At the store Ross received his wife’s wire: COME HOME QUICKLY; GOOD NEWS, and rushed back to the house. The spiritualists had already returned empty-handed, the tired horses panting. The episode, along with the rumor, provided additional Saturday morning reading for Philadelphians.

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Mayor Stokley, who had suffered a slight attack of vertigo during the week, nonetheless returned to the city from his Long Branch retreat to follow the case more closely. One of the first things brought to his attention was the arrest on scant “grounds of a suspect named Christian Wooster. Another was the mounting reaction to the abduction. Seldom had the mayor seen Philadelphia so aroused.

In an editorial entitled “The Unpardonable Crime,” the Public Ledger, while refraining from publishing new developments, declared the base and inhuman act of abduction was of such a nature as to excite the most intense anxiety in the mind of every parent: “We have never known sympathy with the individual grief of a person in private life to be so universal. Nor so intense a desire that the perpetrators of a crime shall be hunted down and punished at any cost.” The abductors had made a fatal blunder in choosing liberty-loving Philadelphia in which to commit their atrocious crime. “This is not the city in which such business can be carried on,” the paper proclaimed. “We have had traffic made of a great many extraordinary subjects, but an attempt to trade upon the heart-agonies of a whole community will not do. There is but one way open to the brigands, and that is to restore the child with the least possible delay, and then get away from Philadelphia as far and as fast as possible.”

“It would be impossible to overestimate the intensity of the feeling of indignation pervading this community against the brigands who stole the child of Mr. Ross,” editorialized the Inquirer. “There is nothing that is more certainly resolved than that there shall be no compromise with the guilty parties; that they shall be hunted down and punished for the crime they have committed, not only against the parents of the abducted child but against the security, peace and happiness of all other parents.” Every man was concerned, said the paper, and every man must now become a detective.

Related: A Chilling Look Inside the Lindbergh Kidnapping

Every railway station and train should be under rigid inspection by all who travel, and also every steamboat, canalboat, stagecoach and vehicles of every description, enjoined another paper. Every foot passenger should be watched, every highway and byway should have its vigilant guards, and every person with a human heart should keep a lookout on every house in every neighborhood, whether in town or country. Places believed to be resorts of disreputable characters should have the concentrated public gaze fixed upon them. By these means the whole population of the country could be turned into a universal detective police.

The New Age spoke of “the awful reverberations of the hue-and-cry of a whole people which is now gathering its echoes to roll them through the length and breadth of all the land.”

“The kidnappers of Charley Ross knew not what they did or they would rather have their hands cut off than have ever touched him,” said the editorial’s ringing conclusion. “They thought they were only stealing Mr. Ross’s child. They will learn yet in the appalling indignation of the nation that they have stolen the child of a whole people.”

Want to keep reading? Download Little Charley Ross by Norman Zierold

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