The Forgotten Kidnapping Epidemic That Shook Depression-Era America

A startling new book lays bare a little-known chapter in American true crime history.

the kidnap years david stout

People the world over are familiar with the notorious kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. On March 1st, 1932, the 20-month-old son of famous aviators Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh was abducted from his second-floor bedroom. The infant’s remains were found the following month on May 12th, a tragic end to what would become known as the “crime of the century.” Parents everywhere felt the prickle of anxiety, fearing for their own children’s safety—and they had every reason to.

And yet, while the Lindbergh Kidnapping dominated headlines at the time and continues to capture our imagination to this day, it wasn’t an isolated incident. Hundreds of children across the United States were kidnapped and held for ransom during the dark and desperate days of the Great Depression. The Lindbergh Kidnapping was but one instance in a string of heartbreaking crimes that public officials rightly called a kidnapping epidemic.

Edgar Award-winning author David Stout sheds new light on this lost chapter of American true crime history in his new book, The Kidnap Years: The Astonishing True History of the Forgotten Kidnapping Epidemic That Shook Depression-Era America. A former reporter for The New York Times, Stout’s book is informed by meticulous research and a decades-long fascination with crime. Declared a “thrilling account” that “will enthrall true crime fans,” The Kidnap Years vividly chronicles the real people, places, and events that defined the epidemic, and reads like a compelling crime fiction novel (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

The Kidnap Years is out now, and The Lineup is thrilled to present an exclusive excerpt from this new true crime read. The following passage describes the experience of 13-year-old Adolphus Busch Orthwein, heir to the Budweiser throne, who was kidnapped for ransom on New Year’s Eve, 1930—a little over a year before the Lindbergh Kidnapping took place. David Stout takes you inside young Orthwein’s ordeal, from the brazen manner in which he was snatched to the time spent with his captor.

Read the following excerpt for a glimpse into the kidnapping epidemic that rocked Depression-era America. Then, download The Kidnap Years now.

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The Kidnap Years

By David Stout

St. Louis

Wednesday, December 31, 1930

On New Year’s Eve, 1930, Adolphus Busch Orthwein, a thirteen-year-old heir to the Anheuser-Busch beer empire, suddenly seemed too old for his nickname, “Buppie.” For he was putting on a new blue serge suit for a dinner at his grandparents’ estate just outside St. Louis, and the suit had long trousers instead of the knickers obligatory for preadolescent boys in that era.

Buppie’s parents, Percy and Clara Orthwein, were going to a New Year’s Eve party at the Bridlespur Hunt Club, made up of riding and fox-hunting devotees, so young Adolphus was to be driven by the Orthweins’ chauffeur, Roy Yowell, to his grandparents’ estate. The 281-acre tract was known as Grant’s Farm because it was once owned by Ulysses S. Grant. It was anchored by a twenty-five-room mansion.

Percy Orthwein was an advertising executive, earning enough to make his family quite well off, and Clara was the second of three daughters of August Anheuser Busch Sr., the chief of the Anheuser-Busch beer empire, so the Orthweins were very rich indeed. The previous summer, they had moved into a two-story stone chateau built for them in the fashionable Huntleigh Village neighborhood. They were at ease in the world of country clubs and horse farms. (Clara’s father had been a founder of the Bridlespur club in 1927.)

Buppie had already won several prizes at riding shows. He went to a private school. Yet he and his younger brother, Jimmie, were neither snobbish nor spoiled. They were beloved by the household help at Grant’s Farm, where they were frequent guests. They seemed to be normal boys despite having been born to privilege—great privilege.

***

Adolphus Busch had come to the United States from Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century, settled in St. Louis, which had a large German population, and began selling beer-brewing supplies. One of Adolphus’s best customers was a brewing company owned by another German-American, Eberhard Anheuser. Eberhard and his wife, Dorothea, had six children, including a daughter named Lilly, a lovely blonde.

Adolphus courted Lilly, and they married in 1861. They would have eight sons and five daughters. Adolphus and his father-in-law got along well, and they decided to go into business together. And so was born the Anheuser-Busch brewing empire. Adolphus Busch was an innovator; he had his beer pasteurized and shipped in refrigerated train cars from the St. Louis brewery to beer lovers far away. The beer, Budweiser, became an American institution.

Adolphus died in 1913 while visiting Germany. It fell to his son August—whose daughter Clara would marry Percy Orthwein—not just to run Anheuser-Busch as president and chief executive but to save it. When the Great War broke out in 1914, there was considerable anti-German sentiment in the United States, especially after America entered the conflict in 1917. August combatted this bigotry by flaunting his red, white, and blue American patriotism and promoting the city of St. Louis. His mother helped by opening a family estate in Pasadena, California, to disabled soldiers.

But there was a more existential threat to Anheuser-Busch: Prohibition. How to survive when your product is verboten? By diversifying: selling syrup for beer lovers to make beer in the sanctity of their homes, selling soft drinks, yeast, corn products. If Adolphus Busch and Eberhard Anheuser were creative entrepreneurs, August was the coolheaded yet imaginative businessman who kept it prospering.

***

The headlights pierced the darkness as the Lincoln limo carrying Buppie reached the outskirts of his parents’ property and approached Lindbergh Boulevard, which had once been known as Denny Road. The name had been changed in honor of the famed aviator, who lived for a time in the city and named his famous monoplane the Spirit of St. Louis.

Related: 14 Chilling True Crime Books About Real-Life Kidnappings 

Buppie was in the front passenger seat. He was holding a gift for his grandfather: a new matchbox with a horse’s head painted on the cover. The chauffeur was navigating the limo up a steep incline, getting ready to turn onto Lindbergh Boulevard, when a black man emerged from the trees. He ran to the rear of the limo and jumped onto the bumper.

Buppie was afraid. “Roy? Roy!”

The limo stopped. The man jumped off the bumper, opened the passenger side door, and pointed a revolver at the stunned chauffeur.

“Here, here’s everything,” Yowell said, fishing several dollars from a pocket and handing it over.

“You can take this too,” Buppie said, offering the gunman the new matchbox.

The gunman ignored the boy’s offer. “Get out!” he ordered the chauffeur.

Yowell did as commanded, and Buppie started to exit the limo also.

“You stay in!” the gunman said, getting behind the wheel and speeding off. He went only a short distance, then turned the limo around and, with the lights off, drove past the Orthwein property. A few hundred yards later, he stopped the limo, pulled the boy out, and led him to a car parked nearby.

“Get in and lie down on the back seat,” the man said. As he drove away, he asked, “Are you Percy Orthwein’s son?”

“Yes.”

“Be quiet or I’ll burn you.”

Burn me?

the kidnap years excerpt
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  • A childhood photo of Adolphus Busch Orthwein, 1923.

    Photo Credit: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

***

Yowell ran back to the house and told Buppie’s parents what had happened. Buppie’s mother collapsed in hysteria. A doctor was summoned. Upon learning of the kidnapping, August Busch Sr. grabbed a pistol and drove to the home of his daughter Clara.

As one year was passing into history and another was dawning, there was chaos in the Orthwein home. Friends of the family who heard of the kidnapping abandoned their New Year’s Eve plans and sped to the house in their party finery to offer consolation. Percy Orthwein and Yowell searched Lindbergh Boulevard, quickly finding the abandoned limousine.

The boy’s uncle August Jr., who was thirty-one and known as “Gussie,” brought two bloodhounds to the scene. They sniffed in vain as the chauffeur was driven by August Busch Sr. to St. Louis police headquarters.

Throughout the night, as friends of the Orthwein family came and went and reporters hovered like vultures, there was no word on the fate of Buppie. As the sun rose, radio stations broadcast the news of the kidnapping along with a plea from the boy’s parents: return our son, and you will get a generous award, no questions asked.

The kidnapping stunned the people of St. Louis, where the Busches were social lions.

***

Percy Orthwein hadn’t slept. He wondered if the dawn of a new day, the new year of 1931, would forever divide his life into Before and After.

It seemed an eternity ago that he and Clara were getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party and Buppie was on his way to dinner with his grandfather.

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

Orthwein forced himself to think coldly. Surely, Buppie was worth more alive than dead.

Orthwein didn’t know many Negroes. In St. Louis as in so many other communities, they had their own neighborhoods, their own schools, their own churches. No doubt, they loved their children, just as white folks loved theirs. Just because Buppie had been taken by a Negro didn’t mean…

Around noon, the phone rang. Orthwein rushed to answer it. “Hello?"

“As father to father, I want to give you back your boy,” a man said.

The caller was a Negro; Orthwein knew that from his voice, although like most white people in the segregated St. Louis of that era he had virtually no social contact with black people.

“You are worried about your son, and I am worried about mine,” the caller went on, his voice almost breaking. “He is safe.” The caller suggested he and Orthwein meet at once at the St. Louis County sheriff’s office in Clayton.

Orthwein immediately called Harry Troll, a prominent St. Louis attorney who represented the Busch and Orthwein families. Within minutes, Orthwein, Troll, and Gussie Busch were headed to Clayton. When they got to the sheriff’s office, they found only a deputy on duty. The party was bewildered.

Things fell into place minutes later when a black man and a young woman entered. The man was Pearl Abernathy, a real estate dealer well known among black people in St. Louis. He was accompanied by his niece, Elfrida Bobb.

Pearl Abernathy told a sad story. He had a son, Charles, who had followed him into the real estate business. Charles was just twenty-eight. He and his wife had seven children. He worried desperately over how to support his family since his real estate enterprise had gone broke.

A crazy dream began to form in Charles’s mind. He knew that the Busch and Orthwein families would part with some money to get Buppie back. He hadn’t thought out all the details—how much money to demand, how to collect it without getting caught, how to return the boy. But he knew that kidnappings were becoming common. The people pulling them off couldn’t all be smarter than he was…

Pearl Abernathy had grown increasingly worried about his son’s mental state, but he couldn’t babysit him all the time. So on the morning of December 31, when Pearl saw Charles and sensed the deep depression he was in, he gave him $40. It was both a gift, from father to son, and a payoff. Just leave me alone for a while, Charles. I have my own life.

Charles’s wife had been worried too, afraid that her husband was becoming unhinged. When she saw a white boy in her house on New Year’s morning and her husband was gone, she was horrified. So she called Charles’s father, Pearl, and he in turn called the Orthwein home to say he could get the boy back unharmed.

Orthwein and Troll listened to this sad tale, then demanded to know where Buppie was. They were told to wait a little while, then drive to Webster Groves, a suburb just to the west of St. Louis proper, and stop on Bacon Avenue near a nursing home that was a familiar landmark.

kidnap years excerpt
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  • The home of Charles Abernathy, where Adolphus Busch Orthwein was held captive.

    Photo Credit: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

***

Buppie had endured a terrifying night, not sure what was real and what was nightmare. Bound, he had been placed in an easy chair with a blanket over his head. The blanket smelled dirty, and it made his face too warm. Meanwhile, his feet were cold.

He knew that his captor had driven him to a place not far from the Orthwein home, and he knew that the man was black. From the movements of the man, and the way the footsteps never seemed far away, Buppie sensed that he was in a little house. He heard a baby cry, heard a dog barking, heard a cat meowing, heard a door open—to let the cat out, Buppie thought.

Slowly, the terror in Buppie’s heart faded. The man wanted money; that must be the reason he’d taken him. Nothing else made sense.

The man hadn’t hurt him, and he wasn’t mean. The man fixed him scrambled eggs and took the blanket off long enough for Buppie to eat. The eggs weren’t very good, nothing like what he would have had for dinner at his grandfather’s!

Related: 9 Real-Life Kidnapping Stories That Still Haunt Us 

With the blanket off him for a little while, Buppie saw that it was daylight. Then the blanket went over him again, and he was in the dark. Time passed; he couldn’t tell how much. He didn’t hear people noises anymore. He dozed off now and then. When he was awake, the man brought him an orange. It tasted better than the eggs. He slept again…

Footsteps! Not a dream!

The blanket was lifted from his head. “You’re going home,” a woman said as she untied him. “You know the nursing home on Bacon Avenue? Run there. Stop in front of it and wait. Go on now!”

***

As the car approached the boy standing in front of the nursing home, Troll recognized him, though his face was almost black with dirt. “Percy, there’s your son!”

Orthwein didn’t wait for the car to come to a full stop. He leaped out and ran to Buppie.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” Buppie said.

A joyous reunion followed at Grant’s Farm. Household servants joined social elites in offering tearful prayers of thanks. Buppie was given a bath and good food and was sent to bed.

“Not a cent” had changed hands to secure Buppie Orthwein’s freedom, Troll told a pack of reporters.

Percy and Clara Orthwein were charitable as well as rich. They had not just promised a reward for the safe return of their son. They had even offered to help find a job for the abductor if he was impoverished. Charles Abernathy certainly was.

But the police were having none of it. Kidnapping was a crime, after all. For a short period, Pearl Abernathy was held as an accessory. And the police made it clear that they wanted Buppie’s parents to cooperate in the prosecution of Charles Abernathy. But first the police had to find him. Having failed at kidnapping as well as real estate, the hapless Charles had vanished.

***

Enter ace reporter Harry T. Brundidge of the St. Louis Star, one of several newspapers that thrived in the city back then. By the time the thirties began, he had exposed trafficking in fraudulent medical credentials in the Midwest. He had worked as a deckhand on a ship sailing between Havana and New Orleans to expose liquor smuggling. He had interviewed Al Capone.

Brundidge had sources on both sides of the law, and he quickly learned that Charles Abernathy was hiding in Kansas City, Missouri. Brundidge tracked him down a few days after the kidnapping, interviewed him, and obtained his confession. His newspaper ran the scoop on page 1. Soon afterward, Charles pleaded guilty to kidnapping and robbery and was sentenced to fifteen years in state prison.

(There would also be heartbreak in the extended Busch family. On New Year’s Eve 1930, August Busch Sr. was sixty-five years old, having celebrated his birthday just two days before. But he was not a young sixty-five. The long days over the years had taken their toll, and he was suffering from heart disease and gout. On February 13, 1934, he would scribble a note saying, “Goodbye precious mommie and adorable children” before killing himself with a revolver he kept by his bedside.)

***

Charles and Anne Lindbergh followed the Orthwein case from afar. They had spent the Christmas and New Year holidays at the Englewood, New Jersey, estate of Anne’s parents, Dwight and Elizabeth Morrow. A one-time partner at J. P. Morgan and one of the richest men in New Jersey, Morrow was a former ambassador to Mexico (appointed by his Amherst College classmate President Calvin Coolidge) and had just been elected to the U.S. Senate. Soon, he would be talked about as a possible Republican candidate for president.

Related: Taken on Thanksgiving: The Unsolved Disappearance of the Skelton Brothers 

Then as now a leafy community, Englewood would be much busier later that year and forever after with the opening of the George Washington Bridge, spanning the nearby Hudson River and linking northern New Jersey with New York City.

Lindbergh and his wife were building a house of their own on a 390-acre tract near Hopewell, New Jersey, about sixty miles south of Englewood. The home was expected to be finished in the autumn of 1931. In Hopewell, Lindbergh hoped, he and his wife would find the privacy they so craved. Lindbergh had come to despise reporters and photographers, who seemed to follow his every move.

To be sure, the newspaper people could be annoying. But there was another factor at play, one the adoring public didn’t understand. Lindbergh had a cool and distant personality. It was so appropriate, really, that he was an aviator, for he was comfortable being aloof. He was at ease around airplanes and engines, not around people.

Nor was Anne Lindbergh at home in the spotlight. Though from a prominent family and acquainted with some famous people, she was basically a shy person. No wonder the Lindberghs wanted privacy for themselves and their new son, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., who by delightful coincidence had been born on his mother’s twenty-fourth birthday, June 22, 1930.

Surely, the new homestead near Hopewell would offer seclusion…and safety.

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The Kidnap Years

By David Stout

This passage from chapter two of The Kidnap Years delves into the astonishing case of the kidnapping of 13-year-old Adolphus “Buppie” Busch Orthwein. Author David Stout delivers a thrilling survey of the kidnapping epidemic vividly recreating the desperate and dangerous atmosphere of Depression-era America—during which seasoned criminals and resourceful civilians alike turned to kidnapping as a means of making money.

Though Buppie was returned to his family unharmed, the same can’t be said for many other victims. Download The Kidnap Years today to learn more about this fascinating and all but forgotten period in American true crime history.

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Photos related to the Adolphus Busch Orthwein case via: St. Louis Post-Dispatch  

Published on 9 Apr 2020