Little Charley Ross

As this is my first post, I thought I would tell you readers about the little boy the Charley Project is named for. Though he’s all but forgotten today, there was a time when nearly everyone in America knew all about Charley Ross.

His name was Charles Brewster Ross and he was born in 1870 to a respectable middle-class family in Germantown, Pennsylvania. His family called him Charley or occasionally “Little William Penn,” due to his serious manner. On July 1, 1874, two strange men lured four-year-old Charley and his eight-year-old brother, Walter, into their wagon with the promise of candy.  The men drove to a general store, gave Walter some money, and told him to go inside and buy some candy for himself and his brother. When Walter came out again, Charley, the men, and the wagon were gone. Charley was never seen again.

It was a whole different era back then. Whereas nowadays missing children are plastered all over the newspapers and television, abductions were all but unknown, or at least unacknowledged, in 1874. In fact, kidnapping was so rare that it wasn’t even a criminal offense in Pennsylvania at the time of Charley’s abduction. (This very quickly changed.) When Charley’s father, Christian Ross, reported his son’s disappearance to law enforcement, the police were initially unconcerned. They thought the men had probably been drunk and taken Charley on a lark, and would return the boy once they sobered up. They advised Christian to go home and wait and see. It’s hard to imagine law enforcement acting that way today if a four-year-old were abducted by two strange men.

Shortly thereafter, the first of many ransom letters arrived at the Ross house. The kidnappers wanted $20,000, a considerable sum of money for the times. Christian Ross wasn’t so wealthy that he had that sort of cash just lying around, but he could get it. However, on the advice of the police and in tune with his own convictions, he decided not to pay. Christian believed the abductors would probably return his son once they realized they weren’t going to get any money. This was the first big ransom kidnapping in the nation, a test case so to speak, and Christian felt it would set a bad example to pay for his son: that other criminals would catch on to the idea and children would be getting snatched left and right. He also simply thought it was morally wrong to make the abductors profit for their crime. So he dug in his heels. And the abductors dug in theirs.

Walter had gotten a good look at both of the men, and one in particular had a very distinctive appearance (his nose had been eaten away by syphillis), so within a reasonably short time the police knew who they were looking for: two penny-ante criminals named William Mosher and Joseph Douglas. But the cops got nowhere — the men appeared to have vanished. Meanwhile, Christian kept communicating with the kidnappers through newspaper ads and letters, stringing along, hoping they would get caught before they would harm his boy. It became clear pretty quickly that the men weren’t going to give up Charley without being paid. Christian was often tempted to give in and pay the ransom, but though he agonized continually over this he never backed down.

Charley’s abduction was extensively covered in the news. He was basically the Lindbergh baby of the 1800s. As an indication of how famous the little boy was, I will share the following anecdote: in the early 20th century, decades after little Charley’s abduction, some Swedish tourists visited Pennsylvania. They decided to first see Charley’s old house. Then, they would go and see the Liberty Bell.

In December 1874,  the Ross abduction case came to a climax. Mosher and Douglas were shot to death while robbing somebody’s house. Douglas lived long enough to confess: as he lay dying on the floor, he said there was no point in lying anymore and that he and Mosher had kidnapped Charley. He didn’t know Charley’s whereabouts, however: Mosher knew, he said. But Mosher was already dead, and Douglas expired a short time later. Young Walter Ross subsequently viewed the bodies in the morgue and identified them as the abductors.

The case wasn’t over — William Westervelt, an associate of Mosher, would be tried for kidnapping in 1875. Prosecutors alleged he’d been involved in Charley’s abduction, but there was little evidence to support this and Westervelt himself swore he was innocent and didn’t know where Charley was. Even after he was offered immunity from prosecution if he would produce the child alive, he still said he didn’t know anything. He was acquitted of kidnapping, but found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to six years in prison.

Christian Ross would spend the rest of his life looking for his son. He traveled all over the United States and sometimes even out of the country, checking blond, brown-eyed boys to see if one of them was his. There were so many Charley sightings that Christian actually had to start issuing certificates to the boys he checked, so if someone tried to report them again the boy could prove he’d been checked once already. After Christian’s death, his wife and Walter would carry on the search. But they never found Charley. He would be lost forever.

My thoughts: the kidnappers do not strike me as being particularly ruthless men, or particularly bright. Of course, they cruelly strung along a family for months with promises and threats. But they let Walter go alive, when he’d gotten a good look at them and could (and did) identify them later. The logical thing would be to either take both boys, or to clobber one over the head and leave his body in a ditch. But they let Walter go. I wonder how they got the ransom idea in the first place — both Mosher and Douglas were not-very-successful thieves, impoverished, with criminal records behind them. Hardly criminal masterminds.

I wonder if they would really have deliberately murdered Charley like they said they would. Something — just a feeling — tells me no. That doesn’t mean Charley didn’t die shortly after his abduction, however. Being somewhat in over their heads, Mosher or Douglas could well have accidentally killed the child in a panic. Or, more likely, after his abductors were killed Charley starved to death wherever he was being held. Or perhaps the answer lies in some old churchyard, underneath a vine-covered tombstone carved with another name and a date well into the twentieth century. I simply don’t know.

In any case, Charley’s story has haunted me ever since I read about it some ten years ago, and when I started my database it seemed only right to name it after him. The original missing child. May he rest in peace.

31 thoughts on “Little Charley Ross

  1. magus_dee December 24, 2008 / 9:55 pm

    Indeed it’s a terrific book, and a haunting one. I found a library copy, a discard, about five years ago, read, and kept it. Since I’m getting ready to move and thus am paring down my possessions, I listed the book at a low price on eBay a couple months back but–no takers, which I found odd, as interest in missing persons seems never to have been higher, what with the several MP sites on the internet and the increased media coverage (at least in selected cases) over the last several years. I think it’s important for anyone interested in–well, in anything–to understand the historical context of their interests and, while reading about young Charley probably wouldn’t help locate an MP, knowing the case at least would fuel the fire for keeping one’s eyes open when, let’s say, an Amber Alert is issued for one’s area. Okay, a tip o’ the Kangol to this site, which I do visit often (after having read ‘Little Charley Ross: America’s First Kidnapping for Ransom,’ my interest was whetted, and I was dazzled some years later to see a site named after him). Truly the Charley Project is on the side of the angels.

  2. Emily December 25, 2008 / 3:06 am

    Thanks for sharing the story of Charley Ross. I never knew the details. What a tragedy for his family; the guilt his older brother must have felt his entire life!

  3. Evie December 28, 2008 / 7:38 pm

    First of all, I want to say how much I love reading your website. I think it’s very orderly and clear compared to the Doe Network. I come back to read your updates every week and keep being drawn in by all the case files. So thank you and keep up the good work.

    I think the kidnapper that died first probably hid the child with relatives without the other knowing where. Two men with a child would have stood out too much in those days. They couldn’t kill him, in case the father did decide to pay and they couldn’t keep him with them. I agree with the notion that perhaps they got in over their heads and didn’t expect the father to NOT comply with their demands.

  4. Cara December 29, 2008 / 2:35 pm

    I completely agree with Evie. I find your website to be organized and much more informative than any other missing person’s site. Thank you for shining the light on so many unresolved cases.

    I would like to think that Charley lived. However, something tells me he died at the hands of these 2 kidnappers; most likely due to their fear of being caught as this was such a high profile case at the time.

  5. dawn cottrell-garner February 6, 2011 / 6:27 pm

    Any information I would love to have. My father always said that he was the son of Charliy Ross,with papers to prove it. Would love to have your book.

  6. normanzierold August 24, 2011 / 4:26 pm

    Meaghan, I want to thank you most heartily for your gracious and insightful review of my book, “Little Charley Ross.” My guess as to what really happened is that Little Charley became very lonely when away from his family. Possibly he became ill and died. Or perhaps the kidnappers, in their haste, dropped him or injured him accidentally, leading to his demise. It’s a sad story, but very touching, very compelling.

    • Meaghan August 24, 2011 / 5:02 pm

      I am happy to hear from you and glad you liked my review. I’ve read your book Three Sisters in Black as well.

    • Stu Pollock February 24, 2019 / 5:59 pm

      I am a Canadian. I became interested in this story in an interesting way. My Gradmother was from Michigan. As was the custom for many, people glued recipes, poems and things to the inside of hard covered books. I bought her books in an estate sale. Inside one of the books was a Pinkerton Detective poster — it was two pages – I think their very first with picture on it. This one had Charley’s picture. It is my understanding that the mother wrote a book or perhaps the father. I don’t think the mother ever reached anything close to normal again.

      • Meaghan February 24, 2019 / 5:59 pm

        The father wrote a book.

      • Ann Scott February 25, 2019 / 10:24 am

        I replied back in 2016 about the book. I have it.
        His father wrote it about 2 years after the incident. I would like to see a Documentary on Charlie.

      • Meaghan February 25, 2019 / 3:55 pm

        As far as I know, no documentary has been made.

  7. Anthony Durrant July 25, 2012 / 6:46 am

    How could the Ross family know Gustave Blair was not the real Charlie Ross when the boy did not even have any dental records to his name?

    • Meaghan July 26, 2012 / 3:51 am

      Well, I don’t know who Gustave Blair is offhand. But perhaps he had birthmarks or moles Charley didn’t have, or vice versa, or something like that.

      I don’t think ANYONE had dental records back in the 1870s.

  8. Arbnora Ferati October 19, 2012 / 4:18 pm

    These last few days I have been reading every blog post you have written in the Charley Project blog. I have to say that you are doing an amazing job at keeping missing people in the spotlight!

  9. Lisa Gabler April 1, 2013 / 7:39 pm

    I wonder if at this point in time – there is any way to prove an ancestral line of little charley ross. I have grown up hearing of the story and supposedly my great grandfather was actually supposed to be Charley Ross. His grave stone even denotes a C.R. as his middle initials. The whole family has known and heard this story. My father even recalls the day that the investigators came to say that there wasn’t anyway to prove it and the Ross family had no interest in trying. According to our family story – Charley was abducted for the parents who just wanted a child. They hid him away until which time he would need to attend school. Once he was old enough, he was told of the kidnapping. He was happy with his “parents” and his life and didn’t pursue the “case” until later on in life at which point the Ross family “supposedly” didn’t want to relive the story so many years later (after so so many people have made claims I am sure) Any ideas of tracing this story AT ALL???

    • Meaghan April 2, 2013 / 4:30 pm

      Not too long ago I heard from a guy who says he’s descended from Charley’s real family.

  10. Robert May 19, 2013 / 11:46 pm

    I had never heard of Charley Ross until I, quite by accident, ran into your Charley Project site. I am wondering though why you are getting some bad press from others? Why do they think the information on your site is “misleading” or “fraudulent?”

    • Meaghan May 20, 2013 / 12:09 pm

      To make a long story extremely short: there’s a woman who, as a child, was abducted by her mother and was on my website. She was later found safe. I wrote a blog entry about the case after the woman was located, saying it was a very sad case, how the abducting mother falsely accused the father of child abuse, etc. The woman took offense to it and demanded I take it down. I refused to do so and she went in all out attack mode, calling me everything she could think of, on her own blog. Just about everything she had to say was about my BLOG, and me as a PERSON, not the Charley Project missing persons database, which is barely mentioned. She intentionally writes about the blog and the database as if they were the same thing when she knows they are not. And her writings about me are full of exaggerations, misrepresentations and outright lies. (For example, she diagnoses me with bulimia because I wrote on my blog once about how I ate too much of my favorite food and threw up afterward. Once. She also implies that I still say on the Charley Project database that she’s missing; in fact I explicitly say she is NOT missing and was located years ago. She wrote that she filed a complaint with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children about me; whether she did or not I cannot say, but they’ve contacted me over the years about several things and never mentioned her at all.)

      This is basically a personal dispute between her and me, and she’s treated other people in the same manner as she has me. Most of her blog is devoted to character assassination. I actually wrote a 20-plus page refutation of what she wrote about me, but never published it, because I didn’t see the point in engaging her further. It has been circulated privately though. You can have a look at it yourself if you email me.

  11. Holly June 8, 2013 / 10:00 pm

    there was a grave site in WI with this child name on it. A story tell that the boy was found on an island along the Mississippi river and a gentleman named John Harford took him in. He is buried in this families grave yard. There was once an article about it.The Harfords had contacted the parent in Pennsylvania only to have them think it was another hoax and with no money to travel the distance to check it out. The head stone has his name on it, but there would be no decendents as he died a child. I believe it states he was 12 years old.
    Not sure of any truth to this story, but odd that they would erect a stone in the Harford family plot just for kicks.

  12. Cheryl December 18, 2014 / 2:10 pm

    Charley’s father wrote a detailed book about his sons Kidnapping that can be read if you click on the link.

    It says that Walter was almost 6 (not 8 as every other source states. dob May 4th 1870). It also says they were given candy, but promised fireworks when they went to the store.

    I just started reading it and so far it’s pretty interesting.

    Be sure to read the “Authors Preface” which explains why the father chose to write the book

  13. Cheryl December 18, 2014 / 2:15 pm

    October 12 1868 was Walters dob. Charley was born May 4, 1870.

  14. Ann January 12, 2015 / 11:02 am

    I found the book on Charley a few years ago. It is coming up on the 140th anniversary of the Kidnapping. It would be a wonderful tribute to this “forever 4 year old” to do a special on him, even though one man was legally determined to be Charles Ross.

    • normanzierold January 13, 2015 / 8:16 am

      > Ann commented: “I found the book on Charley a few years ago. It is coming up > on the 140th anniversary of the Kidnapping. It would be a wonderful tribute to > this “forever 4 year old” to do a special on him, even though one man was > legally determined to be Charles Ross.” >

  15. Tonya November 4, 2016 / 8:33 pm

    What happened to his siblings and are there are there any living dependents?

    • Ann Scott November 5, 2016 / 10:47 pm

      I have the book about him his father wrote. Often think about him. A perfume company etched his face on their bottle to keep his face out there when it happened.

      • Stu February 25, 2019 / 11:08 am

        I would like to see a documentary or movie as well. What is the title of the book. I have tried getting it before but might try again. I do have the the Allan Pinkerton three page phamplet which is interesting. I think their very first one with a picture on front.

      • Meaghan February 25, 2019 / 11:27 am

        Christian Ross’s book has been out of print for like 100 years. It is VERY hard to find. The Ohio State University library’s copy is wrapped in shrink-wrap to hold it together.

      • Ann Scott February 26, 2019 / 11:27 am

        He is considered the first National Kidnapping. His information was sent out to all cities. The book is “Charley Ross The Kidnapped Child”.

  16. Kathy walker May 5, 2018 / 12:40 am

    Would DNA Tests be able to prove a grandchild of Charlie Ross from one of his relatives?

    • Lisa Gabler February 25, 2019 / 5:55 pm

      Aunt Kathy… I am quite curious how we would go about checking this out? I have been following the feeds on here since 2013. Dad and I have talked over the story several times 🙂 interesting stuff!

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