I was interviewed awhile back for the biweekly Crimes of the Centuries podcast, and my interview appears in the most recent episode, which is called “Charley Ross: America’s First Kidnapping for Ransom.” I have not listened to the podcast before but the Charley Ross episode was a good one, covering Charley’s kidnapping and the frustration and agony that followed in detail. Give it a listen if you like.
I found this article that talks about the Charley Ross case and some other cold cases, Richard Cox and Ambrose Bierce. The article has several inaccuracies. It spell’s Charley’s name “Charlie” when his family always spelled it “Charley,” gives the place of the kidnapping as Atlantic City, New Jersey (in fact it was Germantown, Pennsylvania; Charley’s mom was, however, visiting Atlantic City when he was abducted) and says:
[T]he two main kidnappers were killed during an attempted armed robbery, and a third man was sent to jail. But that third man would never admit to the crime and spent most of his life in solitary confinement rather than take a seat in the electric chair.
Not so. A third man was sent to jail, yes, and would never admit to his role in the kidnapping, but he didn’t spend the rest of his life there — just six years — he wasn’t in solitary and there was no danger of him being electrocuted. To begin with, he wasn’t charged with a capital offense. Also, the electric chair wasn’t used in executions until 1890. Before that, mostly, they hung people.
The article’s author is merely quoting from a book on the subject, so I guess it wasn’t really his fault but his source’s. But he could have checked on these things.
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.