On July 1, 1874, a horse-drawn carriage pulled over to a Germantown house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two men came out of the carriage to approach four-year-old boy, Charles (Charley) Brewster Ross, and his older brother, Walter Lewis Ross. At the time, the boys’ father was running his business in the dry goods store while not watching them, and their mother was in Atlantic City while recovering from her illness. The two men offered the boys candy and fireworks if they rode in the carriage.
The two boys rode with the men in the carriage through Philadelphia. Charley started screaming he wanted to go home. The men gave Walter 25 cents to buy fireworks in a store, but while he was buying fireworks, the carriage left. After Walter walked out of the store, no one saw Charley again.
According to the staff at People Magazine, the kidnapping of Charley Ross was America’s first known kidnapping for ransom.
But paraphrasing Bill James, author of Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence, it’s hard to know what actually happened, and multiple conflicting accounts exist of the whole Charley Ross episode, or whether his name was Charlie Ross or Charley Ross (since newspaper accounts use different spellings).
“There are multiple published accounts for different parts of the story, and there is no authoritative after-the-fact source that satisfactorily ties up the loose ends,” James says.
According to James, the Ross family appeared like they had resources to pay the ransom if they wanted. They lived in a mansion on top of a hill in Germantown, a wealthy part of the Philadelphia area. However, the family was actually heavily in debt due to the stock market crash of 1873, and they had no way to pay the $20,000.
Walter Ross described one of his abductors as a wiry man with a low forehead and an old-brimmed straw hat. Here called the other abductor had a strangely shaped red nose, which he called a “monkey nose.”