The high profile kidnapping that shocked the nation

The Ransom

Two days following the abduction, the kidnappers supposedly sent Charley’s father, Christian Ross, a note demanding $20,000 for Charley’s return, which is over $450,000 today in 2020 dollars. It was a very poorly written note where someone had misspelled simple words like “you.” Christian Ross attempted to pay the kidnappers, but the police didn’t let him — they thought it would encourage and incentivize more kidnappers.

Despite Christian Ross wanting to keep the search quiet and not inform his sick wife, the case quickly caught the whole nation’s attention. Ross had placed ads in the local newspapers asking for information for the son’s safe return — and a friend in Atlantic City showed Mrs. Ross.

The mayor of Philadelphia was on vacation in California but had to be recalled to Philadelphia for the emergency. The Ross parents and the supposed kidnappers frequently kept corresponding — with 23 ransom notes between them.

Children who claimed to be Charley Ross popped up all over the country. Until they died, the Ross family would interview 573 boys, teenagers, and eventually grown men who claimed to be Charley Ross — all of whom ended up being imposters. At some point, the family had to develop a protocol to ensure the child actually could be Charley.

As the first high-profile kidnapping for ransom across the country, copycat crimes started to happen across major cities in America. According to James, newspapers jumped on criticizing Christian Ross, who had offered to pay the ransom, for his bad judgments, and often said that his judgment fueled the copycat kidnappings. One article from the Reading Eagle was so egregious that the Ross family won an $1800 lawsuit for libel in September of 1874.

Of course, the Ross family was actually bankrupt and unable to pay the ransom. Philadelphia citizens raised a fund drive to organize $20,000 to help him pay for his son’s ransom. Another fund drive tried to collect $20,000 as a reward for the arrest of the kidnappers.

Police started to run rampant in Philadelphia, searching houses without warrants. The Pinkerton agency circulated an incredible amount of flyers with Charley’s picture and descriptions of the kidnappers. And it wasn’t just in Philadelphia — police were arresting people across the country, and numerous viral cases were circulated of private investigators chasing people believed to have abducted Charley across the country.

The Keffer Sheet Music Company of Boston even made a song called “Bring Back Our Darling,” also known as “The Stolen Child,” which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and copies still exist today. The very real kidnapping of Charley Ross quickly became a media sensation, and it took a toll on Christian Ross. He stopped eating, working, and in the words of James, “grew so weak that he was reported near death.”


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