The Kidnapping of Charley Ross

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Podcast Transcript

Most children growing up are admonished not to take candy from strangers. 

It is good advice, but it isn’t advice that comes from nowhere. It comes from a particular incident 150 years ago that shocked the world and changed how we view children’s safety.

It was an event, the echos of which can be seen today in efforts to find abducted children.

Learn more about the kidnapping of Charley Ross on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The kidnapping of a child is an event that occurs infrequently, but when it does happen, it gains a great deal of attention. 

Every so often on the news, you’ll hear terrible reports of children who go missing, and in some cases, they are unsolved investigations that can last for years. 

The case of Charles Lindbergh Jr., on which I’ve done a previous episode, was probably the highest-profile case in American history. However, when that case hit the headlines, it referenced another which came before it.

The first major case of a child kidnapping, the case which brought the issue to the public’s attention, occurred 150 years ago in the city of Philadelphia. 

It occurred in 1874 in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Germantown was one of the nicer areas in Philadelphia, and the people who lived there were among some of the upper crust of Philadelphia society. 

The Ross family was one such family in Germantown. Christian K. Ross and his wife lived in Germantown with their seven children, Stroughton, Harry, Sophia, Walter, Charley, Marian, and Annie.

The two youngest boys, Walter and Charley, were 6 and 4 years old, respectively, and were constant playmates. 

On June 27, 1874, the two boys were playing outside when two men in a carriage pulled up. They began talking to the two boys, offered them candy, and left without incident.

The two men appeared each day for the next several days, talking to the boys, giving them some candy, and leaving without incident.  

On July 1, the men again showed up in a buggy and talked to the boys. This time, however, having built up a rapport with them over several days, they invited them to come with them to get fireworks and candy.

The two boys entered their carriage and were taken to a store. Walter, the older of the two, was given 25 cents and told to go into the store to buy fireworks while the rest waited outside. 

Walter went into the store, and when he returned, his brother and the two men were gone. 

Walter panicked and started to cry. He eventually got the attention of a stranger named Henry Peacock, who took him home to his father. 

His father immediately suspected what had happened. They asked neighbors if they saw anything. Several saw the boys get into the carriage, but no one saw them drop off Walter at the store and leave with Charley. 

Charley’s mother was in Atlantic City recovering from an illness, but she soon found out when she read the advertisements her husband put in newspapers for their son’s return. 

There was immediate speculation on who might have taken young Charley. Some figured a relative took the boy due to a family squabble. Others blamed gypsies. Still, others pointed the finger at Charley’s father, who figured it was a way to get attention. 

On July 3, a ransom letter arrived at the Ross home. It had been mailed from Philadelphia. 

The letter was filled with misspellings and grammatical errors. It read, 

Mr. Ros : be not uneasy you son charly be all writ. we is got him and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand. you wil hav two pay us befor you git him from us, and pay us a big cent to. if you put the cops hunting for him you is only defeeting yu own end. we is got him put so no living power can gets him from us a live. if any aproch is made to his hidin place that is the signil for his instant anihilation. if you regard his lif puts no one to search for him yu money can fetch him out alive an no other existin powers. dont deceve yuself an think the detectives can git him from us for that is imposebel. you here from us in few days.”

The police in Philadelphia and the surrounding area began a manhunt to find Charley. They went door to door and searched houses, usually without a warrant. People who objected were put under suspicion.

They searched boats going in and out of Philadelphia and found a lot of stolen property, but not the boy.

Families in the area kept their kids locked up inside to protect them. 

Several prominent Philadelphia citizens even recruited the Pinkerton Detective agency to help to find the boy.

On July 6, another letter arrived. This one requested the family pay $20,000 for the boy’s return. 

The problem was the kidnappers totally misjudged the Ross family. While they did have a nice house in a nice part of town, and Mr. Ross owned a general goods store, he was heavily in debt, having lost money in the stock market.  He didn’t have $20,000 on hand.

The kidnappers told Mr. Ross that if he wanted to communicate, he was to place a classified ad in the Philadelphia Telegram with the following: “Ros. we are ready to negotiate.”

Over the course of the next several weeks, Christian Ross and the kidnappers continued to communicate in this fashion. Ross was encouraged by the police to keep stringing the kidnappers along to hopefully get some information that could be used to capture them. 

In total, 23 letters were sent. There was one elaborate request for delivering the money, which involved painting a suitcase white, sitting at the back of a train, and waiting for a signal along the tracks. 

Mr. Ross took the train trip but never saw the signal. The kidnappers read a newspaper article that published erroneous information and never went.

Eventually, communications with the kidnappers ceased. The last letter was sent from New York.

In the meantime, Little Charley became a cause celebre. There was a popular song written called “Bring Back Our Darling”. Newspapers couldn’t get enough of the story.

The story cooled off as there were no new updates. Charley was still missing, and the police had no clues.

In August, the New York police had a possible lead in the case and requested to see the ransom letters to compare the handwriting.

An informant had come forward to the police to testify that he was approached by two men in April about a plot to kidnap a child from the Vanderbilt family and hold it for $50,000 ransom.

The informant provided detailed descriptions of the two men, which were corroborated by Charley’s brother Walter who had seen them. 

The two men were William Mosher and Joseph Douglas. Mosher had a criminal record and was actually a fugitive at the time of the kidnapping. Both men had been living in Philadelphia, not far away from the Ross home, and both had left to live in New York around the time when the ransom messages began to be sent from New York.

Many neighbors in Philadelphia also reported seeing a carriage similar to the one which picked up Walter and Charley at Mosher’s house.

The police and the Pinkertons began to look for the two men, but they couldn’t be found. 

The search for Mosher and Douglas ended on December 13 when the home of New York Supreme Court justice Charles Van Brunt was robbed. The men robbing the home were still on the premises when an alarm bell was sounded, altering Justice Van Brunt’s brother who lived next door. 

He assembled a small group of armed men and confronted the robbers, shooting both of them. 

The two men were William Mosher and Joseph Douglas. Mosher was killed instantly. Douglas was shot and was mortally wounded. 

Knowning he was near death, Joseph Douglas made a confession. He reportedly said, 

“Men, I won’t lie to you. My name is Joseph Douglas and the man over there is William Mosher. He lives in New York, and I have no home. I am a single man and have no relatives except a brother and sister whom I have not seen for twelve years. Mosher is married and has four children. I have forty dollars in my pocket that I made honestly. Bury me with that…..Men, I am dying now and it’s no use lying. Mosher and I stole Charley Ross.”

Charley’s brother Watler had identified one of the kidnappers with a distinctive facial feature that was never released to the public. He told the police he had a “monkey nose”.

Walter was brought to identify the two dead men and confirmed that they were the ones that picked up him and his brother. Mosher had a deformed nose. His body was also identified by one of their neighbors who saw the boys go into the carriage. 

There was another associate of Mosher and Douglas named William Westervelt, who was a police officer in Philadelphia. He was tried for the kidnapping, but there was no evidence to link him to the crime.

Even though the crime was seemingly wrapped up, there was still the issue of where little Charley was.

With both of the kidnappers dead, there was no way to find out where Charley was located. When Douglas gave his confession he said that Mosher was the only one who knew the location of the boy. No one knew if he was dead or alive. 

Charley Ross was never found and what happened to him remains a mystery to this day, over 150 years after he was taken. 

The kidnapping of Charley Ross was the first kidnapping for ransom in American history.  There were previous child kidnapping cases, but in those cases the kidnapper only intended to collect reward money.

In February 1875, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed the first kidnapping law in the country. 

Charley’s mother and father spent the rest of their lives looking for Charley. His father wrote a book and gave lectures just to raise funds to continue the search. 

His father passed away in 1897 and his mother in 1912. They talked to 570 men who claimed to have been Charley. 

For 50 years after the disappearance of Charley Ross people came forward who claimed they were him. 

The most notable case was that of a 74-year-old man named Gustave Blair who had a court in Arizona legally declare him to be Charley Ross in 1939. The surviving family members refused to contest it having dealt with thousands of other claimants over the decades. 

Later, the DNA tests confirmed that there was no way he could have been Charley Ross. 

The legacy of the kidnapping of Charley Ross endures to this day. The admonition of “don’t take candy from strangers” comes directly from the Charley Ross incident. 

Today most people have no idea who Charley Ross was, but child abductions are still a major concern. 

In the 80s and 90s, photos of missing children were put on milk cartons.

It was replaced by the AMBER alert system, which is a network that uses broadcast media and text messages to alert people when children go missing. 

The Global Missing Children’s Network is an international system to disseminate information on missing children. 

While there were other high-profile abduction cases that brought these modern programs into existence, it was the kidnapping of four-year-old Charley Ross in 1874 that first brought the issue to the attention of the public.