On the afternoon of July 1, 1874, four-year-old Charley Ross and his older brother Walter played behind a stone wall near their home in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. When two men offered them candy and firecrackers, the boys got in the strangers’ wagon and went with them. Walter was released a short time later, but Charley Ross did not come home.
Instead, the kidnappers sent a ransom note to his father demanding $20,000 or his son would be killed. Charley’s father, a struggling Philadelphia dry goods merchant, soon began communicating with the kidnappers through personals ads in newspapers in Philadelphia and New York City. The story spread, captivating people throughout the country. Philadelphia Mayor William Stokely put up a $20,000 reward for the kidnappers’ arrest. Thousands of letters and leads were sent to the Ross family as reward-hungry police, amateur detectives, Pinkertons, and spiritualists all claimed to know something about Charley’s whereabouts.
Stokely and a cabal of secretive advisers worried that the case might not only encourage other kidnappings, but damage the city’s reputation as it prepared to host a worldwide audience for the nation’s Centennial celebration. The Charley Ross kidnapping was the first documented case of a child being held for ransom in the United States. Author Carrie Hagen writes about the case in We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping that Changed America. The book was published by Overlook Press in 2011 in hardcover, and in paperback last year. Read an excerpt from the book on Carrie’s website. On the Always Eavesdropping podcast, Carrie Hagen discusses the case and her research of the crime and the world around the main players in Philadelphia and New York. I ask her about how, in fact, the kidnapping did change America, and how America was also undergoing other relentless social and technological change at the time that marked the period from the end of the Civil War to the early years of the Twentieth Century.