The Kidnapping of Little Charley Ross

“KIDNAPPERS MOST NOTED VICTIM,” New York Times, June 29, 1947, p. XX4

Don’t take candy from strangers.
Little Charley Ross, the first missing child to make national headlines, made that mistake.

During the summer of 1874, two men in a horse-drawn buggy pulled into an affluent neighborhood in Philadelphia and befriended two little boys who were playing in front of their stately home. For five days in a row four-year-old Charley Ross and his six-year-old brother Walter, chatted with the men who gave them candy.

On July 1, 1874, the men pulled up as usual, but this time they offered to take the boys to buy candy and fireworks for the upcoming Independence Day holiday, and the boys agreed. After driving a ways, the men sent Walter into a shop to buy fireworks alone. When the boy came out, he discovered that the buggy with Charley in it was gone.

Several days after Walter’s return, the boys’ father, Christian Ross, received the first of 23 ransom letters from the kidnappers demanding $20,000 for Charley’s release. Despite living in a wealthy part of town, however, the family’s fortunes had been greatly diminished by the stock market crash of 1873. Mr. Ross could not afford the ransom and was forced to go to the police.

                                “THE CHILD STEALER’S LETTER,” The New York Herald, December 17, 1874

Detectives searched tirelessly for Charley with no real leads. Mr. Ross used the the personal column in the Public Ledger to try and communicate with the blackmailers, but to no avail. Many theories about the kidnapping circulated, but there was still no sign of Charley.

Later that December, two criminals, Joseph Douglas and William Mosher, were shot during a botched burglary in Brooklyn, NY. Mosher was killed instantly, but as Douglas lay dying, he confessed that the pair had been responsible for stealing Charley Ross. He told authorities that the deceased Mosher had been the only person who knew where the boy was being held. Two hours later, Douglas was dead.

          “THE REVELATION,” The New York Herald, December 15, 1874

Police later arrested a third member of the gang, William Westervelt, who was a disgraced Philadelphia policeman and brother-in-law of William Mosher. Although Westervelt insisted he was not involved in the actual kidnapping, police were convinced he was complicit in the abduction. While in prison waiting for his trial, Westervelt told Mr. Ross that Charley had been alive when Mosher was killed.

In August 1875, Westervelt went on trial for the kidnapping of Charley Ross and although the jury found him innocent of kidnapping, he was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to six years in prison.

For Christian Ross, the ordeal did not end with the death of Mosher and Douglas, or the incarceration of Westervelt. In 1876 he wrote The Father’s Story of Charley Ross, the Kidnapped Child and poured all the profits from the book into the search for his son. Thousands of circulars about the abduction and pictures of Charley were posted in police stations, railroad stations, post offices, and ship ports across the nation. Over several decades, the Ross family spent over $60,000 looking for Charley, which included following leads and investigating over a thousand imposters who claimed to be their missing son.

“Court Identifies ‘Charley Ross’ But Family ‘Disowns’ Him,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), May 9, 1939, p. 5

One of the last and most enduring claims was that of carpenter Gustave Blair. In 1939, an Arizona court ruled that he was Charley Ross after he told a jury that he vaguely remembered being held prisoner in a cave as a small boy and that the family who had raised him told him that he was a kidnap victim. After the ruling, he officially changed his name and travelled to Pennsylvania, but the Ross family refused to accept him.

The kidnapping of little Charley Ross was one of the great crimes of the Gilded Age, yet what really happened to him remains a mystery.

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