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The Kidnapping of Little Charley Ross

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“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.

Comments (17)

  1. Any chance DNA can answer the question about the “new” Charlie?

    • I did find information from 2000 that a blood sample from the last known male descendant in the family, the son of Gustave Blair, was taken with the hope that a Ross descendent would agree to cooperate with a DNA test. However, I did not find any newspaper articles after that time period that reported a DNA test had ever been done or any results found. Today, DNA testing is very expensive and was likely even more costly in the early 2000s, so it would not surprise me if the testing never took place due to cost. Or of course, a Ross descendant was unwilling to participate with the testing.

  2. Such an interesting story. Poor Charley!

  3. “DNA testing is very expensive” Compared to the $60,000 already spent, a modern day autosomal test for $49 is a bargain.

  4. Huh? Why did they refuse!?

    • If you are asking why the Ross family refused to accept Gustave Blair as Charley Ross, I think the family had been disappointed by too many imposters who also claimed to be the missing boy over the course of decades. At the time, Charley’s brother Walter ignored Blair’s claim, as the timing of it came only weeks after the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. According to newspapers, Blair attempted to contact Walter Ross to tell his story, but he was uninterested.

      If your question was referring to the comment about a Ross descendent unwilling to participate in DNA testing, I was only speculating as to why a DNA test may never had been completed back in 2001 when there was first talk about it. I cannot confirm if a DNA test ever did or did not take place as I could not find any mention in newspapers after 2001 that reported a test was done.

  5. My family conducted D.N.A. Testing and have confirmed that “Gustave Blair” , his real name, Nelson Miller,
    was in fact not Charley Ross.

    • Very interesting! Thank you for the update Larry.

  6. My paternal grandpa was a mystery man. My grandpa was a loner & never talked of his family. My mom was a geneologist; she tried to trace grandpa’s family. Recently, I was asked if I knew my grandpa could be Charley Ross. Said g’pa shared that he was Charley Ross, but it didn’t matter they never found him. They share the same bithdate. My gpa birth certificate has him born in Arkansas where some say Charley Ross could have been taken. Whether Charley Ross or whomever, I have begun the search to see who my Grandpa Brown really was his family lineage. My dad was the best!! I know my grandpa had to be a good man.

  7. Is there any updated information about the whereabouts of Charley Ross? Or any speculation?

  8. I would like to update the situation from my comment of
    Sept 2 2019. My uncle and I have extensively investigated our family rumor that Nelson Miller /Gustave Blair was really the kidnapped Charles Brewster Ross. We in fact conducted a DNA analysis that proved Gustave Blair was not Charley Ross but was Nelson Miller. My Great Granduncle. We have just recently decided to publish some of our journey that led us to that conclusion though our web site.
    It is quite a complicated story but we felt it needed to be told to correct the historical error.

    We only wish we could have brought some closure to the Charley Ross story.

    • Thank you Larry for sharing this story and the conclusions you’re family has drawn. It’s a fascinating case and I think people will really appreciate reading about the investigation you and your uncle have done.

  9. Did anyone ever find Charley Ross body?

  10. Larry Miller
    Was any DNA CONFIRMED on who or where Charley Ross is laid to Rest?

  11. It’s so sad that the family never found or got closure of their baby son.

  12. It’s sad that test were never performed. I’d spent and sold everything I had to find out if that indeed was Charlie…we’ll probably never know, there most likely isn’t anyone left that is direct kin to Charlie and cares to pursue his demise in the year 2022. Sad and heartbreaking there will never be closure to learn what actually happened to Charlie in 1939.

  13. DNA Findings, a division of Genealogy by Genetics, LTD, AABB Accredited conducted DNA analysis for a Y-DNA study commissioned by Miller descendants. They reported “Kinship Test Results,” on March 22, 2011. The Millers identified descendants of two children of Rinear and Ann Miller who were willing to participate in a DNA study. Using chain of custody procedures, DNA was collected from a male descendant of each of the suspected brothers, Harrison (Hiram) Miller, and Nelson Miller (aka Gustave Blair). DNA analysis determined that Harrison (Hiram) Miller had a “99.99903% probability of kinship” with Nelson Miller, meaning that they were, in fact brothers – they shared the same paternal linage, a perfect 37/37 7-STR marker match. Gustave Blair was a Miller, Nelson Miller. He could not have been Charley Ross.

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