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“Don’t Take Candy from Strangers”

Isn’t Just a Phrase

“Don’t take candy from strangers” is a popular admonition that parents give to children. Many years ago, when the United States of America was not a superpower, the story of two brothers, Charlie Ross and Walter Ross, unfolded. Collectively, they were soon to be known as the reason why you must not accept candies from strangers. On July 1, 1874, two little boys were abducted in front of their family’s mansion. It was the first kidnapping for ransom in the history of the United States. And it would be the major event of its kind until the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.

Whether it is the fruity lozenge or chocolates, candies/lollies have always been a favourite treat of children. They are also a perfect item to lure children and remain the wicked minds’ guidebook to abduct them.

Sadly, Charlie and Walter were the first ones in the history of America who fell into the trap.

Charley Ross (age four) was lured from his Philadelphia home by the strangers offering candy; the boy was never found.  Candy has frequently been used to lure a child into a stranger’s car, so parents also admonish never to take rides with strangers.  In the 1910-1920s, children were admonished not to take candy from strangers for an additional reason—the candy was feared to be poisoned, often with morphine or cocaine to create an addiction.

The two Ross sons were taken from their family’s front lawn in Germantown, a north-west Philadelphia neighbourhood. Charley and his brother Walter were lured to take a horse-and-wagon ride with two men who had promised them candy and firecrackers for the approaching Fourth of July celebrations.

The men drove them to a store in Kensington, where they gave Walter a quarter and sent him inside to buy fireworks. But when he came out, carrying his new purchases, the wagon was gone. And so was Charley.

Why the kidnappers released Walter, age 5, for reasons unclear. When Charley failed to return home by nightfall, Christian Ross, a dry-goods merchant, feared the worst. But he struggled to get police help—Philadelphia’s force, only about 30 years old, had no precedent for investigating a kidnapping. At central police headquarters, inside Independence Hall, officers told Ross that drunks probably had taken Charley and would return him once they had sobered up. Three days later, the first ransom letter arrived at Ross’ store in downtown Philadelphia.

Somebody had written the message—ridden with errors in spelling, capitalization and punctuation—in black ink and an unsteady hand.

“You wil have to pay us before you git him from us, and pay us a big cent to,” the note read.  “if you put the cops hunting for him you is only defeeting yu own end”

The national obsession with crime was still young in 1874 when the Philadelphia Inquirer first described the following ransom letter: “Mr Ros: be not uneasy you son charley bruster be all writ we got him and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand.” Today, if a parent received this ransom letter, “proper procedures” would be set in place; police would immediately meet with the parents. Interviews and searches would be conducted almost instantly, and an Amber Alert would be sent throughout the United States. But in 1874 things were much different.

In that year, Charley Ross was a young four-year-old boy on East Washington Avenue in the Germantown area of Philadelphia. He and his brother Walter were playing outside their home when they were kidnapped by two men riding a horse and buggy. Walter would later be set free. Charley Ross, however, became the first abduction for ransom in American history.

Each year in the United States, upwards of 800,000 children under the age of 18 disappear — and that’s just counting reported missing person cases.

While these cases often make fine fodder for the evening news, for most of history they did not garner popular attention. Indeed, it wasn’t until the disappearance of Etan Patz and later, Adam Walsh, that mass media became a tool to crack the cases as well as pass legislation meant to curb the number of them that end in death.

But almost 100 years before Etan Patz and Adam Walsh inspired the concern of millions came a little boy named Charley Ross, who would become the first missing child in American history to make headlines.

The two men rode past the home of the Ross children every week, offering candy and engaging the small children in conversation. It was not until July 1st however, that the men riding that horse and buggy would by lure them to take a ride, promising them the purchase of some firecrackers for the upcoming Independence Day celebration. The boy, Walter, was set free just a few hours later, but Charley Ross’s fate would remain forever unknown.

The Ross family lived in a large house in a well-to-do area of Germantown and was presumably thought to be rich by the kidnappers. But unbeknownst to them, their father Christian Ross was actually heavily in debt since the stock market crash of 1873.

Although Christian Ross was a man of means, he had also reportedly suffered big losses in the economic downturn of 1873. There was no way he could pay that much.

So his well-connected friends offered to take up a collection. But Ross refused. Foreseeing today’s admonition against “negotiating with terrorists,” Ross insisted that paying the ransom would unleash a series of similar crimes across the land. In the public mind, however, that made Ross himself a suspect. Rumours swirled that he had somehow conspired in his son’s theft; others said that Charlie wasn’t Christian Ross’ son at all, but rather the product of an affair between Charley’s mother and another man.

So, although Christian Ross wished to pay the ransom, he was unable to do so and instead went to the police. The notes cautioned against police intervention and threatened Ross’s life if Christian did not cooperate.

The Philadelphia Police Department, under the direction of Captain Heins, would be the first to investigate the case. They began by placing advertisements in the Philadelphia Inquirer for the missing boy, stating that a $300 reward would be given for whoever could return the missing boy to his father. The advertisement also described the ransom letters the boy’s father had received.

The story of Charley “Brewster” Ross would soon become a sensation throughout the country. Police departments from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York began to help with the case, and newspapers from Philadelphia to California quickly began to publish articles on the missing boy.

The Father’s Story of Charley Ross, 1876. The first of 23 ransom notes that would reach the frantic Ross family.

The second ransom letter came five days later, stating the ransom amount: “This is the lever that moved the rock that hides him from yu $20,000. Not one doler les—impossible—impossible—you cannot get him without it.” (The sum of $20,000 in 1874 was the equivalent of about $400,000 today.)

With this demand, the letter writers recorded the first ransom kidnapping in U.S. history. They told Christian Ross to correspond with them through the personal advertisements of the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

Ross showed the letters to the police, who then rushed to make up for lost time. They advised him to refuse payment, for fear it would inspire copycat crimes, and they posted handbills from Philadelphia to Trenton to alert the public to Charley’s disappearance. The press soon learned about the letters, and concerned parents—wanting to know if their children were in similar danger—demanded they be released. The authorities refused to publish them, but on July 24, the mayor’s office announced a $20,000 reward for information leading to the kidnappers. Telegraphs spread word of the reward throughout the country—and unleashed chaos.

In addition to the heavy press coverage, some prominent Philadelphians enlisted the help of the famous Pinkerton detective agency, who had millions of flyers and posters printed with Ross’ likeness. A popular song based on the crime was even composed by Dexter Smith and W. H. Brockway, entitled “Bring Back Our Darling”. Several attempts were made to provide the kidnappers with ransom money as dictated in the notes, but in each case, the kidnappers failed to appear. Eventually, communication stopped.

As the country struggled through Reconstruction, Americans united in a national manhunt for a common enemy. But the search also brought out con artists, do-gooders and conspiracy theorists who jumped at the chance to say they had information about Charley Ross. Private detectives competed with police, spiritualists offered their services and parents dressed up their children—boys and girls of every age—in the hope that they could pass as Charley and capture the reward money. In early August, the chief of the Philadelphia police led a search of every building in the city.

By then, the New York police had received a lead. Gil Mosher, a seasoned criminal greedy for the reward, told Superintendent George Walling that his brother William and a friend named Joseph Douglas fit the kidnappers’ descriptions as reported by Walter Ross and witnesses who had seen the men near the boys.  Walling also learned that William Mosher’s brother-in-law was a former NYPD officer named William Westervelt, who had been fired for graft. Walling offered to restore Westervelt’s job if he could contact and spy on his brother-in-law.  Westervelt agreed.  But after contacting the kidnappers through his sister, he began acting as a double agent, informing the kidnappers of police activities.

The New York and Philadelphia police departments searched together for William Mosher and Douglas but did not release their names for fear of public interference. The search lasted five months, during which the kidnappers wrote 23 letters.

On the night of December 13, five months after the kidnapping, the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn house belonging to Judge Charles Van Brunt was burglarized. Holmes Van Brunt, Charles’ brother, lived next door, and gathered the members of his household, armed with shotguns, to stop the intruders in the act. As they entered Van Brunt’s house, they saw two lanterns go out, and the resulting torrent of gunfire from Holmes and his men brought down both burglars where they stood. They were Bill Mosher and Joe Douglas, career criminals who had recently been released from jail. Mosher was killed instantly while Douglas was mortally wounded, but managed to live about two more hours and was able to communicate with Holmes.

Everyone present was shaken by the experience, and there is no clear consensus regarding exactly what Douglas said. Most agree that Douglas said that there was no point in lying (as he knew he was mortally wounded) so he admitted that he and Mosher abducted Ross. His further statements, if any, are more controversial. He either said that Ross was killed, or that Mosher knew where Ross was, possibly adding that he would be returned unharmed to the Rosses within a few days.

In any case, he did not give any clues to Ross’ location or other particulars of the crime and died soon afterwards. Walter Ross was taken to New York City to look at the bodies of Mosher and Douglas so as to determine if they were the men from the carriage ride. Walter confirmed that they were the same men who took the boys from in front of their home the previous summer. Mosher, in particular, was very identifiable as he had a distinctively malformed nose, which Walter had described to police as a “monkey nose”. (The cartilage of Mosher’s nose had been destroyed by syphilis or cancer).

For most, the issue of who the men in the carriage were was settled beyond reasonable doubt, but Charley Ross was still missing.

The former Philadelphia policeman named William Westervelt, a known associate of William Mosher (and his wife’s brother) was arrested and held in connection with the case. He was tried in 1875 for kidnapping. Though Westervelt was a friend and perhaps a confidant of Mosher (while in prison awaiting trial he had told Christian Ross that his son had been alive at the time of Mosher’s death), there was virtually no evidence to tie him to the crime itself. Walter Ross, for one, insisted that Westervelt was not one of the men in the carriage that took them away. Westervelt was found to be innocent of the kidnapping. However, he was found guilty of a lesser conspiracy charge and served six years in prison. He always maintained his own innocence and swore that he did not know the whereabouts of Charley Ross.

During Westervelt’s trial, Christian Ross estimated that more than half a million people had assisted in the search for Charley. He told reporters that those helping him had distributed more than 700,000 fliers and investigated the stories of more than 600 children who resembled his son.

Two years after the kidnapping, Christian Ross published a book on the case, entitled The Father’s Story of Charley Ross, the Kidnapped Child, in order to raise money to continue searching for his son. By 1878, the media interest in the case had begun to wane. To renew interest, Ross had the book reprinted and began giving lectures in Boston.

Christian Ross and his wife continued to search for their son until their deaths (Christian Ross died in 1897 and his wife died in 1912). They followed leads and interviewed over 570 boys, teenagers, and eventually grown men from around the world who claimed to have been Charley Ross. All proved to be imposters.[7] The Rosses eventually spent approximately $60,000 looking for their son.[8] In 1924, newspapers began running stories about the case to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Ross’ abduction. By that time, Walter Ross was an adult and was working as a stockbroker. In interviews, he said that he and his three sisters still received letters from middle-aged men claiming to be his brother.

In 1934, Gustave Blair, a 69-year-old carpenter living in Phoenix, Arizona, petitioned a court to recognise him as the real Charley Ross. Blair claimed that after he was abducted, he lived in a cave and was eventually adopted by a man who told him he was Charley Ross. Walter Ross dismissed Blair’s claim calling him “a crank” and added, “The idea that my brother is still alive is not only absurd, but the man’s story seems unconvincing. We’ve long ago given up hope that Charles ever would be found alive.” As Blair’s claim went uncontested, the court ruled that Blair was “Charles Brewster Ross” in March 1939. Despite the ruling, the Ross family refused to recognise Blair as their relative and did not bequeath him any money or property from their parents’ estate. Blair briefly moved to Los Angeles and attempted to sell his life story to a movie studio but was unsuccessful. He eventually moved to Germantown with his wife before moving back to Phoenix. He died in December 1943 still claiming that he was Charley Ross.

The case, and in particular the fates of Mosher, Douglas, and Westervelt, served as a deterrent to other potential ransom kidnappers: it would be a quarter of a century before another high-profile ransom kidnapping case emerged with Edward Cudahy, Jr. in 1900.

The common admonition “don’t take candy from strangers” is said to have come from Charley Ross’ abduction. The Charley Project, a major missing person database, is named for Charley Ross.

The first ransom notes come from an 1874 kidnapping. (Freeman’s Auctioneers and Appraisers)

Christian Ross searched for his son Charley all over the United States, and elsewhere, for the rest of his life. He started issuing certificates to brown-eyed blonde males so he could prove they’d been checked once previously. Despite all his efforts, and those of his wife and son Walter after his death, Charley was lost forever.

The Ross ransom letters went up for auction on November 14, 2013. The winner paid $20,000 for the letters, ironically the same sum as the ransom demanded in the letter of July 7, 1874.

The First Ransom Note for the Return of Charley Ross

(Spellings as they appeared in the original)

July 3
Mr. Ross- be not uneasy you son charly bruster he al writ we as 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. an pay us a big cent to. if you put the cops hunting for him yu is only defeeting yu own end. we is got him fitt so no living power can gits him from us a live. if any aproch is maid to his hidin place that is the signil for his instant anihilation. if yu regard his lif puts no one to search for him you money can fech him out alive an no other existin powers don’t deceve yuself and think the detectives can git him from us for that is one imposebel
yu here from us in few day

Later that year, police were investigating the kidnapping of a Vanderbilt child and found a ransom note in that case that matched closely the one for Charley Ross. They identified the handwriting as fugitive convict William Moshers.

Charley’s father died in 1897, his mother in 1912. Walter Ross died in 1943. The Ross mansion was torn down in 1926. The Cliveden Presbyterian Church now stands on the site of the kidnapping.

When Charley was kidnapped, he was certainly not the first child to be kidnapped in the United States. But, unlike the others who preceded him, his parents were able to turn Charley’s abduction into a national cause and to bring their plight and their son’s story to national attention.

They did so because they were well connected politically, well-off economically, and because of Charley’s father’s (Christian Ross), initially refused to pay the (then) enormous ransom demand of $20,000 (only in part because he did not have the money). This refusal brought him a torrent of negative commentary and helped to define the future what Americans expected of parents caught in such terrible situations.

Christian Ross responded by writing a book in which he explained himself and described his personal anguish at the loss of his son and the toll it took on his family. The resulting publicity about the father’s role and his obligations to his son helped to carry the story of the “lost boy” far and wide (and well beyond the United States) and made Charley Ross famous.

The publicity made his retrieval into a national obsession. To this day, Charley’s fate remains unknown despite decades of efforts and the tantalising revelations of one burglar moments before his death that he had been involved in the kidnapping and knew the boy’s whereabouts.

The case of Charley Ross demonstrated the public’s rising expectations about parental responsibilities for maintaining the safety of their children. It also exposed the very real limits of police actions in cases of this kind. This intersection between private and public responsibilities for children’s welfare set the boundaries and context for kidnappings ever since.

The case also showed the growing dependence of parents of victims on the media to broadcast their loss in hopes of having the child located and returned. The Ross family was the first to widely distribute very large numbers of missing child posters (now familiar to Americans). Some of these were distributed by the circus impresario P. T. Barnum.

The Rosses were also able to use the Western Union Telegraph Company to follow leads from many places that came in as the public reported sightings of Charley (now recognised from posters as well as widely disseminated newspaper stories) in various parts of the country. Within short order, Charley Ross’s name, identity, and story became deeply part of the public’s imagination and inscribed in the popular culture of the time.

Christian Ross, like many parents of victims today, devoted the remainder of his life to finding his son and other missing children. The Charley Ross case was also used everywhere to change laws and increase penalties for child abduction.

“The men and women who were children in the days of the Charley Ross kidnapping can remember how their mothers warned them to stay in the house, never talk to strangers, and regard every old clothes man as a potential ogre who would carry them off and strangle them and cut them into little pieces,” the New Republic editorialized in 1932, a few days after the Lindbergh baby was found dead. “The Lindbergh case is likely to produce an even wider reaction.”

But nothing rivalled the reaction to the disappearance of Etan Patz, whose mother watched him walk down the street and never saw him again. At one time, 500 police officers were involved in the search for the boy; eventually, his face appeared on milk cartons across America.

Like Christian Ross, Etan’s parents faced nasty invective from a frightened public. Some critics said the Patzes should never have let Etan out of their sight. Others claimed he was hiding with his grandparents following a family dispute over religion: whereas Etan’s father is Jewish, his mother is not.

In the end, of course, there was no explanation for Etan’s disappearance. And that’s the scariest thing of all. We want the world to make sense, to conform to our scripts of reason and order and safety. But it doesn’t.

Charley

Little Charley Ross

Missing Boy’s Kidnappers

The First Ransom Note

Why We Tell Our Kids Not To Take Candy From Strangers

The Disappearance of Charley Ross | The Lineup

Don’t Take Candies From Strangers Isn’t Just A Phrase. Here’s The …

The Disappearance Of Charley Ross – NDTV.com

The Big Apple: “Don’t take candy from strangers” – Barry Popik

Stranger Danger: These Major Kidnappings Shocked The Public And …

Handwritten Notes and Portrait Illustration concerning the Abduction of …

Germantown’s 1874 unsolved child abduction case — NewsWorks

5 True Crime Mysteries That History Has Forgotten About. #4 Is …

Charley Ross – Wikipedia

Kidnapping Charley Ross | Philadelphia Speaks

 


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