Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2013 Issue

Ransom Note and Other Letters from First Kidnapping Sold at Freeman's Auction

96208d0f-c300-4a48-8c27-97d88daf6e3a

The ransom note seeking $20,000 for Charley Ross.

A piece of criminal history was sold at the annual Pennsylvania sale at Freeman's Auction in Philadelphia last month. It included the most important documents in one of the most sensational cases of the 19th century, albeit somewhat forgotten today. It was the case of 4-year-old Charley Ross, the first victim of a kidnapping for ransom. Whatever happened to poor Charley remains a mystery today.

 

This story begins on July 1, 1874. Little Charley and his 6-year-old brother Walter are playing in their front yard in the Germantown section of Philadelphia when two men stop by. The men offer candy and a promise to take them to a fireworks shop. July 4th is just around the corner. The boys agree to get in their “getaway car,” which in 1874, of course, is a horse-drawn buggy. They ride off for the city. Little Charley gets a bit antsy after awhile, but the men stop at a fireworks store as promised. They give Walter a quarter to go inside to buy some fireworks. This Walter does, but when he returns, the men, the buggy, and Charley are gone. Charley would never be seen again.

 

The boys' father, Christian Ross, thought they were playing at a neighbor's house. As day dragged on to evening, he became concerned and began looking. There was no trace of the boys. Christian placed an ad in the paper. Missing persons issues were handled differently then. He didn't tell his wife immediately as she was off in Atlantic City, recuperating from an illness. He didn't want to concern her.

 

Two days later, a stranger who had found Walter brought him home. That is when Christian learned the complete story. Meanwhile, a ransom note arrived at the house. It was crude, filled with misspellings and bad English, but the message was clear. The kidnappers wanted $20,000 and they threatened terrible harm to the child if Christian went to the police. The note read:

 

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.”

 

Germantown was a wealthy section of town, and the Rosses lived in a large house. The kidnappers likely assumed they must have a lot of money. They didn't. They had once been fairly wealthy, but Mr. Ross lost a lot of money in the Panic of 1873 with the result being he was now heavily in debt. He was unable to come up with $20,000, an enormous sum of money in those days. So instead he disobeyed the kidnappers' demand and went to the police.

 

In time, more ransom notes arrived, money was raised, and attempts were made to pay the kidnappers with marked bills in distant places - New Jersey and New York. The kidnappers never came for the money. Rewards were offered, time went by, but nothing happened. However, in New York City, the Police Superintendent became aware that the handwriting on the notes resembled that of one William Mosher, a small-time thief with a distinctive, deformed nose. Mosher's brother-in-law was William Westervelt, a sometime policeman. Westervelt attempted to collect the reward money, but also tipped off Mosher so the latter could remain out of sight.

 

A break finally came in the case in December when two men broke into a summer home belonging to a judge on Long Island. The Judge's brother lived next door, and along with a couple of other family members, grabbed some shotguns and went next door. Gunfire broke out, and when it was finished, William Mosher lay dead on the floor. His partner, Joseph Douglas, was mortally wounded. Douglas lived long enough to say a few words. He admitted responsibility, but placed most of the blame on his partner. He also said Charley Ross was fine and would be released in a few days. Then he died. Ross was never released, nor his location revealed. Charley's brother Walter was brought to New York to view the bodies, and he identified them as the two men who had kidnapped him and his brother back in July.

 

The outcome was frustrating. Charley could not be located and the kidnappers could not be tried. However, they did put Westervelt on trial. There just wasn't much evidence to connect him to the kidnapping. Walter viewed Westervelt too and said he was not a participant. Westervelt was acquitted. He was convicted on the lesser count of conspiracy and served six years in prison. Westervelt repeatedly proclaimed his innocence.  

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Adventure & Exploration Library of Steve Fossett. October 31, 2018</b>
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> SHACKLETON, Ernest Henry, Sir. <i>Aurora Australis. Printed at the Winter Quarters of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907, During the Winter Months of April, May, June, July, 1908.</i> $60,000 to $80,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> HUMBOLDT, Alexander von, and Aime J. A. BONPLAND. <i>Vues des Cordillères, et monumens des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique.</i> Paris, 1810. $30,000 to $40,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> COOK, James, Captain. [Collected Voyages]. London: Strahan and Cadell, 1773, 1777, 1784. First editions of the second and third voyages. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Adventure & Exploration Library of Steve Fossett. October 31, 2018</b>
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> DARWIN, Charles. <i>A Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle, between the years 1826 and 1836.</i> $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> SPILBERGEN, Joris van (1568-1620). <i>Speculum orientalis occidentalisque Indiae navigationum.</i> Leiden: Nicolaus van Geelkercken, 1619. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> DRAKE, Francis, Sir. <i>Sir Francis Drake Revived. Who is or may be a Pattern to stirre up all Heroicke and active Spirits of these Times…</i> London, 1653 [i.e. 1652]. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Adventure & Exploration Library of Steve Fossett. October 31, 2018</b>
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> SHACKLETON, Ernest Henry, Sir, Louis C. BERNACCHI, and Apsley George Benet CHERRY-GARRARD, editors. The South Polar Times. London, 1907-1914. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> ANSON, George. <i>A Voyage round the World, In the Years 1740...</i> 1744. London: John and Paul Knapton for the author, 1748. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> HERRERA Y TORDESILLAS, Antonio de. <i>Description des Indes Occidentales, Qu'on appelle aujourdhuy Le Nouveau Monde...</i> Amsterdam: Michel Colin, 1622. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Adventure & Exploration Library of Steve Fossett. October 31, 2018</b>
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> NOORT, Olivier van. <i>Description du Penible Voyage fait entour de l'univers ou globe terrestre...</i> Amsterdam: Cornille Nicolas, 1610. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> LEO AFRICANUS, Johannes. <i>A Geographical Historie of Africa, Written in Arabicke and Italian.</i> London: George Bishop, 1600. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> SCHOUTEN, Willem Corneliszoon. <i>Journal ou Description du Merveilleux Voyage de Guillaume Schouten, Hollandois natif de Hoorn, fait es années 1615, 1616, & 1617.</i> 1619. $4,000 to $6,000
  • <b>Bonhams: Sale Results from <i>Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I.</i> September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. Sold for $97,500
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. Sold for $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. Sold for $87,50
    <b>Bonhams: Sale Results from <i>Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I.</i> September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. Sold for $8,750
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. Sold for $37,500
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. Sold for $6,875
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. Sold for $3,750
  • <center><b>William Bunch Auctions<br>October Fine Art and Prints<br>October 29, 2018</b>
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Aegidius Sadeler (Flemish, 1570-1629), engraving on laid paper "Madonna and Child in a Landscape", after a drawing by Albrecht Durer. $800 to $1,200
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Anders Zorn (Swedish, 1860-1920), drypoint etching on paper "On Hemso Island", 1917, pencil signed. $400 to $600
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Joseph Pennell (American, 1860-1926), etching on paper "Setting Up Columns", pencil signed. $200 to $300
    <center><b>William Bunch Auctions<br>October Fine Art and Prints<br>October 29, 2018</b>
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> William Lee Hankey (British, 1869-1952), drypoint etching on paper "Affection", pencil signed. $200 to $300
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> William Walcot (English, 1874-1943), drypoint etching on paper "Lower Broadway, New York", 1924, pencil signed. $200 to $300
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Auguste Brouet (French, 1872-1941), color etching "La Pirouette", pencil signed, ed 111/250. $400 to $600
    <center><b>William Bunch Auctions<br>October Fine Art and Prints<br>October 29, 2018</b>
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975), lithograph on paper "The Boy", pencil signed. $2,000 to $3,000
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> John Stockton de Martelly (American, 1903-1979), lithograph on paper "Looking at the Sunshine", pencil signed, original AAA certificate. $400 to $600
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Jacques Hnizdovsky (Ukrainian-American, 1915-1985), woodcut on paper "Moppet", pencil signed and dated 1965, ed 118/250. $400 to $600
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Kurt Vonnegut, archive of 12 letters, signed to his family, 6 illustrated, 1930s-40s. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Allen Ginsberg, 11 autograph manuscripts, including 10 drafts of poems & a page of notes, circa 1948. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Joan Miró, illustrated autograph note signed to MoMA Director of Exhibitions & Publications, 1959. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Carl Gustav Jung, typed letter signed to a colleague, 1948. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Gustav Mahler, ALS, arranging a meeting during his historic visit to New York, circa 1908. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Mark Twain, ALS, explaining the target of his new book, 1902. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Charles Dickens, ALS, accepting an invitation in the voice of a <i>Martin Chuzzlewit</i> character, 1843. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Jacob Lawrence, illustrated greeting card signed, 1960. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Robert E. Lee, ALS, to the colonel of the Kanawha Valley volunteers, boosting morale, 1861. $15,000 to $25,000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions