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Before the “Snatch Racket”

Kidnapping is an ancient crime, mentioned in the Bible, but for millennia largely associated with war, piracy, and slavery. False imprisonment was recognized as a felony under English common law in the early 13th century but soon fell into the class of “minor felony.” While the United States “without doubt” experienced hundreds of cases before the 1920s, the instances were isolated and ransom was rarely the motive. With rare exception, little attention was paid beyond the place the crime was committed.  ( For discussions of the origins and development of kidnapping and kidnapping law, see Hugh A. Fisher and Matthew F. McGuire, “Kidnapping and the So-called Lindbergh Law,” 12 N.Y.U. L.Q. Review 646 (1934-1935); K. A. Aickin, “Kidnapping at Common Law,” 1 Res Judicatae 130 (1935-1938), both at

On July 1, 1874, four-year-old Charles Ross, the son of a prominent citizen of Germantown, Pennsylvania, was abducted by two men who had previously given him and his older brother candy. The parents received twenty-three separate ransom notes during the next 130 days, all demanding a ransom of $20,000. A burglar, wounded in the course of his capture, confessed to the kidnapping but died before giving up the location of the boy or his body. The father, Christian Ross, published his account of the affair and spent decades and tens of thousands attempting to find his son or what happened to him. Imposters were plentiful. ( See Fisher and McGuire, 649-650. See also Christian K. Ross, The Father’s Story of Charley Ross the Kidnapped Child, online at

Not until 1900 did another child snatching, the abduction of 16-year-old Edward Cudahy, attract national attention. The kidnapper threatened to blind him with acid unless a $25,000 ransom was paid. The boy’s father, a wealthy meat-packer, paid the price and the boy was returned. Pat Crowe was eventually identified as the kidnapper and brought to trial in 1905. Because Nebraska had no kidnapping law, he was tried for robbery. The jury acquitted Crowe, who then traded upon his notoriety on the lecture circuit. He died in a rooming house in 1938.(see Fisher and McGuire, 650; “Cudahy Kidnapping, Nebraska Government Website,

What had been a rare and isolated crime having only local effect was transformed during the “Roaring Twenties” into a wave of kidnappings that shocked, outraged, and fascinated the nation.  The “Roaring Twenties” in the next post.

Essential to an understanding of ransom kidnappings from the Ross case forward is the academic survey, Ransom Kidnapping in America, 1874-1974: The Creation of a Capital Crime, by Ernest Kahlar Alix (So. Illinois Univ. Press, 1978).