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Child Kidnapping in the Twenties

Racketeers may have been responsible for turning kidnapping into a “snatch racket,” but they were not alone in profiting in the advantages enjoyed by kidnappers. Some revenge-seekers, thrill junkies, and psychopathic killers may have asked for a ransom, but their base motives could put the kidnap victim at greater risk than the prisoners of cautious criminal “businessmen.” In these cases, it seemed, children were especially vulnerable. The infant Blakely Coughlin (abducted in 1920), 5-year-old Giuseppi Verotta (1921), 14-year-old Robert “Bobby” Franks (killed by Leopold and Loeb in 1924), Marion Parker (1927), Grace Budd (1928), and Gill Jamieson (1929) were among the kidnapped children who never returned to their parents. By contrast, five-year-old Jackie Thompson, the first child snatched by an organized gang, was released after payment of $17,000 and an $8,000 note. All of these abductions and murders were front page news throughout America. The public was made aware of the most awful details, such as the dismemberment and disembowelment of the Parker girl.

The kidnap murders of Blakely Coughlin (1920), the son of a wealthy Pennsylvania family and Giuseppi Verotta (1921), the son of an Italian pushcart merchant in New York City, are both briefly described in Ernest K. Alix, Ransom Kidnapping in America 1874-1974 (So. Illinois University Press, 1978), pages 38-43. The Verotta murder, allegedly the first committed because a ransom was not paid, marked a renewal of the “Black Hand” kidnapping wave that took place earlier in the century. Among other reasons, the case is notable for spurring a New York congressman to introduce a bill making the interstate transportation of a kidnapped child a federal crime. The bill died in committee, and it would take an especially notorious crime to prod Congress to act.

The kidnap-murder of Bobby Franks (1924) by Nathan F. Leopold and Richard A. Loeb, the so-called “Crime of the Century,” is the subject of numerous books, as well as dramatic productions on stage, movie houses, and television screens. Among the books currently in print are:

  • Higdon, Hal. Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century (University of Illinois Press, 1999; originally published in 1975)
  • John Theodore, Evil Summer: Babe Leopold, Dickie Loeb, and the Kidnap-Murder of Bobby Franks (So. Illinois Univ. Press, 2007)
  • Baatz, Simon. For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb and the Murder that Shocked Chicago (HarperCollins, 2008).

Also of interest is Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Life Plus 99 Years (1958, reprinted by Greenwood Press, 1974, out of print).

Websites include:

Both sites include contemporary texts, original material, and extensive bibliographies.

One of the lucky ones was Virginia Jo Frazier (1927), returned after the demanded ransom of $3,333 was paid. (See Alix, Ransom Kidnapping, pages 49-50.) Marion Parker (1927) was not so fortunate. Her kidnapping, in fact, resulted in a particularly gruesome murder and mutilation, some of which took place before the killing occurred. William Edward Hickman, only seven years older than his 12-year-old victim, pleaded insanity, but neither the jury (which deliberated just 36 minutes) nor the appellate jurists bought it. Hickman was the first person executed as a result of a ransom kidnapping, according to Alix (Ransom Kidnapping, pages 50-55). He had demanded only $1,500, but never intended to return her alive.

The kidnapping, brutal slaying, untested insanity plea, and lurid press coverage are the subject of considerable attention on the Internet. Perhaps the best place to start, because of its links to numerous other websites, is, of all places, a site devoted to Edgar Rice Burroughs. “Volume 1767” of Bill and Sue-On Hillman’s ERBzine, at , begins with Burrough’s coverage of the Hickman trial in thirteen columns written in 1928 for the Los Angeles Examiner, but also contains documents, photos, and other memorabilia provided to the Hillman’s by a nephew of Hickman. Other websites include a look at Ayn Rand’s take on Hickman (at ) and lyrics to two variants of The Ballad of Marion Parker (at ).

The case is also the subject of Michael Newton’s Stolen Away: The True Story Of California’s Most Shocking Kidnap-Murder (Pocket Books, 2000).

However frightening to society Hickman’s crime was, it was soon overshadowed by the misdeeds of Albert Fish, a sadistic, masochistic, rapist-cannibal-killer of unsurpassed in depravity. He may have killed three victims, or five, fifteen, one hundred, or, by one guess, four hundred. One that Fish certainly killed was ten-year-old Grace Budd of Manhattan, kidnapped in 1928. The crime remained unsolved until five years later, when Fish sent a letter to Grace’s mother, admitting to feasting on the girl. This arrogance led to his arrest, trial, conviction, and execution. No ransom was ever demanded, but the horrific circumstances of the crime were widely published.

The most thorough published account is Harold Schechter’s Deranged: The Shocking True Story of America’s Most Fiendish Killer! (Pocket Books, 1998). Unsurprisingly, it remains a steady seller on more than a decade after its release. Web pages devoted to the flesh-eating Fish include Dead Men Do Tell Tales (

Gill Jamieson (1928) may not have been the last child kidnapped and murdered during the Roaring Twenties, but his abductor-killer, Myles Y. Fukunaga, may have been the last to be executed before the decade was out. Ten-year-old Gill was the son of a Honolulu banker; his killer, nine years older, was a hotel worker who blamed the senior Jamieson for his parent’s eviction from their rented home.  After abducting the boy, Fukunaga beat him with a steel chisel and then strangled him to death. Only then did he ask for a $10,000 ransom. The parents paid $4,000 in marked bills to a masked but unwary Fukunaga, who was soon arrested. Shortly after his arrest, Fukunaga reportedly admitted to closely following the crimes of Leopold, Loeb, and Hickman. He was executed in November, 1929.

The Jamieson kidnap-murder has inspired comparatively little interest outside of Hawaii.  The briefest of Wikipedia articles ( does have a link to an interesting document, the decision of the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissing his appeal. (

The high profile kidnappings of the Twenties shared little similarity other than the childhood of the victims. Not all were ransom cases. Not all the kidnappers who demanded ransom even waited to make an exchange before killing their victims. After reportedly closely following the brief criminal “careers” of Leopold, Loeb, and Hickman, Fukunaga apparently determined to kill his captive straight away, “because kidnapping never works unless you do.” Murderous expressions like these, and even more the unthinkable brutality of men like Hickman (Fish was not yet discovered), were guaranteed to put dread into any parent’s heart, no matter how reassuring a kidnapper’s ransom note might be.

Speculation that the missing Italian American child Giuseppi Verotta had been transported from New York to New Jersey had caused a brief flurry of activity to involve the federal government in child kidnap cases. But most notorious child snatch cases during the rest of the decade did not involve interstate transportation. Despite the fact that the abduction of businessmen was on the upswing at this time, crimes that often did involve interstate transportation, the idea of bringing the crime within the federal criminal code remained largely dormant… until the Lindbergh baby disappeared.