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“Unless something drastic is done…”

By the 1930s, kidnappings in the United States were commonplace, and the crime “had become a profession.” The police chief of St. Louis, the national epicenter of the gangster “snatch racket,” advised Congress that he investigated 282 cases extending into 21 states within the space of a year. Police chiefs in 501 cities reported to Congress in 1931 that 279 kidnappings had taken place, a fraction of the estimated total. Only 69 persons had been convicted, out of the 2,000 persons thought to be involved in the “snatch,” transportation, or sequestration of the victims. Ransoms paid ran from $1,500 to $125,000. Kidnapping had truly “assumed the proportions of big business.” Whatever the numbers, said the Denver police chief, kidnapping was “increasing tremendously… throughout the country.” “Unless something drastic is done,” the Jacksonville chief asserted, “it will be unsafe for any wealthy man to venture about freely.” The police chief might have included a wealthy parent’s children.[i]

In response, in December, 1931, Senator Roscoe C. Patterson and Congressman John J. Cochran of Missouri introduced bills making the interstate transportation of kidnap victims a federal crime. Opponents, including the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, viewed the proposed new federal authority as a usurpation of powers constitutionally delegated to the states. The bills died, but the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of Lucky Lindy, arguably the most famous American in the world, changed everything.[ii] Although there was no gainsaying that the bills resubmitted by the Missourians and ultimately passed by Congress represented an “opening wedge” in the federal encroachment upon traditionally state-level law enforcement, it was equally true that strict adherence to tradition in kidnapping cases was failing the nation miserably. The game changer was a public enraged enough by the Lindbergh crime to demand that Congress do something drastic. They did, on June 17, 1932, passing the Lindbergh Law, which made the interstate or foreign transportation of any person “unlawfully seized, confined, inveigled, decoyed, kidnaped, abducted, or carried away by any means whatsoever and held for ransom or reward” punishable by imprisonment. All confederates in the commission of such a crime were to be subject to punishment under the Act. This law was supplemented in July, 1932, with an act punishing the use of the mail with intent to extort.[iii]

Even with the Lindbergh Law on the books, the criminal’s needs were met often enough that kidnapping remained popular among intelligent and hapless criminals alike as the Depression rolled on. No fewer than twenty-seven “major kidnappings” took place in 1933, more than double the number recorded for any previous year. Ransoms demanded ranged as high as $200,000. By the spring of 1934, “virtually all these cases were still unsolved.”[iv]

For more on the national crisis in the early 1930s, see the books cited below, Sullivan’s The Snatch Racket, Potter’s War on Crime, and Burrough’s Public Enemies, among other works.

[i] Edward Dean Sullivan, The Snatch Racket, 241-243; Horace L. Bomar, Jr., “The Lindbergh Law,” 1 Law & Contemp. Probs. 435 (1933-1934);  Fisher and McGuire, 653-654.

[ii] Bomar, 435-436

[iii] The act was amended in May, 1934, to create the presumption that interstate transportation of the victim had been carried out if the person was not released within seven days of the abduction. Until the law was thus amended, the law was silent on the matter, leaving room for the FBI to become involved in a case much sooner. Fisher and McGuire, 653-655, citing 47 Stat. (1932) as amended, 48 Stat. 781, 18. U.S.C.A. Sec. 408a (Supp. 1934); John Edgar Hoover, “The Work of the Division of Investigation, United States Department of Justice,” Tennessee Law Review 149 (April 1935).

[iv] Burrough, Public Enemies, 14, 194; Potter, War on Crime, 108-109; Arizona Daily Star, April 26, 1934.