In 1932 Gustave Blair, a carpenter from Illinois, announced that he was the long-lost Charley Ross. He claimed he had been kidnapped, hidden in a cave, and then smuggled into the midwest where he was fostered by farmers.
Unlike previous claimants, Blair tried to prove his identity through legal means, presenting his case in a Maricopa County, Arizona court in 1939. After only a few hours of testimony and deliberation, the court rubber-stamped Blair’s claims and he legally became Charles Brewster Ross.
At the start of the legal proceedings Blair claimed that he only wanted to reconnect with his siblings and had no interest in money. After the verdict, he immediately tried tried to claim his share of the Ross family fortune. He never saw a dime, because, it had never existed.
Blair died in 1943, and took the secret of his true identity with him to the grave.
Or did he?
While researching the Charley Ross story I stumbled across the work of Rod Miller. Rod’s interest in genealogy began in 1977 when his father removed a black satchel from a mildewed cardboard drum in his wet basement, handed it to him, and said “This is Charley Ross.”
Rod and his nephew Larry Miller followed up on that lead, and while they didn’t find out what happened to Charley Ross, they sure found out who Gustave Blair was. I conducted a Skype interview with Rod in May, and what follows is an edited transcript of that interview.
Who are you, and what is your relationship to Gustave Blair?
I’m a descendant of the Miller family that was allegedly involved in the kidnapping of Charley Ross. Gustave Blair is the man who declared he was Charley Ross in 1939, and he won that title in a court in Maricopa County Arizona.
So it is Gust-uhve and not Goo-stoff?
Gust-uhve. I think it can be pronounced either way. I’ve always said Gust-uhve.
It’s your family, so you’re the expert. [LAUGHTER] What did Gustave claim happened to him as a child?
He claimed that he was actually born in Pennsylvania, and that he was kidnapped and taken to a cave and was later brought to Lee County, Illinois to the home of the Millers, which is my family. He claimed that he was raised as their own child and was given the name of “Nelson Miller” after a child that had been deceased in the family.
Now, if I understand it correctly, his story is that when he was first kidnapped he was taken by a man named by “John Hawk” or “John Hawks”…
The man’s name was John Hawk. This was a man who we know was living just down the road from the Miller family, as a farm laborer. He lived in the home of a man named Robert Blair.
The story is that John Hawk had to return to Philadelphia to retrieve his dead sister’s child. He convinced Rinear Miller, the patriarch of the Miller family, to allow one of his sons to go with him to give company to this little child he brought him back in a wagon.
The son that went with him was called Lincoln Miller. Lincoln and John Hawk reportedly went by train to Philadelphia, and instead of going into the town they went to a cave outside of the city. And there was a child being kept in the cave. The child said his name was Charley Ross. John Hawk and Lincoln brought the child in a buggy from that cave to Lee County, Illinois. They dressed the child as a girl to conceal his identity.
As the story develops, when it came time for John Hawk to take the child back for the ransom the Millers had grown attached to the child and refused to let him go. There was an argument between John Hawk and Rinear Miller, and Rinear grabbed a shotgun from the corner in the kitchen. As Hawk went up the stairs to get the child, Rinear Miller shot and killed him, and then buried him in the back yard.
Well, that story is really good. It’s a dramatic story. It’s sworn testimony in a court of law. It’s sworn on an affidavit on a deathbed confession, that that’s what happened.
So Hawk was supposedly killed in 1874, 1875 at the latest when he tried to take the child for the ransom. But the point of this is we know this is not true because in the 1880 census John Hawk is still reported on the census as a laborer in the Robert Blair farm, right up the road from the Millers. He could not have been killed by Rinear Miller.
It’s very convoluted and complicated and difficult to track, but that’s the essential story of what Gustave Blair said happened to him as a child. That he was raised by the Millers after John Hawk was killed by his “Miller father,” which is what he called him later.
He made very conflicting statements about when he learned the truth about his identity. He said at one time he learned as early as age 16, and another time in an interview in a newspaper he claimed he was 36 years old.
What would his life as Nelson Miller been like?
He described his childhood in his own words when he gave testimony in one of his criminal trials. He had two criminal trials, and went to prison from both of them. In the trial that occurred in Fresno, California in 1910 he told the court that he was in fact born in Lee County, Illinois as Nelson Miller. That he didn’t have a good education, that he didn’t even finish common school. He dropped out of school when he was 12 or 13 years old to work on the farm.
When he was eight years old, his parents divorced. Rinear Miller, his “Miller father,” filed for divorce claiming he was physically and brutally abused by his wife. That she had been violent and had battered him in the home. It’s likely that Nelson grew up in a home where there was violence, domestic violence. After the divorce, shortly after that, he left his father’s home and the eleven boys who lived there and went to live with a cousin on a farm in Lee County.
He left home and built fences in rural Iowa, in Minnesota for ten years until he was convicted of a crime and imprisoned for seven years for, essentially, obtaining property by false pretense.
Do we know what led him to turn to a life of crime?
His brother, Lincoln Miller, who later became his only witness at his trial, was in California at the time Nelson was arrested. Lincoln was arrested with him too. Essentially Lincoln threw him under the bus, saying this man is a criminal and he’s extorted $62,000 even from me, his brother, because I trusted and gave him and advanced him money for his real estate deals and all of these frauds he was involved him. He said this man is evil, he abandoned his family, he ran off with another man’s wife, and he even stole from me.
We know that he has a lengthy criminal history. He served time in Fresno, California. He came back, he was released, paroled to the custody of his brother, which is my grandfather. That brother that he was paroled to was just released from Fort Madison prison in Iowa for false pretenses and stealing property by false pretenses. (He wrote a check for a car that was bad.)
Shortly after that he was arrested again in a little town in [Minnesota] and charged with sodomy of a 14-year-old boy. He was in jail for six months pending trial. The case was dismissed because the boy would not testify. So the case was dismissed.
He left there and went on another crime spree and was arrested in Aberdeen, South Dakota. There he was tried and convicted of real estate fraud and a number of other extortion and forgery claims, and served three years in the state penitentiary in South Dakota.
By the time he gets caught in Aberdeen, he’s using the name “Gustave Blair?”
At some point after the sodomy arrest, when he emerged from that, the next run-in that we find with him in public records he is going by “Gustave Blair.” We think that he changed his name and probably assumed a name. I don’t think it was any real person. I don’t think he really related it to the Blair family in Lee County. I just think he took the name. And that’s the name he was arrested under in South Dakota, where we know that publicly he first was going by the name Gustave Blair.
Now, I could not find a lot about Gustave’s activities in the Twenties. Were they a quiet time?
After he was paroled from South Dakota, he sort of went silent. We’ve traced that he went back to Illinois, and we find that there’s public records of some real estate transactions that he was involved in.
Again, more of his theme of fraud and real estate. In Aberdeen, he attempted to steal considerable amounts of property from farmers in which he was going to do a development. He issued false titles and real estate documents as collateral for the money that they gave him to fund the development. It’s that type of fraud.
We find that he was still dealing with that kind of activity when he was released in the early Twenties, and through the Twenties. We find some evidence of real estate transactions in Rockford, Illinois and in Lee County.
Some of those involve the transfer of property to his biological children. He married a woman by the name of Ida Johnson, and they had six children. But we have no documentation that he actually divorced her. We think he when he married a woman by the name of Cora Eversole in 1929 that he actually was committing bigamy, because there was no evidence that he ever divorced his first wife.
In 1932 Gustave and his family first start to make the claim that he is Charlie Ross. I believe the first person to raise it is his son, Ralph. What led Ralph to make the claim?
Ralph was another character who is a twice-convicted felon, and imprisoned twice as well. During this period of time he was in Washington state, and he was involved in several real estate transactions. There is some evidence that he was under suspicion for criminal activity or fraud in the real estate company. He left Seattle and went to Canada, where supposedly ran a hotel for a period of time.
When he tried to come back, he had no document to prove his name was Ralph Blair. That’s where the story was first announced, at the border, that he was not Ralph Blair he was Ralph Miller, and that his real father was Charley Ross, who was going by the name of Gustave Blair, who was also going by the name of Nelson Miller.
It was the most convoluted story anybody could ever imagine. Nelson, Gustave, hired an attorney. They were able to convince the border patrol that there was credibility in this story and they let Ralph back in. So it’s a very bizarre way for this story to come out.
We do suspect that it was not just immediately contrived. This was probably a story that was being developed all along and it just was used prematurely to get Ralph back into the country.
They gave no definitive evidence of Gustave Blair being Charley Ross. They said he had the “physical characteristics of the Ross family.” Specifically, he had one ear thicker and set lower in the head than other people and that was characteristic…
I’m serious. It’s in the newspaper.
I know. It’s still makes me laugh every time. “My one ear is a little lower than the other so, clearly, we’re related.”
Do you have any guesses what might have led the Millers to come up with the idea to pretend that Gustave was Charley Ross? Other than the fact that their ages are about correct, and one ear is lower than the other?
I just think it was all motivated by money. There three or four of the Millers — Lincoln; Harrison, my grandfather; Nelson; Andrew Miller; and Lafayette, another one — had a very significant criminal streak.
Why, all of a sudden, did they decide this? It was 1932 when the Charles Lindbergh, the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s child happened. Maybe it just came to their mind that they could piggyback on that concept and claim to solve the 65-year-old-mystery of what happened to Charley Ross.
We can only speculate. We really don’t know.
That might also explain why they bring it back up again in 1935, while the Hauptmann trial is going on.
From 1935 it sounds like it takes him about four years to get his act together, and he goes to prove that he is Charley Ross in a court of law in Maricopa County, Arizona. Why would he have picked Arizona?
It was chosen because of liberal statutes in the state of Arizona on proving identity. It was there that he could convince a jury just based on testimony and no physical documented evidence.
I have a transcript of the trial, which is just kind of mind-blowing. His attorney read into the record a number of pages from Christian Ross’s book about the kidnapping of his child, and then Nelson Miller gave his testimony, Gustave Blair. Then they wheeled into the courtroom in a wheelchair this very old, sickly, dying-looking man wrapped in a blanket, Lincoln Miller, who on his near deathbed gave testimony to this whole convoluted story.
Just from our research, if the trial was happening today it would have never been heard because we have clear evidence that they were lying under oath and the story is not true.
Lincoln swore out an affidavit before the trial. He called it his “deathbed confession.” He said in the introduction that the doctor gave him a very limited time to live so it was important for him to get this off his chest and tell the world the truth of what happened to his brother.
When did Lincoln actually pass away?
He didn’t die until 1954.
That’s a pretty nice long life for someone who was on his deathbed from 1934 to 1939.
Exactly. It was 1945 that he actually died.
Why do you think he made the deathbed confession? My thought was that dying declarations by criminals are usually given additional weight in a court of law because the person knows they’re dying and has no reason to lie.
I think you’re right. It was convincing, just the appearance and the concept of a person dying would tell the truth, has no reason to lie. I think that was part of what was going on.
I didn’t mention this to you, but I learned about this story from my father when he took me into the basement of our home in Mason City, Iowa and took out of this old, cardboard mildewed wet drum a stack of papers and handed it to me and said, “This is the story of Charley Ross.”
That’s all he said. So I took it home and they were damp, mildewed, they stunk. There were 234 pages that I laid out all over the house to get them to dry out. And that’s where I found the murder confession, Lincoln’s confession, and affidavits from eight or nine people that supposedly were sworn in front of notaries, including the murder confession. They all looked pretty legitimate, and they all looked scholarly, legally written.
We know that my grandfather and the brother of Nelson Miller — my grandfather was Harrison — was a practicing lawyer in St. Paul. It’s very likely that he drafted, actually maybe even fabricated or wrote these confessions, and Nelson took them to these people and maybe paid them off or convinced them to sign them. Or never signed in front of a notary, the notary’s signature was forged. We know this group of people were good forgers and obtained property by false pretense and typically through forged signatures and documents.
All of those documents that were handed to me by my father, we call that “The Black Satchel.” And in there was a book my grandfather was writing called Hunting for the Lost Charley Ross. It’s based on Christian Ross’s book, kind of a restatement of that book, but the second half of the book about Nelson Miller and Gustave Blair was reportedly stolen.
We think Harrison, Lincoln, and Nelson contrived this story. That Harrison was this legally, lawyerly person who was going to draft all these documents for trial. We think there was a falling out between the brothers. My personal thought is that my grandfather probably learned of the sodomy arrest in Minnesota and wanted nothing more to do with Nelson Miller, and abandoned him in the midst of all of this.
Instead of using all of those affidavits that my grandfather wrote, they relied on the testimony of Lincoln.
It’s interesting to me that they went to the trouble of drafting affidavits. I think people tend to assume that affidavits, because they’re sworn, have some sort of binding force or legal power. In reality the only legal power they have is to get you indicted if you actually lie in an affidavit.
Exactly. It’s a set-up for perjury.
We’re not sure why, but we’re sure that Gustave Blair, after 1935, building up to the trial, told reporters on several occasions that he had the proof. He had twelve sworn affidavits from key witnesses, including the family, that could prove his case. He said that several time but not a single one of them were entered as evidence.
Either the person who wrote them, my grandfather and Nelson’s brother, said, “If you use them I’m going to blow you out of the water, I’m going to say they’re all a fraud.” It’s possible that because the brothers had this falling out that they couldn’t use the affidavits.
Some of them we were able to trace, that there’s a magistrate of some court or the equivalent of a notary public, but we can’t find an original signature to compare them.
Among these affidavits was the sworn confession of Rinear Miller that he wrote in 1904 and was signed by this judge magistrate. We found that magistrate in Lee County but we could not find a signature from the magistrate. We took that manuscript, that typed confession signed by Rinear and this magistrate, and we sent it to a forensic typesetter and they determined that the typeset used to write that affidavit did not appear until 1930.
Did his sons ever present any sort of rationale for why Rinear Miller would swear out an affidavit that he had killed John Hawk? A crime for which, as far as I know, no one even suspected him?
Nelson said that Rinear told him the truth, that he was Charley Ross and that he killed John Hawk so that Nelson would not testify in court against his father over a land fraud deal that was happening in Lee County. It was just another criminal activity. He also said he couldn’t tell anyone until his father died, and Rinear Miller died in 1920. So he waited another twelve years to tell the story. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Why would Lincoln and Harrison… why wouldn’t they object to this affidavit? There’s no reason for him to confess to the killing until the story emerged about John Hawk bringing the child from Philadelphia. The Millers didn’t know that John Hawk was still alive in 1880. They didn’t know that at the time because the census data wasn’t available. It is now.
What put the icing on the cake for our investigation was DNA evidence. A man by the name of Tom Everly… I don’t know if you’ve found his manuscript, probably the most well-researched investigation into the Charley Ross kidnapping and the Gustave Blair connection. At the end of his study, his investigation, he approached the Ross family and asked them if they would participate in a DNA study that would settle this once and for. The Ross family didn’t even respond to him, so the idea just died.
When we connected with Tom, we decided that we didn’t need the Rosses to participate in a DNA study. We could use Y-DNA testing that could in fact prove Gustave Blair was not Charley Ross.
A man’s ancestry can be traced by the DNA on his Y-chromosome. The Y-chromosome passes down almost unchanged from fathers and sons in generations from male lineage. A man who is tested using Y-DNA, those results compared to another man will determine whether those two people are related.
If the tests are perfect or nearly perfect, they are in fact siblings or related. Father, son, or brother.
And that’s exactly what we did. We found two male descendants from Nelson Miller and Harrison Miller (my grandfather), and they provided DNA and we used chain-of-custody procedures so it was not going to be argued that we contaminated the results, but we collected the DNA from these two suspected brothers and the analysis determined that there was a 99.99903% probability of kinship and that Nelson Miller was in fact a brother of Harrison Miller. He could not have been a Ross.
Sounds pretty open and shut.
That’s where we’re at now, to get the truth out that this whole convoluted story, whatever motivation, whatever reason… essentially, we think the bottom line is that this was a family of thieves and it was money. Gustave Blair thought he was going to hone in on a $490,000 trust in the Ross family. He even announced in one of his interviews that he wasn’t interested in it, but he knew that he had an inheritance and he was going to go back to get it.
There’s no evidence that he ever pursued it legally in a court of law, or that he got any money, because it was well known that Christian Ross had depleted all of his resources over the years to find Charley Ross and there was no Ross fortune.
That seems like something you might want to check first before you come up with your crazy story.
I think so.
That’s essentially the story of Gustave Blair, and we think it was a lot of deceit. There’s some theory that maybe Nelson Miller was a patsy in all of this, that he was perhaps persuaded by his older brothers that he was in fact Charley Ross and the story was given to him. That he was being used and manipulated by them, and he was a victim.
I have a hard time with that because of his entire criminal history. He was not a passive participant in crime. He was an active participant. He served two prison sentences and was arrested on a sex offense with a child. I just don’t buy this theory that he was a patsy, he was a pawn, that he was manipulated and a victim of the criminal minds of his siblings.
My partner in this investigation, that’s still a plausible theory. And that’s actually what Nelson Miller’s surviving descendants believe.
When did you do the Y-DNA testing?
We did it in 2011. What we’ve been doing since is trying to find a medium to report the results. We toyed with a book. Right in 2011, if you remember, Carrie Hagen published her book on the Charley Ross kidnapping. It’s called We Is Got Im. The opinion was there was not a market for another Charley Ross book. We would just be repeating a lot of the Charley Ross story to report the findings of our DNA study.
We were contacted by another author, her name was Kara Hughes, she wrote a book, Myths and Mysteries in Pennsylvania History. She’s publishing a second edition and she’s going to devote one chapter on Charley Ross. She collaborated with us to cite our research and to get it into this publication which will be out next fall.
What do you think really happened to Charley Ross?
I wish I really knew. It’s likely the person who was caring for the child was given instructions to kill the child if in fact they were apprehended before the ransom was paid. They even said that in the ransom notes. I suspect that’s probably what happened.
Carrie Hagen, I mentioned her book, she proposed a theory as well which I totally agree with and have discussed with her. We believe Charley Ross was hidden in plain sight as one of the Mosier’s six children.
What’s interesting about it is that Martha’s brother was [William] Westervelt. Westervelt was the only person who went to trial regarding the Charley Ross kidnapping. He was convicted of conspiracy and was sent to prison for eight years.
We think that even though he went to trial, he probably allowed that to happen rather than reveal that, in fact, his sister was involved and his sister had hidden and probably killed Charley Ross.
I wish, David, I had some kind of definitive answer but…
Maybe it’s good that we have a little mystery out there.
There’s some things that could be pursued. For instance, with this whole John Hawk being buried in the Miller homestead, or in fact maybe Charley Ross, a boy’s body being buried in the back yard because he died of this disease.
I was contacting forensic laboratories that could go to the site to do a survey of the farmstead for evidence of cadavers, and that could do a forensic investigation, if there are any bodies buried in that lot. Before we could initiate this forensic investigation the house was torn down, six months before, and the land was tilled into farmland. Any forensic evidence would have been destroyed and dispersed just six months before we considered this option. That might have answered a lot of questions but it’s too late for that.
I went to Phoenix and I found the grave of Charles B. Ross, a very plain marker, you saw it in our document. This man went to his grave and buried himself as a person he was not, either believing he was, or he just couldn’t confess that he deceived the world. He just went to the grave with his secret.
Thank you for your time, Rod.
Take care of yourself.