Your Heart’s Sorrow
the 1874 abduction of Little Charley Ross
It was quiet.
That’s what Christian K. Ross thought as he made his way home on the evening of Wednesday, July 1st, 1874.
He’d been expecting some quiet. After all, the family home in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood was situated on secluded Washington Lane, set back from the hustle and bustle of Germantown Avenue and the din of the Chestnut Hill Railroad Station.
Also, there was hardly anyone there, since the household had started to disperse for the summer. His ailing wife Sarah Ann had decamped to Atlantic City in the hopes that the sea air would improve her health, and had taken their six-year-old daughter Sophia Lewis with her. Their two oldest children, ten-year-old Augustus Stoughton and and eight-year-old Henry Augustus, had been sent off to spend the summer with their grandparents in Middletown near Harrisburg. His two youngest children were still at home, but two-year-old Marian Kimball and one-year-old Anne Christine were just sweet young babes.
That left the couple’s middle children, five-year-old Walter Lewis and four-year-old Charles Brewster. They were well-behaved young boys, but let’s be honest: they were still young boys. Ross should have heard them playing as he came down the street. Instead he heard nothing, and he was a little disappointed. He’d hauled a heavy cart of sand back home from his office in Center City so the boys would have something to launch firecrackers into on the Fourth of July. He had been eagerly anticipating Walter and Charley’s squeals of delight, and now? Denied!
Still, there was no reason to worry. It was the era of free-range parenting, after all. The boys were probably just playing out of earshot in the empty lot next door. Ross settled into a chair on the porch, unfolded his copy of the evening newspaper, and asked the maid to bring him some tea.
When Ross finally looked up from the Junior Jumble and realized that his tea was cold and the sun was going down, he started to get worried. He got off the porch and started walking up and down the street searching for the boys.
Mrs. Kidder from across the way told him that she had seen the boys ride off in a wagon with two strangers: a young man, round-faced and broad-shouldered, with glasses and a red mustache, who was driving the wagon; and an older man, with a full sandy beard, thinning a bit on top, who kept holding a handkerchief over his face. Every now and then the man would drop the handkerchief to speak, revealing a strangely-shaped nose, flared and flattened and pushed up.
Ross was familiar with the men, if only by reputation. They had driven down the street few days previously and given Walter and Charley enormous chunks of red-and-white ribbon candy. When Walter mentioned the incident at dinner, Ross told his sons not to take candy from strangers. Apparently they hadn’t been listening.
Suddenly, Ross was startled by the sight of Walter being led down the lane by a complete stranger. The man introduced himself as Henry Peacock, a railroad worker. He had found Walter bawling his eyes out on a street corner clear across the city in Kensington, near the Shackamaxon Street Ferry, and had taken the rest of the afternoon off work to escort the lost child home.
As for Walter, he had quite the story to tell.
Earlier that day, as he and Charley were playing in the street, the strange men had come back around in their wagon. Actually, they’d been by multiple times in the previous week, to the point where their visits had become routine. Typically they’d dole out a few hunks of candy and start asking questions. Is that big house yours? Is your mommy pretty? Is your daddy rich? Is anyone else home right now?
Today, though, they had a new question: You boys wanna go get some firecrackers?
They did. They very much did. So they hopped into the wagon and off they went to get firecrackers.
The children had first assumed that they were just going down to the general store on main street, but no, the men said, we know where to get them cheaper. Well, wherever that was, it wasn’t close. The wagon took a convoluted route that went all over the city. The longer the trip took, them more upset young Charley got. To placate the young boy the men stopped next to a corner store, and the man with a “monkey nose” gave Walter a shiny new quarter and told him to run in and get some torpedos for Charley. When Walter emerged a few minutes later, the wagon was gone. That’s when Henry Peacock found him crying his eyes out.
Walter wasn’t sad, though. He was upset that he’d been left behind. He didn’t even realize Charley was in danger.
Christian K. Ross, though, was thrown into a blind panic. For three sleepless days and nights, he retraced the route Walter described and scoured the streets of Germantown and Kensington looking for Charley. At various times he was helped by the police, his in-laws and the sainted Henry Peacock. He was able to get more detailed descriptions of the abductors from neighbors and visitors, but couldn’t find any trace of the wagon and its occupants after it left Kensington.
The police were surprisingly unhelpful. They were dismissive of Ross’s concerns, suggesting that the two boys had been picked up by some skylarking drunks, and that Charley would be returned after they sobered up. They were happy to contribute to the search in their own unique way: by harassing hoboes and tramps. It had nothing to do with the case, mind you, but it was something they liked to do.
With no solid leads to follow up on, Ross took the only step he could. He took out ads in Philadelphia’s two biggest newspapers, offering a reward for the safe return of his child.
Three hundred dollars will be paid for the return to No. 304 Market Street, Philadelphia, of a small boy, aged four years, named Charley Brewster Ross.
He is dressed in a brown linen suit, with short skirt, a broad brimmed unbleached Panama hat, with black ribbon, and laced shoes, and blue and white striped stockings. He has long, flaxen, curly hair, hazel eyes, clear skin, round full face, is well formed, and without any marks, except those made by vaccination on the arm.
Charley and his brother got into a wagon with two men on Washington Lane, near Chew Street, Germantown, to take a ride, between 4 and 5 o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, July 1. The eldest boy was found at Palmer and Richmond Streets, but Charley, the younger, is still missing. The above reward will be paid for his return to my store, as above, or for any information which shall lead to his recovery.
Christian K. Ross, No. 304 Market Street
“Be Not Uneasy”
On Saturday, July 4th, Christian K. Ross received a letter in the mail confirming his worst fears. The spelling and grammar were atrocious, but the message was crystal clear.
July 3 — Mr. Ros — be not uneasy you son charly bruster be al writ we is got him and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand — You will 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 you is only defeeting yu own end — we is got him fix so no living power can gets 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 dont deceve yuself and think the detectives can get him from us for that is one imposebel
you here from us in a few day
Two days later, on July 6th, he got the promised follow-up.
Mr. Ros — we supos y go the other letter that teld you we had y child all saf and sound.
yu mite ofer one $1000000 it would avale yu nothing. to be plaen with yu yu mite invok al the powers of the universe and that cold not get yu child from us. we set god, man and devel at defiance to rest him ot of our hands. this is the lever that moved the rock that hides him from yu $20000. not one doler lest — imposible — imposible — you cannot get him without it. if you love money more than child yu be its murderer not us for the money will will have if we don’t get from yu we be sure to get it from some one els for we will make example of yure child that others may be wiser…
wen you get redy to bisnes with us advertise the folering in Ledger personals (Ros we be redy to negociate) we look for yu answer in Ledger.
There was just one problem with the kidnappers’ demands: Christian K. Ross didn’t have $20,000.
To provide some context that’s about $500,000 in 2022 money. At the time, the annual salary of Ulysses S. Grant was only $25,000 a year, and he was the President of the United States. Christian K. Ross was just a humble dry goods wholesaler.
Ross wasn’t even capable of scraping the money together on short notice. The Panic of 1873 had done a real number on the firm of Ross, Schott & Co. In fact, the only thing keeping the wolves at bay was Ross’s reputation for fair dealing and honesty, which allowed him to negotiate generous terms with his creditors to keep the lights on. When it came to his personal finances, he was getting a lot of assistance from his wife’s family, the Lewises.
Still, what could he do? He had to get his boy back. So he took out the requested personal ad in the Ledger as instructed.
Ros, we be ready to negociate.
A third letter arrived on July 7th, with more instructions and threats.
…the only answer we want form y now is, be y wilin to pay $20,000 to save Charley. if yu luve yu mony more than him his blood be upon yu and not us fo wil show him up to yu either dead or a live (it is left with you) answer the folering in evenin herald or star. Ros. — wil come to terms. Ros. — wil not come to terms…
Ross tried to provide a nuanced picture of his financial situation in his response, though the medium of newspaper personals was perhaps not entirely suited to the task.
Ros, wil come to terms to the extent of his ability.
That drew an indignant response on July 9th.
Ros. we is set your price. we ask no more. we takes no les we no the extent yu bility. how much time yu want to obtain this money. yu is only in part answered our question. the only question for yu tu answer is yu got it and be wilin to pay it then we wil proceed to bisiness at once. is it necessary to repeat the fatle consequences of delayin to give time to find his hidin place.
Clearly, nuance was off the table. Ross did the only thing he could. He caved.
Ros, I is ready to negociate.
While Christian Ross conducted negotiations with the kidnappers through the personals, the Philadelphia police sprung into action. That mostly meant rounding up the usual suspects, searching every abandoned building in town, hassling anyone traveling with a small child, chasing down everyone who’d rented a wagon in the previous month, and, of course, beating up hoboes. As usual, it was not helpful at all.
At this point the newspapers got involved. They had learned that Charley was missing when Ross walked into their offices to take out his first reward notice, but now the massive police response and cryptic personal ads had tipped them off to the fact that he’d been kidnapped. European-style kidnapping for ransom was virtually unknown in the United States at the time — in fact, this was the first documented case in the country’s history. The public was fascinated, and the newspapers fed that interest by writing article after article about the case.
Their coverage was indiscriminate. Several early stories mentioned that the police were watching the central post office to try and catch the criminals when they mailed their ransom notes. Suddenly, those ransom notes became few and far between… and were no longer being posted from the central office but at tiny stations way down the line, or even from other cities and states entirely.
The Philadelphia police politely asked the newspapers to back off before they lost all of their leads. Some of them, like the Ledger, did. Others, like the Inquirer, did not. The police responded by shutting down all official lines of communications with the press, and the press responded by running their own parallel investigations. The overlapping deluge of official and unofficial information just wound up confusing the general public… and eventually, even the kidnappers and the Ross family.
The New York papers were the worst of the lot. Since they had few connections in Philadelphia, they were reduced to publishing baseless speculation and angry op-eds attacking the police and the Ross family for coddling the criminals. They had no actual idea what was going on behind the scenes.
Which was probably for the best, because behind the scenes it was unmitigated chaos.
The kidnappers had finally twigged to the fact that maybe four- and five-year-olds didn’t necessarily have detailed knowledge of their household finances. Now they realized the Rosses were almost bankrupt, but instead of lowering their ransom demands they just told the Rosses to beg, borrow and steal from friends and family.
Meanwhile Christian K. Ross had been trying to keep the worst of the bad news from his sick wife, lest she have a nervous breakdown, only to wind up having a nervous breakdown himself. To save his sanity, he wound up handing over control of the negotiations to an “advisory committee” composed of Mayor William S. Stokely; William V. McKean, managing editor of the Public Ledger; George L. Harrison of the Board of Public Charities; and prominent lawyer John C. Bullitt.
This was a huge mistake. The advisory committee was not interested in the the safety and well-being of Charley Brewster Ross. It was only interested in the perception of public safety and the maintenance of law and order. The city was deep in preparations for the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair and Centennial Exposition. Who would come to see that, if they thought the city was a crime-ridden cesspool?
They advisory committee somehow convinced Christian Ross to turn down anyone offering to help with the ransom, including at least two millionaires who offered to just give him the entire amount, no strings attached. The committee did raise $20,000 — but it wasn’t for the ransom. It was a reward for information leading to the return of the child and the capture of his kidnappers.
The advisory committee’s long-term plan was to string the kidnappers along, either until they slipped up and were caught, or until the police dragnet made them cut bait and run. They ignored the one thing the kidnappers had tried to drill into Ross’s head from the start: without the ransom, Charley was dead meat. It was regrettable, but understandable: they needed to show the families of potential victims that they meant business. That the kidnappers were serious never seemed to occur to the committee members.
At least part of their plan was working: the police were certainly making things very uncomfortable for the kidnappers. They apparently had to relocate further out from the city, slowing the frequency of their correspondence to one letter every few days. The ransom notes were getting longer and longer, and the threats more pointed. The grammar and spelling also improved, which suggested that they were now being written by someone else, or that the semi-literate style of the earlier notes was a put-on.
They kidnappers showed an utter bafflement at the conflicting messages they were getting from Ross, the advisory committee, and the press…
Ros: we be at a los to understand yu a week ago y sed yu had the amont an was wilin to ay it the editorials seme to speak as if the mony was yet to be contributed before yu could pay it. this wold be a terable mistake for yu…
Then on July 18th, the police suddenly announced they had captured one of the kidnappers: Chris Wooster, a confidence man and thief who had been in and out of jail so often he was on a first-name basis with every cop on the force. They had no specific evidence against Wooster, mind you, but had a plan to beat the tar out of him until he told them what they wanted to hear.
It worked, and it didn’t. Wooster confessed that he had been planning to kidnap a child, but abandoned the idea because it was too dangerous. Besides, he had an iron-clad alibi: he’d been laid up for two weeks with injuries sustained in a bar brawl.
The police reluctantly released Wooster, who then gave a dynamite interview to the papers where he offered his “professional opinion” that both sides were dragging this thing out for far too long. He suggested that they could effect an exchange at Niagara Falls, so the Rosses could have their boy back and the criminals could be safe from extradition on the Canadian side of the border.
A few days later, Wooster tried to capitalize on his fifteen minutes of fame by renting a theater and selling tickets to a lecture about his experience. When the curtain went up though, the only people in the seats were three bored cub reporters, a sozzled liquor salesman, a pickpocket, and the friend who’d loaned him the money to rent the theater. So he called off the lecture tour and they all went off to get drunk instead.
Charley had now been missing for three weeks, and in case you couldn’t tell, things were starting to get crazy.
People were finding Charley Ross everywhere. At one point the police claimed to have finally found the boy, only to awkwardly backtrack when it turned out it was a different Charley Ross who was at least four years too old. A “Charlie Gross” was picked up at the circus when someone mis-heard his name, as was a “Charlie Loss” in Frankford who people mistakenly thought was speaking with a lisp. Street urchins from Gloucester, Camden, and Vineland, NJ were briefly put forward as the missing boy, though they didn’t match his description at all.
Other Charleys popped up in West Chester, Reading; Harrisburg; Shamokin; and Waynesburg. He even showed up further afield in Washington, DC; Goshen and Hillsdale, NY; New Haven, CT; Bennington, VT; Barboursville, WV; Chester and Odell, IL; St. Catherine’s, ON; Macola, NE; and Denver, CO.
Christian K. Ross and his family tried to personally verify each and every one. The process was expedited by a simple trick — they’d withheld Charley’s actual eye color from the press, which made it easy to cut through a sea of blonde-haired, blue-eyed pretenders.
Still, it didn’t help that no one had an idea what the boy looked like: the only photo of Charley had been taken when he was two, and he looked very different now. So there were blonde Charley Rosses and brunette Charley Rosses and redheaded Charlie Rosses. There were German Charley Rosses and Italian Charley Rosses and Cuban Charley Rosses. There was even a Charley Ross whose only physical similarity to the missing Charley Ross was that he was also wearing a panama hat and a brown linen suit.
At one point the deluge of ersatz Charley Rosses got so bad that Christian Ross actually started carrying around a stack of pre-printed certificates that mothers could show to the police to prove that their child had already been investigated and no, he wasn’t Charley Ross.
The Philadelphia police still had no leads so they ratcheted things up to the next level, conducting an unprecedented and entirely unconstitutional door-to-door search of the entire city. There were so many cops combing the streets the crime rate actually dropped to zero for a few weeks. It was great for law and order, but in the end it was all for naught: there was still no sign of Charley anywhere.
The papers were still speculating wildly, claiming that Charley had been kidnapped by gypsies to swell their ranks, or by comprachios who planned to torture the boy and turn him into a deformed circus freak. Never mind that comprachios didn’t actually exist — they were something Victor Hugo had dreamed up to add some color to his 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs. (Completely unrelated, Batman aficionados may remember that the novel’s protagonist Gwynplane is one of the inspirations for the Joker.)
The Reading Daily Eagle was probably the worst of the lot. It published a lengthly article claiming that Ross’s respectability was just a front: he was secretly a degenerate drunk and a filthy gambler, and the kidnapping was part of a revenge plot orchestrated by his vindictive ex-wife. Not a word of it was true, and the Daily Eagle was forced to fork over a hefty settlement to Christian Ross after the subsequent libel trial.
At this point the grief-stricken Christian and Sarah Ross were largely cut off from the day-to-day business of the investigation, making them easy targets for the hordes of Spiritualists, dowsers, and pow-wowers who showed up at their door offering to help. As you might expect, they all proved to be useless.
For their part, the kidnappers kept up a steady stream of correspondence. As the weeks wore on they became increasingly obsessed with finding a way of conducting the exchange without getting followed by the police. On July 30th, they unveiled their master plan.
Ros. you are to take the 12 p. m. train to night from West Phil for New York it arrives at New York 5.05 A.M. take a cab at cortland or disbrosser sts New York an ride directly to the grand central station at 4 ave and 42d streets. take the 8 A.M. northern express by way of hudson river (take notice) you are to stand on the rear car and the rear plat form, from the time you leave west phila depot until you arrive at jersey city — yu are then to stand on the rear platform of the hudson river car from the time you leave the grand centeral at New York until yu arrive at albany. if our agent do not meet you before yu arrive in albany yu will find a letter in post office at albany addressed to C.k. Walter directing y to where yu are then to go. Ros — the probability is yu may not go one mile before our agent meets yu and yet yu may go 25 miles before he intercepts yu but be it where it may yu must be prepared to throw the valise to him regardless of all risks. the risk of being lost we assume and yu get your child without fail. these are the signals: if it be dark the moment the rear care passes him he will exhibit a bright torch in one hand an a white flag in the other hand but if it be light he wil ring a bell with one hand and a white flag in the other hand. the instant yu se either of these signals yu are to drop it on the track and yu may get out at the next station. if the cars continue on their course we consider yu have kept your world and yu child shal be returned yu safe but if they stop to arrest our agent then your childs fate is sealed. this letter ends all things in regard to the restoration of yu child.
Christian Ross followed these convoluted instructions to the letter.
The kidnappers did not.
It turns out they had called off their man when they saw an article in the Ledger claiming Ross had gone to Pottsville to check out another fraudulent “Charley Ross” found there. Except the reports in the papers were lagging a day behind. And it was Frank Lewis and not Christian Ross who’d gone to check.
It was probably for the best. Ross’s valise wasn’t packed full of $20,000 in small, unmarked bills. In fact, the only thing inside was a letter from the advisory committee telling the kidnappers that their plan was garbage and insisting on a simultaneous exchange. If that note had made its way to the kidnappers, they probably would have killed Charley out of pure spite.
The kidnappers remained adamantly opposed to the idea of a simultaneous exchange. They proposed a simpler plan, just sending a messenger to Ross’s store to pick up the cash, but the advisory committee shot that down, too.
The advisory committee was really starting to feel its oats and get downright punchy. They insisted that the kidnappers switch up the aliases used to communicate in the personals, which were starting to attract copycats. Then they insisted that the kidnappers stop using the personals altogether and appoint an attorney or some other intermediary to negotiate on their behalf. Then they began demanding proof, any proof, that Charley was still alive and in their custody.
In mid-August the kidnappers stopped writing back.
The newspapers continued to report on the case with a breathless report of “no news” every day, which was mostly devoted to covering other newspapers’ breathless reports of “no news.” The Ledger criticized the Inquirer, which criticized the Evening Star, which criticized Herald, and so on. It was like the blog-o-sphere, with everyone talking in circles. The coverage took up an entire column every day, which is a lot of space to devote to “no news” when your paper is only eight pages long.
In an attempt to shut down the baseless speculation, the police finally shared the kidnappers’ letters with reporters. It worked, and the speculation came to an end. Of course, it was immediately replaced by criticism of how the police were handling the case. Which was entirely justified, of course, but it still had to hurt to hear it.
By now Christian K. Ross had run out of patience with the advisory committee.
The public were clamorous for the arrest and punishment of the kidnappers at any cost, yet were ignorant of the risk to the life of my child and consequent terror to which I was subjected. It is comparatively easy to sacrifice another man’s child for the public good, and my anxious suspense is easier conceived than borne.
He started to take matters back into his own hands. With donations from concerned citizens and well-wishers, he hired the Pinkertons to take on the case. The Pinkertons soon turned out to be even more useless than the Philadelphia police, charging a hefty fee to little more than hang up posters and stand on street corners passing out handbills.
The kidnappers resurfaced once again in late August. They refused to provide physical proof, which could be easily traced back to them. Instead they gave a detailed description of their escape route that matched the one Walter remembered, along with a host of tiny details that would have been unknown to outsiders, like a detailed description of Charley’s outfit and the fact that he had lost his hat in Trenton. The advisory committee seized on a few minor discrepancies in their story as an excuse to stonewall and demand even more proof. They still seemed to think that their delaying tactics would win out in the end.
They didn’t get an answer, because in early September the kidnappers went silent again.
About the same time Chris Wooster re-entered the story when the police found him poking around with a shovel in the basement of 820 Knox Street, Philadelphia. He said he was searching for Charley Ross, and had permission from the district attorney to do so. He didn’t, and wasn’t. In fact, he was trying to break through the cellar wall to rob the house next door. He was promptly arrested. (Astonishingly, the police did discover the body of a child in the basement — but it was a stillborn baby that had been buried the previous year by a grieving mother.)
Wooster also re-entered the story in another unexpected way. When the kidnappers finally resumed correspondence on September 25th, they mentioned they’d gone to Canada to investigate the cross-border exchange Wooster had proposed way back in July. It turns out, it wasn’t a great plan. It was true that Canada would not extradite you just for kidnapping. The subsequent extortion, though, well that was a completely different matter…
The kidnappers seemed very eager to get this whole business over with. To that end, they proposed a vastly simplified exchange. No more dicking around with elaborate spy stuff. Instead, they suggested Ross should just take the $20,000 ransom to a hotel in New York, any hotel in New York, and then take out a personal ad letting the kidnappers know which one. One of their agents would quietly come by and pick up the money, and ten hours later Charley would be returned. Simple. Hard to mess up.
The weary Rosses agreed to the exchange, overriding the objections of the police and the advisory committee. It took over a month of of slow, tedious haggling to gather the money and work out the fine details — what date would they make the exchange, what pseudonym they would use in the personals, if it would be acceptable to send Frank Lewis if Christian Ross was ill, etc. etc. But finally, the day arrived.
Saul of Tarsus. Fifth Avenue Hotel, Wednesday, 18th inst. all day.
Frank Lewis waited in the Fifth Avenue Hotel all day on the 18th. No one showed. Hardly surprising, really, since the lobby of the hotel was packed with undercover New York police officers, and the street was receiving extra patrols. The Rosses took out one more personal ad.
Saul of Tarsus. We have performed our part to the letter. You have again broken faith. We will have no more trifling. Action must now be simultaneous.
But that was it. No one ever heard from the kidnappers again.
“Men, I Won’t Lie To You.”
On December 14th, 1874, in the wee hours of the morning, a small boat dropped anchor just off the coast of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Its occupants were two seasoned river pirates, looking for an easy score at the poorly-guarded houses of the wealthy that lined the beach. First they tried breaking in to a house owned by an elderly widow, but thought better of it when her manservant started to stir inside. Then they moved down the beach to easier pickings at the home of Judge Rulett Van Brunt. Lucky for them, the Judge wasn’t home.
Unlucky for them, the Judge was also paranoid AF and had set up a burglar alarm that went off in the home of his brother Holmes next door. Nephew Albert and two hired hands trudged over to investigate, and realized someone was rooting around inside. They took up positions outside and let the intruders know they were surrounded. The burglars panicked when they realized they were trapped. They fired off a few warning shots to try and clear their path as they made a break for the cellar door.
After they broke through the Van Brunts took their shots, and they weren’t warnings. Both men were struck in the back as they fled. The older of the two burglars screamed “I give up” as he fell and died almost immediately. The younger one was knocked down, but managed to struggle into a seated position and asked for some whisky. An indignant Mrs. Van Brunt retorted:
Whisky for him? For the man who tries to kill my husband? Oh, no! I don’t want him to live! Let him die! At all even’s he gets no whisky from me!
For about fifteen minutes the Van Brunts interrogated the burglar, who refused to answer their questions. At some point, though, he realized he’d been mortally wounded and decided to end his life with a clean conscience.
Men, I won’t lie to you, my name is Joseph Douglas, and that man over there is William Mosher – M-O-S-H-E-R. Mosher lives in the city, and I have no home. I am a single man, and have no relatives except a brother and sister, whom I have not seen for twelve or fifteen years. Mosher is a married man, and has five children. I have $40 in my pocket; I wish to be buried with it, I made it honestly. It’s no use lying now: Mosher and I stole Charley Ross from Germantown.
Uh, what now? The Van Brunts began pestering Douglas for more information, but he brushed off their inquiries with:
Mosher knows all about the child; ask him.
The Van Brunts mentioned that would be difficult, since Mosher was currently very, uh, dead, to which Douglas replied:
God help his poor wife and family… God knows I tell you the truth; I don’t know where he is; Mosher knew… Superintendent Walling knows all about us, and was after us, and now he shall have us. Send him word. The child will be returned home safe and sound in a few days.
With that, he fell silent. Fifteen minutes later, he was dead.
A few days later, Walter Ross was brought up from Philadelphia to take a look at the bodies. He recognized his abductors at once. After all, it was hard to forget a face like Bill Mosher’s. The bridge of his nose had caved in on itself, thanks to either syphilis or cancer, giving it a distinctive pushed-up appearance. A “monkey nose,” if you will.
So, uh, what’s all this about the New York Police Department knowing everything?
Let’s back it up a bit.
At the beginning of August, the Philadelphia Police department received a telegram from Superintendent George Washington Walling of the New York Police Department telling them about a breakthrough in the Charley Ross case. An old felon named Clinton Gilbert Mosher had heard the description of the kidnappers. Gil thought the man with the “monkey nose” sounded a lot like his younger brother, Bill, and his accomplice sounded a lot like Bill’s known associate Joseph Douglas.
Bill Mosher was born in Green Point, Brooklyn in 1822. As a teenager he and his brother Gil were members of the notoriously violent Daybreak Boys gang, and as adults they graduated to full-on river piracy. In the late 1840s they made a few abortive attempts to go straight, including a few years spent running an oyster bar on Grant Street. They always wound up returning to piracy, though.
Eventually, arguments about money drove the two brothers apart and Bill began teaming up with a former juvenile delinquent named Joseph Douglas. The two made an effective team who could strike anywhere along the coast from Connecticut to New Jersey. They were caught every now and then, but never did serious time. On one notable occasion in 1870, Douglas sprang Mosher from the pokey in Red Bank by ripping the entire wall off the jail in the middle of the night.
In early 1874, Bill tried to reconcile with his brother and recruit him for a new job he was planning: he and Douglas were going to kidnap one of Commodore Vanderbilt’s many grandchildren and ransom him back for $50,000. The job sounded too risky for Gil, who begged off.
When the Charley Ross kidnapping happened a few months later, it sure sounded like a trial run for the big show to him. The description of the kidnappers clinched it. When the city of Philadelphia offered a $20,000 reward for information that led to Charley’s return, Gil went straight to the cops. He could use the money, and revenge on his brother was just a nice bonus.
Gil gave the cops a lot of useful information. He gave them Bill and Joe’s real names, current aliases and last known residences. He told them the duo had a sideline as traveling salesmen touting an insecticide called “Mothee,” which gave them a good excuse to take their wagon into wealthy neighborhoods and case homes. And they had been in Philadelphia over the summer.
Old Gil also pointed the cops toward another potential informant: William Westervelt. Westervelt was a former policeman who’d been recently kicked off the force for turning a blind eye to illegal gambling activity. Since then he’d been working with his brother-in-law Bill Mosher selling Mothee. In fact he’d only returned from Philadelphia a month or two earlier when he’d found another sales job in New York.
Westervelt was a much more palatable informant to the police — they would rather get their intelligence from a disgraced ex-cop than a shifty ex-con. So Superintendent Walling approached Westervelt and tried to get him to flip. Westervelt was willing to play along, on two conditions. First, he didn’t want to be directly responsible for his brother-in-law’s arrest (though if his Mosher happened to be swept up in Douglas’s arrest, he could live with that). And second, he wanted his old job back.
Walling agreed. He had no real intention of coming through on either account, but he figured at the end of the day Westervelt wouldn’t be in a position to object.
Now, you would think that with both Gil Mosher and William Westervelt feeding them inside information, the cops would have had Bill Mosher and Joseph Douglas in custody in no time flat, but the two criminals always seemed to be a step or two ahead. If they staged a raid on Mosher’s apartment, it would turn out he’d moved just a few days earlier. If they got a hot tip the duo would be on the Staten Island Ferry, they wouldn’t be there. The police were frustrated, but took some solace from the increasingly desperate tone of the kidnappers’ letters. That was a clear sign that the noose was tightening around Mosher’s neck, and it was only a matter of time until he slipped up.
In one sense, they were right. With no ransom forthcoming Mosher and Douglas started to run low on ready cash. They had to fall back on their old tricks, going on a robbery spree in the Narrows in late November and early December.
And then on December 14th they got shot.
Douglas’s dying confession answered a few questions, but left a few very troubling ones dangling. If the police had known about these guys for months, why was the public only hearing about them now? How had they managed to hide for so long in a city where they were known felons being actively hunted by the law? The ransom notes had mentioned that there were four kidnappers; who were the other two?
And most importantly… where was Charley Ross?
Suspicions immediately fell on Gil Mosher, William Westervelt, and Martha Westervelt Mosher. They denied any knowledge of where the boy was. Martha suggested that maybe he was hiding out with friends of Douglas in Baltimore, but could provide no further information about who those friends might be.
The police and press remained confident that Charley would be home by Christmas. They figured that the boy was in the hands of accomplices who knew nothing about the case, who could be relied on to do the right thing in the end. Christian K. Ross tried to sweeten the pot by offering a $5,000 reward for Charley’s safe return, no questions asked.
Christmas came and went, and there was still no sign of Charley.
Fake Charley Rosses continued to turn up all over the place, but Charley Ross was not in Brooklyn. He was not in the Bowery. Neither was he in Burke, Ithaca, Kingston, Ogdenburg, or Plattsburgh NY. Or Bordentown or Norristown, PA. Or Jersey City, Trenton, Camden, Morristown, Barnegat, or Merchantville, NJ. He was not in Berrysville, VA; Fair Haven, CT; or Margaretville, NS. And he definitely wasn’t in Black River Falls, MN in the company of a “mysterious woman who refused to remove her veil.”
Neither was he in the custody of Mr. James Cannon of St. Louis, who claimed to be an associate of Mosher’s and offered to sell Ross some letters written in a cypher which would reveal where Charley was being held. The directions hidden in Cannon’s cypher turned out to be nonsense, Cannon himself turned out to be a blackmailer with no real connection to the case, and he was sent to the hoosegow.
January came and went, and there was still no sign of Charley.
His hat was finally found in Trenton on February 24th, for the fat lot of good that did anyone now.
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the “Charley Ross Law” on February 25th, 1875. It made kidnapping a felony. (Yes, that’s right, despite the huge fuss kicked up over the previous six months, kidnapping was only a misdemeanor in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.) It also tacked on enhanced penalties for ransom, extortion, and child abduction. There was one exception codified in the bill: complete and utter amnesty for anyone who returned Charley Ross, provided it was done before March 25th.
March 25th came and went, and there was still no sign of Charley.
The public was getting antsy. Surely someone had to be published for this dastardly crime. So the police tricked William Westervelt into visiting Philadelphia on the pretense of answering a few questions about their ongoing Charley Ross inquiry. Once he arrived in the city, he was promptly arrested and thrown in Moyamemsing Prison.
Under repeated questioning, Westervelt broke down and finally told the truth. He hadn’t been spying on Mosher and Douglas for the police. He’d been spying on the police for Mosher and Douglas. For four months he consistently steered the cops in the wrong direction with outdated information, allowing his brother-in-law to get away with… well, kidnapping at the time, but now, probably murder.
When Westervelt finally went to trial in August 1875, the evidence against him was mixed. The Commonwealth had some difficulty tying him directly to the kidnapping. On the other hand they had tons of information tying him to the ransom and extortion. There was Westervelt’s own confession; witnesses who’d seen him escorting a boy who looked like Charley Ross; even more witnesses who’d seen him consorting with Mosher and Douglas throughout the summer and fall; a travel itinerary that placed Westervelt at the places the kidnappers had mailed letters from; and a notebook that definitely indicated Westervelt was coordinating the correspondence through the personals, and may have been the primary author of the ransom notes.
In the end, the jury found Westervelt innocent of the kidnapping, but convicted him for the ransom, extortion, and conspiracy. He was sentenced to seven years of confinement at Eastern State Penitentiary, and served every last on e.
I guess it’s true. They don’t get you for the crime. They get you for the cover-up.
Lost Boy, Still Lost
The Rosses never gave up the search for their missing boy. Fake Charlie Rosses continued to be pop up everywhere, but he was not in Brooklyn, NY; not in Boston, MA; nor was he in Towanda, PA; Nashua, NH; Columbus or Tiffin, OH; St. Jean Baptiste, QC; Louisville, KY; Pittsburg, TN; Charleston, Mendon, or Wood River, IL; or Benton, MO. He was definitely not in British Guiana.
In 1878, P.T. Barnum approached Christian K. Ross with a proposal. He would offer a $10,000 reward for Charley and use his circus to get the word out — on the condition that after he was returned Charley would become one of the prize attractions at the Greatest Show on Earth. Surprisingly, Ross accepted — on the condition that he could just reimburse Barnum rather than let his child become a sideshow freak.
After Gil Mosher’s death, one of his sons claimed that a skeleton found in the basement of their old Grand Street oyster bar was that of Charley Ross, but it turned out to be the remains of a much older boy. In 1883 another Mosher brother tried to talk his way out of a lynching in Cheyenne, WY by claiming he knew where Charley Ross was hidden. It didn’t work, and he got the noose.
Christian K. Ross died in 1897, having spent his twilight years and most of his money in a vain attempt to find his missing child. The task of verifying Charley Ross claimants now fell on Walter Ross, who was a lot less polite about it than his father was.
And he had plenty of fakes to turn away. They seemed to come out of the woodwork on the significant anniversaries of the kidnapping, whenever one of the principals in the story died, or whenever there was another high-profile kidnapping case. Notable claimants came forward in 1897, 1900, 1906, 1911, 1915, 1922, and 1927.
The mast major claimant came forward in 1932, after the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. An Illinois carpenter named Gustave Blair claimed he was the long-lost Charley Ross, who had been hidden in a cave as a child, transported to Lee County, IL by the hitherto unnamed fourth kidnapper, and raised in secret to replace the dead child of a midwestern farm family. He even had a cock-and-bull story to explain why he’d kept quiet for fifty years. In 1939, Blair somehow convinced an Arizona court to rubber stamp his claims, and then went off to claim his share of the Ross fortune. A fortune, which, uh, didn’t actually exist because Christian had spent it all looking for Charley. He had to fall back on Plan B: turning his life story into a screenplay and selling it to Hollywood. Tinseltown didn’t bite. Gustave Blair died in 1943, still insisting to the end that he was Charley Ross. After the end, even: he had Charley Ross’s name put on his gravestone.
Walter Ross also died in 1943, and after his death the trickle of fake Charley Rosses finally came to an end. After all Charley, if he was still alive, would have been 73 himself that year.
If I were a betting man, I would wager that Charley never lived to see Christmas 1874. It seems likely that the fourth kidnapper killed the boy after Mosher and Douglas were shot in Bay Ridge, and then escaped scot free.
Far wiser minds have suggested that the fourth kidnapper was probably Martha Mosher — Bill’s wife and Westervelt’s sister — which makes a lot of sense. It would be easy to terrorize a shy, easily cowed boy like Charley into submission and hide him in a large, rowdy family like the Moshers. It might also explain Westervelt’s strangely weak defense strategy at trial. He may have been taking the fall to keep the heat off his sister.
While we may never learn what really happened to Charley Ross, there’s a lot we can learn from how the case unfolded. Namely that everyone involved bungled it from the start.
The Philadelphia police were next to useless. They were well-equipped to handle street level crime, but had no idea how to handle something like a kidnapping. Here’s a hint: door-to-door searches aren’t going to help, and neither will beating up hoboes. The New York police were also useless. Even when they were explicitly told who the kidnappers were, they foolishly placed their trust in one bad apple and were sent on a wild goose chase that last for months. And don’t even get me started on the Pinkertons.
The advisory committee was actively unhelpful. They didn’t care a lick for Charley Ross’s safety, only the perception that the city was being tough on crime. The way they tried to draw out the negotiations made it increasingly likely that Charley would be killed. The only reason they were able to get away with this strategy is that the kidnappers were desperate for a payoff.
The press wasn’t helping things, either. For months they published baseless speculation and wild rumors, and when they finally published actual facts they were often old information, presented out of order or in a misleading way. In the end all they managed to accomplish was to confuse and dismay the family, the police, the public, and even the kidnappers.
While we’re at it, let’s not forget how badly the kidnappers bungled things. Not only did Mosher and Douglas target a family who couldn’t meet their financial demands, their paranoia wound up making this whole operation several orders of magnitude more complex than it needed to be. If they’d done more research, or kept it simple, they could had their money and been on their way.
The only person I can think of who comes out of this untarnished is Christian K. Ross. Which isn’t to say that he didn’t make mistakes, because he certainly did, but his mistakes ere those of a distraught parent and therefore, I think, forgivable.
I’d almost call the entire case a comedy of errors, except that at the very end of it there’s a family left with a lifetime of fear, doubt and uncertainty.
And very probably a dead four-year-old boy.
Which isn’t very funny.
(All corrections from the errata have been incorporated into this article, but not into the published audio.)
If you’re looking for other mysterious disappearances, why not try Series 8’s “Call Your Office”, about the 1930 disappearance of New York Supreme Court Judge Joseph Force Crater, or Series 10’s “With Both Hands”, about the 1976 disappearance of Key West fire chief Bum Farto.
Westervelt isn’t the first crook in our story to spend time in Philadelphia’s legendary Eastern State Penitentiary. Other one-time residents of the prison have included “hex murderer” John Blymire (from Series 5’s “Bound in Mystery and Shadow”) and Paul Jawarski, leader of Pittsburgh’s Flathead Gang (from Series 6’s “The Terror of Gillikin Country”).
For more information about Gustave Blair and his claims to be Charley Ross, check out our bonus episode, “I Am [Not] Charley Ross.” For another person who once claimed to be the missing Charley Ross, check out Series 11’s “Holy Ghost Babies.”
- Canavan, Kathryn. True Crime Philadelphia: From America’s First Bank Robbery to the Real-Life Killers Who Inspired Boardwalk Empire. Guildford, CT: Lyons Press, 2021.
- Everly, Thomas. “Searching for Charley Ross.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Volume 67, Number 3 (Summer 2000).
- Hagen, Carrie. We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping That Changed America. New York: Overlook Press, 2001.
- Fass, Paula S. Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Life, Trial and Conviction of William H. Westervelt for the Abduction of Little Charley Ross. Philadelphia: Barclay & Co., 1875.
- Marshall, Richard (ed). Mysteries of the Unexplained. Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, 1982.
- Miller, Rod and Miller, Larry. “I am Charley Ross: Gustave Blair, Nelson Miller, and the Crime that Changed a Nation.” Searching for Charley Ross. https://charleyross.com/ Accessed 4/12/2022.
- Ross, Christian K. The Father’s Story of Charley Ross; A Full and Complete Account of His Abduction With Incidents of the Search for His Recovery. Philadelphia: Self-Published, 1878.
- Thomas, Heather. “The Kidnapping of Little Charley Ross.” Library of Congress, 23 Apr 2019. https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2019/04/the-kidnapping-of-little-charley-ross/ Accessed 4/12/2022
- Zierold, Norman J. Little Charley Ross: America’s First Kidnapping for Ransom. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967.
- “The Story of Charley Ross.” US History, https://www.ushistory.org/germantown/upper/charley.htm. Accessed 4/12/2022.
- “A mystery.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 Jul 1874.
- “Kidnapping.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 14 Jul 1874.
- “The child-stealing case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 Jul 1874.
- “The Ross case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 Jul 1874.
- “The Ross abduction case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 Jul 1874.
- “The missing child.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 Jul 1875.
- “The Ross case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 Jul 1874.
- “The Ross case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 Jul 1874.
- “The abducted child.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 Jul 1874.
- “The Ross case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 Jul 1874.
- “The lost child.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 31 Jul 1874.
- “The Ross abduction.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 Aug 1874.
- “The Ross case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 Aug 1874.
- “Another disappointment.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 Aug 1874.
- “The Ross case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 Aug 1874.
- “Still impenetrable.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 7 Aug 1874.
- “The Ross case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 Aug 1874.
- “The Ross mystery.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 11 Aug 1874.
- “Still a mystery.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 Aug 1874.
- “The abduction case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 Aug 1874.
- “The stolen child.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 14 Aug 1874.
- “The system and not the detectives to blame.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 Aug 1874.
- “Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 Aug 1874.
- “Little Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 Aug 1874.
- “The abduction case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 Aug 1874.
- “The search for Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 Sep 1874.
- “Supposed blackmailing case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 Sep 1874.
- “Little Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 8 Sep 1874.
- “The Goshen story.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 Sep 1874.
- “Charley Ross’ counterpart.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 Sep 1874.
- “New kidnapping case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 14 Sep 1874.
- “The Ross child.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 Sep 1874.
- “Another Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 Sep 1874.
- “The Ross case not a humbug.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 Sep 1874.
- “About town” Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Oct 1874.
- “Condition of Mr. Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 Oct 1874.
- “Charley Ross at St. Catherine’s.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 Nov 1874.
- “Another chance.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 Nov 1874.
- “The Canadian Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 Nov 1874.
- “Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 7 Dec 1874.
- “The lost child.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 14 Dec 1874.
- “The Van Brunt Reception.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 14 Dec 1874.
- “Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 Dec 1874.
- “Charley Ross avenged.” New York Tribune, 15 Dec 1874.
- “Search for Charley Ross.” New York Tribune, 16 Dec 1874.
- “The Ross case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 Dec 1874.
- “The Bay Ridge burglars.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 Dec 1874.
- “Charley Ross not found.” New York Tribune, 17 Dec 1874.
- “Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 Dec 1874.
- “The Ross case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 Dec 1874.
- “The Ross case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 23 Dec 1874.
- “The Charley Ross mystery.” New York Tribune, 25 Dec 1874.
- “The Ross abduction.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 Dec 1874.
- “The Ithaca boy not Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 Dec 1874.
- “Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 Dec 1874.
- “Spiritualism.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 Dec 1874.
- “Charley Ross again.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 11 Jan 1875.
- “Another boy mistaken for Charley Ross.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 22 Jan 1875.
- “Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 Jan 1875.
- “The Ross case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 Jan 1875.
- “A hat dropped by Charley Ross found.” New York Tribune, 24 Feb 1875.
- “A new test.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 Apr 1875.
- “Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 May 1875.
- “Matters in the courts.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 7 Jul 1875.
- “Matters in the courts.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 Jul 1875.
- “Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 Jul 1875.
- “Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 31 Aug 1875.
- “The Ross case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 1 Sep 1875.
- “Charley Ross.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 3 Sep 1875.
- “The Ross Case.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 14 Sep 1875.
- “Charley Ross and the police.” New York Tribune, 18 Sep 1875.
- “Verdict in Westervelt case.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 20 Sep 1875.
- “Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 Dec 1875.
- “Charley Ross.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 30 Dec 1875.
- “A clew run out.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 Jan 1876.
- “Charley Ross.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 2 Aug 1876.
- “Supposed abductors of Charley Ross.” New York Tribune, 27 Oct 1876.
- “Charlie Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 23 Oct 1883.
- “The alleged abdutctor of Charlie Ross.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8 Apr 1885.
- “He is a bogus Charlie Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 Nov 1890.
- “New Charley Ross aspirant.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 7 Apr 1892.
- “Still going the rounds.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 Jan 1893.
- “Christian K. Ross breathes his last.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 Jun 1897.
- “Another man claims he is Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 Oct 1897.
- “Says he’s Charlie Ross and he can prove it.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 Aug 1900.
- “Thinks he may be lost Charley Ross.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 1 Jul 1906.
- “Another Charley Ross is sent to asylum.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 Jan 1911.
- “‘I’m Charley Ross!’ says W.R. Coleman.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 22 Dec 1915.
- “Wounded man seized in Ward case may be missing Charley Ross.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 4 Jun 1922.
- “Dying patient declares he is ‘Charley Ross.'” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 5 Jun 1927.
- “New Chas. Ross appears to aid his alien son.” Chicago Tribune, 3 Apr 1932.
- “Kidnap case clue claimed.” Arizona Republic, 19 Jan 1936.
- “‘I’m Charley Ross,’ says Arizona man.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 Feb 1939.
- “Charley Ross now legally alive.” Long Beach Press-Telegram, 9 May 1939.
- “Death of Charley Ross seals mystery of famous abduction.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 16 Dec 1943.