1. When Caesar Met the Cilician Pirates
According to the ancient historian Plutarch, a young Julius Caesar was at the center of one of Rome’s most unusual kidnapping cases. The incident unfolded in 75 B.C., when a band of Cilician pirates waylaid the 25-year-old as he was sailing to the Mediterranean island of Rhodes. The buccaneers held Caesar captive for over a month, but the future dictator refused to be intimidated. Not only he did scoff at the pirates’ demands—when they asked for a ransom of 20 talents, he suggested they up the number to 50—he even joked that he would seek revenge as soon as he was freed. The pirates brushed off the threats, yet once the sum was paid and his release was secured, Caesar immediately raised a small fleet and tracked them down at their lair. True to his word, he later had each one of the kidnappers crucified.
2. Ireland’s Patron Saint Was Brought There By Force
The life of Saint Patrick is steeped in myth, but according to most accounts, his career as a Christian missionary was sparked by act of kidnapping. Born into a wealthy family in Roman Britain in the late fourth century, Patrick was abducted by a band of raiders at age 16 and spirited away to Ireland, where he was held as a slave. As the story goes, he spent the next six years working as a shepherd and developing a deep Christian faith. He eventually escaped and made his way home, but after reuniting with his family, he had a spiritual vision that convinced him he should return to Ireland to preach the gospel. The former slave answered the calling, and he went on to spend the rest of his life converting the island’s inhabitants to Christianity.
3. A Literal King’s Ransom Frees the Lionheart
Following a stint fighting in the Third Crusade, the British King Richard I left the Middle East in 1192 and attempted to return home via mainland Europe. Unfortunately for Richard, he made his share of enemies during his time in the Holy Land. While traveling through Vienna in disguise, he was kidnapped by the Duke of Austria and later handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. In exchange for Richard’s freedom, Henry demanded a ransom of 150,000 marks—the equivalent of more than twice the annual revenue of the British crown. Raising the sum took over a year and required the levying of crippling taxes, but in 1194, the British made the payoff and secured Richard’s release. The Lionheart then returned to England and consolidated his power, only to perish a few years later while on campaign in France.
4. An Author Drew on His Traumatic Experiences For Inspiration
The life story of Miguel de Cervantes often reads like a passage out of his famous novel “Don Quixote.” Among other escapades, the author bloodied an adversary in a sword duel and lost the use an arm from wounds suffered while serving in the Spanish navy.
Still, none of Cervantes’ adventures was more life altering than the one that began in 1575, when he was kidnapped by Barbary pirates and taken to the African port of Algiers. Despite launching four escape attempts, the aspiring writer would spend the next five years languishing as a slave. Finally, in 1580, members of the Catholic Trinitarian order helped his family raise the money to pay off his 500 gold ducat ransom. Cervantes returned to Spain and began his career as an author. Before he died in 1616, he requested to be buried in a Trinitarian convent out of respect for the religious order that had helped free him from slavery.
5. One Abduction Nearly Triggered an International Showdown
The son of a Greek immigrant who had grown wealthy in the gas industry, Ion Perdicaris was a prominent American expatriate who had spent most of his adulthood living in Tangier, Morocco. In May 1904, he and his stepson were kidnapped from their villa by the forces of Mulai Ahmed ibn-Muhammed er Raisuli, a tribal bandit and revolutionary. When Raisuli demanded a $70,000 ransom and a series of political concessions in exchange for Perdicaris, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt urged immediate action from the Moroccan government. After dispatching an American naval squadron to the Moroccan coast as a show of force, he and his secretary of state delivered a now-famous ultimatum to the country’s sultan: “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” The line later became a catchphrase in Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign, but by the time it reached Morocco, the sultan had already given in to Raisuli’s demands. Just a few days later, Perdicaris and his stepson were released unharmed.
6. The Aviator and “The Trial of the Century”
On the evening of March 1, 1932, Charles Lindbergh and his wife discovered that their 20-month-old son Charles Jr. had been snatched from his nursery in the family home in Hopewell, New Jersey. In the baby’s place was a note demanding $50,000 for his safe return. A distraught Lindbergh eventually paid off the kidnappers, who told him the baby was in a boat off the coast of Massachusetts, yet when police rushed to the scene, the child was nowhere to be found. Just six weeks later, the mangled body of the Lindbergh baby was discovered in the woods less than a mile from the family home. Police determined that Charles Jr. had likely been murdered on the same night that he was taken.
The trail in the case went cold until 1934, when a marked bill from the ransom money was traced to a German-born carpenter named Bruno Hauptmann, who was found to have nearly $14,000 from the Lindbergh payment hidden in his home. While Hauptmann denied any involvement in the kidnapping and claimed the cash belonged to a deceased friend, he was later found guilty in a high-profile court case. In April 1936, he was executed in the electric chair.
7. China’s Civil War Boils Over
In the mid-1930s, China was in the midst of one of the greatest crises in its history. The country was embroiled in a civil war between nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s government and Chinese Communist forces, but it was also under outside threat from Imperial Japan, which had invaded Manchuria. Many believed that the Japanese presented the more pressing danger, yet to the dismay of some of his generals, Chiang had continued to give precedence to his battle against Communism.
The situation finally reached a breaking point in late 1936. In what became known as the Xi’an Incident, Chinese generals Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng kidnapped Chiang and held him in solitary confinement for nearly two weeks. In exchange for his freedom, he was forced to pledge that he would seal a temporary alliance with the Communists to help fight off the Japanese. While Chiang went on to have his kidnappers arrested, he kept his word and helped forge a ceasefire with the Communists that endured throughout World War II. Civil war erupted again in 1946, however, and Chiang and his nationalists were later defeated and forced to flee to Taiwan.
8. The Newspaper Magnate’s Granddaughter Who Made Her Own Headlines
One of the most bizarre kidnapping cases in modern history began in February 1974, when 19-year-old Patricia Hearst, the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, was forced out of her Berkeley apartment and tossed in the trunk of a car by a band of armed assailants. A few days later, a radical revolutionary group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) claimed for responsibility for the crime and announced that it was holding Hearst as a political prisoner. As a ransom, its members demanded that Hearst’s father donate millions of dollars in food to needy families in California. The family complied, but the case soon took an unforeseen twist after a tape recording was released in which Patty Hearst declared allegiance to the SLA and adopted the new name “Tania.” The heiress went on to brandish an assault rifle during an SLA bank robbery just days later.
The case dragged on for over a year and a half until September 1975, when the FBI captured Hearst and several SLA members in San Francisco. While Hearst claimed that she had been coerced and brainwashed into becoming an SLA revolutionary, she was still put on trial for bank robbery. Found guilty in 1976, she served 22 months behind bars before President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence.