This Day In History: December 14

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A botched burglary attempt further clouds one of the earliest kidnap-for-ransom cases. As he was about to go to bed, wealthy New Yorker Holmes Van Brunt heard burglars breaking into his brother’s house next door. After rounding up three other men to help him surprise the intruders, Van Brunt engaged the thieves in a shotgun battle that left the robbers severely wounded. As he lay dying, one of the burglars, Joseph Douglas, confessed that he had been responsible for kidnapping four-year-old Charley Ross earlier in the year. He then promised that the child would be returned alive.

The Charley Ross kidnapping was the year’s biggest story. Two men had snatched the four-year-old son of rich Philadelphia grocer Christian Ross from the front lawn of his house on July 1. On July 4, the kidnappers delivered the first of 23 poorly spelled ransom notes to Ross. Several days later, they asked for $20,000.

After some stalling, Ross agreed to pay the ransom, but no one ever came to pick up the money.

Generating mountains of publicity, the Ross kidnapping became the first widely followed kidnap-for-ransom incident. Over the next 50 years there was a spike in the number of such cases, culminating with the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932. Following that high-profile crime, the government’s power over criminal matters was greatly broadened, and the penalties for kidnapping were increased.

Despite the dying criminal’s confession, Charley Ross was never found.

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