Charley Ross

Charles Brewster "Charley" Ross (born May 4, 1870 – disappeared July 1, 1874) was the primary victim of the first American kidnapping for ransom to receive widespread media coverage. His fate remains unknown, and his case is one of the most famous disappearances in US history.

Charley Ross
1874 likeness published on his missing person poster.
Charles Brewster Ross

(1870-05-04)May 4, 1870
DisappearedJuly 1, 1874 (aged 4)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
StatusMissing (for 144 years, 11 months and 20 days)


On July 1, 1874, four-year-old Ross and his five-year-old brother Walter Lewis were playing in the front yard of their family's home in Germantown, a well-to-do section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A horse-drawn carriage pulled up and they were approached by two men who offered the boys candy and fireworks if they would take a ride with them. The boys agreed and they all proceeded through Philadelphia to a store where Walter was directed to buy fireworks inside with 25 cents given to him. Walter did so, but the carriage left without him. Charley Ross was never seen again.[1]


Christian K. Ross, the boys' father, began receiving ransom demands from the apparent kidnappers. They arrived in the form of notes mailed from post offices in Philadelphia and elsewhere, all written in an odd hand and in a coarse, semi-literate style with many simple words misspelled. The communications generally requested a ransom of $20,000 ($400,000 today). The notes cautioned against police intervention and threatened Ross's life if Christian did not cooperate. Christian Ross owned a small dry goods store, and the family lived in a large house.[2] Contrary to what the kidnappers may have thought, the Ross family was not wealthy, and was actually heavily in debt due to the stock market crash of 1873. Seeing no way to pay the ransom, Christian Ross went to the police. The kidnapping soon became national news.

In addition to the heavy press coverage, some prominent Philadelphians enlisted the help of the famous Pinkerton detective agency, who had millions of flyers and posters printed with Ross's likeness. A popular song based on the crime was composed by Dexter Smith and W. H. Brockway, entitled "Bring Back Our Darling".[3] Several attempts were made to provide the kidnappers with ransom money as dictated in the notes, but in each case the kidnappers failed to appear. Eventually, communication stopped.


On the night of December 13, five months after the kidnapping, the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn house belonging to Judge Charles Van Brunt was burgled.[4] Holmes Van Brunt, Charles' brother, lived next door, and gathered the members of his household, armed with shotguns, to stop the intruders in the act. As they entered Van Brunt's house, they saw two lanterns go out, and the resulting torrent of gunfire from Holmes and his men brought down both burglars where they stood. They were Bill Mosher and Joe Douglas, career criminals who had recently been released from jail. Mosher was killed instantly while Douglas was mortally wounded, but managed to live about two more hours and was able to communicate with Holmes. Everyone present was shaken by the experience, and there is no clear consensus regarding exactly what Douglas said. Most agree that Douglas said that there was no point in lying (as he knew he was mortally wounded) so he admitted that he and Mosher had abducted Ross. His further statements, if any, are more controversial. He either said that Ross was killed, or that Mosher knew where Ross was, possibly adding that he would be returned unharmed to the Rosses within a few days. In any case, he did not give any clues to Ross's location or other particulars of the crime, and died soon afterwards. Walter Ross was taken to New York City to look at the bodies of Mosher and Douglas so as to determine if they were the men from the carriage ride. Walter confirmed that they were the same men who took the boys from in front of their home the previous summer. Mosher in particular was very identifiable as he had a distinctively malformed nose, which Walter had described to police as a "monkey nose". (The cartilage of Mosher's nose had been destroyed by syphilis or cancer).

For most, the issue of who the men in the carriage were was settled beyond reasonable doubt, but Charley Ross was still missing.


A former Philadelphia policeman named William Westervelt, a known associate of William Mosher (and his wife's brother), was arrested and held in connection with the case. He was tried in 1875 for kidnapping. Although Westervelt was a friend and perhaps a confidant of Mosher (while in prison awaiting trial he had told Christian Ross that his son had been alive at the time of Mosher's death), there was virtually no evidence to tie him to the crime itself. Walter Ross, for one, insisted that Westervelt was not one of the men in the carriage that took them away. Westervelt was found to be not guilty of the kidnapping. However, he was found guilty of a lesser conspiracy charge and served six years in prison. He always maintained his own innocence and swore that he did not know the whereabouts of Charley Ross.


Two years after the kidnapping, Christian Ross published a book on the case, entitled The Father’s Story of Charley Ross, the Kidnapped Child, in order to raise money to continue searching for his son. By 1878, the media interest in the case had begun to wane. To renew interest, Ross had the book reprinted and began giving lectures in Boston.[5]

Christian Ross and his wife continued to search for their son until their deaths (Christian Ross died in 1897 and his wife died in 1912).[6] They followed leads and interviewed over 570 boys, teenagers, and eventually grown men from around the world who claimed to have been Charley Ross. All proved to be imposters.[7] The Rosses eventually spent approximately $60,000 looking for their son.[8] In 1924, newspapers began running stories about the case to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Ross's abduction. By that time, Walter Ross was an adult and was working as a stockbroker. In interviews, he said that he and his three sisters still received letters from middle aged men claiming to be his brother.[6]

In 1934, Gustave Blair, a 69-year-old carpenter living in Phoenix, Arizona, petitioned a court to recognize him as the real Charley Ross.[9] Blair claimed that after he was abducted, he lived in a cave and was eventually adopted by a man who told him he was Charley Ross.[8] Walter Ross dismissed Blair's claim calling him "a crank" and added, "The idea that my brother is still alive is not only absurd, but the man's story seems unconvincing. We've long ago given up hope that Charles ever would be found alive."[10] As Blair's claim went uncontested, the court ruled that Blair was "Charles Brewster Ross" in March 1939.[10] Despite the ruling, the Ross family refused to recognize Blair as their relative and did not bequeath him any money or property from their parents' estate.[9] Blair briefly moved to Los Angeles and attempted to sell his life story to a movie studio but was unsuccessful.[6] He eventually moved to Germantown with his wife before moving back to Phoenix. He died in December 1943 still claiming that he was Charley Ross.[9]

The case, and in particular the fates of Mosher, Douglas, and Westervelt, served as a deterrent to other potential ransom kidnappers: it would be a quarter of a century before another high-profile ransom kidnapping case emerged with Edward Cudahy, Jr. in 1900.

The common admonition "don't take candy from strangers" is said to have come from Charley Ross's abduction. The Charley Project, a major missing persons database, is named for Charley Ross.[7]

While waiting for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to appear at the 1936 Democratic National Convention concluding at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken noted a prank had been played on a public address announcer by someone getting him to continually summon a "Charles Ross" to the press area.[11]

See also


  1. Porterfield, Waldon R. (October 2, 1974). "Little Charlie and the Crime That Shocked the Nation". The Milwaukee Journal. p. 20. Retrieved December 3, 2014.
  2. People staff (May 23, 2018). "PEOPLE Explains: Infamous Kidnappings Throughout History". People. Retrieved May 25, 2018.
  3. James, Bill (2012). Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. Simon and Schuster. p. 38. ISBN 1-416-55274-X.
  4. "Beautiful Shore Road", Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 31, 1890
  5. Harris, Sharon (2009). Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919. Rutgers University Press. p. 165. ISBN 0-813-54819-5.
  6. Avery, Ron. City of Brotherly Mayhem: Philadelphia Crimes and Criminals. Otis Books. p. 33. ISBN 1-422-36235-3.
  7. Franscell, Ron; Valentine, Karen B. (2013). The Crime Buff's Guide to Outlaw Pennsylvania. Globe Pequot. p. 107. ISBN 1-493-00446-8.
  8. Towne, Vincent (December 9, 1941). "Kidnapers Used Candy To Lure Charley Ross". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. 31. Retrieved December 3, 2014.
  9. ""Charley Ross" Dead". The Montreal Gazette. December 16, 1943. p. 15. Retrieved December 3, 2014.
  10. "Philadelphia Boy Still Missing; Charlie Ross' Brother Declares Claim Of Blair Ridiculous". The Evening Independent. May 9, 1939. p. 1. Retrieved December 3, 2014.
  11. The Impossible H. L. Mencken, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, 1991, Doubleday, pp. 337-339.


  • Carrie Hagen, we is got him: The Kidnapping that Changed America (The Overlook Press, 2011)
  • Christian Ross, The Father’s Story of Charley Ross, the Kidnapped Child (John E. Potter, 1876)
  • Ernest Kahlar Alix, Ransom Kidnapping in America, 1874-1974: The Creation of a Capital Crime (Southern Illinois University Press, 1978
  • Louis Solomon, Great Unsolved Crimes ISBN 0-590-03020-5 (Scholastic Book Services, 1976)
  • Norman Zierold, Little Charley Ross (Little, Brown & Company, 1967)
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