“Don’t take candy from strangers”

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First Sergeant
Aug 6, 2016


Charles “Charley” Ross
(Public Domain)

Being first may be a good thing. Some claim that on July 1, 1874 the first Zoo to officially open in the United States greeted visitors in Philadelphia. {8} Sadly another first was happened that day in what would be a first no parent ever wants to claim. Charles Brewster and his older brother Walter Lewis were playing in their front yard of their family mansion in Germantown (located in northwest Philadelphia) when they were lured away by two men in a carriage. The two young boys are forever remembered as the first to be kidnapped for a ransom in the United States, and it was the first kidnap case to be sensationalized in the press throughout the country. By the time the first ransom demand arrived, Walter Ross who was just a few months shy of of his 6th birthday had been returned to his parents. Little 4-year old Charley Ross (affectionately nicknamed “Little William Penn”) would never be seen again.

Christian Kimball and Sarah Anne Lewis Ross were the loving parents of the young boys. A few days before the kidnapping Mr. Ross had been informed that as early as June 27, 1874, two men in a carriage had given candy to his sons and on each subsequent day rode by in their carriage. Like all fathers he warned his boys the familiar phrase we have heard as children and said adults - “Don’t take candy from strangers.” Walter will tell authorities on Wednesday the 1st of July the two men offered to take the boys to the store to buy candy and firecrackers. July 4th was days away and the boys boarded their carriage and off they went it was an offer they could not resist. When they got to the store the men gave Walter 25 cents (the same amount as admission to the Philadelphia Zoo) to go in and purchase the goodies while Charley would be waiting in the carriage. When Walter walked out with his purchases - the men; the carriage; and Charley - had vanished.

Walter eventually made his way home through the kindness of Mr. Henry Peacock who had found the boy crying and lost. Walter was able to give a description of the two men. For a young child Walter was able to give good descriptions of the men. One fellow had a distinctive nose that Walter called a “monkey nose” . Later it became known the his nose had been disfigured as a result of syphilis. He was also able to tell authorities how he and Charley squeezed into the carriage to go to the store for the promised goodies. Young Charley was seated between the men while Walter sat on the knee of the other. Mr. Ross was devastated and frantic when he realized his young son was gone. Charley’s mother was in Atlantic City recuperating from an illness when the kidnapping occurred. Christian thought to shield her from this terrible news yet that was not to be for it soon made it into the papers and there was no stopping the public’s thirst for information on this story.

The Ransom

July 3rd came the first ransom demand - - -

“Mr. Ross - be not uneasy you son charly bruster he al writ we as got him and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand. You wil 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 yu is only defeeting yu own end. we is got him fitt so no living power can gits 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 don’t deceve yuself and think the detectives can git him from us for that is one imposebel yu here from us in few day.” {2}

Christian Ross immediately contacted the police on receipt of the first note. On July 7th he received another note demanding $20,000.00. There was just one huge problem. Mr. Ross may have lived in a family mansion in a more prestigious part of Philadelphia but he was not wealthy. The panic of 1873 had for all practical purposes bankrupted him. Mr. Ross was also advised that if he could gather enough funds to pay the ransom, he should never give into the kidnappers for if he paid, authorities feared that children everywhere would be kidnapped as a way to make easy money. He had no way to contact his sons’ abductors so he began putting advertisements in the paper. Charley’s face was put on posters and distributed to the public in their desperate search for the boy.

On July 31, 1874, the kidnappers suspended correspondence and ordered Ross to take the midnight express train bound for Albany, New York. He was to bring a valise with the $20,000 and follow these instruction; at some point along the 750-mile journey the kidnappers had a torch and a white handkerchief they would wave as a signal for him that it was at this spot to toss the valise off the train. They further told Mr. Ross his son would be released 10 hours later. Christian Ross rode the train but instead of $20,000, the valise contained a letter in which he demanded unless he saw his son alive - he would not pay the money. Christian Ross rode the train, carried a valise, but never saw the signal.

The Search

Based on Walter’s description and with help from the New York City police department, the police had narrowed the suspect pool to 2 possible professional thieves William Mosher and Joseph Douglas. For five months police were diligent in their search for the two but were unsuccessful to locate the men.

Finally on December 13th, 1874 the search comes to a dramatic conclusion. Two men had been arrested when they were breaking into a Brooklyn home. Unfortunately Mother had been shot dead during the burglary and Joseph Douglas was mortally wounded. Before he died Douglas confessed to the kidnapping but claimed he had no idea where the boy was now. With his dying breath he gasped “I have been a very wicked man,” {4}

Is there any hope of Charley being found Alive?

William Mosher had a brother-in-law that was a police officer in New York City. William Westervelt had married Mother’s sister and was in the path of the police in its’ search to find someone accountable for the kidnapping and disappearance of Charley Ross. He was arrested and came to trial in 1875 charged with kidnapping and conspiracy. The evidence was extremely thin on the kidnapping charges. Walter Ross had been taken to view the bodies of Mosher/Douglas and identified the man with the “monkey nose” (Mosher) and Douglas as the two men that had taken him and Charley. Westervelt was found "not guilty” on the kidnapping charge, but found “guilty" on a conspiracy charge and served six years in prison. More importantly, Westervelt claimed that at the time of Mother’s death Charley Ross was still alive but he had no idea where he was now.

The Public's Reaction

Everyone wanted to find Charley - The Pinkerton Detective Agency became involved in the search until they finally sent a letter to the Ross family stating - - -

“We think we have left no clues behind us." {6}

P.T. Barnum offered a $10,000 reward on the condition that when and if Charley was found he would tour with him as part of his show. There were false tips, crackpots, spiritualists, astrologists all intending to help the Ross family find their little boy. There were average people walking up to anyone accompanying a young boy and turn into self-imposed law enforcers when they questioned if they had authority to be with that child. Little Charley’s face was even etched and distributed on a perfume bottle in the hopes of finding the boy.

Two songs were written that brought the public awareness back to the forefront. When people heard: “Bring Back Our Darling” and “I Want To See Mamma Once More,” hearts were breaking.


“Bring Back Our Darling”
Library of Congress
(Public Domain)

On February 25, 1875 Pennsylvania Governor, former Union General and Medal of Honor recipient, John Frederick Hartranft (1830–1889) signed the following law with the hope of someone bringing Charley home - - -

“a law defining the offense of kidnapping and fixed the punishment at a fine not to exceed $10,000 and solitary confinement not to exceed 25 years, but it was specially provided that if any persons then having any kidnapped child in their possession returned such child to the most accessible sheriff or magistrate previous to March 25, 1875, such persons would be immune from punishment.” {7}

A Family’s Heart is Torn Apart

Christian Ross spent the rest of his life in a futile search for Charley. He did everything he could to keep Charley’s face in the public. There were public mutterings that perhaps the family had something to do with Charley’s disappearance. Two years after the kidnapping he wrote a book on the story called “The Father’s Story of Charley Ross, the Kidnapped Child”. He used all proceeds from the sale of this book to continue the search of his son.

For 23 years he followed every disappointing lead of “Charley Sightings”. Unfortunately for the family people are cruel and they were not immune to this cruelty. Throughout their lives Christian and Sarah Ross interviewed over 570 boys, teenagers and grown men all claiming to be Charlie Ross. It is estimated that the family spent $60,000.00 looking for their beloved son. The claims did not end with their deaths - Christian’s in 1897 and Sarah’s in 1912 as the siblings of Charley, brother Walter and 3 sisters were still receiving claims.

On the 50th anniversary of the kidnapping of Walter and Charley Ross, Walter gave the following statement - - -

"It is the fiftieth anniversary of a great sorrow to us,”the statement began.” We have long since despaired. We are constantly in receipt of letters and visits from people claiming to be my brother. Of course, we have never given up all hope that some day he may return but each of these incidents has only opened the wounds of our sorrow, recalling a tragedy that has hung over our family for these long years.” {3}

The whereabouts of Charley Ross remain unknown. Several reminders are around us today as a result of Charley Ross’s kidnapping some 145 years ago. “The Charley Project” a missing person database was named for the first kidnapped victim and the popular phrase taught to every child after the 1874 abduction and is still repeated today - “Don’t take candy from strangers” !

Charles Brewster “Charley" Ross
May 4, 1870 - July 1, 1874

“Within our home garden - we had a sweet bud

that promised to blossom in love,
so deep had it’s tendrils grown into our heart
we thought that our Father above;
would spare him to solace the last of our years,
Alas! he is stolen away,
and now we are mourning for our darling child,

we watch and we wait and we pray.

We listen to hear the sweet tones of his voice,

we watch for his bright smiling face;
and moodily dream of the golden days past,
those visions time cannot efface.
The sounds of his footsteps yet echoes around
his toys remain here as then,
But he is not with us, our fond arms yet yearn,
our tears now are falling like rain.

O Father in heaven, please hear Thou our prayer!
pray soften the hearts of those men;
who robbed us of one who is dearer than all,
to bring back our darling agin.
How gladly we’d welcome our dear boy once more,
and press him with joy to our heart!
Oh, heed our petition, bid sorrow to flee,

and darkness forever depart.” **

* * * * *

**Lyrics to “Bring Back Our Darling” words by Dexter Smith
(Publication Date 1875)

1. http://www.ushistory.org/germantown/upper/charley.htm
2. https://www.historicmysteries.com/kidnapping-of-charley-ross/
3. https://journals.psu.edu/phj/article/viewFile/25641/25410
4. https://yalereview.yale.edu/kidnapping-little-charley-ross-1874
5. https://charleyross.wordpress.com/2008/12/16/little-charley-ross/
6. https://archive.org/stream/fathersstoryofch00rossrich/fathersstoryofch00rossrich_djvu.txt
7. http://www.historicalcrimedetective.com/the-kidnapping-charley-ross-1874/
8. https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h3612.html
9. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/131076103/christian-kimball-ross
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NH Civil War Gal

1st Lieutenant
Forum Host
Feb 5, 2017
That story is so heartbreaking. But it recalls to my mind what my mother always told me that I wasn't to take candy from strangers because it was poisoned. She and I were watching a parade a Veteran's Parade in Manchester when I was about 5 and there were some old WW1 vets marching in it. A very old man offered me a Lifesaver from a Lifesaver roll and I said no. My mother made me take it and I was utterly miserable because didn't she know it was poisoned? I had it in my mouth waiting for instant death!
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