The story behind America's first ransom letter

Every field has its pioneers. In the world of high-profile American child disappearances, we must look back before the Balloon Boys, JonBenéts, and Lindbergh babies, turning instead to the story of one Charles Brewster Ross. The vanishing of Charlie Ross was remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it marked the first case of kidnapping-for-ransom in U.S. history.

It was July 1st, 1874. Christian Ross, a man "of moderate means," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, returned home to find that his two sons, six year old Walter and four year old Charlie, were missing. Late in the evening, with the household in a state of panic, Walter was returned by a strange man who had found him crying in the street.

Walter's recounting reads like a cautionary tale straight out of a kindergarten story book. From what he told the police, there were a pair of men who would drive their cart past the house semi regularly, offering the boys candy. When they stopped at the sidewalk in front of the Ross residence on July 1st, they suggested that the boys join them on a trip into town, where they would treat the lads to twenty five cents worth of fireworks. Walter and Charlie hopped into the buggy and rode with the men to nearby Kensington, where Walter was given a quarter and sent into a store. When he came back out, the men were gone, and Charlie with them.

Horse-gone carriage

On July 4th, Mister Ross received the first in a series of notes, now believed to be America's first ransom letters. In the second letter, $20,000 was demanded in exchange for Charlie's safe return – roughly half a million in today's dollars, according to the Smithsonian.

"Mr Ros," the first letter began, "be not uneasy, you son charley bruster be all writ we is got him and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand."

In total, 23 letters were received by Mister Ross, a dry goods merchant who would have struggled to find the kind of money requested. A manhunt carried on for five months after a criminal named Gil Mosher pointed an accusatory finger at his brother, William Mosher, and friend Joseph Douglas. William and Joseph were killed in a gunfight during a botched robbery that December, and Joseph confessed to the kidnapping as he bled out. Charlie, however, was never heard from again.

Don't talk to strangers, kids.