Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2013 Issue

Ransom Note and Other Letters from First Kidnapping Sold at Freeman's Auction

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The ransom note seeking $20,000 for Charley Ross.

A piece of criminal history was sold at the annual Pennsylvania sale at Freeman's Auction in Philadelphia last month. It included the most important documents in one of the most sensational cases of the 19th century, albeit somewhat forgotten today. It was the case of 4-year-old Charley Ross, the first victim of a kidnapping for ransom. Whatever happened to poor Charley remains a mystery today.

 

This story begins on July 1, 1874. Little Charley and his 6-year-old brother Walter are playing in their front yard in the Germantown section of Philadelphia when two men stop by. The men offer candy and a promise to take them to a fireworks shop. July 4th is just around the corner. The boys agree to get in their “getaway car,” which in 1874, of course, is a horse-drawn buggy. They ride off for the city. Little Charley gets a bit antsy after awhile, but the men stop at a fireworks store as promised. They give Walter a quarter to go inside to buy some fireworks. This Walter does, but when he returns, the men, the buggy, and Charley are gone. Charley would never be seen again.

 

The boys' father, Christian Ross, thought they were playing at a neighbor's house. As day dragged on to evening, he became concerned and began looking. There was no trace of the boys. Christian placed an ad in the paper. Missing persons issues were handled differently then. He didn't tell his wife immediately as she was off in Atlantic City, recuperating from an illness. He didn't want to concern her.

 

Two days later, a stranger who had found Walter brought him home. That is when Christian learned the complete story. Meanwhile, a ransom note arrived at the house. It was crude, filled with misspellings and bad English, but the message was clear. The kidnappers wanted $20,000 and they threatened terrible harm to the child if Christian went to the police. The note read:

 

July 3

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.”

 

Germantown was a wealthy section of town, and the Rosses lived in a large house. The kidnappers likely assumed they must have a lot of money. They didn't. They had once been fairly wealthy, but Mr. Ross lost a lot of money in the Panic of 1873 with the result being he was now heavily in debt. He was unable to come up with $20,000, an enormous sum of money in those days. So instead he disobeyed the kidnappers' demand and went to the police.

 

In time, more ransom notes arrived, money was raised, and attempts were made to pay the kidnappers with marked bills in distant places - New Jersey and New York. The kidnappers never came for the money. Rewards were offered, time went by, but nothing happened. However, in New York City, the Police Superintendent became aware that the handwriting on the notes resembled that of one William Mosher, a small-time thief with a distinctive, deformed nose. Mosher's brother-in-law was William Westervelt, a sometime policeman. Westervelt attempted to collect the reward money, but also tipped off Mosher so the latter could remain out of sight.

 

A break finally came in the case in December when two men broke into a summer home belonging to a judge on Long Island. The Judge's brother lived next door, and along with a couple of other family members, grabbed some shotguns and went next door. Gunfire broke out, and when it was finished, William Mosher lay dead on the floor. His partner, Joseph Douglas, was mortally wounded. Douglas lived long enough to say a few words. He admitted responsibility, but placed most of the blame on his partner. He also said Charley Ross was fine and would be released in a few days. Then he died. Ross was never released, nor his location revealed. Charley's brother Walter was brought to New York to view the bodies, and he identified them as the two men who had kidnapped him and his brother back in July.

 

The outcome was frustrating. Charley could not be located and the kidnappers could not be tried. However, they did put Westervelt on trial. There just wasn't much evidence to connect him to the kidnapping. Walter viewed Westervelt too and said he was not a participant. Westervelt was acquitted. He was convicted on the lesser count of conspiracy and served six years in prison. Westervelt repeatedly proclaimed his innocence.  

Rare Book Monthly

  • <i>Der Sturm.</i> 1922. Sold October 2021 for € 13,000.
    Diophantus Alexandrinus, <i>Arithmeticorum libri sex.</i> 1670. Sold October 2021 for € 18,000.
    <i>Cozzani Ettore e altri, l’Eroica. Tutto il pubblicato.</i> Sold October 2021 for € 11,000.
    Newton Isaac, <i>Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica.</i> 1714. Sold October 2021 for € 7,500.
    Manetti Saverio, <i>Storia naturale degli uccelli.</i> 1767-1776. Sold April 2021 for € 26,000.
  • <center><br>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Maps & Atlases<br>Natural History<br>& Color Plate Books<br>December 9, 2021</b>
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> AUDUBON, JOHN JAMES. Carolina Parrot. Plate 26. Hand-colored aquatint and engraved plate from Audubon's <i>Birds of America.</i> $80,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> Francisco Henrique Carls. [Album de Pernambuco e seus Arrabaldes]. Fifty-three chromolithographed plates of landscape, town views and more of the state of Pernambuco, northeast Brazil. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> Captain Thomas Davies, after. Group of 5 engraved topographical scenes of North American waterfalls. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <center><br>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Maps & Atlases<br>Natural History<br>& Color Plate Books<br>December 9, 2021</b>
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> William R. Morley. Morley's Map of New Mexico. Large lithographed pocket map with original hand-color in outline. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> Frederick William Beechey, et al. <i>The Zoology of Captain Beechey's Voyage; Compiled from the Collections and Notes Made by Captain Beechey…</i> $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> ZUDA ROKASHI (Priest Hotan.) Nansenbushu Bankoku Shoka No Zu. Woodblock wall map of the world on 16 sheets joined. $5,000 to $7,500.
  • <b><center> Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on November 29th</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b> Latin Book of Hours, Langres around 1490. Est: €50,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>T. Livius, <i>Römische Historien,</i> 1533. Est: €12,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>G. Mendel, <i>Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden,</i> 1865-66. Est: €30,000
    <b><center> Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on November 29th</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>A. Verard, Book of Hours, around 1488. Est: €30,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>A. Ortelius, <i>Theatrum orbis terrarum,</i> 1601. Est: €80,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br><i>Der Sturm,</i> 1910-1916. Est: €16,000
    <b><center> Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on November 29th</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b> <i>Cronica van der hilliger Stat Coellen,</i> 1499. Est: €25,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>M. Catesby, <i>Piscium serpentum insectorum,</i> 1777. Est: €25,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>W. Grohmann, <i>Das Werk Ernst Ludwig Kirchners,</i> 1926. Est: €20,000
    <b><center> Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on November 29th</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>P. Borgo, <i>Aritmetica mercantile,</i> 1491. Est: €16,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>D. Roberts, <i>Egypt and Nubia,</i> 1846-49. Est: €8,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b> <i>Estampes,</i> with the suite by P. Picasso, 1950. Est: €15,000
  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Zang Tumb Tuuum:<br>la révolution futuriste<br>Online Auction<br>30 November – 7 December</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 18:</b> The "Official Edition" of the United States Constitution and the First Printing of the Final Text of the Constitution, 1787. $15,000,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. I Paroliberi Futuristi. 1914-1915. 8 p. Unique corrected proofs, for an anthology that remained unpublished. €40,000 to €60,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Cangiullo, Francesco. Studenti in Lettere. Università. 1915. Seminal work, featured in 3 historical futurist exhibitions. €20,000 to €30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Cangiullo, Francesco. Chiaro di luna. Circa 1915. Collage and gouache on paper. €15,000 to €20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. Manicure. Faire les ongles à l'Italie. Circa 1915. A fantastic parody of an advertising poster. €20,000 to €30,000.
  • <b><center>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>December 9</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 47. Roosevelt, Theodore. Photograph inscribed to Morris J. Hirsch. May 7th 1918. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 178. Whitman, Walt. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York: [Printed for the author], 1955. First edition in the first issue binding. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 38. Mather, Cotton. <i>Magnalia Christi Americana; or, the Ecclesiastical History of New-England.</i> London: Printed for Thomas Parkhurst, 1702. First edition. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 55. Taylor, Zachary. Autograph letter signed as President-Elect. Baton Rouge: January 15, 1849. $5,000 to $8,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 203. Picasso, Pablo. <i>Verve</i> Vol. V, Nos. 19-20. Paris: Editions Verve, 1948. Inscribed on the title page by Picasso. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b><center>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>December 9</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 211. Domergue, Jean-Gabriel. L'Ete a Monte Carlo. Lithographed poster, Lucien Serre & Cie, Paris, circa 1937. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 105. Manuscript Illumination attr. to Neri da Rimini. Large excised initial "N" from a choirbook, extensively historiated. [Likely Rimini: first quarter of the 14th century]. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 40. McKenney, Thomas L. and Hall, James. <i>History of the Indian Tribes of North America, with Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs.</i> Philadelphia: Rice, Rutter & Co., 1870. $3,00
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 222. Searle, Ronald. [Pets--a dog, cats and a parrot-- surrounded by books, and inspecting a globe, perhaps planning global domination]. Original drawing, 17 3/8 x 13 1/2 inches. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 98. Faden, William; Scull, Nicholas and George Heap. A Plan of the City and Environs of Philadelphia, Survey'd by N. Scull and G. Heap. London: William Faden, 12 March 1777. $3,000 to $5,000.

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