Charley Ross, The First American Child, Kidnapped for a Ransom

Poster of Charley Ross
Poster of Charley Ross

Charles Brewster Ross, also known as Charley Ross, was the primary victim of the first American kidnapping for ransom to receive considerable media publicity (born May 4, 1870 – disappeared July 1, 1874).

His fate is unknown, and his story is one of the most well-known disappearances in American history.

Original description note about charley ross
Original description note about Charley Ross

The Kidnapping Incident

Charley and his 5-year-old brother Walter played in the front yard of their father’s luxury home in Germantown, a wealthy Philadelphia neighborhood, on July 1, 1874. Two men in a buggy drove up alongside the lads and asked if they wanted to buy fireworks for the 4th of July Independence Day.

According to various sources, the children either knew the males or were complete strangers to them. Regardless, Walter and Charley stepped into the buggy, which then rambled around the streets, taking the boys to places they’d never been before.

Charley Ross hand drawn poster
Charley Ross’s hand drawn poster

They eventually stopped in front of a store, and the two men offered Walter 25 cents to walk inside a nearby store and purchase fireworks. Walter left the buggy, which accelerated away with Charley Ross still inside.

Christian K. Ross, the boys’ father, considered them for playing in a neighbor’s yard. However, a neighbor immediately informed him that she had seen the boys traveling in a buggy. Charley’s father began the search for his son, which lasted until he died in 1897.

He didn’t notify his wife, who was recovering from an illness in Atlantic City. 

She had no idea her little son had been taken until full-page posters begging for his release appeared on the front pages of newspapers. The worried woman got back to Philadelphia right away. Walter was found by a stranger and returned to his father.

The Ransom Demands for Charley Ross 

The boys’ father, Christian K. Ross, began receiving ransom demands from the alleged kidnappers. They came in the form of notes mailed from post offices in Philadelphia and elsewhere. They were all written in an unusual hand and a course, semi-literate language, with many simple phrases misspelled.

The communications often demanded a $20,000 ransom. The letters warned against police action if Christian did not cooperate and endangered Charley’s life.

While the kidnappers imagined the family was wealthy due to their colossal mansion and Christian’s ownership of a modest dry goods company, the truth was that the family was deeply in debt as a result of the 1873 stock market crash.

The Ransom note published on New York Herald, December 17, 1874
The Ransom note Credits – New York Herald, December 17, 1874

The Suspects in the Kidnapping of Charley Ross

Bill Mosher and Joe Douglas were the prime suspects. The house of Judge Charles Van Brunt was robbed on the night of December 13 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York.

Charles’ brother, Holmes Van Brunt, who lived next door, collected armed members of his family to stop the intruders in their tracks. Holmes’ group stormed into Charles’ home and shot both burglars with a hail of bullets. 

Bill Mosher and Joe Douglas, the burglars, were career criminals who had lately been released from prison. Mosher was killed instantly by gunfire. Douglas was mortally wounded, but he survived for almost two hours and could converse with Holmes.

There is no clear consensus on what Douglas said as he died, as all witnesses were too traumatized by the night’s events to provide precise testimonies. Douglas is said to have remarked that lying was worthless because he knew he was mortally injured and thus revealed that he and Mosher had kidnapped Charley Ross.

Douglas is thought to have claimed that Ross had been killed or that Mosher knew where the child was, maybe adding that he would be given to his family unharmed in a matter of days. Douglas died soon after, giving no clues about Ross’s location or any details of the murder.

Charley’s brother, Walter Ross, was called in to identify the bodies, and he confirmed that they were the guys who had invited them into their horse-drawn carriage.

Charles Brewster Ross
Charles Brewster Ross

Other Suspects Involved in Charley Ross’s Disappearance

Only one individual was imprisoned for alleged involvement of the kidnapping: William Westervelt, an associate of William Moshers. Investigators received a tip from a criminal, William Mosher’s brother Gil Mosher, who said that William Mosher and his companion Joseph Douglas looked like the kidnappers.

Westervelt was Mosher’s brother-in-law and a former NYPD officer who had been discharged for corruption. Westervelt worked as a double agent for a period, acquiring information from Douglas and William Mosher while also providing the criminals with facts on the police investigation. Westervelt was eventually accused and convicted of participating in the kidnapping.

The Aftermath of the Incident 

In his failed hunt for his son Charley Ross, Father Christian K. Ross spent more than $60,000. In the years since imposters have claimed to be the lost youngster. Each was proven false. 

The Ross home was demolished in 1926. Charley’s father passed away in 1897, and his mother in 1912. Walter Ross passed away in 1943. The Cliveden Presbyterian Church now occupies the site of the kidnapping.

Notice on charley ross's abduction
Notice on Charley Ross’s abduction

The Disputed Court Ruling  

Gustave Blair, a carpenter, made one of the final and most persistent claims. An Arizona court concluded in 1939 that he was Charley Ross after he told a jury that he faintly remembered being taken prisoner in a cave as a tiny boy and that the family who adopted him informed him he was a kidnap victim.

After the ruling, he changed his identity and traveled to Pennsylvania, but the Ross family refused to accept him.

The Charley Project – Missing Persons Database

The Charley Project, named after Charley Ross, offers important missing person information, including thousands of documents, digital flyers, and other resources. In certain ways, it serves the same purpose as newspapers did when Charley Ross went missing it provides information and a means of spreading the message.

What is the Well-known Admonition Based on the Charley Ross incident?

Never accept candy from strangers.


The kidnapping of Charley Ross was one of the greatest unsolved crimes of the Late 1800s, but what happened to him is still unknown.


Little Charley Ross: The Shocking Story of America’s First Kidnapping for Ransom – By Norman Zierold published by Little, Brown & Company, Boston; 1st edition (January 1, 1967)


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