An anonymous buyer purchased the Charley Ross kidnapping letters for $20,000 — the same amount that abductors demanded for the Germantown child 139 years ago — at Thursday’s Pennsylvania Sale auction at Freeman’s Auctioneers and Appraisers.
The lot, one of more than 70, earned the highest bid in the Sale’s manuscript portion. (Other groupings included a Bartram first edition, the first Bible printed in America on American-made paper and several hand-colored engravings by William Birch.)
Local case, national ramifications
The Charley Ross ransom letters are of particular interest to Northwest Philadelphia.
Three days after taking a four-year-old boy from his father’s front lawn on Washington Lane, kidnappers sent the first of 23 ransom letters to the boy’s father at his business on Market Street.
Four months after the abduction, the kidnappers were killed and investigators never found Charley. The case is considered the first recorded ransom kidnapping in American history.
David Bloom, a Freeman’s vice president and head of Rare Books, Maps and Manuscripts, said he wasn’t surprised that the letters sold for four times more than their $3,000 to 5,000 advertised estimate.
“There is a mystique about auction estimates,” said Bloom.
About four dozen people attended Thursday’s manuscript auction at Freeman’s, with more online and on the phone lines.
Framed Colonial Era flags hung along one wall. Around the room, displays featured lots from the Decorative Arts auctions. They included colorful Sioux belts and leggings, a Maryland chintz quilt and bronze sundials.
The Books, Maps & Manuscripts sale began at noon, and the Ross letters drew the room’s attention a half hour later.
After an online bidder started at $1,500, a short bidding flurry between two interested parties ensued. The contest stopped at $16,000 with a 25-percent premium fee bringing the total to the ransom-matching $20,000.
The winner has a vested interest in Northwest Philadelphia, but asked that NewsWorks withhold his name to protect his privacy. He also purchased a letterpress poster advertising Charley’s disappearance. Valued between $100 and $150, it sold for $700 at Freeman’s.
Having watched the event live online, Historic Germantown Executive Director Barbara Hogue called the experience “exciting.” She has referred to these papers as “a startling and genuine glimpse into life in 1874.”
James Butler, professor emeritus of English at La Salle University, is a longtime historian of Germantown and Mount Airy.
He was particularly drawn to the fact that 139 years after anonymous kidnappers mailed these ransom letters and demanded $20,000 that the victim’s family did not pay, an anonymous buyer delivered that very same amount in exchange for their work.
The outcome of the auction, Butler said, “deepens the aspect of the mystery.”