Child Abduction: A Perennial Fear
In 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz disappeared on his way to school in New York City. And last month, a fruitless search for Patz’ remains in a New York basement prompted a national wave of nostalgia for the innocent days of yore. For most of our history, we told ourselves, kids were safe. Then we lost Etan.
But we lost our innocence much earlier than that. With the 1874 kidnapping of four-year-old Charley Ross, right here in Philadelphia, Americans discovered that they could never truly safeguard their children. And we’ve been living with the consequences ever since.
Charley lived in a well-appointed house on Washington Lane in Germantown, an upper-middle-class community at the time. On July 1, 1874, Charley and his eight-year-old brother Walter agreed to take a horse-and-wagon ride with two men who had promised them candy and firecrackers for the approaching Fourth of July celebrations.
The men drove them to a store in Kensington, where they gave Walter a quarter and sent him inside to buy fireworks. But when he came out, carrying his new purchases, the wagon was gone. And so was Charley.
Three days later, on July 4th, his father received the first of several crude ransom notes. Charley’s captors eventually asked for $20,000, an enormous sum at the time. Although Christian Ross was a man of means, he had also reportedly suffered big losses in the economic downturn of 1873. There was no way he could pay that much.
So his well-connected friends offered to take up a collection. But Ross refused. Foreseeing today’s admonition against “negotiating with terrorists,” Ross insisted that paying the ransom would unleash a series of similar crimes across the land.
In the public mind, however, that made Ross himself a suspect. Rumors swirled that he had somehow conspired in his son’s theft; others said that Charlie wasn’t Christian Ross’ son at all, but rather the product of an affair between Charley’s mother and another man.
In December of 1874, Charley Ross’s kidnappers were shot while attempting to burglarize another home. One of them died instantly; the other confessed on his deathbed to abducting Charley, but did not give Ross’ whereabouts. “The boy will get home all right,” the kidnapper said.
He never did. In the first nationwide search for a missing child, Christian Ross and his allies distributed 700,000 circulars about Charley. And in the first year after he disappeared, there were 600 reported “sightings” of the boy. None of them checked out.
Fifty years later, when Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were arrested for abducting and murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks, a member of their defense team reported that Loeb had been inspired by “a crime that nobody could ever detect”: the kidnapping of Charley Ross. And eight years after that, when aviation hero Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was abducted and killed, one newspaper ran reward posters for Charles Lindbergh, Jr. and Charley Ross side by side.
“The men and women who were children in the days of the Charley Ross kidnapping can remember how their mothers warned them to stay in the house, never talk to strangers, and regard every old clothes man as a potential ogre who would would carry them off and strangle them and cut them into little pieces,” the New Republic editorialized in 1932, a few days after the Lindbergh baby was found dead. “The Lindbergh case is likely to produce an even wider reaction.”
But nothing rivalled the reaction to the disappearance of Etan Patz, whose mother watched him walk down the street and never saw him again. At one time, 500 police officers were involved in the search for the boy; eventually, his face appeared on milk cartons across America.
Like Christian Ross, Etan’s parents faced nasty invective from a frightened public. Some critics said the Patzes should never have let Etan out of their sight. Others claimed he was hiding with his grandparents following a family dispute over religion: whereas Etan’s father is Jewish, his mother is not.
In the end, of course, there was no explanation for Etan’s disappearance. And that’s the scariest thing of all. We want the world to make sense, to conform to our scripts of reason and order and safety. But it doesn’t.
“This Philadelphia business shows that any one of us is liable to such a loss,” the New York Times declared, a few days after Charley Ross was kidnapped. That’s why we stare at posters of missing children, no matter how much it hurts. Etan Patz could have been your son, or mine. We all lost Etan, and we will all keep trying to find him.