we is got him: The Kidnapping That Changed America Excerpt

Carrie Hagen (2009)
Overlook Press, 2011.

you will have two pay us

As expected, Christian Ross rode up Main Street before 6 p.m.  He was a tall and skinny man, fifty years old, the father of seven children, and a Sunday school teacher at the local Methodist church.  He had a receding hairline, a large nose and a full, carefully groomed red beard that almost covered his lower lip.  Christian commuted ten miles from his home to his wholesale dry goods company on Third and Market streets.  It was a difficult time to own a small business.  The Panic of 1873 had hit Philadelphia the year before when the Jay Cooke bank closed.  This New York-based bank had heavily financed railroad construction, but the pace of westward expansion depleted funds, and the bank folded under rising costs of labor.  Philadelphia's commercial and industrial communities were funded by local, family-owned banks, so they did not suffer like others in the East.  Smaller businesses like Christian's, however, took a hit as consumers lost or conserved expendable income.  Christian's wife, Sarah, had recently taken a trip to Atlantic City, causing neighbors to wonder whether she was struggling to cope with financial stress at the Ross home.  The family said she was recovering from an illness.

Christian looked forward to seeing his two youngest sons that evening.  The boys had been complaining because they were stuck at home while their older sister Sophia vacationed with their mother and their two older brothers visited their grandmother in central Pennsylvania.  Walter and Charley knew they would switch places with Sophia in mid-July, but in the meantime, the household - including two nannies, a cook, groundsmen, an older and a younger sister -- was quieter than they liked.  With the approach of Independence Day, the boys had seen children in town playing with fireworks.  Germantown and Philadelphia ordinances banned fireworks and firecrackers from residential areas, yet children could easily purchase them in corner stores.  That morning, Walter and Charley had followed their father to the stables, asking him for money to buy firecrackers.  Christian said they needed to wait until he came home with a cart-load of sand to muffle the sound. 

Christian turned onto Washington Lane and headed downhill to his house.  Between one and ten acres separated the residences on either side of the street.  Christian's brother-in-law Joseph Lewis lived on a large property at the top of the hill, close to the train station.  Christian owned a smaller plot further down the street.  As he approached his drive, he was surprised that the boys weren't waiting for him.  He walked through the garden up to his sheltered front porch and asked the nurses for his sons; the women said they had been playing outside with other children for close to two hours.  Christian walked to the front gate and listened for the boys -- when he didn't hear them, he decided to wait on the front porch with a newspaper.  An hour later, the cook served dinner.  Assuming his sons had wandered off with a friend, Christian sent a servant to find them.  Only when they didn't return during the meal did he become concerned.  Christian went back to the street, followed by members of his household who divided into small search parties.  As Christian walked in front of his house, his neighbor Mary Kidder called to him. 

"Are your boys likely to ride with strangers?"

Christian stared at her.  Four days earlier, Walter had run up to him with a white, braided stick of candy about four inches long.  He said a man in a wagon had given one to him and one to Charley.  Christian had asked both boys if they had spoken to the strangers.  "No, Sir," Walter had answered.  Later, Christian remembered feeling touched by the encounter, glad that men took the time to notice children.

Mrs. Kidder hurried across her lawn.  Her husband Walter followed.  She told Christian that she had looked out of her window earlier and noticed his boys talking to a man.  Shortly thereafter, she saw them ride away with him in a wagon.  Mrs. Kidder had thought the scene odd, but with the exception of petty robberies and corner lounging, crime didn't threaten the people of Germantown.  That week, a local paper had addressed the town's biggest complaints: the shabby condition of Germantown Avenue, cooks who threw kitchen trash outdoors, women who visited saloons, and police officers who allowed bartenders to illegally sell oysters.  As of 1874, kidnapping in America was a misdemeanor, not a felony, and certainly not anything parents in Germantown had ever feared.  Walter Kidder walked up the hill with Christian to Main Street and the police station.  It was 8:00 p.m.

The 14th precinct was located at the town hall on Germantown Avenue.  Before they reached the station, Christian saw a man walking next to a child in the distance.  He recognized Walter and rushed towards him.

"Where have you been, Walter?" he asked.

The little boy rubbed his red, swollen eyes.  In his hand, he held firecrackers. "Walter, where is Charley?"

Walter looked confused.  "Why, he is all right.  He is in the wagon."  Walter had assumed that Charley had returned home and he was the one lost.  The man standing next to him identified himself as Mr. Henry Peacock.  He told Christian that on his commute home from work, he had seen and heard a terrified Walter talking to women on a street corner in Kensington.  When he heard "a man had put him out of a buggy and had then gone off and left him," Mr. Peacock offered to take Walter to the police station.  The little boy, he said, then burst "into a frantic fit of crying."  Walter was able to tell Henry Peacock where he lived, but he only mentioned one man as being in the buggy, and he didn't say anything about a brother. 

Christian wrote down Mr. Peacock's address and asked him to walk Walter home.  He and Mr. Kidder continued to the police station.

Germantown's Town Hall stood at the corner of Germantown Avenue and Haines Street.  From a distance in any direction, townspeople could see a four-sided clock positioned on the roof, the rotunda above it, and a narrow tower rising from the rotunda into the sky.  Six pillars supported the front entrance of Town Hall.  It had served as a makeshift hospital during the beginning of the Civil War, but now the building remained fairly empty, except for twelve police officers, any disorderly drunk locked up in a basement cell, and the occasional audience gathering to see a traveling entertainer or politician.  Christian and his neighbor walked up the steps.  They found Lieutenant Alexander Buchanan, the commanding officer on duty, and asked him to wire a telegraph inquiring about a lost child to central police headquarters.  The central office dialogued with each of its precincts via telegraph, which often meant a network of bells transmitted important communications between offices.  Buchanan, a large, 38- year- old Irishman with thick, black eyebrows and an un-groomed moustache, wrote down Charley's name and age. 

Thirty minutes later, Buchanan reported that no lost little boys had been found.  He said he was sure Charley would show up soon and advised Christian to calm down.

Christian asked what else the police could do. 

Buchanan said he couldn't do anything else. 

                        *                                  *                                  *

be not uneasy

            Across Chestnut Street from Independence Hall, a statue of Benjamin Franklin stood on a corner podium of the Ledger building on Sixth Street.  On the morning of July 4, while scattered showers kept some off the cobblestone streets, newsboys sold two-cent papers underneath the eyes of the Philadelphia hero.  The Ledger headlines reviewed Philadelphia's Independence Day activities, lightning storms in Maryland, and the president's vacation plans.  At the top of the front page, the editor had posted a notice under the title "Too Late for Classification."


300$ REWARD WILL BE PAID TO THE person returned to No 5 North Sixth Street, a small Boy, having long, curly, flaxen hair, hazel eyes, clear, light-skinned round face, dressed in a brown linen suit with a short skirt, broad buttoned straw hat and laced shoes.  This child was lost from Germantown on Wednesday afternoon.  1st lost, between 4 and 5 o'clock.


            Christian Ross had spent the previous night at police headquarters.  Early the next morning, he walked across Sixth Street, hoping that the detectives were right and a reward had prompted Charley's return.  If and when a reader of the morning's Ledger brought Charley to the news building, Christian wanted to be there before his little boy arrived.  He waited until 9 a.m.

Back at Independence Hall, Mayor William Stokley entered the city council chamber.  One of Philadelphia's longest-running mayors, Stokley took great pride in the power he held over the second largest city in the country.  His constituents numbered close to 800,000, more than 20% of whom worked in the 8,000 factories contained within the city's 120 square miles.  Manufacturing defined Philadelphia during industrialization, but so did its Republican majority: almost 5 times as many Republicans held councilmen positions than did Democrats, and in 1872, Ulysses S. Grant accepted the Republican nomination for president at the city's Academy of Music.

William Stokley had also been the figurehead of the police department since 1871, when he won the mayoral election on a platform against urban violence.  Fights between independent fire companies were among the many that flared on the streets, and Stokley, a former volunteer fireman, knew the city had to intervene.  His first political act was to establish a paid fire department, a decision that curbed firehouse feuding but failed to address the two main sources of street violence: ethnic tension and unemployment.  By the first years of Reconstruction (the post-Civil War era), the immigrant community in Philadelphia had grown to one third of the city's population, and as industrialization absorbed artisan jobs, native sons blamed the factories and the foreigners for destroying their family businesses.  Craftsmen organized themselves politically, neighborhoods organized themselves socially, and resentment fueled riots between blacks, whites, Italians, Irish Catholics, Whigs, and Democrats.  City leaders took sides, and the police often joined the fights.

The press accused Stokley's force of ignorance and underperformance.  Aiming to improve his officers' images and prove his leadership skills, the mayor began surprising them on the job.  He immediately fired those who appeared drunk, unkempt, or lazy.  The public excoriations promoted Stokley as a disciplinarian, but more professional-looking officers didn't change the social temperature.  Matters became worse in the economic recession that began as the Panic of 1873: most factory workers remained employed, but other city wages dropped 10 percent, and thousands of railway workers were jobless during the winter of 1873-1874.  As bread lines grew longer, the press criticized police for honoring capitalist wishes by failing to protect the working class.  Stokley's solution was to hire more officers.  Five days before July 4, he added 200 men to the force.    

Mayor Stokley had heard about Charley Ross's disappearance on July 3, and he knew many of his new hires were looking for the kidnappers' horse and wagon.  On the morning of the 4th, however, Stokley had bigger things to do than worry about a missing child.   In two years, Philadelphia would host America's Centennial celebration, and he had a party to plan. 

The nation's leaders wanted the Centennial to honor America's history.  When the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, four million Americans had settled the country's 13 states.  100 years later, the nation had grown into 40 million people and 38 states.  Great pride and great cost fostered such progress.  Most notably, a Union victory had ended the Civil War nine years before the disappearance of Charley Ross.  The states formed one country, but 620,000 soldiers had died and freed slaves struggled to find work even in the North.  Capitalists had channeled the nation's resources into wealth, but bad investments had bankrupted small businesses and industrial growth sparked ethnic riots.  So as much as the nation's leaders wanted the Centennial to honor America's history, they needed it to secure America's future.  Americans had to feel united in order to produce a sustainable economy in the aftermath of war.  By showcasing inventions and art forms, the Centennial could appeal to their cultural heritage, spark their patriotism, and thus encourage their acceptance of future government initiatives.     

            *                      *                      *

Stokley greeted his honored guests inside the city council chamber.  The men  -- councilmen, Centennial commission members, highway commissioners -- wore blue ribbons on their jackets.  Together, they exited the rear of the building and marched towards eight carriages a block away on Walnut Street.  Seven of the carriages turned right and took a scenic route through the central district to the east banks of the Schuylkill River.  The mayor's carriage went directly to the Centennial excavation grounds on the opposite side of the river.  There, as he approached the park's west entrance, Stokley entered a pastoral scene. 

Trees lined both riverbanks, and across the Schuylkill, promontory rock formed natural cliffs that hid a railroad and passing freight trains from walkers and horseback riders who meandered along the river's edge.  In the middle of the water, small falls toppled through the WaterWorks purification facility, a Greek Revival edifice engineered in the 1790's to cleanse the city from yellow fever.  Stokley's carriage followed the river's curves.  He arrived at the excavation site before 10 a.m., joining workmen who stood in the midst of shovels, tools, and carts.  Stokley accepted an offered spade and dug into the ground.  Workmen erupted into three cheers.  When the mayor left, they would begin the work of transforming 450 of the park's nearly 3,000 acres into an international showcase celebrating America's first century of independence. 

Stokley paraded a short distance from the west end of the new Girard Avenue Bridge, a structure 1,000 feet long and 100 feet wide.  Engineers of the day believed it to be the widest bridge in the world, and most of the Centennial's 10 million visitors would trek across it.  The seven carriages full of men in blue ribbons turned onto the east side of the bridge and aligned themselves side by side before they slowly and simultaneously paraded across.  From a foot-path on the pier, invited guests applauded and whistled.  Those not invited watched the procession from the riverbanks.


                                              *   *   *   *   *

Christian waited at the Ledger building until mid-morning.  Frustrated and defeated, he returned to the station.  As he opened the door, a man yelled, "I have it!  I have it!"  It was the voice of one of his brothers-in-law.  He handed Christian a letter that had been delivered to Ross, Schott, & Co. that morning.  Officers in the station gathered around Christian.  


 July 3 - Mr. Ros: 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.  You

wil have two pay us before you git him from us, and pay us a big cent to.

if you put the cops hunting for him you is only defeegin yu own end.

we is got him put so no living power can gets him from us a live.  If

any approach is maid to his hidin place that is the signil for his instant

annihilation.  If you regard his lif puts no one to search for him yu mony

can fech him out alive an no other existin powers.  Don't deceve yuself

an think the detectives can git him from us for that is imposebel.  You

here from us in few day.


Christian finished reading.  Nobody spoke.

                                              *   *   *   *   *


The eight carriages carrying Stokley and his guests drove back into the center of town around noon to witness the day's third event: the dedication of City Hall's cornerstone at Broad and Market Streets.  William Penn had designed plans for a municipal building on this very location, but the establishment of river communities and suburbs had delayed his plans for 180 years. 

Five thousand attendees pushed towards the cornerstone site when Stokley arrived.  Underneath an enclosure at the north end, thirty-seven paintings representing each state hung from thirty-seven poles.  The Mayor and his guests sat inside of a semi-circle framed by the poles; small flags, streamers, and the city's coat of arms decorated the cornerstone in front of them.  The local Order of Masons called the ceremony to order, and after a few guest speeches, the masons presented artifacts including copies of the Pennsylvania state constitution, the City Charter, plans for City Hall, the annual message of the mayor, and the newspapers of July 4, 1874.  As Stokley watched, the objects were placed inside the vault, which was then covered with marbleized slate and cemented with a stone cap.  The cornerstone was sealed.

Benjamin A Brewster, Pennsylvania's Attorney General and the future US Attorney General, gave the keynote address.  In it, he remembered William Penn's plan for the city and praised its ethnocentric pride:

"We have a manly local pride of citizenship; other seaboard cities are provincial or filled with strangers from other parts of the nation and from other countries, and Western cities are like New York, the homes of new men from old places.  If a foreigner were to ask me where will I find a real American untouched in his character and nationality by the ever-drifting tide of emigration, domestic and foreign, and with no taint of provincial narrowness, I would say go to Philadelphia, and there you will find just such men and women by the hundreds of thousands."

Newspapers declared the morning's ceremonies a success and praised Mayor Stokley for his planning commission's attention to detail.  Over the next two years, the press would weigh Philadelphia's civic issues with her Exhibition plans, reminding both citizens and politicians that the country's international reputation depended upon Philadelphia's hosting abilities.  Congress expected the 1876 Centennial Exhibition to illustrate the state of America on the brink of her second century.  And it would -- by celebrating history, showcasing industrial progress, and assuring the world that the Civil War had not demoralized patriotism.  This portrait, however, would be incorrect. 

As Mayor Stokley stood at the end of the dedication ceremony, he didn't realize that freshly buried in front of him, underneath the sealed cornerstone, was the beginning of a different story that would carry his name across the globe.  It would be this narrative, and not the Centennial displays, which would honestly depict the American character during Reconstruction.     

Stokley returned to Independence Hall that afternoon.  When he entered Central Police Headquarters, officers handed him an odd-looking letter.  It told the mayor about a new crime: one that had developed under his watch, and one that would change the authority of his office.  No longer the master of ceremonies, Mayor William Stokley found himself at the head of an investigation to solve the first recorded ransom kidnapping in American history.

            And the world was making plans to visit his city.