We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping that Changed America

We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping that Changed America

by Carrie Hagen

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This “relentlessly suspenseful” story of America’s first known kidnapping in nineteenth century Philadelphia is “elegantly told, superbly accomplished” (The Philadelphia Enquirer).
In 1874, a little boy named Charley Ross was snatched from his family’s front yard in Philadelphia. A ransom note arrived three days later, demanding twenty thousand dollars for the boy’s return. The city was about to host the America’s Centennial celebration, and the mass panic surrounding the Charley Ross case plunged the nation into hysteria.
The desperate search led the police to inspect every building in Philadelphia, set up saloon surveillance in New York’s notorious slums, and begin a national manhunt. With white-knuckle suspense and historical detail, Hagen vividly captures the dark side of an earlier America. Her brilliant portrayal of its criminals, detectives, politicians, spiritualists, and ordinary families will stay with the reader long after the final page.
“Hagen skillfully narrates a saga that transcends one kidnapping, a saga tied up with the World’s Fair that was about to open in Philadelphia.” —Kirkus Reviews
“As Erik Larson mined the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair for Devil in the White City, Hagen chronicles a tragically more relevant 19th-century story.” —Michael Capuzzo, author of The Murder Room

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590208960
Publisher: ABRAMS (Ignition)
Publication date: 08/18/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 271,084
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Carrie Hagen is a graduate of Penn State and the College of New Jersey, as well as the Goucher College MFA program in creative nonfiction. Hagen lives in Philadelphia.

Read an Excerpt


we is got him

Horses stumbled up and down Germantown avenue IN 1874. Their shoes got caught between layers of cement and broken cobblestone and slid on uneven gravel. Travelers had complained about the road between central Philadelphia and Germantown since 1700, nearly twenty years after William Penn purchased the woods northwest of Philadelphia from the Delaware Indians. Through an agent, he offered the land to victims of religious persecution in Europe, and in 1683, thirteen families of Germans arrived. They lived in caves while they built homes along an Indian footpath, a trail leading eight miles uphill from the Schuylkill River. Settling toward the top of the ridge, the immigrants established themselves in their family trades as weavers, shoemakers, and tailors. By the turn of the century, Philadelphia's society recognized the people of "German Town" as gifted artisans, and the community earned enough money to establish financial independence from Philadelphia earlier than other settlements. The townspeople's pride, however, was frustrated by a common grievance: There were too many holes in the trail leading directly through town.

Over the next two centuries, the former Indian footpath evolved from a trail into a route, a road, and then an avenue. As each generation tried and failed to fill its holes, the thoroughfare became a historical marker. During the winter of 1688, a group of Quakers and Mennonites met along it to sign the nation's first document condemning slavery. In 1777, General Howe's men marched Washington's troops down it following the British victory at the Battle of Germantown. Before the Civil War, runaway slaves found their way to it, resting at the Johnson house, Philadelphia's only documented stop on the Underground Railroad. And in July 1874, two river pirates turned onto it after kidnapping two little boys from their father's front yard, initiating the first recorded ransom kidnapping in American history.

Germantown's neighborhoods branched off a two-mile stretch of the avenue called Main Street. Every weekday, hundreds of commuters passed these residential streets on their way to and from the city. After Philadelphia absorbed Germantown into its city limits in 1854, the state of Pennsylvania built a turnpike north of its boundaries, making Germantown Avenue an even more important connection between Philadelphia, its northwestern suburbs, and central Pennsylvania. Often, salesmen and charlatans turned off the avenue onto quieter streets to peddle contraband or homemade products at the doorsteps of Victorian mansions, colonial houses, and Gothic cottages — homes of the middle class and summer retreats of Philadelphia's elite. In the early summer evenings of 1874, light winds rustled the trees and carried the scents of lilies and clover up to Main Street. Nurses bathed children, cooks prepared dinner, and groundskeepers tended symmetrical flower beds.

Washington Lane was one of six roads connecting Germantown to other neighborhoods, and on Wednesday, July 1, Peter Callahan groomed at least one property there. Earlier that day, local churches and clubs had hosted a picnic outing for children from the city's poorest neighborhoods. Laughter had echoed through the streets around lunchtime, but before the dinner hour, only two little children could be heard playing outdoors. Just after 5:00 P.M., a black wagon turned onto what is now East Washington Lane. It was drawn by a brown horse with a rusted harness and a white spot on its forehead. Peter Callahan noticed the two men sitting in the wagon. The driver's face was partially hidden by oversized eyeglasses and a sandy mustache. He looked about thirty, and he was a redhead. He wore a gray coat, a gold vest chain, and a tall, dark-colored straw hat. The passenger drew more attention to himself, mainly because he held a red handkerchief over his face. His hair was dark, and he was shorter and older than the driver.

When the wagon reached a brick wall about three feet high, the driver pulled the reins. Peter Callahan knew the children were playing on the other side of the wall that marked the front boundary of a family's property. The passenger jumped from the wagon and dropped his red handkerchief. Callahan saw his face — a dark mustache, stray whiskers sprouting from his square jaw, a deformed nose. Callahan wasn't sure what was wrong with it, but the tip of the man's nose appeared to point toward his forehead. The man began talking to the two little boys, and a few minutes later, the brothers followed him into the wagon. The older boy sat between the two men. The younger sat on the passenger's lap. As the horse began to trot up Washington Lane, the men spread a ripped, dirty lap cover with a red stripe across the children.

Callahan went back to work on the garden. He didn't say anything. Groundskeepers were used to seeing strangers roaming the residential streets.


you wil have two pay us

Before they went out to play, five-year-old Walterross and his four-year-old brother Charley had taken a bath. Christian Ross, their father, was due home from work at six, and both boys anticipated the treat he would have for them. Walter and Charley asked their nurses if they could play outside as they waited. The women agreed. Charley had light brown hair that was parted on the left and curled in ringlets to his neck. He wore a pink ribbon around his head to keep his hair out of his eyes. Although Walter was only slightly taller than his younger brother, Charley looked up to him and put Walter in charge of his trinkets and toys. Charley loved to hug his six brothers and sisters, but he was very shy around strangers. If somebody he didn't know approached him, Charley covered his face with his right arm.

Neither boy shied away from the man with the odd nose when he jumped over the brick wall. They walked toward the candy in his hand, and Charley asked if the man could take him to buy some firecrackers. When the man pointed out the wagon, Peter Callahan saw the driver scan the street.

The horse turned right once they reached Main Street. Walter asked why they weren't turning left to buy firecrackers at a popular shop.

"No, we will take you to Aunt Susie's", who keeps a store, and will give you a pocketful for five cents," the passenger said. Walter saw his nose clearly from his seat between the men. The cartilage separating his nostrils had worn away.

Walter soon realized that the horse turned at intersections in the road frequently. He asked the men to identify features in the landscape as they passed farms, stables, and watering holes. They answered his questions. As the wagon took him farther and farther from home, Charley began to whimper. He rarely cried aloud. If somebody snapped at him or spoke in harsh tones, Charley's eyes brimmed with tears until they spilled onto his cheeks. The men quieted him with candy and promises to buy all the firecrackers he wanted once they reached the store.

"Faster, faster!" the passenger called as the horse climbed hills. Twice the men stopped at water pumps and told Walter to fill an empty bottle. The passenger added liquor to it from a flask as he balanced Charley on his lap. The forefinger on his left hand had shriveled to a sharp point around his nail. He wore two rings on the middle finger of his right hand; both were gold, one a plain band and the other set with a red stone.

"Slower, slower!" the passenger called as the horse ran downhill. The wagon turned again, again, and again before reaching Kensington, a neighborhood in northern Philadelphia. At the intersection of Richmond and Palmer Streets, the men saw a tobacco store down Richmond Street with a window display of firecrackers and torpedoes. The passenger handed Walter twenty-five cents and told him to go inside and buy his brother some toys and himself some candy. Walter obeyed.

John Hay, a young tobacconist, saw Walter at the counter and asked what he wanted.

"Firecrackers." Walter pointed to some large ones.

Hay paused. Neighborhood boys usually bought as many small firecrackers as they could get for their money; it didn't make sense that Walter asked for fewer, larger ones. He told the boy to come back when he was sure he knew what he wanted. Walter left, went back to the buggy, and soon reentered the store.

A few minutes later, he walked back outside with two packs of firecrackers and one of torpedoes. He stopped. The wagon, the men, and Charley had disappeared. Walter ran to the intersection and looked back and forth. Then he screamed.

As expected, Christian Ross rode up Main Street before 6:00 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 cartload 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 farther 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 Fourtheenth Precinct was located at the town hall on Germantown Avenue. Before they reached the precinct station house, Christian saw a man walking next to a child in the distance. He recognized Walter and rushed to 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, towns-people 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 that a network of bells transmitted important communications between offices. Buchanan, a large thirty-eight-year-old Irishman with thick, black eyebrows and an ungroomed 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.

Christian persisted.

Buchanan advised him to contact a Captain William Heins at central police headquarters on Chestnut Street.

Walter Kidder walked Christian back to Washington Lane and returned home. At the top of the hill, Christian stopped at the house of Joseph Lewis, his brother-in-law.

The Ross and Lewis families had known each other for decades. Both were from central Pennsylvania, and both were descended from successful businessmen and related to state politicians. Christian's grandfather was a German immigrant who served in the Revolutionary War and later operated a popular mercantile store in Harrisburg. His daughter Catherine married Joseph Ross, another dry-goods shopkeeper, and the couple raised seven sons in a suburb of Harrisburg called Middletown. Christian was the oldest boy. After working in his father's shop, Christian moved to Philadelphia in his mid-twenties, taking his younger brother Joseph with him. At a Methodist church in Philadelphia, Christian met Sarah Ann Lewis, the younger sister of four brothers who ran a local clothing business. The couple married nine years later, when Sarah was 28 and Christian was 38. A year after their marriage in 1863, Christian's father, Joseph, died and left Christian an inheritance that he used to open his own clothing store — Ross, Schott, & Co. By 1874, as Christian's business faltered, the Lewis brothers owned three successful dry-goods stores in town, and Joseph Lewis owned more property than any other resident on Washington Lane.


Excerpted from "We Is Got Him"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Carrie Hagen.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

author's note,
major personalities,
Part One: "we is got him",
we is got him,
you wil have two pay us,
be not uneasy,
yu be its murderer,
his lif wil be instant sacrificed,
he is uneasy,
the danger lies intirely with yuself,
yu child shal die,
he is yet safe,
we wil send prof,
they are goin to search every house in the city,
if you want to trap,
before he intercepts yu,
Part Two: "the cheapest way",
we think we have left no clues behind us,
we know not what to make of that,
we have heard nothing from yu,
ask him no questions,
if death it must be,
now we demand yu anser,
ask Walter if,
this thing is drawing to a final crises,
others will rely on our word,
keep faith with us,
your substitute,
a parcel of fabricated lies,
we ask for time,
Part Three: "dead men tell no tales",
dead men tell no tales,
tell C.K.R. quietly,
the resemblance is most striking,
Detective Silleck knew that,
to vindicate themselves,
we'll defend ourselves,
serve the public,
Part Four: "this is very uncertain",
beyond the range of possibility,
this is very uncertain,
what have you got now?,
we do right to pity Charley Ross,
is my child dead?,
she is a city,
you need not ask more questions,
we fear being traped in our own game,
the whole gang,
East Washington Lane, Present Day,
Illustration credits,

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