7. Charley Ross
Charley Ross was only four years old in 1874, when he and his older brother Walter were enticed into a horse-drawn carriage while they were playing in their garden in Philadelphia. Five-year-old Walter was able to get out further down the street, but Charley was driven away and was never seen again.
The kidnapping of Charley Ross is notable for two reasons. It was the first well-documented instance of a ransom note being sent in American history, and it also led to a change in the law. Until that time, kidnapping had been a misdemeanor offense. In 1875, in Pennsylvania, this was changed to a felony.
In all, 23 ransom letters were sent to the Ross family, demanding $20,000. The authorities were inexperienced at dealing with kidnapping, and the mayor’s office foolishly offered a reward of, coincidentally, $20,000 for his return. This unleashed an unending wave of sightings, tip-offs, and outright fabrications from people desperate to collect the reward and made the job of finding the boy that much harder. People claiming to be Charley turned up regularly at the Ross family home even years later.
When two men were shot by police officers in the process of committing a robbery, one of them, Joseph Douglas, confessed to the kidnapping. Both men died at the scene before they could say anything more. One of their associates was also tried and convicted of complicity in the kidnapping, but he never revealed the whereabouts of Charley or his remains.
In 2012, 22 of the ransom letters were found. The next year, they were auctioned, ironically, for $20,000.