The cotton shirt that little Charlie Ross was wearing acted like a wick as it soaked up the warm July sunshine. Four-year old Charlie was watching his 6-year old brother Walter as he rolled a steel barrel hoop across the yard with a long stick.
The Ross home was a handsome, three story, stone house located in the Philadelphia suburb of Germantown. The whole town was looking forward to the July 4th, 1874, celebration which was only three days away. Yet the city was also preparing for an Independence Day celebration that was coming up in two short years!
Philadelphians were excited about hosting their country's 1876 Centennial Exhibition. The 4th of July holiday was always a favorite here, because it was so closely identified with the city's early history.
As Walter rolled the hoop closer to the dirt street in front of his home, he let it roll to a stop and fall to the ground.
Walter had noticed a familiar horse and buggy coming down the street and he had hoped that it was the same two men who had given him and his brother candy on the previous Saturday. The two men had stopped by on the next two days and engaged in idle chatter. The boys did not realize that the men were trying to gain their trust.
Sure enough it was them, and today the boys ran to meet the strangers. The men offered to take the boys to the general store to purchase firecrackers for them. The boys climbed into the wagon and the men positioned a lap cover so that the neighbors were unaware that the children were being kidnaped..
The wagon wound through streets that the boys were unfamiliar with and finally the little guys became restless. The buggy driver pulled up to a cigar store and gave Walter a quarter and told him to go in and buy some firecrackers.
As soon as Walter entered the store, the buggy pulled away. When the child came back out and realized his dilemma, he started to cry. His crying attracted some passers-by who were able to return the boy to his family.
The tragic chain of events was just starting. The kidnappers believed that the family was wealthy, but they were mistaken. Christian Ross owned a retail grocery store that was actually suffering financially.
On July 4th, 1874, their first ransom note demanding $20,000 was received and before this event was over, the kidnappers had exchanged 23 letters with the Ross family. Of course,
the way the Ross family communicated with the kidnappers was writing messages in the newspaper.
This is the text of an actual letter:
" be not uneasy you son Charley Bruster be all writ we's him and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand. You will have to pay us before you git him from us, and pay us a big cent too. If you put the cops hunting for him yu is only defeting yu own end. We is got him put so no living power gets him from us a live. If any aproch is maid to his hiding place tha is the signil for his instant annihilition. If yu regard his lif puts no one to search for him yu can fetch him out alive and no other existin powers. Don't deceive yuself and think the detectives ca git him from us for that is imposebel. Yu here from us in a few days."
Thousands of men, women and children were involved in searching for the child. The story spread across the nation about the child and millions hoped that he would be returned.. Here, and in Europe, people were shocked that such an evil crime could be perpetrated. Kidnapping was so unheard of at the time that there were no laws to cover such a crime!
The case dragged on throughout the summer and fall, with every lead and tiny clue checked out. Without the communications systems that we have today, it was a tedious and frustrating task.
People reported seeing what they thought was the lost child, but each lead proved to be wrong. Men with little boys were stopped and questioned around the world!
Charlie was the first lost or kidnapped child to have his image placed on a product container! That's right! Charlie's likeness was embossed onto cologne bottles! Also, fliers were sent throughout the state in an effort to enlist the public's help.
On December 13, 1874, two men were shot while robbing a home. One of the robbers died immediately while the other, Joseph Douglas, lived just long enough to admit the kidnapping. When he was asked who had the child he replied, "Ask Mosher," pointing to the body of his partner, not realizing he was dead. William Mosher was the only one who knew where Charlie was.
Charlie was never found. On some of the bottles with Charlie's image, he is dressed like a little girl because it was believed that this was how the kidnappers hid him.
Mrs. Ross's health broke and the family spent $60,000 in the search for the boy. When the money ran out, Mr. Ross wrote a book about the kidnaping and he continued the hunt for the last 20 years of his life.
For years, men came forward claiming to be Charlie, but for 65 years the court system recognized none of them as Charlie.
In 1923, a Kansas man, then 53, said that he thought that he was Charlie Ross. He did not know he was a boy until he was 13 and ran away from home. He had been dressed as a girl and never sent to school. He was always kept in hiding or at work in the kitchen. He said that the woman whom he thought was his mother once said that his name was Charlie Ross, but he paid little attention to that until he read of the kidnaping in 1922.
Dozens of other men claimed to be Charlie Ross and some were from Michigan but, to this day, nobody knows for sure what happened to Charlie.The crime was not repeated until the 1920's, with the Lindbergh child. And the two crimes were almost a perfect parallel in their similarities.