The Shootout on Shore Road
At 2am, on a cold and wet December morning in 1874, John Holmes Van Brunt was waked by a burglar alarm. He lived on Shore Road, about where Fort Hamilton High School is today, 84th or 85th Street, on property his family had owned since 1635, when they bought it from the Native Americans. It “command[ed] a lovely marine view,” Peter Ross writes in History of Long Island, “one of the most sightly, beautiful and well appointed in its vicinity.” His house stood across a narrow lawn from his brother’s summer house. Judge Charles Van Brunt had closed it up for winter, but not without first installing a telegraph that would alert his brother across the way if anyone tampered with the doors or windows. That night, “this alarm-bell rang violently,” according to an account by Christian Ross. This wasn’t unusual; occasionally, a strong wind would blow-open a blind, so Holmes asked his son Albert to go and check it out. Before the younger Van Brunt left, he stuck a pistol in his pocket.
He saw a light flicker in the window of the judge’s closed house, so Albert returned home, told his father, and got the family gardener, who lived in a nearby cottage. The men also roused a hired man, Herman Frank, while Holmes gathered his guns and joined them, even though he was seriously ill. Albert and the gardener stood in front of the house; Holmes and Frank took the rear—and they all stayed in position for almost an hour, watching the burglars’ lights occasionally flash as they made their way through the judge’s rooms. The only other light would have been the moon’s. Holmes could only stand so much; he was sick, and it was damp, and cold, so he told Frank to open the back door. The burglars heard him fumbling with the key, extinguished their light, and started up the cellar stairs.
The unfastened cellar doors, through which the burglars had broken into the home, flew open. Two men emerged, right into Holmes and Frank; Van Brunt ordered them to halt, to which the burglars responded with a pair of bullets. Both missed. Holmes responded with his shotgun, and hit the man in front. “A cry of agony followed,” Ross writes. The second trespasser fired again and ran—right into Albert, at whom he fired twice but missed, and, as he kept running, Holmes hit his arm with a shotgun blast, and then got him again, in the back. He fell dead, his head falling atop his empty pistol.
The surviving housebreaker continued firing until his gun was empty, hitting no one. A neighbor, George Bergen, arrived with his brother and a hired man. The burglar asked for water—which Frank brought—and drank it. “You have got to die,” Van Brunt told him. “If you have got anything to say, say it quick.” George Bergen asked the man his name. At first he lied, gave some Irish name, but quickly admitted that he was Joseph Douglas; his associate was William Mosher, of New York, a married father of five. Douglas asked to be buried with the $40 in his pocket, which he said he’d made honestly. And then he broke open the biggest mystery in the country at the time. “It’s no use lying now,” he said: “Mosher and I stole Charley Ross from Germantown.”
How Charley Ross Went Missing
Kidnapping for ransom is as old as history, even targeted ones, though far more commonly it was a side effect of battle. “Prisoners of war were frequently assigned a value and their fate determined by their family’s or country’s ability to pay a ransom,” Richard P. Wright writes in Kidnap for Ransom. “The end result for those victims who were to be ransomed was the same as that of the kidnap victims today. They were forced to endure a period of captivity under often dire circumstances during which an amount to be paid for their freedom was negotiated.” Ancient Jewish and Buddhist texts prescribe harsh punishments for kidnappers; so does Hammurabi’s Code.
Still, kidnapping for ransom was unknown in the young United States. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were a few cases of Native Americans abducting colonial children. But they were more often the spoils of battle, not means of raising capital. The case of American child-stealing that endures in our collective memory is, of course, the Lindbergh baby, taken almost 60 years after Douglas made his dying confession, provoking a media frenzy and new laws by congress. It’s the most famous abduction in our history, the defining case of modern American kidnapping. But it had a predecessor with similar details: a child taken by strangers, white men (as opposed to natives), who demanded a ransom for a child they never delivered. The biggest difference is—no one knows whatever happened to Charley Ross.
Let’s go back a few months. At 8pm on July 1, 1874, an agitated Christian Ross left his home to find his two sons, who hadn’t been seen for hours, and very quickly found one: Walter, who was in the company of a strange man. The Ross family lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia (now a neighborhood within the expanded city). Christian, an upper-middle-class dry-goods dealer, owned a two-floor stone house on the north side of East Washington Lane. “It stands on rising ground, about fifty feet from the road,” he writes in The Father’s Story of Charley Ross; “the lawn is ornamented with evergreens and other trees.”
That day, Christian’s oldest children were with their grandmother, a hundred miles northwest in Middletown; his wife had taken their other daughter to Atlantic City. (After two weeks, Mrs. Ross was supposed to send the girl home and send for Charley and his brother Walter, which they were looking forward to. “[I]n two of the letters from the abductors,” Christian writes, “Charley is represented as fretting lest he should not get home in time to join his mother at Atlantic City.”) Still, many people still occupied the grounds, including a cook, a gardener, two nannies, the Rosses’ youngest—a baby girl—and still others.
That day, Charley, 4, had been playing with his brother Walter, 6, on the road in front of the house. For the last several days, two men in a cart had passed and given the boys candy; on July 1, Charley asked them if they would give the boys a ride and buy them firecrackers, and the men agreed. Their father had said he would buy them some for the upcoming holiday, but Charley was four-years-old—he wanted them now. Walter sat on the passenger’s knee, and Charley sat between the men; Walter asked to go to a nearby store, but the men said no, that they wanted to take them to “Aunt Susie’s.” The ride was long, and Charley cried. The men stopped at a cigar store at the corner of Palmer and Richmond, six miles away, and sent Walter in with a quarter to buy firecrackers and torpedoes.
When he came out, carrying three small packages in his hands and four cents change in his pocket, he couldn’t find the cart, or the men, or his brother. He looked up the street, down the street, around the corner. Then he did what most kids would—he cried loudly, attracting a crowd, one man from which brought him home. Walter thought he was the missing child, and that his brother had been safely returned. But no one at the Ross house knew where Charley was.
His father reported Charley’s disappearance to local police, who told him it sounded like “a drunken frolic,” and figured the boy would be returned or found, abandoned, by patrolmen. They were wrong.
The First Ransom Notes in American History
The first note arrived on the Fourth of July. It was addressed to Christian at his home, and it took some time to read—Christian had not only to decipher the sloppy handwriting but also the wanton, deliberate misspellings and dissolute grammar. (“you wil hav two pay us befor you git him from us, and pay us a big cent to.”) The second letter, which arrived two days later, named a price: $20,000. (Very roughly, approximately $400,000 in today’s dollars.)
Searches began in multiple states, as far as 100 miles away; canal boats were picked through, coal yards and outhouses searched, ferrymen and townsfolk questioned, from Trenton to Baltimore. Soon even the public was helping, combing over backroads, swamps and woodlands. Police searched Philadelphia building-by-building. But they turned up nothing but false leads.
Local law enforcement officials recommended Christian not pay the ransom: “all united in expressing the belief that the threats would never be carried out, the object sought by the villians [sic] being money only,” he writes; “and that as soon as they should be satisfied that they could not accomplish this, the child would probably be left on the street or highway, and thence find his way home.” Like the police who told him it was probably just a drunken frolic, these lawyers seemed unable to conceive of a child being ransomed, let alone murdered. Gossip passed through town that there was some other, real motive, because to some, the actual one was so absurd. (By and large, though, the public was sympathetic and moved by the Rosses’ ordeal. There was even a song published, called “Bring Back Our Darling.”)
Ross and the kidnappers corresponded: he would reply with terse items in the personal columns of various newspapers, and the kidnappers would answer with threatening letters mailed to his home. They told him the price of $20,000 was fixed, and that the boy would die if it weren’t paid. At least one well-to-do man offered to put up the money. But the family decided to follow the advice of the police and lawyers, though Christian struggled with his decision even as he remained resolute. “I would not compound the felony,” Ross writes; “hoping…that I will recover my child, and probably prevent a repetition of child-stealing for a ransom.”
(When the kidnappers discovered Ross wasn’t as wealthy as they’d believed, they considered halving the ransom, but then still insisted upon the full amount because the public had been so roused by the story that he could surely raise it. In another letter, they suggest that Ross could put Charley “on exhibition” when returned and make all the money back, because “there is not a mother in phila that will not pay a dollar to see him.” They weren’t the only ones to have such an idea. Perhaps the most colorful scene in Christian Ross’s book comes near the end, when he visits a carnival that has a wax model of “The Ross Family.” Ross is introduced under a pseudonym to the owner, whom at length he makes fun of—getting him to say things like, “Yes, I know Mr. and Mrs. Ross well….I have seen them often, and have been to their house”—before revealing his true identity. The conversation ends with the carnival operator telling him, “when that boy’s found I want you to let me have him to exhibit. He will draw better than anything I can get. I’ll give you a thousand dollars a week for him for thirty weeks”—the ransom and a half.)
The Rosses received twenty-four letters in all, the first half usually dropped in mailboxes or post offices around Philadelphia (though the kidnappers insisted the child wasn’t in the city), the rest from New York, the Hudson Valley and farther afield, as far as New Brunswick. In one, they wrote that, if the father would not pay, they would have to kill Charley so they could abduct another child and impress upon his or her parents how serious they were. The last letter arrived on November 6, more than four months after the kidnapping, postmarked Philadelphia. It reads like all the others, demanding the money, that it be delivered in the next few days. Ross answered with two more personals, but he received no reply.
And the authors would be dead in thirty-six days.
Back to Shore Road
Detectives in New York broke the case as early as August, following leads about Mosher and Douglas, who had planned, according to an informant, to abduct a Vanderbilt child and ransom him in a manner very similar to what had happened to Ross. Mosher and Douglas traveled the country selling a powdered moth poison called “Mothee,” and Mosher was also a boat-builder known to frequent “the waters around New York in a boat on marauding expeditions,” which is what brought the pair to Bay Ridge that wet December night (on a boat stolen in Bridgeport and modified by Mosher, possibly launched from 39th Street or Manhattan)—they were desperate for food and clothing, knew they were being hunted by police, that they were the most hated men in America, that they dared not show their faces in daylight or anywhere decent people congregated. Ironically, there was little in Van Brunt’s house to steal. “They sold their lives cheaply,” according to an 1874 article in the Brooklyn Eagle.
Mosher was shot dead that night in Bay Ridge, while Douglas lay dying. He was questioned about where Charley was, and he told them Mosher knew. They told him Mosher was dead, held up the body to show him, but he swore repeatedly—he didn’t know! He was in pain, and George Bergen, the Van Brunts’ neighbor, gave him brandy, and rubbed his hands. They tried to move him inside. “For God’s sake, let me be,” Douglas told them. They wanted to put a blanket under him, but he wouldn’t let them. But he did promise that the child would be returned in a few days. “He remained conscious until about fifteen minutes before his death,” Ross writes. “Thus writhing in agony, lying on the spot where he had fallen, drenched with the descending rain, ended the purposeless and miserable life of one who aided in rending the heartstrings of a family unknown to him, and in outraging the feelings of the civilized world.” It was about 5:30am.
The bodies were brought to the morgue, and once the Eagle reported it, curiosity seekers arrived in large numbers to see the bodies. “It was the general remark of all who saw the face of Douglas…that he did not look like a bad man, in fact, he who would rather have been credited with the possession of some intellect,” the Eagle reported. “No one seemed to pity Mosher at all. ‘He’s got a bad face’ was the remark, and the reply generally came promptly, ‘yes, he has, he’s well out of the way,’” which was apparently some sick 19th-century burn.
Walter was brought to the morgue in Brooklyn, on (what’s now) Ashland Place in Fort Greene, and left alone with the bodies, no one telling him or asking him anything, until he spontaneously recognized and identified the bodies as those of the men who had taken him and his little brother Charley for a ride.
Everyone was convinced they’d caught the men who did it.
The Search for Charley Continues
But the story doesn’t quite end there, because Charley was still missing. From the start, Christian was besieged by extorters and crazies. “Every person, both in the city and from other places, whose mind was not well balanced, or who was a monomaniac upon any particular subject, found us out, and proposed his way of discovering Charley.” The most memorable was probably a man who explained, “God has punished you for cutting off your hair. He punished me, and two of my children died because I cut off my hair. You must not use razor or scissors, but let your hair grow, and all will be right. Your child will come back when your hair grows.”
Letters arrived, insinuating possession of confidential information that could be purchased. Reputable citizens up and down the Eastern Seaboard sent word about every unattached child they saw, found or heard about—especially if his first name was Charley. Spiritualists offered advice from the other side. After the incident in Bay Ridge, Mosher’s widow was uncooperative with police, but they were able to get from her that her husband said Charley had been placed with “an old man and woman, and was well cared for,” but she didn’t know who they were or where they lived. Suspicious elderly people were investigated and cleared.
According to a local rumor in Bay Ridge, Mosher and Douglas had lived in the woods of Brooklyn. Several farmers and Bay Ridge residents said they saw the kidnappers at a cabin on the hill that’s now part of Sunset Park; one even said he’d seen a small boy there through an open door. He’d asked no questions of the men, though, because they didn’t seem “neighborly.” This cabin was searched, but no evidence of Charley was discovered. “It was considered a peculiar coincidence, however,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1932, “that the cabin remained empty after the shooting of Douglas and Mosher.” (Their boat, by the way, was dragged ashore and kept for many years by “a local family” in Bay Ridge.)
Mosher’s associates were rounded up, intimidated and released, because they knew nothing. Lost children were rounded up, interrogated and released, because they weren’t Charley. Corpses were exhumed and reburied. Much of the public had concluded long ago that Ross was dead, but Douglas’s promise that he’d be returned excited them anew. Even the family thought they might spend Christmas with Charley.
But they didn’t. Charley Ross never came home.
Though Ross’s case was extraordinary for the ransom demanded, the act of child-theft wasn’t unique, a fact that the Ross case brought out. Endless cases arose of suspicious men and women traveling through towns with children that weren’t theirs. The most vivid of these was the story of Henry Lachmueller, Jr., a seven-year-old boy found in Chester, Illinois, with two men, one of whom claimed to be his father. Local authorities, with the Charley Ross case fresh in their minds, didn’t believe them, and eventually the boy told them his tale: that he had been abducted from a yard near his father’s house, rowed across a river, hiked through the woods, beaten so he would stay awake, until they reached a cabin; then he was forced to beg, beaten if he failed to earn at least a dollar, which the men and a female companion drank up each evening. They wandered the Midwest like this until the woman died, and the men landed in Chester. The boy couldn’t remember his name, his father or what town he’d come from, and his face was disfigured from acid, his back scarred, his hair crudely dyed. When his father read a newspaper account of the lost child, he traveled the 60 miles from St. Louis. “What was his joy on seeing the child to find his hopes realized, and his long-lost son found at last,” Ross writes. “Although the child had forgotten everything relating to his family, yet as soon as he saw his father he recognized him.”
Christian Ross explored all such leads. He recounts several in his book: meeting with shady characters in saloons and hotels in New York, getting used in petty underworld vendettas; bushwacking through the rural backwaters of north-central New Jersey, finding families so isolated they’d never even heard of Charley Ross; bouncing around New York and Vermont bordertowns, looking for a clock-tinkerer who when he was drunk had called his son “Charley Ross,” because the local boys were taunting him as such. All children with a slight resemblance to Charley Ross began to be called Charley Ross, and it became a catchall term for missing children. In his book, Christian tells a story about a boy and girl who wandered from their homes and were brought to a police station. An officer asked the boy, what’s your name? “Charley Ross,” he said. The officer asked the girl the same question. “Charley Ross,” she said.
In February 1875, Pennsylvania made kidnapping for extortion a felony crime with serious penalties; before, no one had envisaged the need for such a law. The mayor of Philadelphia also declared a 30-day immunity from charges relating to the Ross abduction, since the killers were dead. But no one came forward, except more people with lookalike children, impossible similarities and impossible stores, each dismissed after investigation.
Christian Ross kept eliminating possible Charleys until he died, in 1897, at which point his wife continued, until she died in 1912. In 1926, two years after the 50th anniversary, the house was torn down, and today there’s a presbyterian church there. Walter kept up the search after his parents died; he and his sisters still received letters from middle-aged men, claiming to be their long-lost brother.
The most famous was Gustav Blair, who came forward in 1934 to say he was Charley Ross. The 64-year-old carpenter said he was “kept in a cave when a small child and afterward adopted by a man who told him he was” Charley Ross, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published in 1941. In 1939, a court declared that Blair was the missing Charley. “This man’s claims are entirely unfounded and we intend to ignore the action of the court,” Walter told the Associated Press. “Blair is evidently just another one of the cranks who have been bothering us for the last 65 years. The idea that my brother is still alive is not only absurd, but the man’s story seems unconvincing.” The Rosses had given up hope by then, 65 years after the abduction, that Charley would ever be found alive.
So no one knows what really happened. Maybe, like the Lindbergh baby, Ross was killed the day he was taken, but buried somewhere he was never found. Maybe he was kept hostage on a crude boat, or in a remote cave, and when his abductors were killed, he died of thirst. Maybe his face was deformed with acid, and he was raised by strangers in filth. Maybe he forgot his name, forgot which city he lived in, forgot his father and his mother and his sisters and Walter. Maybe he lived and died on an isolated backroad, or was spirited between dustbowls until he was old enough to drink himself to death. Or maybe he was there the whole time: maybe he was an Arizona carpenter who had been saved from a cave, or another one of the boys that Christian saw and dismissed maybe too quickly, not taking seriously enough how abduction and confinement might have changed a boy. At some point skepticism turns to cynicism. The Internet is full of people whose grandfather was Charley Ross—everyone in the family knew that.
In March 2013, a Philadelphia librarian was going through old family artifacts when she discovered a stack of old letters, which she assumed to be love letters. Then her daughter read one. “Mom,” she said, “these are ransom letters.”
The family had no idea how or why it had acquired the Mosher–Ross ransom letters, Smithsonian Magazine reported. But, on the advice of the rare manuscripts man at a Philadelphia auction house, the family put the letters up for sale at the end of that year. The final bid was $16,000, but with fees, the final price came out to $20,000—the same price Mosher and Douglas had once charged for Charley Ross himself.