Part of an ongoing, irregular series of historical articles called True Crime: Bay Ridge.
John Arthur Russell was 8-years-old in 1932, one of 1,500 students at St. Anselm’s—likely a third-grader, though the newspapers never specified. The school was just five-years-old then, and at that time it let its students out for lunch, at noon. Russell was walking home alone the half mile to his home, at 114 81st Street, as he usually did; he was about halfway, on the corner of 81st Street and Third Avenue, when two men stopped him.
“Are you the little Russell boy?” one asked. They both had mustaches.
“Well, your father’s sick and he wants us to take you to his office,” one man said, gesturing to a car parked nearby.
“Unsuspecting,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported the next day, “the lad entered the car.”
While one man drove, the other blindfolded the boy, then wrapped him in brown paper up to his eyes. They drove for almost an hour and a half, stopping once at a stationery store to buy two picture books and place a ransom call. Afterward, when the car stopped again, “one of the kidnappers tucked the youngster, like a large package, under one arm and carried him” into an apartment house, the Eagle reported.
They told him it was the Hotel Pennsylvania. Really, it was less than two miles away from his house.
* * *
The Russells’ home phone rang at 12:40pm. The maid, Delia Robinson, had already been sent out to look for the boy who hadn’t come home. Mrs. Russell answered.
“Your child is kidnapped,” a man’s voice told her. “Have $25,000 ready in small bills.” [Almost $438,000, adjusted for inflation]
She became hysterical, and the caller said he’d call back—but he wouldn’t for more than seven hours. In that time, Mrs. Russell called her husband, a partner in a Manhattan stock exchange firm, McClure, Jones & Co., who called the police before coming home. (Trivia: the firm was where employees Margaret Fogarty and Henry Rudkin had met back in 1919; they would marry and move to a Connecticut property they called “Pepperidge Farm,” after which Margaret would later name her bakery.)
The next call came at 8:15pm, and the kidnapper spoke to the father, Arthur S. Russell, who kept the kidnapper on the line while police traced it. The kidnapper sounded desperate—he lowered the ransom to $10,000, then to $2,000; then he became suspicious that the call was being traced and hung up.
But police had already traced the call, to one of five phone booths in a candystore at 8604 Fourth Avenue. By the time they got there, though, the caller was gone, and “the proprietor was not able to recall who had been using his booth,” the Eagle reported.
* * *
That night, before midnight, three women saw a boy, “frightened, chilled in the night air,” the Eagle reported, again on the corner of 81st and Third. They were telephone operators who worked nearby, likely at the phone-company building on Third and 77th Street, and had just clocked out, at 11:30pm. Having read the morning editions, aware of the kidnapping, they asked him if he’d been missing.
“Yes,” he said. “Take me home.”
This time it worked out—John Arthur Russell was reunited with his parents, about 11 hours after he’d been abducted from the same spot.
He was unhurt, but his kidnappers were still loose.
* * *
The next day, Chief Inspect John J. Sullivan took the boy around Bay Ridge, hoping they could find the place where he’d been kept. The boy said he’d been in an apartment. For several hours there, a “nice man” had read him Wild West and Mickey Mouse stories from picture books. They gave him chocolate bars, sandwiches and milk.
From a window, young Russell could see a vacant lot, where children were playing in a brown tent. This lot, and this tent, were the police’s best clues.
* * *
Mary Walsh was married to a cab driver whose taxi license needed to be renewed. So she called her local police station about it, and while talking with the desk lieutenant, the Russell matter came up. He told her about the tent.
“It’s a funny thing,” she said, “but I live in an apartment house and from my window I can see the same kind of a tent the little boy described. Wouldn’t it be awful if it turned out that the kidnappers had lived in the same house?”
Of course, they had. The apartment building was literally the most out-of-the-way one in all of Bay Ridge, 293 Dahlgren Place, on the corner of Fort Hill Place (where? exactly!), then-nestled on a secluded dead-end street, surrounded by the Fort Hamilton armybase (part of which is now the Verrazano offramp) and Poly Prep.
Elmer Grafton had rented a room there, the landlady said, but he had been in it only a few times since then, with another man.
Lately, no one had seen him.
* * *
Grafton was a phony name. The apartment had been rented by George T. Clarke, 26, of 449 51st Street, Jackie Russell’s “nice man”; his accomplice was Allen W. August, 35, of 1116 Ditmas Avenue, who made the phone calls. Clarke was from Cleveland, and he returned there after the boy had been released. Police suspected his involvement, though didn’t explain to the papers why, and tapped his phone. On Tuesday, October 11, 1932, he told his wife he would return the next day.
Police were waiting for him at the train station, where he was arrested. August was arrested at the same time, at his home in Brooklyn.
The two weren’t exactly Mosher and Douglas. Both were young Brooklyn businessmen, each with a son just older than John, who had fallen on hard times, as many Americans had in the years following Black Tuesday. They may also have been not quite right in the head. “I was desperately in need of cash,” August told police, “and Clarke was broke and without a job. I owed the insurance companies a lot of money which had to be paid by the 20th, and I simply did not have it to pay. Clarke and I talked things over and decided the only way to get some ready cash quickly was to kidnap the child of some well-to-do family.”
They drove around Brooklyn on September 8 and saw Russell, playing; they inquired about his family, found out the father was a wealthy Wall Street broker. They learned his schedule and waited.
* * *
The public, which had been rabid, was suddenly sympathetic. Even Mr. and Mrs. Russell had lost their bloodlust. “When Jackie was taken…I felt I could shoot these men on sight—if I ever saw them,” he said. “But now it is different. It is a sad case. I wouldn’t want to see them sent away for years if I could help it. I don’t believe they knew what they were doing. But now, of course, the case is not in my hands. I am only a witness.”
“It is too sad,” Mrs. Russell said. “You cannot hate these men. They have no police records. They have never done a thing like this before. They are both fathers. There is no satisfaction in prosecuting them. It is too sad. But the case is out of our hands.”
“They bought me candy and cookies,” the boy himself said, “and they drew pictures for me all afternoon. Finally when I cried for mother they let me go home.” The men had been spooked by the massive police response, and afterward drove the boy to 77th Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway, with directions on how to get home.
Russell didn’t quite follow them; he wound up at 72nd and Fifth, where he was discovered by a woman who’d gone out to the drugstore, around 11pm. He told her he’d been visiting his uncle—he didn’t want to tell his story to strangers, he said later—and she put him on the Fifth Avenue trolley, and told the motorman to let him off at 81st Street. Russell walked from there, meeting the telephone operators who brought him the rest of the way.
A reporter found Clarke’s aunt “standing in the toy-filled vestibule of his basement apartment,” the Eagle reported. “We’ve lived here 43 years with never a blemish on our name,” she said. “We can’t understand what would have got into George. Money, of course. It went to his head.”
* * *
Both men reportedly confessed to police, yet pleaded not guilty—Clarke’s lawyer, in fact, pleaded “not guilty on the ground of insanity.” As anecdotal evidence, the Eagle reported, “Clarke’s mother…had mortgaged her home so as to put her son into the insurance business with Allen W. August…Shortly after that business connection was made…Clarke worked out plans for what he called a world-wide insurance company, with which most of the world’s greatest figures were to be connected, and of which he was to be head. Nothing ever came of it.”
By December, August had also pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity; his lawyer said that at the time of the crime August had suffered “a mania-depressive illness.”
The judge agreed to appoint a commission, but he didn’t believe it himself. “In my opinion these men are sane and were sane on Sept. 19 when they committed the kidnapping,” Judge George W. Martin said. “Rest assured they are going to get prison sentences. They are going to Sing Sing. But you are entitled to your full day in Court, so I will appoint a commission of alienists.”
But the two agreed to plead guilty to attempted kidnapping, which had a much less severe sentence than kidnapping, and the district attorney accepted. A week later, Judge Martin sentenced both men to four-to-25 years in Sing Sing. “Should both men behave,” the Eagle reported, “it seemed likely yesterday that they would be paroled after serving three and a half years.”
* * *
The once clement Mrs. Russell had hardened. “No sentence could have compensated the anguish I suffered while Jackie was missing,” she told the Eagle.
“I have absolutely no sympathy for these men,” she later added. “I am afraid no child will be safe when potential kidnappers see how lightly such a crime is regarded.” As she spoke, John Arthur Russell, who’d been playing in the background, wandered forward, and the reporter asked him what he thought of the kidnappers’ punishment.
“He wrinkled his small brow as if trying to recall how the two strange men had looked,” the Eagle reported. “‘Oh, I guess what Momma says is right,’ he said finally. ‘I don’t care, anyway. I remember they bought me some candy.’”