KIDNAP: The Walter Ross Story and the Intrigues of Imposters

updated 27 Jan, 2024

Did you know that Charley Ross, the first kidnap victim for ransom in the 1874 abduction in the history of the United States of America (USA), was never found?

On July 1, 1874 two little boys were abducted in front of their family's mansion. It was the first kidnapping for ransom in the history of the USA, and would be the major event of its kind until the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. The boys were named Charley (Charles Brewster "Charley" Ross) and Walter Ross; they were 4 and 6 years old. 

The two men who kidnapped them had given the boys candy on previous occasions, but one day the men told the boys to climb into their buggy and promised to buy them firecrackers. The boys boarded and they drove off into the city. Charley would never be seen again. As they drove farther away, Charley wanted to go home and began to cry. The men stopped in front of a store and gave Walter 25 cents. He entered the store and started choosing firecrackers, while the men drove away with Charley.

The boys' father, Christian K. Ross, thought the boys were playing in a neighbor's yard. But soon a neighbor told him that she saw the boys traveling in a buggy. The father began the search for his son that he would continue until his death in 1897. He didn't tell his wife, who was recovering from an illness in Atlantic City, but two days later, she found out when he began advertising in the newspapers for his sons' return. A stranger found Walter and returned him to his father.

Two days after that, the father received a crude note, saying that Charley would be released for a sum of money. On July 7, came another note demanding $20,000 and instructing the boy's father how to go about paying the kidnappers. The father tried to follow the instructions as best he could but never contacted the kidnappers.

Later that year, police were investigating the kidnapping of a Vanderbilt child and found a ransom note in that case that matched closely the one for Charley Ross. They identified the handwriting as fugitive convict William Mosher's. Mosher was killed during a burglary in Brooklyn, but his partner Joseph Douglas identified Mosher as the kidnapper of Charley Ross. 

Former Philadelphia policeman William Westervelt, a known associate of Mosher (and his wife's brother), was arrested and held in connection with the case. He was tried in 1875 for kidnapping. Although Westervelt was a friend and perhaps a confidant of Mosher (while in prison awaiting trial he had told Christian that his son had been alive at the time of Mosher's death), there was virtually no evidence to tie him to the crime itself. Walter, for one, insisted that Westervelt was not one of the men in the carriage that took them away. Westervelt was found not guilty of the kidnapping. However, he was found guilty of a lesser conspiracy charge and served six years in prison. He always maintained his own innocence and swore that he did not know the whereabouts of Charley Ross.

Imposters came forward in the years afterward claiming to be the missing boy. Each was disproved. One of such was Gustave Blair, a 69-year-old carpenter living in Phoenix, Arizona, who in 1934 petitioned a Maricopa County court to recognize him as the real Charley Ross. Blair claimed that after he was abducted, he lived in a cave and was eventually adopted by a man who told him he was Ross. Charley's older brother, Walter Ross, dismissed Blair as "a crank". As Blair's claim went uncontested, the court ruled that he was "Charles Brewster Ross" in March 1939. Despite the ruling, the Ross family refused to recognize Blair as their relative and did not bequeath him any money or property from their parents' estate.

Blair briefly moved to Los Angeles and attempted to sell his life story to a film studio but was unsuccessful. He eventually moved to Germantown with his wife before moving back to Phoenix. Blair died in December 1943 still claiming that he was Ross. Blair's victory in the Maricopa County courtroom was met with considerable skepticism but was reported at the time to have solved the disappearance of Charley Ross. In 2011, descendants of the family Blair claimed had adopted him commissioned a Y-DNA study, which disproved Blair's story. 

Following chain of custody procedures, DNA was collected from a male descendant of each of two suspected brothers, Harrison Miller and Nelson Miller (aka Gustave Blair). DNA analysis determined they had a “99.99903% probability of kinship” meaning they were, in fact, brothers. They shared the same paternal lineage, a perfect 37/37 7-STR marker match. Gustave Blair was born into the Miller family, not adopted, and as such could not have been Charley Ross.

Charley's father died in 1897, his mother in 1912. Walter Ross died in 1943. The Ross mansion was torn down in 1926. The Cliveden Presbyterian Church now stands on the site of the kidnapping.

Sources: US History | Wikipedia


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