As Philadelphia author Carrie Hagen wrote in her 2011 book “We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping That Changed America,” Germantown boy Charley Ross was never found following his 1874 kidnapping. Miraculously, the long-lost ransom letters written by Charley’s abductors to his parents have been — hidden among a trove of family artifacts in a Mt. Airy basement.
Last March, a school librarian was hunting through bins full of family memorabilia to find an old family drawing she wanted to print on the invitations to her daughter's bridal shower when she came across a stack of envelopes tied with a black shoelace. “She thought she was opening love letters that her grandmother had written to her grandfather,” Hagen says. “It was definitely the old-school ‘treasure in the attic’ story.”
The texts of the letters had been printed in police files and in the memoirs of Christian Ross, Charley’s father, so the discovery didn’t anything factual to the story told in Hagen’s book. Nevertheless, seeing the letters in person did bring the kidnappers vividly to life. “Looking at them was odd,” she says. “You can see the kidnappers’ psychology unraveling as you read the content, but seeing them handwritten makes it so much more present. The handwriting, which is always awkward, is messier when they go off on crazy, ranting tangents.”
How the letters wound up among this particular family’s belongings is just one more mystery in a long string of mysteries associated with the case. Charley’s fate remains unknown 140 years after his abduction, while his case — which became a gripping public and political story in the city as it readied itself for the Centennial Exposition — became infamous as the first known kidnapping for ransom in the country.
After a bidding war, the letters were auctioned late last year for $20,000 — the same amount originally demanded by the kidnappers. All 23 letters are now on view at the Germantown Historical Society, returning them to the scene of the crime. They’ll be displayed alongside a number of objects and newspaper clippings related to the kidnapping. “I’m glad that they’re ending up in Germantown and not being divided up,” Hagen says of the letters. “They tell such a sad story that I wanted them to stay together.”
'Kidnapped: Lost and Found' Through April 25 Germantown Historical Society 5501 Germantown Ave. $3, 215-844-1683 www.freedomsbackyard.com