1874 likeness published on his missing person
On July 1, 1874, Charley (then four years old) and his older brother Walter Lewis (aged five) were playing in the front yard of their family's home in Germantown, a well-to-do section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A horse-drawn carriage pulled up and they were approached by two men who offered the boys candy and fireworks if they would take a ride with them. The boys agreed and they all proceeded through Philadelphia to a store where Walter was directed to buy fireworks inside with 25 cents given to him. Walter did so, but the carriage left without him. Charley Ross was never seen again.
Christian K. Ross, the boys' father, began receiving ransom demands from the apparent kidnappers. They arrived in the form of notes mailed from post offices in Philadelphia and elsewhere, all written in an odd hand and in a coarse, semi-literate style with many simple words misspelled. The communications generally requested a ransom of $20,000, an enormous sum at the time. The notes cautioned against police intervention and threatened Charley's life if Christian did not cooperate. Christian Ross owned a large house and was thought to be wealthy, but was actually heavily in debt, due to the stock market crash of 1873, and could not afford such an amount. Seeing no other choice, Christian went to the police. The kidnapping soon became national news. In addition to the heavy press coverage, some prominent Philadelphians enlisted the help of the famous Pinkerton detective agency, who had millions of flyers and posters printed with Charley's likeness. A popular song based on the crime was even composed by Dexter Smith and W. H. Brockway, entitled "Bring Back Our Darling". Several attempts were made to provide the kidnappers with ransom money as dictated in the notes, but in each case the kidnappers failed to appear. Eventually, communication stopped.
On a December night in the same year, the Long Island house belonging to Judge Charles Van Brunt was burglarized. Holmes Van Brunt, Charles' brother, lived next door, and gathered the members of his household, armed with shotguns to stop the intruders in the act. As they entered Charles' house, they saw two lanterns go out, and the resulting torrent of gunfire from Holmes and his men brought down both burglars where they stood. They were Bill Mosher and Joe Douglas, career criminals who had recently been released from jail. Mosher was dead on the spot. Douglas was mortally wounded, but managed to live a few more seconds and was able to communicate with Holmes. Everyone present was understandably shaken by the experience, and there is no clear consensus regarding exactly what Douglas said. Most agree that Douglas said that there was no point in lying (as he was about to die) so he admitted that he and Mosher abducted Charley. His further statements, if any, are more controversial. He either said that Charley was killed, or that Mosher knew where Charley was, possibly adding that he would be returned unharmed to the Rosses within a few days. In any case, he did not give any clues to Charley's location or other particulars of the crime, and died soon afterwards. Charley's brother Walter was taken to New York City to look at the bodies of Mosher and Douglas so as to determine if they were the men from the carriage ride. Walter confirmed that they were the same men who took the boys from in front of their home the previous summer. Mosher in particular was very identifiable as he had a distinctively malformed nose, which he described to police as a "monkey nose". For most, the issue of who the men in the carriage were was settled beyond reasonable doubt. But Charley was not returned, and the case was far from over.
A former Philadelphia policeman named William Westervelt, a known associate of Bill Mosher, was arrested and held in connection with the case. He was tried in 1875 for kidnapping. Though Westervelt was a friend and perhaps a confidant of Mosher (while in prison awaiting trial he had told Christian Ross that Charley 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, perhaps inevitably, was found to be innocent 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 where Charley was.
Two years after the kidnapping, Christian Ross published a book on the case, entitled The Father’s Story of Charley Ross, the Kidnapped Child. The Ross family continued to search for Charley for half a century or more, following leads and interviewing thousands of boys, teenagers, and eventually grown men who claimed to have been Charley. In 1939, a 69 year old carpenter named Gustave Blair who had legally changed his name to 'Charley Ross' became the last of the thousands of would-be 'Charley Rosses' to have his claims rejected by the Ross family. An estimate of the expenses incurred by the Rosses during the decades-long search amounts to more than three times what the original ransom would have been. The case, and in particular the fates of Mosher, Douglas, and Westervelt, served as a deterrent to other potential ransom kidnappers: it would be a quarter of a century before another high-profile ransom kidnapping case emerged with Edward Cudahy, Jr. in 1900. The fate of Charley Ross remains unknown. A major missing persons database is named after him. The common admonition "don't take candy from strangers" is said to have come from this affair.