America's original missing child

In 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared on his way to school in New York. Last month, a fruitless search for Patz’s remains in a SoHo basement prompted a national wave of nostalgia for the innocent days of yore. For most of our history, we told ourselves, kids were safe. Then we lost Etan.

But we lost our innocence long before, with the 1874 kidnapping of 4-year-old Charley Ross right here in Philadelphia. That was when Americans discovered they could never keep their children completely safe. And we’ve been living with the consequences ever since.

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Charley Ross

Charley lived in a well-appointed house on Washington Lane in Germantown, an upper-middle-class community at the time. On July 1, 1874, Charley and his 8-year-old brother, Walter, agreed to go for a ride in a horse-drawn wagon with two men who promised them candy and firecrackers for the approaching Fourth of July celebrations. The men drove the boys to a store in Kensington, where they gave Walter a quarter and sent him inside to buy fireworks.

When Walter came out carrying his new purchases, the wagon was gone. And so was Charley.

Three days later, on July 4, Charley’s father received the first of several crude ransom notes. Charley’s captors eventually asked for $20,000, an enormous sum at the time. Although Christian Ross was a man of means, he had reportedly suffered big losses in the economic downturn of 1873. There was no way he could pay the kidnappers that much.

Ross’ well-connected friends offered to take up a collection, but he refused. Foreshadowing the modern admonition against negotiating with terrorists, Ross insisted that paying the ransom would unleash a series of similar crimes across the land.

In the public mind, however, that made Ross himself a suspect. Rumors swirled that he had somehow conspired in his son’s theft. Some said Charley wasn’t Ross’ son at all, but rather the product of an affair between Charley’s mother and another man.

In December 1874, Charley Ross’ kidnappers were shot while attempting to burglarize a house. One of them died instantly; the other confessed on his deathbed to abducting Charley but did not reveal the child’s whereabouts. “The boy will get home all right,” the kidnapper said.

He never did. In the first nationwide search for a missing child, Christian Ross and his allies distributed 700,000 circulars. In the year after Charley disappeared, there were 600 reported sightings of the boy. None of them checked out.

Fifty years later, when Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were arrested for abducting and murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago, a member of their defense team reported that Loeb had been inspired by “a crime that nobody could ever detect” — the kidnapping of Charley Ross. Eight years after that, when the aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was abducted and killed, one newspaper ran reward posters for Charles Lindbergh Jr. and Charley Ross side by side.

“The men and women who were children in the days of the Charley Ross kidnapping can remember how their mothers warned them to stay in the house, never talk to strangers, and regard every old clothes man as a potential ogre who would carry them off and strangle them and cut them into little pieces,” the New Republic editorialized in 1932, a few days after the Lindbergh baby was found dead. “The Lindbergh case is likely to produce an even wider reaction.”

There was a still wider reaction to the disappearance of Etan Patz, whose mother watched him walk down the street one morning and then never saw him again. At one time, 500 police officers were involved in the search for the boy. His face appeared on milk cartons across America.

Like Christian Ross, Etan’s parents endured nasty invective from a frightened public. Some critics said the Patzes never should have let Etan out of their sight. Others claimed he was hiding with his grandparents following a family dispute over religion.

In the end, there was no explanation for Etan’s disappearance. And that’s the scariest thing about it. We want the world to make sense, to conform to our notions of reason and order and safety. But it doesn’t.

“This Philadelphia business shows that any one of us is liable to such a loss,” the New York Times declared a few days after Charley Ross was kidnapped.

That’s why we stare at posters of missing children. Etan Patz could have been your son, or mine. We all lost Etan, and we all keep trying to find him.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press). He can be reached at jlzimm@aol.com.