Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America

By in Child Advocacy on March 5, 2013

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Few crimes capture our imagination as completely as child kidnapping. We are both fascinated and revolted, seeing in each victim our own child, in each bereaved parent ourselves, and in each kidnapper a monster striking straight at the heart of the family and our society. Kidnapping is a modern morality play, the innocence of the child in stark contrast to the corruption of the criminal, all played out by a media industry eager to feed the worst fears of every parent. In this pathbreaking book, Paula S. Fass explores how our fear has evolved from its first chilling realization in 1874, when Americans were startled and horrified to discover that their children could be held for ransom, until today, when sexual predators seem to threaten our children at every turn.
Kidnapped is a mesmerizing look at some of the great kidnapping cases in American history, the stories that have haunted parents over the past 125 years. Fass describes the kidnapping of Charley Ross in 1874, the first of a series of kidnappings to be called “the crime of the century”; the notorious case of Leopold and Loeb, two rich young men who murdered a younger cousin simply to see if they could get away with it; the abduction of Gloria Vanderbilt, the “poor little rich girl” taken by her own aunt at the start of a vicious custody battle; and the most famous case of all, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. More importantly, Kidnapped presents, in a series of brilliant narratives, a window into the American mind, providing us with new insights into parenting and the American family, the media and our fascination with celebrity, policing and law enforcement, gender and sexuality, mental health, and much more. She shows, for instance, how the Leopold and Loeb case revolutionized the insanity plea, how the abduction of Gloria Vanderbilt brought the problems of divorce and child custody into the public eye, how the case of Stephanie Bryan was shaped by the gender assumptions of the 1950s, and how the Lindbergh tragedy was defined by the ever-present media. Turning from these historic cases, she takes us back to crimes that have only recently fallen out of the headlines, such as the disappearance of Etan Patz in New York or Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota, and the growing industry revolving around missing children, from not-for-profit foundations publicizing missing children to for-profit businesses offering to insure children against kidnapping.
In this sharp, vivid book, Fass skillfully illuminates our national obsession with child abduction in a society which both values and exploits its youngest members. The loss of each child is a unique and devastating tragedy. But how we respond as a community and as a nation to these crimes speaks volumes about who we are. In confronting how we have treated the children stolen from our lives, Fass shows, we confront ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America

  1. Richard K. Stephens "Historian"
    12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
    2.0 out of 5 stars
    Dangerously Deceptive, June 14, 2009

    “Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America,” by Professor Paula S. Fass is the only study yet available on the subject. The book is useful for the accurate information which it contains despite that the fact that it also contains an abundance of inaccurate “facts,” distortions, and willful omissions – all which support the author’s ideological prejudices (which clearly lean heavily toward utopian/collectivist child-rearing by bureaucracies).

    The book’s errors are legion; therefore only a small sample can be mentioned in a brief review. Fass claims the Philadelphia Charley Ross kidnapping of 1874 is America’s first ransom kidnapping of a child (or the first “fully constructed” case, whatever is meant by that). In truth, the Pool case of 1819 qualifies as perhaps the first nationally known case (date of kidnapping: May 20, 1819, Baltimore, Md.). The Pool case does not, however, suit the author’s ideological purposes. Nancy Gamble and Marie Thomas, the kidnappers of little 20-month-old Margaret Pool were females who physically abused their tiny victim.

    Throughout the book, Professor Fass makes broad claims that are not supported with a lick of evidence. One of these false claims is her generalization that women are seldom kidnappers for ransom, sadistic purposes, child labor purposes (prostitution, entertainment, servants). This is untrue.

    Deceptive rhetoric abounds in “Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America.” In the book’s introductory chapter, the “myth” of Gypsy kidnapping is compared to the Medieval “blood libel” against the Jews, allowing the reader to get the impression that the myth of Jewish kidnappers for child sacrifice and the myth of Gypsy child kidnapping are similar in type and origin. In truth, “blood libel” is based on prejudice, while the “myth” of Gypsy kidnapping is based on fact. Gypsies have long practiced child kidnapping and a great many documented cases exist — throughout the 19th century well into the late middle 20th century.

    A number of the author’s claims regarding the sub-category of child abduction, parental kidnapping, are outright fabrications: such as the assertions that parental kidnapping was not taken seriously in the early 20th century(utterly false) and further that during the 20s and 30s only cases involving rich and famous were reported by the press (utterly false. cases involving people of all classes were in the news constantly). The fact is that already in the early 1900s, parental kidnapping was the subject of long newspaper articles which treated the phenomenon as a serious social problem (see: “Love Proves Superior to Courts Decrees,” nationally syndicated, including Marble Rock Press (Io.), Dec. 12, 1907; “Parental Love That Laughs at Court Decree,” nationally syndicated, including Jun. 11, 1910, Evening Press (Sheboygen, Wi.)).

    One of the more egregious distortions to be found in “Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America,” involves the 1874 Ross case. It deals with the fact that before a ransom demand had been made, police had begun searching for the missing Charlie in the Italian neighborhood. Fass tells her readers that the measure was taken based on “unsavory” stereotypes. The facts was that at the time Philadelphia was known to house a large population of “Padrones” who had left New York to escape prosecution there. Padrones were child slavers, who imported (kidnapped or purchased) children from Italy for the purpose of begging under the control of their masters. Many children were tortured and even mutilated (to make them more pitiful sights in order to attract alms). The scandal was so great that New York, in direct response to the Padrone racket, amended their kidnapping law to cover foreign-born victims.

    Fass, because of her predilection for applying present-day of moral preferences toward ethnic groups (ie: “politically correct” politics) ends up falsifying history and consequently cruelly diminishes the actual struggles of minority people. In the case of Italian-American child kidnapping of the later “Black Hand” period — also ignored by Fass — it was honest Italian immigrants who were preyed upon by Italian criminals. It was not unusual for poor parents to be victims of ransom demands of whatever sum was “appropriate” for the working class. The suffering of these innocent Italian victims was immense, involving a huge number of crimes over a period of decades.

    Professor Fass, by pretending that 1874 was the beginning of ransom kidnapping, the author manages to “historically cleanse” the rich and important history of child kidnapping of the 1830s-1860s, a period in which ransom child kidnapping gangs operated in Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere by erase inconvenient truths that violate her politically correct agenda. Likewise glossed over the issue of the kidnapping of the pre-Civil War children of free black parents — despite the fact that the phenomenon was not absolutely…

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  2. Meaghan Good "meggilyweggily"
    6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    One of the most informative books about child abduction, May 15, 2002
    Meaghan Good “meggilyweggily” (Venedocia, Ohio USA) –

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    If you’re really interested in missing children and child kidnappings, like I am, this is definately the book for you. It begins with the heartbreaking 1874 ransom abduction of Charley Ross from Pennsylvania. His father refused to pay the ransom, not because he didn’t love his son, but because he thought kidnappers should not profit from their crime. Charley never returned home. The next chapter is about the Lindbergh baby, then Leopold and Loeb, and so on. It ends with modern kidnappings: Etan Patz, Kevin Collins and Polly Klaas. There’s also a chapter on parental abduction. In other words, this book is very extensive.

    While it’s a very “academic” book, it’s not dull like a textbook. I found it very entertaining, with a nice centerfold of photographs. This book should definately have a place on anybody’s true crime shelf.

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