In July, 1874, a four-year-old child named Charles Brewster Ross was kidnapped from the streets of Germantown, Pennsylvania. He was playing there with his older brother Walter.
The kidnappers later dropped off the older brother, and a few days later an ad appeared in the newspaper offering to return the boy if his father would pay $20,000 in ransom. Mr. Ross didn't have the money, and posted an ad in response saying he could only give them $300 but would try to raise the remainder.
Then another letter followed that Charlie would be killed if any attempt was made to trace the perpetrators. Friends of the Ross family raised the $20,000, but the police interfered and instead offered the money as a reward. Due to this the story drew great attention throughout the country. The Pinkerton detective agency was involved in the investigation and distributed thousands of flyers with Charley's likeness. A popular song was composed titled, "Bring Back Our Darling".
The police then found a lead which led to two notorious burglars, named William Mosher and Joseph Douglass. They were known to operate in the area where the Ross family lived.
Unfortunately William Mosher and John Douglass were shot while attempting to commit burglary to a judge's house in Long Island. The judge's brother who lived next door was the one that shot them. Mosher died where he fell, Douglass lived a few minutes and admitted they were the ones that took Charlie Ross. The rest of what he said was contradicted by those who were there. In one version he said the child was killed or that William Mosher knew where he was, but of course he was dead. Another version, was that Charley would be returned unharmed in a few days.
Despite his young age, Walter was brought to see the bodies of the thieves, and he said they were the men who took them in the carriage. Mosher who had a malformed nose was especially memorable in appearance.
In 1875, a Mr. Westervelt, a former Philadelphia policeman and brother-in-law to William Mosher was arrested and bought to trial for complicity to abduct Charley Ross. Despite the fact there was no evidence to tie him to the crime, and Walter Ross testified that he was not in the buggy, the conviction was based on his association with Mosher. He was sentenced to seven years solitary imprisonment in the Eastern Penitentiary. He denied any involvement in the crime or knowing where the child was. He was released in 1881.
That same year strange stories were told about Cockenoe Island in Connecticut. It had the reputation of being haunted by the ghost of little Charlie Ross. For years no one lived on it except parties who would stay to camp there.
The story told and believed by those living in the vicinity of the island was that Charlie's bones laid buried somewhere on the island. About the time the child was kidnapped two "hard-looking citizens" were often see on the island. They stayed in a house that years afterwards was abandoned but still standing. The two men would chase off anyone coming to the island, however some people caught a glimpse of a little boy which the men were never far from. The men also seemed to make all efforts to hide him from being seen. Eventually the men's behavior raised suspicion, and three men who lived nearby went to the house. They were about to enter inside when one of the men blocked the doorway, whipped out a knife and threatened to stab the first man who tried to cross the threshold. Surprised at how hostile the man became, they left.
The two men were seen leaving the island, but the boy was not with them. Another party went to the island, and found the house deserted with everything inside removed or destroyed. No trace of the boy could be found. The men never returned, and it was told the child was murdered and his body buried somewhere on the grounds. The cellar was dug up but no proof could be found of any human burial.
Then in 1886, an old man, poorly dressed rowed out to the island and went to the house. Some of the residents said he looked like one of the men who lived there during those years the child was sighted.
The old man made some measurement of the cellar near the east wall, and then left, refusing to answer any questions.
By then, everyone's curiosity was piqued and some young men went out and started to dig near the wall where the stranger took the measurements. They unearthed a human skull and some bones, but some of the townspeople said the bones probably belonged to the dog the two men kept during the time they were there.
Other residents say the child fit the description of Charlie Ross.
That same year, William Mosher, 14, son of the robber believed to be one of the kidnappers, was arrested after he tried to rob a boy of his watch and chain. The only reason he made the papers was his father's connection to the crime, and the reference made was that "it looks very much however, as though the taint in the lad's blood will prevent him from ever becoming a valuable member of society."
During all those years many cases of alleged sightings of Charlie Ross were seen across the country, but it came to nothing. Mr. Ross spent a small fortune trying to find his son, but never could, and he was committed to an insane asylum in 1884, and died in 1897.
By 1900, Charlie's older brother Walter was a senior member of a stock exchange brokerage firm, and was even consulted on the Cudahy kidnapping case which involved similar circumstances to his brother's case.
The following year Senator Plunkitt of Manhattan introduced a bill to punish kidnapping of children under the age of 16 by imposing a 25-year sentence.
He then told the senate in Albany about certain facts that he'd learned about the crime. He said the kidnappers hired a wagon in New York and drove it to Philadelphia in order to prevent a local businessman from identifying them. They rode 30 miles out of Philadelphia and there abandoned it, then took a train to New York
Once they arrived in New York, Charlie was taken on one of Mosher's river boats and finally to prevent the child from being seen they threw him overboard in the bay after tying an iron to him. The man in New York who rented the horse and wagon to Mosher never claimed his property for fear of being charged with complicity. He did not explain how he came by this information.
Throughout the years many came forward claiming they were Charley Ross, but none could ever prove, and thus the fate of the little boy remains a mystery.
The common admonition "don't take candy from strangers" is said to have come from Ross's abduction. The Charley Project, a major missing persons database, is named for Ross
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer