The Most Notorious Kidnappings

These 9 kidnappings changed the course of criminal history

kidnapping note
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 Even though the word has roots in the late 17th century, kidnapping is a relatively recent phenomenon—and criminals barely even conceived the idea of abducting individuals and demanding large cash ransoms for their return until about a hundred and fifty years ago. Below, you'll find a chronological list of history's nine most famous kidnappings, ranging from the disappearance of Charley Ross in 1874 to the recovery of Hong Kong businessman Walter Kwok, in 1997, after the payment of a half-billion dollar ransom.

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Charley Ross (1874)

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Practically no one alive today remembers the name Charley Ross—but pretty much everyone is familiar with the expression "don't take candy from strangers," which circulated in the wake of this toddler's abduction. On a fateful day in 1874, in a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, four-year-old Charley climbed into a horse-drawn carriage and took the candy—and his father then received a series of ransom notes demanding $20,000 (the equivalent of about a half million dollars today). Five months later, two men were shot while burglarizing a house in Brooklyn, and one of them admitted, before he died, that he and his partner had kidnapped Ross. Though his parents kept looking for Charley for the rest of their lives, he was never found (one man who claimed to be the adult Ross, in 1934, was almost certainly an impostor).

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Eddie Cudahy (1900)

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The 16-year-old son of a wealthy Omaha businessman, Eddie Cudahy was snatched from the street while running an errand; the next morning his father received a ransom note demanding $25,000 (and invoking the dire fate of Charley Ross, who had been kidnapped a quarter-century before). Cudahy Sr. promptly delivered the money to an arranged drop point, and his son was returned to his home a few hours later, unharmed. Although it was over and done with quickly, the Cudahy kidnapping received an enormous amount of press coverage at the time, and it had a bizarre coda: the man prosecuted for the crime in 1905 was found not guilty (even though the preponderance of the evidence told against him), and for a few years after his acquittal he plied the lecture circuit and even appeared in a few movies.


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Charles Lindbergh, Jr. (1932)

Bruno Hauptmann
Bruno Hauptmann, convicted of the Lindbergh kidnapping. APA / Getty Images

By far the most famous kidnapping in modern history, the abduction of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. in 1932 generated as much coverage worldwide as his father's flight over the Atlantic ocean in 1927. President Herbert Hoover was personally notified; Al Capone, in prison, offered to work his underworld connections; and the man who cracked the case, Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, received posthumous honors years later as the father of Norman Schwarzkopf, the general behind Operation Desert Storm. The kidnapping was bungled from the start—the perpetrators accidentally killed the 20-month-infant in the process of removing him from the Lindbergh home—and there are many people who still believe that the man ultimately convicted and executed for the crime, Bruno Hauptmann, was framed. (To be fair, Hauptmann does seem to have been guilty, even though the prosecutor in the case overstated, or outright manufactured, some of the incriminating evidence.)

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Frank Sinatra, Jr. (1963)

Frank Sinatra, Jr. (center). Getty Images

As you may have surmised by now, it's not easy being the son of a famous father. At the age of 19, Frank Sinatra, Jr., was just beginning to establish his own show-biz career when he was abducted by thugs from a Las Vegas casino. His father promptly paid the $240,000 ransom, and shortly afterward the perpetrators were caught, prosecuted, and sent to prison (though they were eventually released on parole). The cynical line on the west coast was that Frank Sinatra, Sr. had staged the kidnapping to get his son's name in the headlines--but since Frank Jr. was abducted mere weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a close Sinatra friend, one imagines that Frank, Sr. wouldn't have been in the right frame of mind for a difficult-to-hold-together conspiracy.

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John Paul Getty III (1973)

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Ever heard of the boy who cried wolf? John Paul Getty III, the teenage grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, used to joke about staging his own kidnapping so he could finally wring some money out of his stingy granddad. In July of 1973, the 16-year-old John Paul was kidnapped for real while on a trip to Rome, the perpetrators demanding a ransom of $17 million. J. Paul Getty refused to pay, and a few months later, he received John Paul's ear in the mail—at which point he offered $2.2 million, allegedly because that was the largest amount he could legally claim as a tax deduction (after some back-and-forth negotiation, he finally agreed to $2.9 million). Eventually, nine people in Italy were arrested for the crime, but only two were convicted; most of the ransom money was never recovered; Getty III underwent plastic surgery to replace his lopped-off ear in 1977.

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Patty Hearst (1974)

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Have you ever heard of the Symbionese Liberation Army? No one else in America did, either, until this left-wing group abducted 19-year-old Patty Hearst—the granddaughter of multimillionaire publisher William Randolph Hearst—in 1974. The SLA didn't demand a ransom per se; rather, they wanted the Hearst family to wield its political influence to free two imprisoned SLA members (or, failing that, to at least buy a few million dollars' worth of food for poor Californians). What really propelled the Hearst kidnapping into the headlines was the apparent conversion of Patty Hearst to the SLA cause; she participated in at least one bank robbery and also sprayed a retail store with automatic weapon fire. By the time Hearst was arrested in 1975, it was clear that she had undergone a particularly brutal form of brainwashing; even still, she was convicted on a robbery charge. Granted bail shortly afterward, Patty Hearst married, had two children, and became involved with various charitable organizations.

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Samuel Bronfman (1975)

Samuel Bronfman (left). Getty Images

The 1975 kidnapping of Samuel Bronfman--the son of Seagram tycoon Edgar Bronfman, Sr.—played like something out of the TV shows Dallas or Dynasty. After his abduction, Sam Bronfman delivered his own ransom demand via audiotape, and after his father paid $2.3 million the abductee was found in a nearby apartment in the company of a New York City fireman, Mel Patrick Lynch. Lynch and his accomplice, Dominic Byrne, claimed that the kidnapping was a setup: Lynch and Sam Bronfman were having an affair, and Bronfman staged his own kidnapping to extract money from his father, threatening to expose Lynch's homosexuality if he didn't help. By the time of the trial, the waters had been sufficiently muddied for Byrne and Lynch to be acquitted of kidnapping, but found guilty of grand larceny. Later, Samuel Bronfman was passed over as heir to the Seagram empire in favor of his brother, Edgar Bronfman Jr.; it's unclear whether the alleged kidnapping had discredited him in his father's eyes.

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Aldo Moro (1978)

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Not all kidnappings transpire in the U.S. A classic example is the case of Aldo Moro, a distinguished Italian politician (and two-time Prime Minister) who was abducted in 1978 by a revolutionary group known as the Red Brigades, which killed five of his bodyguards in the process. The Red Brigades didn't demand a classic ransom; rather, they wanted the Italian government to release several of their imprisoned compatriots. The authorities refused to negotiate, claiming this might open the door to future kidnappings, and Moro was eventually wrapped up in a blanket, shot ten times, and dumped in the trunk of a Renault. No one was ever convicted for Aldo Moro's kidnapping and murder, and the years since have witnessed the flourishing of various conspiracy theories, chief among them that the U.S. (in partnership with NATO) disapproved of Moro's policies and wanted him out of the picture.

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Walter Kwok (1997)

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The eldest son of a Hong Kong real-estate developer, Walter Kwok was kidnapped in 1997 by a notorious local gangster nicknamed the "Big Spender," then kept blindfolded in a wooden container for four grueling days. In order to free him, Kwok's father paid one of the largest ransoms in history, over half a billion dollars in cash. The "Big Spender" was arrested shortly afterward and executed following a trial on the Chinese mainland; Kwok, meanwhile, re-assumed his role in his father's empire and went on to become one of the world's 200 richest individuals. The kidnapping ordeal did seem to have left an emotional scar, though; in 2008, Kwok took an extended leave of absence fro his company, and then became embroiled in a dispute with his brothers, whom he accused of falsely having him diagnosed as manic-depressive.

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Strauss, Bob. "The Most Notorious Kidnappings." ThoughtCo, Feb. 13, 2018, Strauss, Bob. (2018, February 13). The Most Notorious Kidnappings. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "The Most Notorious Kidnappings." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 19, 2018).