Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Greenlease Kidnapping

Scourge of the Wealthy

Robert Greenlease was a successful businessman during the 1930s, the heyday of kidnapping-for-profit in America, so the snatching of his own son must not have come as a complete surprise. In Kansas City alone, three high-profile kidnappings had occurred that decade. The victims included the owner of a drug company, the head of a garment firm and the city manager. In each case, the victim was released after a ransom was paid.

These followed the hallmark American kidnapping, the 1932 abduction and murder of aviator Charles Lindberghs son in New Jersey, had prompted passage of the Federal Kidnapping Act giving the FBI jurisdiction in interstate kidnappings.

Charles Lindbergh Jr., victim
Charles Lindbergh Jr., victim
Child snatchings have occurred for as long as there have been haves and have-nots. In 94 BC, for example, a descendant of the king of Armenia Major was abducted and held ransom by a political rival who demanded a vast tract of land as ransom. He got it in exchange for the release of the heir.

The earliest use of the word kidnap dates to 1682. It then denoted the abduction of English boys who were shipped to America to work on plantations.

In the United States, the first stereotypical kidnapping an abduction by a stranger motivated by profit occurred in Philadelphia on July 1, 1874, when two men used candy to entice Charley Ross, age 4, into a buggy.

His father, Christian Ross, a prosperous merchant, placed a newspaper ad offering a $300 reward. Soon he received an unsigned letter the first of 23 ransom notes demanding $20,000 ransom. Police cautioned Ross against setting a precedent by paying a ransom. He decided to pay nonetheless, but communications from the kidnappers ended before he was able to.

A tip directed cops to New York-based burglars William Mosher and Joseph Douglas, as well as William Westervelt, an ex-Philly cop. Westervelt was arrested, but Mosher and Douglas could not be found. Five months after the kidnap, the pair were shot while breaking into a mansion on Long Island.

As Douglas lay dying, he said: "Its no use lying now. Mosher and I stole Charley Ross." Asked where the boy was, Douglas replied, "I dont know where he is. Mosher knows." But Mosher was dead, and Douglas soon followed.

Charley Ross was never seen again.

Twenty-five years later, kidnapping was back in the news when Eddie Cudahy, 15, heir to an Omaha, Neb., meatpacking fortune, was snatched then released unharmed after the boys father paid a $25,000 ransom.

Investigators pinned the crime on Patrick Crowe, an ex-Cudahy employee with an ax to grind. Crowe fled to South Africa with the ransom money, then wrote parrying letters to Cudahys father in which he identified an accomplice and playfully suggested that he might return to Omaha.

The accomplice, James Callahan, faced trial in 1901, but he was acquitted with a clever defense ploy. Callahan was charged with robbery because Nebraska had no law against kidnapping a child older than 10. Callahans attorney argued his client had not committed robbery since Cudahy had given the money freely. Robbery required physical force, the attorney said.

Confused by legal double-talk, the jury acquitted Callahan. The incensed judge told the jurors, "I hope none of you will ever appear again in this jury box."

Crowe finally returned to Omaha from South Africa and in 1905 was brought up on extortion charges. Remarkably, he, too, was acquitted.

Other notable kidnappings include:

Billy Whitla, victim
Billy Whitla, victim

  • Billy Whitla, 8, son of a Pennsylvania steel baron, snatched from school in 1909, was released when his father paid a $10,000 ransom.
  • In 1924, University of Chicago students Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold shocked America when they kidnapped and killed Bobby Franks, 14. They demanded $10,000 ransom, but the boys body turned up before payment was made. The thrill-killers were discovered and pleaded guilty to murder. They escaped the rope and won life sentences thanks to defense attorney Clarence Darrows famed plea for mercy.
  • In 1927, William Hickman snatched and murdered Marian Parker, 12, daughter of a Los Angeles banker. Hickman was charged, tried and executedthe first American kidnapper subjected to capital punishment.
  • In 1935 George Weyerhaeuser, 9, son of a lumber tycoon, was kidnapped in Tacoma, Wash., and released after payment of $200,000. Twenty months later, a playmate of Weyerhaeuser, Charles Mattson, 10, was abducted. The kidnapper demanded $28,000, but the boys body was found before the ransom was paid. The crime was never solved.
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