5. Peter Weinberger’s kidnapping in 1956 scarred American society for good, though changes to law enforcement came too late for his family
The kidnapping of Peter Weinberger might not have been the most high-profile crime of the century. The boy’s parents weren’t rich, nor were they famous. In fact, they were a typical middle-class suburban family. However, the 1956 crime was certainly significant in more ways than one. For starters, it shook American society. Almost overnight, people were scared in their own homes and started keeping a close eye on their kids. It also led to a big change in the law. After the Weinberger kidnapping, the FBI would take action within 24 hours – waiting a week to start a search was, tragically, shown to be too long.
It was Independence Day in 1956 and Betty Weinberger left her month-old son Peter in his cot on the porch of the family home in Westbury, New York. When she returned, she found the baby gone. In his place was a ransom note. The kidnapper demanded $2,000 for Peter’s safe return. He warned Betty not to contact the police, though she ignored this. Somehow, the press also got hold of the story. One newspaper put it on the front page, even including details of where the kidnapper demanded the money be dropped off.
The kidnapper didn’t show for the first drop-off. He sent a second note six days later with new instructions. Again, he failed to show. After a week, the FBI stepped in. Their handwriting experts matched the notes with forms filled in by a local taxi dispatcher, Angelo LaMarca. It turned out he had serious money worries. A month later, LaMarca was arrested. He admitted he snatched baby Peter in a moment of desperation. He also claimed he would have stuck to his word but the press attention spooked him.
LaMarca also admitted that he had abandoned the baby, alive, in some parkland. When the FBI managed to find the spot, Peter was dead. For his crime, LaMarca was sentenced to death and executed in Sing Sing Prison in the summer of 1958. President Eisenhower would soon pass a law allowing the FBI to intervene in kidnapping cases after just 24 hours, though this was too little, too late for young Peter Weinberger and his family.
6. Julius Caesar laughed when he learned how much his kidnappers demanded for his release and then went on to exact his bloody revenge
Few kidnapping victims get angry if the price asked for their freedom is too low. But Julius Caesar did. When he was seized by pirates as a young man, he was so insulted by the amount they demanded for his release, he promised to get his revenge on the men when – not if – he was set free. Of course, the pirates could never have predicted that their young captive would go on to become the most powerful person in the known world. And, true to his word, Caesar did go on to take his revenge.
The most infamous kidnapping of ancient times took place in 75BC. According to Plutarch’s account, Caesar, then a 25-year-old man on the rise, was sailing the Aegean Sea with his entourage. They were all captured by Cilician Pirates who demanded 20 talents of silver, equivalent to 620kg of the precious metal for his freedom. Caesar was insulted. They clearly didn’t know who he was. He laughed at them and advised them to raise the ransom to 50 talents of silver. Of course, the pirates agreed, and Caesar sent some of his men off to fetch the ransom. While they were all waiting, Caesar mocked his captors, bossed them around and even promised to have them all crucified whenever he was a free man again.
Sure enough, 38 days later, the men returned with 50 talents of silver. Caesar was set free. He sailed away but before long, he had raised a small, private army. He then returned to the island where he had been held captive. Unluckily for them, the pirates hadn’t taken his threats seriously. They were still there. Caesar overpowered them and took them back to Pergamon and had them thrown in prison. The local authority refused Caesar’s request to have them executed. But, ever the rebel. Caesar went ahead and did it anyway – only he cut their throats rather than tie them up on a cross to die.
7. Mary Jemison chose to stay with the tribe that kidnapped her and killed her family back in 1755
Mary Jeminson was born on a ship sailing between Ireland and America, was raised in the American frontier but then spent most of her adult life living with the native Seneca people. This is because, as a young girl, she was kidnapped during the French and Indian War. But, though she could have escaped later on, she chose to remain with her captors. Indeed, despite the fact that they killed her family and took her against her will, Jemison decided she preferred the Seneca culture rather than the British colonial culture of her peers.
Just a few years after the Jemison family had started to make a new life in the American frontier, the Seven Years’ War between England and France erupted. The conflict saw both countries make use of Native American allies to fight battles across America. One morning in 1755, a raiding party of French soldiers and Seneca horsemen attacked the settlement where the Jemisons had made their home. Just Mary, her two older brothers and another young boy from a different family were spared. Since she was 12-years-old, healthy and pretty, Mary was taken to a Seneca settlement where two women adopted her.
Far from fighting to regain her freedom, however, Mary slowly adapted to life with her kidnappers. She was given a Native American name. She also fell in love and at 17, she married Sheninjee. When the war ended, they feared that the captives would be set free, breaking their marriage apart. Sheninjee took Mary to his clan’s home in New York, though he died along the way. She married again, this time to another Seneca chief called Hiakatoo and gave him six children. In later life, she served as a go-between between the colonial settlers and the Seneca, and then she sold her story to a New York publisher. The book was a hit. Today, Jemison is remembered not just as the victim of a famous kidnapping but as the white woman who provided a key insight into the Native American way-of-life.
8. Edgardo Mortara was kidnapped by the Vatican when the Church learned that he had been secretly baptized as a Catholic but lived with Jewish parents
In the 1850s and 1860s, European society – and American society too – was shocked and riveted by the so-called âMorata Case’. For some, it was a barbaric kidnapping. To others, however, it was fully and morally justified. Even to this day, the case divides opinion, especially among Catholics, since it was the Church who was the main protagonist. What is for sure, however, is that young Edgardo Mortara was taken from his parents against their will. What’s more, he was never returned to them despite their pleas.
The Mortaras were a Jewish family living in the city of Bologna in the 1850s. In 1857, their son Edgardo fell seriously ill. He was just six-years-old at the time and it didn’t look like he would make it. Fearing the worst, one of the family’s servants, a devout Catholic woman, baptized Edgardo in secret. Against the odds, he survived. He could have gone on to enjoy a long life with his family. However, word of the secret baptism reached the Vatican. Pope Pius IX ruled that, since he was baptized, the boy was a Catholic and should be raised as such. So, on the evening of 24 June, 1858, police officers sent by the Church turned up at the family home and took young Edgardo away.
The parents were understandably distraught. They petitioned Pope Pius to return their son. He refused and even gave Edgardo his personal protection. From the age of six onwards, he was raised in the heart of the Catholic Church. The case gripped newspaper readers around the world. Many called on the Pope to change his mind. But before long, Edgardo came to love being a Catholic. In fact, he was ordained a priest at the age of 21. He left the Papal States and devoted his life to the Church. Edgardo Mortara, the most famous kidnapping victim of the 1850s, died in Belgium in 1940, at the age of 88 and apparently with no regrets.
9. Mary McElroy went on to forgive her kidnappers, even though she was scarred for life by the traumatic ordeal she went through as a young lady
On the evening of May 27, 1933, a gang of four masked men broke into the Kansas City home of prominent local politician Henry F. McElroy. They weren’t after him, however. Instead, they were after his daughter, Mary. And they found her, soaking in the bath tub. They ordered the 25-year-old to dress and go with them. They even revealed their intention was to kidnap her and demand $60,000 in return for her freedom. Mary McElroy apparently laughed and claimed she was worth far more than that! One of the most famous crimes in inter-war America had begun.
Mary was taken to a farmhouse in rural Kansas. There, she was chained to a wall in the basement while the kidnappers waited to hear if there demands would be met. In the end, they settled for $30,000. They were men of their word and, after 29 hours in captivity, Mary was released, completely unharmed, on a golf course. The men even gave the young lady some change so that she could get a ride home.
The kidnapping was a media sensation. Perhaps because they were under the spotlight, the Kansas City Police worked overtime and within a week they had identified their prime suspects. Walter McGee was identified as the ringleader of the plot and was arrested along with his younger brother George. The owner of the farmhouse and another man were also charged. The trial was a huge event. Mary revealed that she had been treated well by the men. And when they were found guilty and Walter sentenced to death for kidnapping, she pleaded for his life. Her plea for mercy worked and the men were given long jail sentences instead.
Tragically, Mary never recovered from her kidnapping. She suffered several nervous breakdowns and then became addicted to opiates. She hid herself away from the public eye, living with her father until she shot herself in 1940. Her suicide note read: “My four kidnappers are probably the only four people who don’t consider me an utter fool. You have your death penalty now, so please, give them a chance.”
10. Saint Patrick was taken from his family home in Britain and taken across the sea to Ireland, where his kidnappers sold him into slavery
Every year, millions of people around the world, many of them not religious at all, celebrate St Patrick’s Day. The day is a celebration of Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Indeed, the Christian missionary is one of the most famous Irishmen of all time. Except, however, he wasn’t born or raised there. In fact, he was originally kidnapped and brought to Ireland against his will more around 1500 years ago. Despite this traumatic experience, he obviously grew to love the Emerald Isle, so much that, even though he managed to escape his captors, he returned to make history.
Far from being a humble youth, Patrick was actually born into great wealth. His family were one of the richest in all of Roman Britain. Obviously, this made them a prime target for raiders. At some point in the late fourth century – the dates are hazy and will probably remain unknown – Patrick’s family home was attacked and he was kidnapped. Since he was a strong, healthy youth of 16, he would have fetched a fine price at the slave market. Indeed, he was taken across the Irish Sea, away from the protection of the Roman authorities, and sold. According to the legend, he spent six long years working hard as a shepherd for no pay. Over this time, his Christian faith grew and grew.
At the end of those six years, Patrick, then in his mid-20s, managed to escape. He even made it home and was reunited with his family. But instead of settling down to a quiet life of luxury, he had a vision telling him to go back to Ireland and convert the people to Christianity. Of course, he did just this, going back to the country not as a slave and kidnapping victim but as a missionary.
11. Bobby Dunbar vanished on a family vacation. Less than a year later, a young boy was identified as the missing infant, but something just wasn’t right
In the summer of 1912, Lessie and Percy Dunbar decided to take a family vacation. They took their four-year-old son Bobby on a fishing trip to Swayze Lake, Virginia, not far from their home. But this was no idyllic family getaway. Within a few hours, their son had vanished. They searched and searched but couldn’t find him. Little Bobby had been kidnapped. Eight months later, the police claimed to have found him. But something wasn’t rightâ¦
Sure, they found a boy who matched Bobby’s description. What’s more, he was in the company of a slightly suspect man by the name of William Cantwell Walters. He was a traveling handyman, who went from town to town fixing pianos. The police were sure they had solved the case. They arrested Walters for kidnapping and returned the boy to the Dunbars. And that’s when things really started to get strange. According to some reports, the parents immediately recognized the boy as Bobby. But other accounts have it that they needed some convincing. Bobby’s older brother also failed to recognize his own brother.
For his part, Walters insisted that the boy was the son of a female friend of his, a certain Julia Anderson. Indeed, he argued that the kid was Bruce Anderson and that his mother had sent him off with Walters on his travels. The case went to court. Despite all the doubts, the Dunbars won. The child was brought up in the family home, while Walters went to prison for kidnapping. The boy raised as Bobby went on to lead a normal life and have four children of his own. Walters was released after just two years, while Anderson, who maintained her boy had been taken from her, moved far away and took solace in her strong Christian faith.
The story didn’t end there, however. In 2004, DNA testing on a relative of the Dunbars proved almost conclusively that the boy they raised as their own was not in fact Bobby. Indeed, the fate of Bobby Dunbar, who vanished on that autumn day in 1912, remains one of America’s most enduring mysteries.
12. Borte Khan was a Mongol noble lady whose kidnapping may well have set her husband on the path to world domination
Genghis Khan wasn’t the type of man to let personal slights go unpunished. So, when his own wife, Borte, was kidnapped, he obviously had her rescued. The infamous warlord did, however, wait several months before launching his rescue operation, a delay that would have serious repercussions. Despite the delay, Borte was indeed freed from her kidnappers and, according to some historians, the event would have a profound effect on the young Genghis Khan and may even have been the trigger that set him off on a path of conquest and destruction.
Genghis Khan was still known as Temujin when he married Borte in around 1200. Both of them were still in their teens and their wedding took place against a backdrop of war and tense clan rivalries in Mongolia. Shortly after they wed, Borte was kidnapped a rival tribe. She was taken as a âwife’ by that tribe’s leader and held for eight months, until Temujin launched his rescue mission. Famously, she gave birth to a son just one month after she was rescued. Inevitably, there were questions over the child’s paternity and the boy would never be regarded as the rightful heir of what would become the Mogol Empire.
According to some historians, the kidnapping had a profound effect on world history. Timujin became determined to bring an end to conflicts between the different tribes. To this end, he worked to form alliances where possible and unite all the tribes of Central Asia. And the rest is history. Timujin would proclaim himself Genghis Khan and found the Mongol Empire, the biggest continuous empire the world had ever seen. Throughout his rise to power and world domination, Borte would remain by his side as one of his closest advisers and even ruled the homeland while her husband was away fighting.
13. Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped by his own generals and only released when he agreed to stop his civil war with the Chinese Communist Party
It was a kidnapping that turned into a major political incident. Indeed, the kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek quickly became known as the Xi’an Incident. It sparked a crisis in China and led to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Even today, the kidnapping splits opinion. To some, it was completely unjustified, while to others, it was completely necessary. Either way, it’s impossible to deny that this was one of the most significant kidnapping cases in 20th century Asian history.
The kidnapping took place in December 1936. Chiang was the leader of the Chinese Nationalist government. As well as fighting a civil war against the communists, he was also trying to the rising Empire of Japan. While some agreed with his policy of fighting the communists and trying to maintain peaceful relations with China’s neighbors, not everyone did. In fact, two of his closest generals were so opposed to this that one evening they stormed into Chiang’s private cabin and kidnapped him. They then sent a ransom note to the government. But instead of demanding money, they called for the civil war against the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) to be called off and for China to start preparing for war against Japan.
After more than a week of tense negotiations, the demands were met. And the course of Chinese history was set. The CPC was given a major boost by the outcome of the kidnapping. What’s more, China moved onto a war footing with Japan, and before long the two nations were in open conflict. Of course, the question will always remain: had the kidnapping not taken place, would Chiang have been able to stem the rise of the CPC, and so prevent the Communist Revolution, the effects of which are still felt to this day.
14. Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr’s kidnapping was called the âcrime of the century’, though this story did not have a happy ending
When Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize by flying non-stop across the Atlantic in 1927, he became an instant global celebrity. The aviation accomplishment also earned him a fortune. Indeed, he became so wealthy that in 1932, kidnappers attempted to pull off what was described as âthe crime of the century’. They took Lindbergh’s son, Charles Augustus Jr. and demanded $50,000 for his release. Tragically, there was no happy ending.
Charles, who was just 20 months old at the time, was taken from the family home in East Amwell, New Jersey, on the evening of May 12 1932. The family’s nurse made the discovery and alerted the boy’s famous father. Lindbergh found a note on the windowsill. The writing was that of a child, the spelling and grammar atrocious. Nevertheless, the message was clear: the kidnapper wanted $50,000 or the parents would never see their baby boy again. Lindbergh called the police and soon had numerous detectives, as well as his own private investigators working the case. Even President Herbert Hoover got involved, ordering the Department of Justice to offer whatever help it could.
Within a few days, massive rewards had been put up for information that would lead to the safe return of Charles. The kidnapper sent several more notes and, using an intermediary, arranged for the money to be exchanged. Even though the ransom was paid, however, the body of baby Charles was found soon after. It was now a murder investigation. Police kept their eyes out for the gold certificates paid as part of the ransom. A few months later, they caught a break. Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant with a record, was arrested. Police found $14,000 in his garage. Though he protested his innocence until the very end, he was executed by electric chair.
The case and the subsequent trial gripped the nation. It also led to the creation of Federal Kidnapping Act – sometimes known as âLindbergh Law’. From now on, taking a kidnapping victim across state lines would be a federal crime.
15. Richard the Lionheart was kidnapped and held for a king’s ransom while traveling back from the Crusades
The expression a âking’s ransom’ is now commonly used to describe demanding a huge sum of money. According to some historians, the phrase originated with the case of King Richard I, otherwise known as Richard the Lionheart. The English monarch was indeed held for ransom. And this was no trifling sum. In fact, the price paid for secure the king’s freedom may well have been the biggest ransom ever paid.
It was the year 1192 and Richard was traveling back to England from the Middle East. The Christian monarch had been fighting in the Third Crusade, but he had a kingdom to get back to. To get home, he needed to pass through modern-day Austria. Given the risks of kidnapping and banditry, Richard travelled in disguise. But Duke Leopold, wasn’t fooled. While passing through Vienna, the Englishman was snatched. Within a few days, he was handed over to the Henry VI, the powerful Holy Roman Empire. He then sent a note to England: he would only release Richard the Lionheart in exchange for 100,000 or maybe even 150,000 marks.
This was a huge sum of money, a literal king’s ransom. Some economic historians believe it was equivalent to twice the English GDP at the time. Understandably, then, the negotiations took a while. In fact, the English Crown needed more than a year to introduce new taxes and so get the money. They succeeded, however, and with Eleanor of Aquitaine serving as a go-between, Richard was eventually released.
Richard the Lionheart returned back to England. Once back, he was able to assert his authority and put those nobles who had tried to rule in his stead firmly in their place. Within a few years, however, the king was dead, killing while out campaigning in France.
16. Ion Perdicaris was snatched by a Moroccan warlord and the case almost led President Theodore Roosevelt to start a war
Ion Pedicaris may be largely forgotten today, but back in 1904, he was of sufficient importance to be at the centre of an international diplomatic crisis. In fact, his kidnapping almost triggered an all-our war between the United States and Morocco. Fortunately for everyone involved the so-called âPerdicaris Incident’ had a happy ending, which is possibly why it’s not better known today.
Perdicaris was a Greek-American playboy who lived the good life spending his inherited fortune. In the early 1870s, he relocated to Tangiers, Morocco. He was fascinated by the culture and, alongside keeping on top of his international business concerns, he wrote prolifically on Moroccan life and culture. He also settled down with the wife of an English telecoms engineer and took in her two sons. One of them was also taken when Perdicaris was snatched by the tribal leader Mulai Ahmed el Raisuli one May morning. Raisuli took them to his tribal lands and demanded that the Sultan of Morocco pay $70,000 for their release.
When President Theodore Roosevelt found out an American citizen had been kidnapped, he was livid. He even dispatched several warships and dozens of marines to the coast of Morocco. Famously, he demanded “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!” But then the President was informed Perdicaris had actually renounced his American citizenship. No matter, Raisuli had already relented. He had even become friends with his prisoner and a few days later released him unharmed. Naturally, Roosevelt made the most of the incident, using it as proof of his tough stance against foreign enemies – in fact, he even adopted “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!” as an election slogan.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: