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Caleb Milne And The Kidnapping That Never Was

Updated on August 26, 2011
Caleb Milne IV
Caleb Milne IV

Kidnapping in the 1930s was an underworld growth industry. Throughout the decade, members of affluent families were spirited away by heartless criminals with such depressing frequency that it hardly came as a surprise when 24-year-old textile heir, Caleb Milne IV, abruptly disappeared from his New York apartment at 159 East 37th St on December 14, 1935. Next morning his brother, Frederic, 18, received a special delivery letter postmarked Poughkeepsie, New York. It said: "We have your brother in the country. Keep in touch with your grandfather in Philadelphia and have a large sum in cash available. We will communicate with you again." The grandfather in question was 74-year-old Caleb Milne Jnr, and it was his hand that controlled the family purse strings.

At first the family, like police, took the news lightly. Caleb's interest in the theater was well-known, recently he had taken on several small roles, and some suspected that this might be just another piece of playacting. But 24 hours without any sighting did ratchet up the tension. The press, too, jumped on the bandwagon. Lurid report spoke of another letter, this time addressed to Milne's grandfather, threatening that Caleb would be killed unless the kidnappers' demands were met. Accompanying the letter was Milne's broken wristwatch. The grandfather, reportedly, forwarded a sizable chunk of cash to his daughter-in-law to meet the kidnappers' demands.

A hungry press just ate up this story
A hungry press just ate up this story

Next day members of the Milne family hotly denied both of these developments, blaming the stories on journalistic fabrication. What was undoubtedly true, however, was the friction between New York detectives and FBI agents. The former were still treating the disappearance as a missing persons' report, but FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, never one to miss a chance to grab the headlines, announced with a great fanfare that he was dispatching a team of "ace kidnap investigators" to New York City to solve the mystery.

J. Edgar Hoover in a characteristically flamboyant pose
J. Edgar Hoover in a characteristically flamboyant pose

On the evening of December 17, both teams of investigators raced to the Catskills after receiving an anonymous tip-off that they "would find something interesting" at a two-story stucco house on Wood Road, between West Saugerties and Palenville. It turned out to be a wild-goose chase; the house didn't exist.

Each passing hour only raised the stakes. Despite Hoover's shrill protestations to the contrary, the New York cops refused to budge from their hard-line missing person stance. But behind the scenes, some were beginning to get edgy. It was now 72 hours since Caleb had been seen.

The very next morning, four days after Caleb disappeared, a traveling salesman, S. R. Gerhart, en route to Philadelphia had just reached Germantown, Md, when he saw " a struggling object in a ditch two feet off the highway." Gerhart braked to a halt. Moments later he flagged down a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction. Gerhart, along with the other car's four occupants, then ran to the ditch where they found Caleb alive but groggy.There was adhesive tape across his eyes and mouth and lengths of cord were looped through his arms and round his knees. Milne was barely coherent. He gasped out his name and nothing more. A nearby doctor expressed the view that Caleb showed clear signs of having been drugged.

When well enough to speak, he told of being held by four captors at a ramshackle house near Wrightstown, Pa, where he had been repeatedly drugged and almost starved to death. (A medical examination confirmed the presence of numerous hypodermic marks on his arm.) Over the next few days, Milne claimed, he was beaten repeatedly and half starved. The torture only stopped when he was suddenly trussed up and driven off by car. His kidnappers had then thrown him into the ditch where he was found.

Hoover's famed 'G-men' located the farmhouse and the hypodermic syringe, and announced that they would be remaining at Milne's side for his own protection. All the while, though, they kept quizzing Milne about his ordeal and gradually cracks began to appear in his story. Eventually at 4 a.m. on December 28, 1935 he confessed: the whole episode had been an elaborate hoax. He had written the ransom notes himself. His motivation? Well, there was the money, of course, but Milne was really seeking publicity. In a bizarre flight of fancy, he thought his press coverage of ordeal would help land him a job on the stage or in the movies.

He was promptly charged with attempted extortion and obstructing justice. But embarrassment won out over justice. No one in the family was willing to press charges against their errant scion and after a few desultory hearings the case was abandoned, as everyone did their best to forget the "kidnapping that never was." Someone especially keen to throw a blanket over this case was J. Edgar Hoover. He did it with his customary bluster. Before this investigation, he boasted, the FBI had solved 63 kidnappings. "It is still sixty-three," he commented. "This one does not count."

This wasn't a view shared by Milne's grandfather. He despised Caleb for the shame he'd brought on the family, saying, "I'll never forgive him." He was true to his word. When the old man died in 1941 Caleb received no part of the $431,000 estate.

But history hadn't heard the last of Caleb Milne IV. When war broke out in December 1941, he volunteered for active service and was posted to North Africa. The spring of 1943 found him seconded to the British Eighth Army in Tunisia, driving an ambulance. On May 11 his unit came under attack from German shell fire. When two French soldiers were hit, Milne, without any regard for his own safety, ran forward and helped both men onto stretchers. Another shell exploded almost on top of him. The shrapnel cut him to pieces. Later that day he died later from his injuries.

Even during the turmoil of battle, Milne's literary aspirations remained intact. In a string of letters to his mother he painted a vivid picture of the horrors of war. So touching were these letters that, in 1945, they were published in a book entitled Dream of the Day. The New York Times commented favorably on their literary merit. In death, Caleb Milne IV had finally found the artistic fame he craved.


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