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What is Kidnapping?

Updated on April 7, 2012

The original meaning of the word kidnapping was the carrying away of a person to forced labor in the British colonies in America. Blackstone in his Commentaries defines it as "the forcible abduction or stealing away of a man, woman, or child from their own country, and sending them into another." In Great Britain the term was also formerly applied to the forcing of men into the army, and especially the navy, by press gangs.

In the common law of today the term is used in a broader sense: thus, if a person is forcibly taken out of his way for any distance in his own country or locality, the individual so constraining him is held guilty of the crime.

In a limited sense the term "kidnapping" has been applied to the seizure of Negroes in Africa by enemy tribesmen, and by Arabs, Europeans and Americans, with intent to sell them into slavery. This barbarous traffic continued in the South Seas as recently as the early years of the 20th century, but was finally suppressed by concerted action of the colonial powers. In the United States long before the Civil War every state had enacted laws making kidnapping a criminal offense.

The first notorious case of kidnapping for ransom in the United States occurred on July 1, 1874, when kidnappers seized four-year-old Charley Ross in Germantown, Pasadena. They demanded a ransom of $20,000 by mail, but were so fearful of detection that all attempts to make contact with them failed. The child was never found. The next notable case was that of the kidnapping in 1900 of the young son of E. A. Cudahy, an Omaha meat packer, by Pat Crowe, a professional criminal; the boy was returned to his parents on payment of a ransom of $25,000. Although Crowe was afterward apprehended, tried for the crime and confessed, by a gross miscarriage of justice he was acquitted.

After 1920, with the rise of gangsterism during the prohibition epoch kidnappings greatly increased and constituted a national disgrace. The Chicago police in 1932 estimated that there had been 200 kidnappings in the past two years, and ransoms paid amounted to $2,000,000. The kidnapping on March 1, 1932 of the l8-month-old son of Col Charles A. Lindbergh (the infant was murdered immediately after its abduction) caused enactment of federal laws in 1932 and 1934 prescribing severe penalties for interstate abduction, with the death sentence for cases in which the victim had been harmed or not returned before sentence was passed.

Notwithstanding the passage of these laws, there were many kidnapping cases in 1933, 1934, and 1935. Some of the victims were returned after payment of ransoms, but in other cases they were killed after extortion of ransoms in order to eliminate a witness. After 1935 the fine work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in capturing and obtaining convictions of criminal gangs proved effective in greatly reducing the incidence of this type of crime.

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