Ransom Kidnapping in America, 1874-1974: The Creation of a Capital Crime

Ransom Kidnapping in America, 1874-1974: The Creation of a Capital Crime

Ransom Kidnapping in America, 1874-1974: The Creation of a Capital Crime

Ransom Kidnapping in America, 1874-1974: The Creation of a Capital Crime


Relatively unknown in this country before 1874, when the first ransom kidnapping as we know it took place, the incidence of the crime has since burgeoned to a recorded number of some 1,700 cases. In 1874, the act constituted a crime only in a handful of jurisdictions, and in those states the maximum penalty was seven years imprisonment. Subsequent laws, and the making of the act a federal capital crime in the 1930s when the Lindbergh kidnapping outraged public sentiment, evolved slowly, the author of this unusually interesting work shows.

In this first attempt to bring together and analyze all known sociological and historical information on this important segment of American crime and crime control, Ernest K. Alix dispels the myth of the importance of the Lindbergh case in changing attitudes and establishing social values. Not even the evolving laws, Alix contends, were the direct reflection of the will of the majority. Second, the entire subject has been prone to error and ideological misinterpretation which only a close examination of the facts and a careful interpretation of the results can overcome.

The importance of the work lies in its integrated treatment of crime and law. It will be invaluable to students and professionals in allied fields.


The first ransom kidnapping in America, as we know it today, apparently occurred in 1874. In the ensuing one hundred years, ransom kidnapping evolved from a shocking, but modestly punished, act into a capital crime in forty-five states and under federal law. Only murder was a capital crime in more American jurisdictions. Some of the most sensational episodes in the annals of American crime involved ransom kidnapping: the ransom slaying of Robert Franks by Leopold and Loeb in 1924, the Lindbergh case in 1932, and the Hearst case in 1974. In spite of these circumstances, the crime and the creation of the laws have never been subjected to scholarly research. This book reports the findings of a sociological investigation aimed at remedying the deficiency.

The method of study had to be appropriate for an exploratory investigation: an investigation concerned with describing a previously unstudied phenomenon as much as with analyzing it. The method had to be suitable for studying the operation of a social process over an extended period of time. Finally, the method had to yield data which might reveal not only actions taken by officials and the public in response to the crime but also their beliefs about ransomings and about law creation as a crime control strategy. A sociohistorical method (a method of study in which historical data are analyzed from a sociological perspective) was selected as best meeting these requirements.

The initial plan of study was to use official crime rate data on ransom kidnapping to provide a numerical overview of the American experience with the crime, supplemented by newspaper accounts of ransom cases. The plan had to be revised when it was discovered that suitable official crime statistics on ransom kidnapping were not available. Kidnapping in any form is not included among the major offense categories covered . . .

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