Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Family Tragedy and FBI Triumph in the South: The 1938 Kidnapping and Murder of James Bailey "Skeegie" Cash Jr

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Family Tragedy and FBI Triumph in the South: The 1938 Kidnapping and Murder of James Bailey "Skeegie" Cash Jr

Article excerpt

ON THE EVENING OF SATURDAY, MAY 28, 1938, FRANKLIN PIERCE McCall, a twenty-one-year-old unskilled laborer, entered the home of Vera and Bailey Cash, in the south Florida town of Princeton, by cutting the screen on the rear door with a knife. He unlatched the door, crept to the bedroom on the first floor, and placed handkerchiefs over the eyes and mouth of the Cashes' five-year-old son, James Bailey Cash Jr., known affectionately to family and friends as "Skeegie." As the intruder had no automobile and with his wife away visiting relatives, he carried Skeegie's limp body across a principal road and through the woods to his house, about fifteen minutes away by foot. Believing the boy to be alive but unconscious, McCall attempted to revive him by artificial respiration and the application of cold water and wet towels, but Skeegie had suffocated within minutes of being stolen. McCall threw the body into a palmetto thicket a half mile behind his house. Vera and Bailey Cash had been married for ten years. Skeegie was their only child, and by all accounts this "tow-headed," blue-eyed boy was happy, healthy, and loved. On the night of his disappearance, Mrs. Cash had bathed her son around nine o'clock, dressed him in white-and-red-striped one-piece pajamas, put him in his crib in the family bedroom, and read "the funny papers" to him until he fell asleep around half past nine. She partially closed the bedroom doors, secured the house, and then walked over to see her husband at the general store they owned. She was unaware that McCall, her former tenant, was watching her leave. (1)

When Skeegie's parents returned to the house at 10:10 P.M. and found the boy was missing, their white neighbors, who assumed the little boy "had gone wandering," began searching the immediate vicinity. The first ransom note was discovered by 1:00 A.M. It became clear that the Cashes were victims of a "classic ransom kidnapping," defined by sociologist Ernest Kahlar Alix as criminal actions motivated by pecuniary gain, specifically the collection of a ransom payment, and involving the taking of a person against his or her will and secret confinement under duress. Victims were economic commodities to be traded for cash, and there were premiums for keeping them alive. Most states levied harsher or capital punishments if victims were harmed. (2) Hoping their son would be returned to them alive and unhurt, Bailey and Vera Cash used their savings and bank credit to pay the demanded ransom of $10,000 on May 31. (3) However, the manner of Skeegie's disappearance, the evidence of forcible entry into the Cash home, and the ransom notes brought disquieting memories of the kidnap-murder of "Baby Lindy," another blond, blue-eyed boy, in 1932. (4) Indeed, the hunt for Skeegie and his kidnapper constituted the Federal Bureau of Investigation's "most intensive drive" since the Lindbergh case and the capture of Bruno Richard Hauptmann; and despite robust southern support for states' rights, in south Florida there was considerable gubernatorial, local law enforcement, and popular support for an extensive and intrusive federal investigation of the Cash case during the summer of 1938. (5)

The early 1930s were the high point of ransom kidnappings in the United States, with an estimated two thousand or more abductions occurring between 1930 and 1932 alone, and incidence was perceived to have reached near epidemic proportions by the time Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. disappeared. Such kidnappings provided criminal gangs with a lucrative source of income, as the targets were usually middleclass and wealthy adult citizens (although child victims featured in the majority of ransom kidnappings before 1920). For example, as historian Claire Bond Potter notes, there were twenty-seven "major kidnappings" in 1933, which paid ransoms of $40,000 to $100,000. (6) As many scholars have pointed out, the Lindbergh abduction was seen as a symptom of "a national disease that was destroying the peace and security of [American] citizens and a sign of the ravaged condition of law and order in the nation"; the crime was a "cultural and political turning point," when "adult desperation and a sense of loss beyond imagining" moved out of "the privatized space of the family" and into the national psyche. …

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