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Criminal Law: Kidnapping

Colleen is an attorney in the United States, and a solicitor on the roll in England and Wales.

In English common law, the crime then designated “asportation”, encompassed the forcing of one person, against his will, into another country. With time and the growing speed of transportation, this definition narrowed, first from one county to another, until even a few streets away came to fall within its rubric.

In modern terms, for some while, the psychological element of confinement has been recognised as a force equal to the caging of an animal.

Our first two cases illustrate the ways in which the law has reflected changes in societal values during the 18th and 19th centuries, opening a pathway towards today’s legislation where we further discuss Julius Caesar, Charles Lindbergh, Polly Klaas, and Adam Walsh.

Early Cases of Kidnapping

Cases in these early centuries indicate that, so great was the level of poverty throughout the UK as to render the stealing of objects such as clothes, brooches, hair ornaments and the like to be adjudged with more severity than the taking and confining of a child.

Louisa Perkins Takes a Child And Steals Their Clothes

In 1817, Louisa Perkins, was indicted for kidnapping Emma, the five year old child of the widowed Susannah Potter. Perkins was also indicted for the theft of the child’s clothes: a bonnet, pelisse, trousers, frock, stockings and boots.

According to court records, Emma’s mother often sent her on errands in their local area. Such was her sense of security that she allowed her to go to school on her own.

On the day the crime occurred, she had asked Emma to go to a local bakery to buy bread rolls for their breakfast. When time passed and Emma failed to return, Susannah, with the aid of neighbours and the police, searched the shops and nearby streets, but had no success in finding the child. While returning home, she was given the news that Emma had been found and was back at home under the care of a police officer.

On the morning in question, Emma had noticed a woman following her. This woman, having strolled to her side, took hold of her hand and walked with her to the bakers shop.

She continued,

“When I came out of the bakers shop the woman picked me up and carried me away. She said she would give me biscuits and make me dolls clothes. She gave me an old coat to wear.”

Fortuitously, a police officer noticed Emma’s cries and struggles to escape from her captor. Sensing a fear exceeding the bounds of a commonplace squabble, he followed the pair for some distance. In time, he stopped them and questioned Perkins as to the reason for the child’s anguish. She replied that the child, her niece, entrusted to her care, was in the throes of a tantrum.

The officer said he would only free the two if Perkins accompanied him to the child’s home, where her words could be verified. On the way, Perkins tried to flee, thereby indicating her culpability. The officer caught and arrested her.

During her trial, Perkins sole defence lay in that she had been drinking to the extent of “insensibility. This plea failed. She was sentenced to “transportation”, compelling her to spend seven years of hard labour in a penal colony in Australia.

Thomas Grundy

Thomas Grundy

Thomas Grundy Takes a Young Girl Claiming Her to be His Granddaughter

In June 1912, Thomas Grundy, aged 64 was indicted for kidnapping Margery Tagg a five year old female child. The child’s mother, Ellen Tagg had sent her daughter out to play with her younger brother. Upon checking their safety, she realized her daughter had disappeared.

In the quest to find Margery a national newspaper published an article, including descriptive details and photos, as part of a countrywide appeal for information regarding the whereabouts of the child.

The first witness to come forward was Frank Street, the landlord of the Seven Stars guest house. According to Street’s report, Grundy had booked space in the guest house the day before the kidnapping, returning three days later with a young child whom he stated was his granddaughter.

Rented accommodations being far sparser than those of today, one of the two beds in the room was rented by another lodger. This led to the surmise that Grundy and his “granddaughter” occupied the same bed during the time of her visit.

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Having read the newspaper’s appeal, on the day following that of Grundy’s arrival with the child, Street sent a note to the police. Perhaps sensing the landlord’s suspicions, Grundy left the guest house with the child, prior to the arrival of the police. The sole evidence found in the room was a child’s bonnet and rag doll.

These items, combined with Street’s statements, impelled the police to mount a search. This scrutiny resulted in the finding of Grundy with the child, in a wash-house nearby.

The child having been identified as the missing Margery, Grundy was arrested.

While confessing to the offense of kidnapping, he claimed there had been no molestation. A search of his person disclosed several obscene photographs, a stiletto knife, and a locket on a chain belonging to the child.

Overall, the little girl had been under Grundy’s control for four days and nights. Grundy did not enter the witness box, in all likelihood fearing the shame answers to queries by the opposing counsel would cause him.

He was found guilty and was sentenced to one year of hard labour.

Disparity And Discussion

Given our current mores and laws, we find the disparity between the two previous sentences astounding. In the first case, the kidnapper forced the child to travel only a short distance before her pleas for release alerted a law enforcement officer to her peril. It seems the stealing of her clothing and accessories was viewed as so heinous as to result in a seven year exile to Australia.

Conversely, nearly a hundred years later, Grundy, after causing both his victim and her mother terror lasting for more than four days, was sentenced to only one year of hard labour, presumably in his homeland.

Did such a difference imply that the taking of clothing was viewed as a graver offence than the carrying off and concealing of a child for several days, combined with possible molestation?

The question arises as to whether a degree of sexism entered into the judicial equation. The “boys will be boys” indulgence continues, despite denials, to pervade our seemingly gender neutral society. The obverse side of the idea of a damsel in distress means that, when a woman succumbs to distress by engaging in a criminal act, both social and legal strictures tend to judge her more harshly than they would her male counterpart.

Julius Caesar Kept His Word

Private Revenge Against His Captors

Undoubtedly, many victims of kidnapping would delight in a chance to avenge themselves upon their abductors. Julius Caesar, captured at approx. age 25, was able to do so.

While sailing on the Aegean Sea, Caesar was kidnapped by Sicilian pirates and taken to their island of Sicily. Upon their demanding a ransom from Rome of 20 talents in silver, (a large amount), Caesar laughingly sent comrades to insist on 50 talents, estimating this sum to be closer to his true worth.

During his cohorts’ absence, Caesar developed a rapport with his captors, reciting poetry to them, and joining them in games of chance. Still, once his ransom was paid, he swore he would soon return and kill them. Apparently viewing this vow as a jest or words vented in anger, the Sicilians remained where they were.

A Man Of His Word

These Sicilians’ complacency made it easy for Caesar to locate them. Not long after his release, he assembled a small army, sailed to Sicily and captured his previous captors. Back on his own territory, some officials would have liked to have made use of these strong former pirates as slaves. Still, the adamant Caesar demanded revenge; hence he ordered them killed.

In today’s legal parlance, though the term “Caesarean kidnapping” often refers to the abduction of new-Born's, it has also been applied to the forced transportation of an abductee from one country to another.

Later Cases: When The Child is Gone

A landmark case is one which crystallises a needed change of law which has lain in abeyance within the public consciousness for some while. Indeed, prior to the Lindbergh case, a law was being considered by Congress similar to that resulting from this kidnapping. Its passage was spurred by the furore generated throughout the U.S. by the Lindbergh tragedy.

Charles Lindbergh with the plane The Spirit of St. Louis.

Charles Lindbergh with the plane The Spirit of St. Louis.

Hero of Hope And Renewal

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight over the Atlantic Ocean, thereby becoming an icon of light. Two years later he married Anne Morrow, the second of three daughters of the American ambassador to Mexico. The couple’s first child, named Charles Augustus after his father, was born on June 22, 1930, Anne Lindbergh’s 24, birthday. The 1932 kidnapping/killing of his small son resonated throughout America as an attack upon its sense of renewal.

How Could It Have Happened?

The kidnapping was accomplished via a ladder placed outside the one loose window frame in the house. A ransom note, written with haphazard grammar, was left on the windowsill. Repeated questioning of household staff resulted in the suicide of one young maid. Naturally, these circumstances have raised questions as to whether this crime had been prearranged.

The ransom was paid, but in any event, the corpse of a male infant somewhat resembling the toddler was found fairly near the area. Prior to DNA testing, an approximation had to suffice, its accuracy diminished by some decomposition.

Some two years later Bruno Richard Hauptmann made a payment for gasoline using a ten dollar gold certificate which was found to be part of the ransom money. Consequently he was charged first with extortion and then kidnapping/murder.

The evidence against him was circumstantial, based largely on experts’ comparison of the handwriting on the ransom note with various samples found within Hauptmann’s home. In addition, in the public mind, his German origins counted against him.

The prosecution also unearthed the fact that, during the war, he assaulted a woman wheeling a baby carriage in order to steal her food coupons.

On April 3, 1936, Hauptmann was executed by use of the electric chair. Perhaps this execution was justified. Still, a significant controversy has arisen as to his guilt. Just prior to the carrying out of his death sentence, he was offered ninety thousand dollars by a newspaper owned by the Hearst Corporation, for his confession.

A further incentive lay in the promise of the New Jersey state governor to commute Hauptmann’s sentence to life imprisonment if he confessed to these crimes.

Still, Hauptmann refused, thus choosing to deprive his wife and young son of financial security, and the presence of a husband and father, albeit one separated by bars which would never be loosened.

Consequential Changes to The Law

In 1948, the American Congress, still gripped by this atrocity, enacted the Federal Kidnapping Law, colloquially known as The Lindbergh Law, due to its origin. This statute allowed federal agents to cross state lines in order to track perpetrators and victims.

The fact of 24 hours having passed before the victim was found became, by means of this act, treated as a presumption of a state line having been crossed. Implicitly, the time lapse led to permission to cross state lines in order to make every effort to free the victim from the kidnapper’s grasp.

Prior to this legislation, investigations could only be conducted in the state in which the crime was believed to have been committed. Twenty-four states adapted this law into their own criminal codes, implementing “little Lindbergh laws”, allowing capital punishment where physical harm to the victim could be shown to have taken place. This meant that the utmost sentence allowable in the state could be applied to this type of kidnapper.

Polly Klaas: The Ivory Box Is Broken.

More than half a century later, a case would impact upon the world on several dimensions.

The parents of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas, though divorced, were on friendly terms. While her mother had custodial care, Mr. Klaas was a part of their daughter’s life on an ongoing basis. On the night of October 1, 1993, Polly had invited two friends to a slumber party at the home she shared with her mother.

A Child's Sacrifice

Somehow Richard Allen Davis broke through the front door in silence, then crept up the stairs to Ms. Klaas bedroom. Having succeeded in tying the hands and feet of her friends, he prevented their seeing him, in the dim light, by pulling pillow cases over their heads and faces, then ordering them to count to one thousand before making any attempt to release themselves.

He then commanded Ms. Klaas, at knife-point, to leave the house with him. She did so, in tears of alarm, pleading with him to do nothing to harm her mother. (In retrospect, we can surmise he agreed, promising she could return home unharmed if she did as instructed.) It seems she put slippers on her feet in order to soften any sounds of her leave-taking.

Shortly after Polly’s abduction, one of her friends was able to untie one hand in order to enable her to alert Polly’s mother. By the time Mrs. Klaas conveyed this horror to the police; Davis had, in all probability, molested Polly, then stabbed and strangled her. In any case, he had left her body in a place where it could not be traced without an exhaustive effort.

Polly Klaas

Polly Klaas

A Child Without Shoes Captivated a Nation

Technology having progressed to the point of the superhighway, one Internet expert found a means of distributing a picture of Ms. Klaas throughout the Internet system. This represented the first time the Internet had been utilised for the purpose of finding a missing child.

The clear, poster-sized photo reached far more people than even the most widespread media coverage had been able to in the past.

Numerous parents, having all but despaired of finding their children, or even their remains, contacted this man in order to plead for assistance.

In Petaluma California, where the kidnapping had occurred, hundreds of volunteers searched the area for the whereabouts of the body. Her mother’s plea to the press that somewhere her daughter was in captivity without shoes seemed to have galvanised this endeavour.

Criminal History Ends At Death-Row

Born in 1954, Davis had accumulated a lengthy criminal record by late 1993. Not surprisingly, at the time of the Klaas kidnapping/murder, he was being sought by the police for parole violation.

During a routine patrol, police officers questioned Davis due to a driving infraction. The resulting photo matched that of a parole violator kept on police files. Its tracing resulted in identification of Davis.

Once his palm print had been found in Ms. Klaas’ bedroom, Davis was arrested and charged with her kidnapping/murder. Four days later, he provided enough information to allow investigators to find Ms. Klaas’ body, by then partially decomposed.

In August 1996, Davis was convicted of Ms. Klaas kidnapping and murder, the jury recommending a sentence of death. Since then, Davis has been an occupant of death row in California. A 2009 appeal to the California Supreme Court proved futile, the original death sentence being upheld. At this writing, it has yet to be implemented.

Legislative Results

While not specifically named in terms of Ms. Klaas, the “three strikes law” has come into being largely due to this case. U.S. states differ as to statutes. Still, on the whole, this law allows states to penalise those offenders who have been found guilty of felonies or other crimes of a violent and/or lewd nature.

Enforcement of such statutes allows a court to increase the sentence for a third such offence, A typical sentence might comprise twenty-five years to life, with the potential for parole sometimes included. The main function of this law is to free courts to impose more stringent sentences than might ordinarily be in order.

Adam Walsh Snatched While Shopping With His Mother

The Adam Walsh tragedy represents the third in our series of cases which have enhanced child safety via legislative changes.

Adam Walsh, born to John and Reve Walsh in 1974, was abducted and killed in 1981.

During a warm July day, Mrs. Walsh brought Adam with her on a shopping excursion. Engrossed in a discussion with a sales clerk about the price of a lamp, she left Adam a few aisles away, enjoying a display of computer games, the boy’s ultimate pastime.

When she turned to bring him with her out of the shop, she could not find him. Efforts by security guards proved of no use. Thus, having informed the police, Mrs. Walsh was forced to return home without her son.

Adam John Walsh

Adam John Walsh

Who Killed Adam Walsh?

Theories diverge as to why the boy left the store without alerting his mother. Given that a security guard ordered older boys to leave the area, Adam may have left with them, being too timid to tell the guard he was waiting for his mother.

In his memoir, Adam’s father, John Walsh, posits that a seemingly friendly stranger might have cajoled Adam to go with him to his car, where he would show him a more absorbing computer game. In either case, the child was never seen again.

Only his head, decapitated, would eventually be found in a Florida canal, close to where his kidnapping/murder seems to have taken place. Police investigation determined asphyxiation to have been his cause of death.

A Confession Made And Retracted

Ottis Toole, a repeat offender, while imprisoned for other crimes, admitted to this abduction and murder. Later, he retracted his confession; this happened repeatedly. Due to extreme police bungling in the loss of nearly all crucial evidence, Toole’s words comprised almost the sole strand of evidence.

Even now, some years after Toole’s death, the truth cannot be determined with anything close to absolute certainty. Still, during 1996, while dying in prison of liver failure, Toole did confess his guilt to his sister.

Legislative Changes

As with other such cases, an amalgamation of public outcry and efforts by the victim’s parents resulted in the passage of a Congressional bill. On July 25 2006, The U.S. Congress passed, by a unanimous vote, The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. Its aims were to increase efforts by law enforcement and judicial systems to protect children from exploitation and violent crime, and to strengthen endeavours to prevent the circulation of child pornography.

Adam’s father, John Walsh, dealt with his anguish in part by means of protecting other endangered victims from a fate similar to that of his son by hosting the televised program America’s most wanted. His efforts have brought forth a number of criminals who might otherwise have eluded justice and continued their vile activities.

A Star In The Sky

In his account of Adam’s death and its aftermath, John Walsh has noted the difficulty of those not affected by such a loss to understand the depths of its emptiness. Several years later, when John and Reve Walsh had a second baby son, some friends said this new child could replace Adam. While appreciating such compassion, John Walsh recounts that one child can never substitute for or supplant another.

After a bedtime story, when asked by his second son where Adam might be, John Walsh suggested the younger boy look towards the sky, where he would find his brother among its celestial stars.


Our goal in this article has been to encapsulate, in a concise but fruitful way, the history of the crime of kidnapping. As understanding of brain chemistry deepens, the impact of such tactics as psychological captivity and brain-washing seem likely to continue to be absorbed into the legal system.

© 2013 Colleen Swan


Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on December 08, 2013:

Thank you FlourishAnyway. Appreciate your looking in and share.

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 08, 2013:

This is a very well researched and well written hub on kidnapping, and I learned a lot. Voted up and more, plus sharing.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on December 05, 2013:

Thank you for your comments. Glad I was not born then. Maybe in 200 years time I would say the same thing.

Ann Carr from SW England on December 05, 2013:

A thorough explanation of the laws and how they changed, with fascinating examples, as ever. I'll never understand how anyone can target children.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on December 03, 2013:

This is an interesting and shocking review of terrible crimes committed. Thank goodness we now value the lives of victims more than personal items they may be wearing. Thank's for sharing a well written account of criminal law concerning kidnapping...

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