Across the United States this autumn, Americans watched intently the unfolding of two highly publicized cases of child abduction.
The kidnappers of Elizabeth Smart were at last brought to trial for their crimes after years of being declared mentally unfit. Fourteen years old at the time, Elizabeth had been taken from her bedroom in June 2002 and found nine months later held captive by a Utah couple; the husband styling himself a prophet of God.
More astonishingly, Jaycee Lee Dugard returned after eighteen years of captivity at the hands of a northern California couple who had abducted her as an 11 year old. Jaycee had two children during her confinement, and the case included many strange features that resulted from the fact that she had lived for so long with the man who had abducted and raped her and kept her as his daughter.
Over the past one hundred and forty years, Americans have experienced regular periods of intense public anxiety about child abduction. These episodes of alarm often have as much to do with how Americans perceive or characterize child abduction as with the actual number of such crimes. These perceptions influence what the public imagines is most dangerous to children in the society.
Although most citizens today are rarely aware of it, their own fears and responses to child kidnapping have been shaped over the years by a series of historical developments: especially the growth of modern media, changes in family patterns and expectations for parents, and structures of policing and law. When parents today express horror (and fascination) about the terrible ordeal of Jaycee Dugard, they are following a tradition that began in 1874.
When Charles Brewster Ross (known as Charley) was kidnapped on July 1, 1874, he was certainly not the first child to be kidnapped in the United States. But, unlike the others who preceded him, his parents were able to turn Charley's abduction into a national cause and to bring their plight and their son's story to national attention.
They did so because they were well connected politically, well-off economically, and because Charley's father's (Christian Ross), initially refused to pay the (then) enormous ransom demand of $20,000 (only in part because he did not have the money). This refusal brought him a torrent of negative commentary and helped to define for the future what Americans expected of parents caught in such terrible situations.
Christian Ross responded by writing a book in which he explained himself and described his personal anguish at the loss of his son and the toll it took on his family. The resulting publicity about the father's role and his obligations to his son helped to carry the story of the "lost boy" far and wide (and well beyond the United States) and made Charley Ross famous.
The publicity made his retrieval into a national obsession. To this day, Charley's fate remains unknown despite decades of efforts and the tantalizing revelations of one burglar moments before his death that he had been involved in the kidnapping and knew the boy's whereabouts.
All the attention on Charley's disappearance also raised a completely new awareness about the crime of child abduction and the inadequacy of laws to cope with it, and put a spotlight on the need for new forms of child protection.
The public revulsion/fascination at the threat to children's safety that characterized the Charley Ross case has been stoked and revitalized every time news of a new child abduction takes place.
Not all kidnappings are alike today, and very few children return after a long absence like Jaycee Dugard; nor were kidnappings all alike in the past. But certain patterns connect abductions over time.
Child kidnappings fall into three general types: 1) abductions by parents or family members; 2) stranger abductions by men for monetary ransom or physical exploitation and abuse; 3) children abducted by women who intend to keep and raise them as their own.
While the first kind is far and away the most common, it is the second kind of abduction—and the fear it generates—that have been most responsible for public hysteria, new public policies, and changes in parental approaches to childrearing.