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.

Parental Abductions

By far, the most frequent form of kidnapping is abduction by a parent or family member. Today, over one quarter of a million such cases are reported annually to the authorities. Many of these are minor episodes—often misunderstandings or disagreements over custody, and they are short term.

But some parental abductions can last many years and cause enduring harm to the child (or children) and to the parents from whose care a child has been illegally removed. The most difficult cases of this kind concern children who are taken from the United States to foreign countries, where American laws, and even international agreements, are ineffective or difficult to enforce.

The number of parental abductions has grown enormously over the last thirty-five years as divorce and disputes over custody have increased in the United States and as the ease of transportation has made it possible to take children to distant places. Yet, abductions of this kind were already well known earlier in the twentieth century and even in the late nineteenth century.

In one such instance, in 1879, Henry and Belthiede Coolidge were found quarreling about their daughter on a street in Manhattan. Each parent held one arm of the child and was pulling her in opposite directions. This was the most public display of a quarrel that had been unfolding over time as each parent had previously abducted the girl from the other. The Coolidges were waiting for the final disposition of their divorce case in the courts; each hoped to be in possession of the child at that time and each accused the other of posing potential harms to the child's well being.

These accusations and actions would become well known to Americans by the end of the twentieth century as parental kidnappings (which often involve the help of other family members) have become a familiar feature of popular literature, television dramas, and abduction news and information.

Twenty years ago many of these abducted children appeared on Advo (advertising) cards delivered to millions of homes across the country, and on milk cartons. Today, they are featured on highway Amber Alerts.

Stranger Abduction

Despite the prevalence of this familial form of child abduction, what Americans fear most are "stranger abductions," by which they usually mean children abducted by male strangers.

Although this is what most Americans think of when they hear about kidnapping, it is a far less common form of child loss both today and historically. The subject has been so widely misrepresented and misunderstood that it is important first to focus on the real dimensions of the crime: to understand how it has come to represent "a parent's worst nightmare" and why the alarm is so disproportionate to the actual prevalence of the crime.

Today, children abducted by strangers represent a very small fraction of abductions—successful abductions affect between 100 and 150 children every year. This is hardly a trivial matter to those directly involved, but the perceived threat to children is far greater than the number of children affected. To understand this requires that we return to that first widely publicized stranger abduction in 1874.

The case of Charley Ross demonstrated the public's rising expectations about parental responsibilities for maintaining the safety of their children. It also exposed the very real limits of police actions in cases of this kind. This intersection between private and public responsibilities for children's welfare set the boundaries and context for kidnappings ever since.

The case also showed the growing dependence of parents of victims on the media to broadcast their loss in hopes of having the child located and returned. The Ross family was the first to widely distribute very large numbers of missing child posters (now familiar to Americans). Some of these were distributed by the circus impresario P. T. Barnum.

The Rosses were also able to use the Western Union Telegraph Company to follow leads from many places that came in as the public reported sightings of Charley (now recognized from posters as well as widely disseminated newspaper stories) in various parts of the country. Within short order, Charley Ross's name, identity, and story became deeply part of the public's imagination and inscribed in the popular culture of the time.

Christian Ross, like many parents of victims today, devoted the remainder of his life to finding his son and other missing children. The Charley Ross case was also used everywhere to change laws and increase penalties for child abduction.

The case anticipated and set the pattern for later experiences of child abductions as children's parents turned to all means to try to retrieve their children. In the process, the public became aware of and alarmed by the potential harm to their children.

Today, parents of kidnap victims remain dependent on publicity along with police cooperation. They and the public continue to seek new and more effective laws to protect children. At the same time, the frantic search for remedies, and the wide media fascination for these cases, has helped to inflame the public's sense of the dangers to children. Parents feel an acute sense of their own helplessness to deal with the crime that has come to represent one of the central anxieties of modern parenting.

An excellent illustration of these dilemmas is the hysteria that resulted in 1932 when the young son of American aviator Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped from his home in New Jersey.

Despite the active intervention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (newly refashioned in response to the crime), which spearheaded the international hunt for the child, the full-time attention of the New Jersey state police, as well as private efforts by Lindbergh, no one was able successfully to locate Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. alive. His body was subsequently found not far from the Lindbergh home. It took years before the police tracked down his kidnapper.

Lindbergh was beloved as a national hero after his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. As an international celebrity, he was seen in larger than life terms, but despite his fame and renown he was able neither to protect his son from kidnappers nor to retrieve him alive, even after he paid the $50,000 ransom.