Throughout history, ransom letters have been used to extort cash, often from wealthy families, well-known entrepreneurs, celebrities, or political leaders. Most of these kidnapping notes were just the beginning of a series of events that would usually lead to the slaying of the abductee, and in some cases, the execution of the abductor. Kidnapping victims rarely make it away from their captors. Ransom notes can vary from long letters or postcards to the juxtaposed typography usually associated with the medium.
Criminals have been employing ransom notes dating back to the Middle Ages. Children are often the target, as they can be easier to abduct than adults. The first known American kidnapping accompanied with a ransom note took place in 1874, and kidnapping continues to be one of the most common offenses in the US.
John Paul Getty III's Kidnappers Cut Off His Ear And Mailed It To His Family
In 1973, nine members of the Calabrian Mafia abducted John Paul Getty III - the grandson of an oil tycoon. Getty, 16, was on holiday in Rome when the Mafia took him to a mountain hideaway. Shortly afterward, Getty's family received a ransom note asking for $17 million. Getty's grandfather refused to pay the ransom, so the next letter they received came with one of Getty's ears and the threat:
This is Paul's ear. If we don't get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits.
Getty's family reluctantly paid the decreased ransom, and their son was safely returned. Italian authorities convicted two of the kidnappers, but the rest of the men involved were acquitted.
William Edward Hickman, 19, abducted 12-year-old Marion Parker from her Los Angeles school in 1927. After the abduction, Hickman began sending letters to her father demanding to be paid in gold certificates. He signed them as "FOX-FATE." One letter read: "Your daughter's life hangs by a thread and I have a Gillette ready and able to handle the situation."
After changing meeting places multiple times, the "Fox" and Marion's father finally met on a street corner, where Marion's father could see his daughter sitting in the passenger seat of the kidnapper's car concealed up to her neck by clothing and unable to move. Once her father handed over the ransom, Marion's body was thrown out of the car and a coroner later testified that she'd been dead for 12 hours. The courts hung Hickman for his offenses in 1928.
The Parents Of Dorothy Ann Distelhurst Received Fake Ransom Notes
In September 1934, 6-year-old Dorothy Ann Distelhurst left kindergarten and began walking the three blocks to her Nashville home, but she never made it. A few days after her disappearance went public, a postcard showed up at her family home that threatened to burn the girl's eyes out with acid if her father didn't pay the exorbitant fee of $175,000.
More letters and postcards arrived from all over the country demanding ransoms. Even though the police told her father that the messages were all likely hoaxes, he still flew to New York and attempted to pay $5,000 to a man who claimed to have his daughter. It was later found that man had never even been to Nashville.
About a month after the postcard incident, Dorothy's body was found in a shallow grave. An unknown assailant had bashed her head in with a hammer and used acid to burn off her face.
June Robles's Kidnapper Sent A Postcard To The Governor Revealing Her Whereabouts
In 1934, an unknown man abducted 6-year-old June Robles - daughter of Fernando Robles, the owner of the Robles Electric Company - outside of her school in Tucson. After the kidnapping, the man paid a young boy 25 cents to deliver a note to Fernando demanding $15,000 for June's safe return. The mystery man only referred to himself as "Z" and instructed Fernando not to speak with the police.
After a lot of back and forth, "Z" cut contact with Fernando. Then the Governor of Arizona received a postcard mailed from Chicago that gave him instructions as to where June was being kept in the desert. It took highway patrolmen two hours to find June, who was locked in a small metal cage and buried under some shrubbery. She was alive and unharmed.
The Lipstick Killer Left A Note For Police Begging To Be Caught
In late 1945, the Lipstick Killer left a note for police scrawled in lipstick on the wall of the second victim's Chicago-area apartment after slaying two women: "For heavens Sake catch me Before I kill more I cannot control myself."
One month after that message, 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan’s was found missing from her room. Her parents recovered a ransom note outside her bedroom window: "GeI $20,000 Reddy & wAITe foR WoRd. do NoT NoTify FBI oR Police. Bills IN 5's & 10's." And on the back of the note: "BuRN This FoR heR SAfTY."
At the same time, the mayor of Chicago received a note that read: "This is to tell you how sorry I am not to not get ole Degnan instead of his girl. Roosevelt and the OPA made their own laws. Why shouldn't I and a lot more?"
After an anonymous tip suggesting they look in the sewer near the Degnan home, police found the severed head and torso of Suzanne Degnan. After a city-wide man hunt, and a few false starts, the police arrested William Heirens. Even though the courts convicted Heirens, there's still speculation as to whether he was actually responsible.
Annie Laurie Hearin Allegedly Pleaded With Her Husband To Pay Her Ransom
In 1988, 72-year-old Annie Laurie Hearin - the wife of Robert Hearin, the owner of Mississippi's largest gas distribution company, Mississippi Valley Gas Co. - was abducted from their home after a violent attack. During the initial investigation, police found a typed ransom letter:
Mr. Robert Hearin, Put these people back in the shape they was in before they got mixed up with School Pictures. Pay them whatever damages they want and tell them all this so then can no what you are doing but dont tell them why you are doing it. Do this before ten days pass. Don't call police.
Rather than pay the ransom, Robert made a public appeal for his wife's return. Then he received a second note, this time allegedly from Annie:
Bob, If you don't do what these people want you to do, they are going to seal me up in the cellar of this house with only a few jugs of water. Please save me, Annie Laurie.
Even after paying out the ransom, he never saw his wife again. In 1990, law enforcement apprehended Newton A. Winn and convicted him of conspiracy in relation to Hearin’s disappearance. The courts never filed charges, and investigators never recovered Hearin’s body, as she was declared dead in 1991.