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by William H. Benson

March 12, 2015

     In 1907, the author O. Henry wrote a short story he entitled “The Ransom of Red Chief.” In it, two crooks named Bill and Sam kidnap a red-headed boy in an Alabama town thinking that they will demand a ransom, but unaware that the boy is ornery. He throws rocks at them, claims he is an Indian chief and that they are his horses, and forces them to play by his rules. He terrorizes them.

     Bill and Sam write a ransom note to the boy’s father, Ebenezer Dorset, but he knows his son too well, and so he replies that it is they who should pay him, to take the lad off their hands. The kidnappers, Bill and Sam, surrender, pay the ransom, and return Red Chief to his father.

  1. Henry wrote most of his short stories with this kind of surprise ending, but only an author with O. Henry’s literary talent could turn an ugly business, such as kidnapping, into a delightful short story.

     On February 4, 1974, members of the Symbionese Liberation Army knocked on nineteen-year-old Patricia Hearst’s San Francisco apartment, grabbed her, and transported her to their headquarters. For weeks she was beaten, blindfolded, locked in a closet, raped, and brainwashed. She later said, “I accommodated my thoughts to coincide with theirs.”

     On April 15, 1974, acting as “Tania,” Patty Hearst participated in a bank robbery, carrying an M1 carbine and shouting commands at the bank’s officials and customers. She was arrested in September 1975, convicted of bank robbery, and received a thirty-five year prison sentence. Jimmy Carter had her released in 1979, and Bill Clinton pardoned her on January 20, 2001, his last day in office.

     The Stockholm Syndrome describes the psychological transition that some hostages undergo when captured. They begin to express sympathy for their captors and forge bonds of trust and commitment, even though they are harassed, beaten, threaten, intimidated, and even raped. Police officers noted the syndrome during a botched bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, where the perpetrators held hostages for six days, from August 23 to 28, 1973.

     Bride-kidnapping or forced marriages still happen in Africa, in certain republics of the former Soviet Union, in Middle Eastern countries, and in China. Men kidnap young girls and insist that they agree to marry them, and if the girls refuse, they receive a beating or worse, until they agree.

     For centuries, Native American warriors considered as prizes other tribes’ women. Anthropologists explain this custom as a way to introduce new genetic material into a closed community, a tribe.

     On the morning of February 29, 1704, French soldiers and Mohawk warriors attacked Deerfield, Massachusetts. Eunice Williams was eleven years old, the daughter of John Williams, the pastor of the church in Deerfield. The French soldiers and the Mohawks marched her and her family to French Canada. Three years later John Williams was released, but Eunice chose to stay there and live her life.

     Likewise, the Seneca captured Mary Jemison, an English teenager in 1755. She married a Delaware, and when offered the chance to return to the British, she refused.

     On March 12, 2003, twelve years ago today, police took into custody fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart, of Salt Lake City. Her captors, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ileen Barzee, had held her for nine months and one week, and she was honest about her captivity. Brian conducted a marriage ceremony and claimed Elizabeth as his wife. She described her days, “Boredom, hunger, and rape.”

     Phillip and Nancy Garrido used a stun gun on eleven-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard as she was walking to the bus stop on June 10, 1991, and they held her in the back yard of their Antioch, California home, in a tent and a shack, for eighteen years, two and a half months. Jaycee gave birth to two daughters, the first when fourteen and the second when seventeen.

     After her release, on August 16, 2009, she sued the State of California “for various lapses of the Corrections department,” for failing to supervise Garrido, and the state settled for $20 million.

     Ariel Castro kidnapped three girls—Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus—between August 21, 2002 and April 2, 2004, and held them in his Cleveland home for the next ten years. On May 6, 2013, Amanda Berry screamed at some neighbors walking by the house, and she and her daughter crawled through a hole she kicked in at the bottom of the screen door.

     Then, early this year, a twenty-two-year-old woman, escaped a California home where Jose Angel Barajas-Mireles, and his two accomplices confined her for three weeks.

     Kidnapping is ugly. It is men overpowering women and girls. It cannot be justified on biological or anthropological terms. It is immoral. It involves violence, beatings, seclusion, and rape. It is criminal. It breaks the law, the so-called Lindberg Law of 1932. Some, such as Patty Hearst, are taken in by their captors, are conned and deluded, but others—such as Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus—survive each day with a glimmer of hope.

     For them the days are not as pleasant as “The Ransom of Red Chief,” but the release is so welcome.

To Diane Sawyer, Jaycee Dugard explained her lost eighteen years, “You do what you have to do.”