Special Report

The Most Notorious Kidnappings in American History

Kidnappings have garnered massive headlines in the United States since the 19th century. The idea that we or our loved ones could be happily going about our day when we’re taken certainly strikes a nerve. Some abductions involve the children of wealthy businessmen or celebrities, while others drew massive media attention because of the age of the victims and abhorrent nature of the crimes, and a few are filled with numerous twists and turns.  

To compile a list of some of the most notorious kidnappings in American history, 24/7 Tempo reviewed several historical and government sources, including the websites of the FBI and the Library of Congress. We selected cases that have captivated the nation and, as a result, have been reported on extensively by the media, including kidnappings from almost every decade since the 1830s. 

Many of the earliest kidnappings that drew media attention targeted the children of wealthy individuals, and were plans to extort large sums of money. Some victims were safely returned after a ransom payment or police intervention, but others were murdered by kidnappers who had no intention of returning them alive. (These are the biggest ransoms ever paid.)

Most of the more recent crimes here were not kidnappings for ransom but rather abductions of young women who were held in deplorable conditions where they were sexually and physically abused for years.  

These crimes changed parenting norms, laws, and how authorities handled kidnappings. Some particularly heinous kidnappings of children led to a drastic decrease in the amount of unsupervised freedom parents gave their children. They also spurred the creation of laws like California’s Three Strikes policy and systems like AMBER Alert.

Click here for more on the most notorious kidnappings in American history.

Most of these cases were eventually solved, sometimes decades later thanks to the invention of DNA testing technology. However, a few have never been brought to a satisfying conclusion. (Read about the most famous unsolved crimes in America.)

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