“I am Charley Ross.” Gustave Blair, Nelson Miller, and the Crime that Changed a Nation 

Rod Miller, Minneapolis, MN

Larry D. Miller, Grimes, IA

The Charley Ross Kidnapping

The crime that changed a nation.

The kidnapping of Charley Ross in 1874 was the first kidnapping for ransom in America.  The story has been told many times in books, newspapers, and magazines, and in scholarly historical and crime journals.  There was extensive newspaper coverage both across the United States and abroad.  In sum, Charley and his brother, Walter Ross, were kidnapped on July 1, 1874, by two men in front of the Ross home in Germantown, Philadelphia, despite the warning of their father “Don’t take candy from strangers!” which has since become immortalized.   The kidnappers released Walter, but not Charley.  After twenty-three ransomnotes and several attempts to retrieve the child, Charley was never returned to the family.  

The most legitimate lead in attempting to find Charley’s kidnappers involved two burglars, William Mosher and Joseph Douglass.  In 1875, while attempting to rob the home of a local judge in New York, both men were shot.  Mosher was killed instantly.  While dying, Douglass confessed they had kidnapped Charley Ross.  Both of them had been under investigation for the kidnapping.  The brother-in-law of Mosher, William Westervelt, was later convicted of complicity in the kidnapping.  The police pursued numerous leads and suspects over the years but the child was never found.  Christian Ross spent the rest of his life looking for his son until he died in 1897.

Nelson Miller (aka Gustave Blair)
circa 1939

Christian Ross, his family, and multiple police jurisdictions and private investigators examined over 5,000 claims to be Charley.

Sixty-five years later, and long after Christian Ross’ death, a man came along and said he was Charley Ross. He convinced a jury he was and in 1939 history recorded Charley Ross was found. He was not.

It’s a confusing and convoluted story of a man with five names. Here it is simply stated:

Nelson Miller, alias C.R. Brooks, Chas Bradley, Gustave Blair, Charley Ross (7/13/1874  –  12/13/1943) was one of eleven boys born to Rinear and Ann Miller in the small village of Melugin Grove near the Lee County city of Dixon, Illinois, in 1874.   Sometime between 1918 and 1920 he changed his name to Gustave Blair and in 1939 he convinced a jury in Maricopa County, Arizona, he was Charley Ross, the child taken in the first kidnapping for ransom in America.  The kidnapping in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, happened in 1874, the year Nelson Miller was born.  Charley Ross was never found.  The brother who was kidnapped with him, Walter Ross, dismissed Gustave Blair’s claim as another attempt to extort money from the family and did not attend the trial or challenge the claim.  When he died in 1943, Nelson was buried in Phoenix, Arizona under the headstone “Charles B Ross.”  In 2011, descendants of Rinear and Ann Miller commissioned a Y-DNA study and determined a 99.99903% probability Nelson Miller was in fact a Miller.  He could not have been Charley Ross.