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

Rod Miller, Minneapolis, MN

Larry D. Miller, Baxter, IA

Nelson Miller (aka Gustave Blair)
circa 1939

The Charley Ross Kidnapping

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 1879.

‘I am Charley Ross’

On February 4, 1939 Gustave Blair, a man known as a gardener, painter, and carpenter, legally asserted he was the kidnapped child, hidden all this time by the Miller Family in Lee County, IL.  As early as 1932, Gustave Blair, his son, Ralph Blair and his Miller brother, Lincoln (known as L.C. Miller) began making statements about Gustave’s claim to be Charley Ross.  Notably, these assertions began shortly after national news coverage of the now famous Charles Lindberg kidnapping.  In an effort to bolster their argument, they obtained a copy of the book written by Charley’s father, Christian Ross, about his son’s kidnapping.  It provided them with details of the kidnapping they would use to prove their case in a court of law.

In 1935, Gustave Blair told reporters he had twelve affidavits he would use to prove he was Charley Ross.  His brother, Harrison (Hiram), also possessed nine sworn and notarized affidavits allegedly written in 1934 supporting Gustave’s claim.  Harrison presented himself as a lawyer in St. Paul, MN.  None of the affidavits were made public or used in the trial.  It is reasonable to assume there was a falling out between the Miller brothers and that Harrison later withheld the affidavits.  The affidavits and what appears to be typewritten testimony Lincoln Miller would give at the trial in 1939 (see below) are among documents now in the possession of the Miller family.  Among the documents is an affidavit labeled “Confession” sworn by Lincoln Miller on December 29, 1932, in which he states an attending physician had determined he was dying.  He confessed to concealing the Millers’ involvement in the Charley Ross kidnapping and concealing Charley’s identity as a Miller.

With his contention, on February 4, 1939, Blair sued the Ross family in Phoenix, AZ, to be recognized as their brother.  The Ross family ignored the suit and did not attend the trial.  Walter Ross, Charley’s brother, reported it was just another example of thousands of false claims that had been made over the decades.  He said, “We have heard of this man before and have determined to our own satisfaction there is nothing to his story.”   

Gustave Blair’s civil suit was heard before a jury on May 9, 1939.  His testimony, and that of his only witness, Lincoln (L.C.) Miller, is recorded by the transcript of the trial.   In addition to his deathbed “Confession”, Lincoln Miller also allegedly signed a statement in 1934 outlining his testimony for the trial.  In that statement, he swore, in sum and substance, to the following which is consistent with the testimony he gave at the civil trial: 

One of the kidnappers, John Hawk, was a farm laborer in Lee County and stayed at times in the Miller home.  In the summer and fall of 1874, he made several trips to Philadelphia to care for his ailing sister.  When the sister died, Hawk convinced Lincoln’s father to let Lincoln accompany him to Pennsylvania to retrieve his sister’s child and provide company during the return trip.  When they arrived at a cave outside of Philadelphia where the child was being kept, the child said his name was Charley Ross.  Hawk told Lincoln to ignore him.  His name was Charley Hawk.  They brought Charley to the home of Rinear Miller by horse and buggy dressed as a girl.  He was raised as Nelson Miller, named after the Millers’ recently deceased child.  When Hawk later returned to take the child, the Millers objected.  They had become attached to him as their own child. They argued until John Hawk blasted out “This boy is a stolen boy and you’d better get rid of him, for if the law would find him here it would go bad with all of us, especially Link [Lincoln] as he helped me bring the stolen boy . . . he is Charlie Ross . . .” 

According to court transcripts, Gustave, Lincoln, and Rinear Miller gave various timelines and circumstances regarding the reported murder.   Rinear allegedly signed a confession of the killing on March 8, 1904.  Nelson later stated that he was told at the time he could not reveal the truth about the murder until after his father’s death.  Rinear Miller died February 6, 1920, but Nelson waited 14 years to begin his campaign to prove he was Charley Ross.  Gustave claimed that although he learned his true identity in1908, he concealed it fearing if he told the truth about  Hawk’s murder, the Millers would seek to silence him.  

On May 9, 1939, the jury deliberated only eight minutes and found in favor of Gustave Blair.  A judgement was entered: “. . .Gustave Blair, one time known as Nelson Miller, is Charles Brewster Ross, son of Christian K Ross and the same person who was kidnapped from the home of Christian K. Ross July 1, 1874.”   Ten days later, the newly declared Charley Ross said he would to go Philadelphia and sue his brother and two sisters to claim one-fourth of the purported $460,000 family trust fund.   When asked about it, Walter Ross responded there wasn’t any such fund.  Repeatedly during his campaign to be recognized as Charley Ross and immediately after the trial, Blair affirmed he had no interest in the Ross family’s money.  As Charley Ross, he later wrote a short story and tried to sell it as a screen play entitled “My Return from the Dead.  The Thrilling True Life Story of Charley Ross the ‘Kidnapped Boy.” 

DNA Reveals the Truth

“A man’s patrilineal ancestry, or male-line ancestry, can be traced using the DNA on his Y chromosome (Y-DNA) through Y-STR testing. This is useful because the Y chromosome passes down almost unchanged from father to son, ie, the non recombining and sex determining regions of the Y chromosome do not change. A man’s test results are compared to another man’s results to determine the time frame in which the two individuals shared a most recent common ancestor or MRCA. If their test results are a perfect, or nearly perfect match, they are related within genealogy’s time frame.”

DNA Findings, a division of Genealogy by Genetics, LTD, AABB Accredited conducted DNA analysis for a DNA study commissioned by Miller descendants (see Endnote 63).  They reported “Kinship Test Results,” on March 22, 2011.   The authors of this document identified descendants of two children of Rinear and Ann Miller who were willing to participate in a DNA study.  Using chain of evidence procedures, DNA was collected from a male descendant of each of the suspected brothers, Harrison (Hiram) Miller, and Nelson Miller (aka Gustave Blair).  DNA analysis determined that Harrison (Hiram) Miller had a “99.99903% probability of kinship” with Nelson Miller, meaning that they were, in fact brothers – they shared the same paternal linage, a perfect 37/37 7-STR marker match.   Gustave Blair was a Miller, Nelson Miller.  He could not have been Charley Ross.

Nelson Miller’s victory in a Maricopa County courtroom as Gustave Blair was, and still is, reported to have solved the disappearance of Charley Ross, but it was met with considerable skepticism.  DNA evidence clearly supports the sad declaration made by the Ross family 146 years ago – that Charles Brewster Ross, the kidnapped child, is still lost.

Who Really was Gustave Blair?

Gustave Blair was born as Nelson Miller in Lee County, IL, in 1874.  Nelson was the seventh of eleven boys born to Rinear and Ann Miller.  His father was a bee keeper and well known in the area.   Little is known of Gustave’s childhood except for an incident in which he was shot in the eye and suffered vision loss.  

Nelson described his childhood and young adulthood during testimony in a criminal trial in Fresno, CA, in 1910 (see Criminal History).  From this testimony we learn that in 1910 he was arrested using the alias of C.R. Brooks and Chas Bradley but identified himself as Nelson Miller, 36 years old, born in Lee County, IL with a “not very good” education and he did not finish “common school.” He attended school until age 12 or 13. His father was a nurseryman and “book-keeper [bee keeper].”  He said he left home when he was 13 or 14 to be a farm worker, hired by the month until he turned 21.  He then built wire fences for about 3 years until he started “ditching,” laying drain tiles as a laborer and then a contractor.  He followed this line of work for 10 years until his conviction.  He never did office or clerical work.  He reports he had never been convicted of a felony.  In his testimony, he makes no mention of being married or having any children, though other reports reveal that, at the time of his arrest, he was married and had six children.

Name Change to Gustave Blair

Nelson gave many explanations as to when and why he changed his name to Gustave Blair.  Once he said it was as early as age 13, though no documentation exists to substantiate this claim. Using public records and available documents, it appears Nelson changed his name some time after he was paroled from Folsom State Prison, CA, in 1915 (see Criminal History).  He was arrested as Nelson Miller in 1916 in Blue Earth, MN (See Criminal History).  He registered for the draft as Nelson Miller in Algona, IA, on September 12, 1918, at which time his wife Ida Miller is listed as his nearest relative.  The first public record of the name change appeared two years later in June, 1920, when Nelson – going by Gustave Blair – was arrested in Aberdeen, SD, and sent to State Prison, Sioux Falls, SD (see Criminal History).  It is possible Nelson changed his name arguably in an effort to conceal two felony convictions and imprisonment in California in 1910 and his arrest for sodomizing a 15-year-old boy in Blue Earth, MN, in September, 1916.  He was paroled from the South Dakota State Prison on January 19, 1922, after serving 15 months of his three-year sentence.  He reappeared in 1924 as Nelson Miller when he and his wife transacted several property transfers in Rockford, IL.   One of the transfers was to their son, Ralph Miller (not Ralph Blair).

The names Nelson Miller, Gustave Blair, and Charley Ross appeared together for the first time in public records in 1932.  Nelson’s thirty-five year old son, Ralph (Miller) Blair, announced they were the same person while attempting to re-enter the United States from Canada.  After over-staying his visa, Ralph and his family were stopped at the border unable to prove his citizenship.  He insisted he was the son of the real Charley Ross and his father, whom he referred to as Gustave Blair, could prove it.  The Chicago Tribune reported  “Another claimant to the name of Charlie Ross . . . appeared yesterday . . . Gustave Blair.”  Gustave’s attorney in Chicago said  “. . . the claim was advanced as part of a campaign to have the immigration authorities permit the gardener’s son to cross the American border from Canada at Seattle.”  He could give no definitive evidence other than Blair having a physical characteristic common in the Ross family, one ear thicker and set lower on the head than the other.  (In another interview Gustave Blair asserted he was examined by a Chicago psychiatrist and a police identification expert who said his facial characteristics “checked perfectly with those of the Charlie Ross pictures.”).  The lawyer convinced U.S. immigration services Gustave Blair was Ralph’s father and was in fact the stolen child, Charles Brewster Ross.  Ralph was allowed entry into the United States.

Gustave Blair declared he was Charley Ross in the media three years later on May 11, 1935.  He asserted he was raised by the Miller family but “In 1908 [Rinear] Miller in order to prevent me from testifying in a lawsuit in which he was involved in . . .” told him the truth.

Four years later in 1939 during his civil suit against the Ross family to be legally recognized as Charley Ross,  he swore his Miller father told him in 1908 he was not a Miller.  Instead, Rinear Miller told him he was Charley Ross, a 4 year old child brought to the Miller home by one of the kidnappers, John Hawk, under the guise he was Hawk’s deceased sister’s son.  Rinear told him he took the place of a child they named Nelson who had recently died.  Everyone accepted him as Nelson Miller.  He changed his name later because it was distasteful to live with the name of a dead child.  He also asserted he changed his name to hide from the Millers who threatened him if he told anyone of what had happened.

Additional evidence of Nelson’s name change appeared in Maricopa County, Arizona, in 1940.   As the newly adjudicated Charles Brewster Ross, Gustave filed an affidavit verifying the birth records of his son, Ralph Blair.  The affidavit swears Ralph Miller changed his name to Ralph Blair in 1910 or 1911. He would have been 13 or 14 years old.  However, the 1910 Census Record shows he was living with his mother as Ralph Miller.  In the affidavit, Gustave identifies his birthdate as the date on record for Charley Ross and again states in 1908 he learned “. . . what his right name was and changed his name from Nelson Miller to Gustave Blair.”  Ralph said he changed his name to Blair when he joined up with his father around 1917.   It is possible Ralph changed his name much later to conceal his criminal past as Ralph Miller.  It is also possible that Ralph changed his name to identify with Gustave Blair / Charley Ross because, if Gustave Blair was in fact the son of Charley Ross, Ralph could be a legitimate heir to the Ross family fortune.

Marriage and Family

At age 21, Nelson Miller married Ida Johnson on February 15, 1896, in Viola Township, Lee County, IL  They had six children between 1897 and 1906 while living in Garner, Iowa, Westford Township, MN, Amboy, MN, and Rochelle, IL.  Various records report Nelson abandoned his family as early as 1904 but certainly by 1910 when he was imprisoned in California (see Criminal History).  

Alleged to “. . . be a pauper” his wife applied for county relief in April, 1909, for supplies, medical care, and rent in Ogle County, IL.  His son Ralph later reported he left the family in 1908.  Unable to care for the children, his mother hired the older children out to neighbors and placed two in orphanages.  Ralph described his father as “. . . the worst kind of family man . . . a very poor provider.”  Census records show Ida and her children were reunited and living in the same household in 1910 but that Nelson was not with them.  

Nelson and Ida Miller are listed as husband and wife in the Rockford (Illinois) 1924 City Directory.  A number of public notices in Illinois newspapers reported property transfers involving Nelson and Ida Miller between 1924 and 1926, including one transfer to their eldest son, Ralph Miller, at age 27 (see Endnote 28).   A foreclosure notice was published in 1937 against  “. . . Ida E. Miller and Nelson Miller, her husband . . .” for a mortgage they executed on September 29, 1924, in the city of Rockford, IL. 

In 1939, the newly adjudicated Charles Brewster Ross told a reporter in Dixon, IL, about his three marriages and his children.   He said he married Ida Johnson on February 15, 1885, (It was actually 1896.) and they had five children.  (They had six.)  He later married Cora Eversole of Chicago, IL, on August 13, 1930.  A license for this marriage was published in Omaha, NE, on August 15, 1929, a year earlier than he reported.  The 1930 Federal Census taken on April 10 and 11, 1930, reports Gustave and Cora Blair were living in Riverdale Village, Cook County, IL, as husband and wife.   He re-married Cora in 1939 so she would have his Ross name.  During the interview he said nothing about divorcing Ida and no record of divorce has been found.

Criminal History 

September 24, 1910 – California:   At age 36, Nelson Miller was convicted in Fresno, CA, on two counts of embezzlement and sentenced to a total of 9 years at Folsom Prison, Prisoner #7687.  His brother L.C. Miller, also jailed in connection with the charges, alleged to be a victim of his brother’s “avarice and criminality.”  He implicated Nelson “ . . . in the abandonment of his wife and five children, the elopement with another man’s wife, a series of shady transactions that cover from the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast and robbery of his brother of negotiable securities valued at about $21,000.”

During his arrest in 1910 under the alias of C.R. Books and Chas Bradley, Nelson admitted perpetrating “swindles” in Oregon and Idaho.  While awaiting trial, the Fresno County Sheriff received information that convinced him Nelson Miller was likely a man known at Homer Kern wanted in Texas for attempted swindle of ranch property.  Harrison Miller (Nelson’s brother) is mentioned as an accomplice.  He was also wanted in Rochelle, IL, for forgery.  

November 3, 1915 – Minnesota :  After serving 5 years in California, Nelson was paroled to his brother, Harrison (Hiram) Miller in Owatonna, MN.  Harrison Miller, a convicted felon, had been released from the Iowa State Penitentiary two years earlier after serving four years for Cheating by False Pretenses (swindle).

September 18, 1916 – Minnesota:  Nelson was arrested in Blue Earth, MN, and charged with sodomy of a 15-year-old boy.  He was held in the county jail for 55 days pending trial.  He was released November 12, 1916, when a Grand Jury could not indict him on the charge.  It is not unusual for the victim in such cases, especially juveniles, to refuse to testify.  The day before his release, his son, going by the name Ralph Blair, was arrested for Grand Larceny and placed in the same Blue Earth County Jail.  Ralph was later found guilty and served three years at the MN State Reformatory. 

July – October, 1920 – South Dakota:  Using the name Gustave Blair, Nelson, his son Ralph, and his brother Andrew Miller attempted to swindle farmers and land owners of $60,000 in Aberdeen, South Dakota.  Gustave Blair was arrested at the Northwestern Depot attempting to leave the city.  His son, Ralph, escaped a week earlier in a car he purchased with a bogus check, and Andrew is thought to have escaped on the train departing the depot.  Gustave was convicted of obtaining property under false pretenses and sentenced to three years in State Prison in Sioux Falls, SD.  He served 15 months of his three year sentence and was paroled January 19, 1922.  He later applied for immunity after his imprisonment, but no announcement that it was granted has been found.

August 15, 1929 – Omaha, NE:  Seven years after his release from State Prison in SD, Nelson, as Gustave Blair, and Cora Eversole of Chicago, IL, were issued a marriage license.  Since there is no record he and Ida Miller divorced, it is likely this constituted bigamy.

Based on available records, Nelson Miller as Gustave Blair appears to have committed other crimes in his pursuit to prove he was Charley Ross, including perjury, subornation of perjury, and forgery.

The Aftermath

The first kidnapping for ransom in America made headlines and involved police departments and detectives across several states, including the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency.  Among thousands of claims to be the lost child, only one man took his claim to a court of law and was declared by a jury to be the kidnapped child, Charles Brewster Ross.  Modern day references to the Charley Ross kidnapping include Gustave Blair’s claim.  We now know he was Nelson Miller, despite the 1939 court ruling that said otherwise.    

As the newly adjudicated Charles Brewster Ross, he returned to Compton, IL, his childhood home in Lee County, on September 6, 1939, to reveal details of his life and the people he cared about.  With a reporter and photographer, he identified the “Murder House,” the “Grim Sentinel” tree where bodies were buried and the “Scene of the Crime” where John Hawk, one of the kidnappers, was killed by his Miller father.  He identified Mrs. Emma Holdren, the Millers’ housekeeper, as the only true “Mother” he had.  Under the Millers’ employ, she reportedly cared for Nelson as a sick child when he arrived at the Miller home in 1874.  

In 1943 Nelson Miller was buried alone as “Charles B Ross” four years later after succumbing to pneumonia and evidently either fully convinced he was the kidnapped child or unable to admit he had deceived the world.  His son tried for years to advance his father’s claim, to be recognized by the Ross family and to obtain his rightful inheritance.  No record has been found that Nelson, or his son, attempted to access any of what remained of the Ross family fortune (though according to media reports, there was no real fortune to be had, as Christian Ross depleted all of his assets searching for his son).

Summary

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. 

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