- “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.
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.
- Gustave Blair
‘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.
- Gustave Blair’s Claim to be Charley Ross
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 . . .” To stop Hawk from taking the child, Rinear Miller killed him with a shot gun and later buried him in the back yard.
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. 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.
In 1943, the man who was born Nelson Miller, changed his name to Gustave Blair and in 1939 was declared by an Arizona jury to be Charley Ross, died. The official record states he died as “Charles Bruster Ross.” (The certificate was later changed from “Bruster” to “Brewster”).
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 is Nelson Miller?
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 Nelson’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.