views updated May 29 2018


Kidnapping is a widely known felony that may be described as the seizing and carrying away of another person against his or her will. The precise statutory definitions are much more elaborate than the foregoing, and occur in a variety of different forms. Most statutes also prohibit the unlawful restraint of anther person. Kidnapping is primarily regulated by state law, though certain federal laws may apply depending on the nature of the offense. In practice, a kidnapping may occur either by the use of force or by deception or enticement. Despite the connotation of the word "kidnapping," these statutes criminalize the taking of adults as well as children. Thus, a hostage-style holding or taking captive of an adult is prosecutable under kidnapping laws. Many kidnap attempts include requests for ransom money, though this is not necessarily an element of the offense. There are related laws for hostage-taking and ransom demands, and the elements of kidnapping may often overlap with these and other crimes.

Origins of the offense in English law

Kidnapping laws have been found as far back as three thousand years, where it was written in ancient Jewish law that "Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death" (Exod. 21:16). The earliest ancient English kidnapping law was called "plagium," and was also punishable by death. The term "kidnapping" is said to have emerged in English law in the late 1600s, referring to the abduction of persons who were then transported to the North American colonies for slavery. William Blackstone, writing in the late 1700s, described the law of kidnapping as the "forcible abduction or stealing away of a man, woman, or child, from their own country, and sending them into another" (p. 955). "This is unquestionably a very heinous crime, as it robs the king of his subjects, banishes a man from his country, and may in its consequences be productive of the most cruel and disagreeable hardships; and therefore the common law of England has punished it with fine, imprisonment, and pillory" (pp. 955956).

The focus of these early laws, at least in form if not practice, seems to be on the wrongfulness of transporting someone against their will to a different country or place. Given limits of transportation centuries ago, being carried off to a different country was likely to be permanent. Today, however, the law recognizes the additional evil of detaining someone against their will even without transporting him or her to a different region.

The old English common law also contained very similar laws against "abduction," such as "the forcible abduction and marriage" of a woman (Blackstone, p. 951). The stealing of children from a father was also criminal, as this was seen as not just the stealing of the father's children, but also his "heir" (pp. 696697). By contrast, the rationale behind the modern American laws is based on liberty, even for children, as opposed to a loss on the part of their parents or anyone else. The terms "abduction" and "kidnapping" are often used interchangeably. Where they may have had different historical connotations, their use in modern parlance has gradually become synonymous.

Impact of the Lindbergh kidnapping

The details of the history of the American law of kidnapping are sparse at best, at least until the notorious kidnapping and murder of the one-year-old son of the famous aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. The capture and trial of the kidnapper, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, sparked great national attention in 1932. Hauptmann was not even tried for kidnapping, which would only have been a high misdemeanor under New Jersey law at the time. With inadequate evidence to prove premeditated murder, the prosecution eventually convicted Hauptmann under the felony murder doctrine for a death resulting during the course of a burglary. Stealing a child was not covered under the burglary laws, so Hauptmann was convicted (and eventually executed) for a death that resulted during the theft of the baby's clothes (State v. Hauptmann, 115 N.J.L. 412 (1935)).

This episode caught the nation's attention and sparked legislative action even before the trial was completed. The result was the so-called Lindbergh Law, adopted by Congress (18 U.S.C. §§ 12011202). The Lindbergh Law makes kidnapping a federal crime when the abducted individual is taken across state lines. Though not originally a capital offense, the law was later amended to give juries the discretion to recommend the death penalty in particularly heinous cases. The Supreme Court later declared the death penalty unconstitutional as it applied to the Lindbergh Law (U.S. v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570 (1968)).

Elements of kidnapping and related offenses

As stated above, kidnapping statutes punish the taking or unlawful restraint of both minors and adults. Kidnapping and abduction laws may be triggered even if there is no carrying away. If the restraint is substantial enough to interfere with the victim's liberty, the perpetrator my be convicted under most kidnapping laws. A restraint occurring even in the victim's own home has been held to be a kidnapping where the rescue of the victim is unlikely (Darrow v. Wyoming, 824 P.2d 1269 (Wyoming, 1922)).

While kidnapping at common law was classified as a misdemeanor, almost every jurisdiction now lists it as a felony. The current punishment authorized by the federal Lindbergh Law is imprisonment from ten years to life. Some jurisdictions provide different degrees of kidnapping, with first-degree kidnapping being elevated from second-degree kidnapping based on any harm to the victim. While the Lindbergh Law does not separate kidnapping into degrees of severity, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines instruct a greater sentence based on the harm to the victim, or where a gun was used in the kidnapping.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has provided various guidelines for the increase in punishment depending on the nature of the kidnapping. For example, when the victim is under the age of eighteen, and not a relative of the perpetrator, if the victim was intentionally mistreated (denied either food or medical care) to a life-threatening degree, the punishment is increased by four levels. If the victim was sexually exploited, the punishment is increased by three levels. The federal sentencing guidelines provide a two-level increase in the offense level for kidnapping if a defendant uses a gun or other dangerous weapon to commit the offense.

While the death penalty is no longer authorized by the Lindbergh Law, the death penalty is still applicable under federal law if the victim dies, which can trigger the felony murder doctrine and/or a conviction of first-degree murder. The death penalty with regards to state laws is almost certainly unconstitutional as well, absent the death of the victim. The Supreme Court has never held that a state law authorizing the death penalty for kidnapping alone is unconstitutional. But the Court has held that the death penalty for kidnapping and rape under state laws, where the victim is not killed, is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, which is applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment (Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977)). One can easily surmise that if the death penalty were cruel and unusual in the context of a kidnap and rape, it would certainly be the same for kidnapping alone.

Many kidnapping statutes either have provisions covering ransom activity, or are construed in correlation with related ransom statutes. For example, 18 U.S.C. § 1202 is an extension of the Lindbergh Law (18 U.S.C. § 1201), and punishes the act of receiving or possessing money that was delivered as a ransom.

Legislative attention to parental kidnapping. Parents can be held liable for abducting their own children in violation of child custody orders, or even keeping their children too long beyond their legal visitation period. But note that absent a court order of custody rights, parents have equal rights to the custody of a child. A kidnapping or abduction statute is much less likely to cover acts of one parent taking a child from the custody of another unless there has been a court order dividing the custody rights. And, of course, a parent who "steals" a child from another parent will not be found guilty if the stealing parent was legally entitled to custody. These activities between parents are also regulated by child custody statutes of each state.

Because each state has its own child custody laws, there was predictably much confusion surrounding cases where a child was abducted by a parent and taken to a different state. The federal Lindbergh Law has long been held to be inapplicable to cases of parental kidnapping. Thus, in 1968 the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws drafted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA). The resolution provided standards for determining when a state may take jurisdiction of a child custody dispute, when other states are prohibited from intervening in such disputes, and when states must honor the custodial decisions of their sister states. Although most states adopted statutes enacting the UCCJA, there were many different versions and interpretations of the laws, resulting in further confusion. Congress responded in 1980 with the PKPA or Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (28 U.S.C. § 1738A). The PKPA imposed a duty on states to enforce the decisions of a sister state, as long as the decision was consistent with the PKPA. The PKPA itself has guidelines very similar to the original UCCJA for when a state may or may not exercise custody jurisdiction over a child. The overall goal of preventing parents from kidnapping their children and taking them to other states in order to avoid child custody has been met with mixed results. (For a critique of these laws, see Goldstein.)

While the United States has struggled to regulate parents unlawfully taking children from state to state, international parental abductionsthe act of one parent unlawfully taking a child to a foreign countryhave increased dramatically in recent decades, perhaps due to the increases made in communication technology and transportation. In 1980, an international convention known as the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Law adopted a resolution regarding international parent abductions. In 1988, Congress finally passed the International Child Abduction Remedies Act (42 U.S.C. § 11601), which enacted provisions in compliance with the Hague Convention. Before this time, there was no remedy for a parent when his or her child was taken to a foreign country. Now, if the child is wrongfully held by a parent in a country that is a signatory to the Hague Convention, the aggrieved other parent may apply to the foreign country for prompt return of the child. Roughly forty-seven nations are signatories of this convention.

But because the Hague Convention does not authorize criminal punishment upon the abducting parent, and because many nations are not signatories to the Hague Convention, Congress passed the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act of 1993 (18 U.S.C. § 1204). This act makes it a federal crime for a parent to wrongfully remove or retain his or her child outside the United States. This act also increases the remedies available for the left-behind parent to reacquire the child, at least in cases involving countries with which the United States has criminal extradition treaties. However, despite all the efforts of Congress and the international community, returning children that have been abducted to foreign countries remains an activity that is very difficult to regulate.

Charles H. Whitebread

See also Family Relationships and Crime; Federal Criminal Jurisdiction


Alix, Ernest K. Ransom Kidnapping in America, 18741974: The Creation of a Capital Crime. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.

American Jurisprudence. Kidnapping. West Publishing Group, 1964. Current through April 1999 Cumulative Supplement.

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4th ed. Edited by George Chase. New York: Banks Law Publishing Co., 1926.

Davis, Samuel M.; Scott, Elizabeth S.; Wadlington, Walter; and Whitebread, Charles H. Children in the Legal System. 2d ed. Westbury, N.Y.: Foundation Press, 1997.

Goldstein, Anne B. "The Tragedy of the Interstate Child: A Critical Reexamination of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act and the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act." University of CaliforniaDavis Law Review 25 (1992): 845.


views updated May 29 2018


The crime of unlawfully seizing and carrying away a person by force orfraud, or seizing and detaining a person against his or her will with an intent to carry that person away at a later time.

The law of kidnapping is difficult to define with precision because it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Most state and federal kidnapping statutes define the term kidnapping vaguely, and courts fill in the details.

Generally, kidnapping occurs when a person, without lawful authority, physically asports (i.e., moves) another person without that other person's consent, with the intent to use the abduction in connection with some other nefarious objective. Under the model penal code (a set of exemplary criminal rules fashioned by the American Law Institute), kidnapping occurs when any person is unlawfully and non-consensually asported and held for certain purposes. These purposes include gaining a ransom or reward; facilitating the commission of a felony or a flight after the commission of a felony; terrorizing or inflicting bodily injury on the victim or a third person; and interfering with a governmental or political function (Model Penal Code § 212.1).

Kidnapping laws in the United States derive from the common law of kidnapping that was developed by courts in England. Originally, the crime of kidnapping was defined as the unlawful and non-consensual transportation of a person from one country to another. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, states began to redefine kidnapping, most notably eliminating the requirement of interstate transport.

At the federal level, Congress passed the lindbergh act in 1932 to prohibit interstate kidnapping (48 Stat. 781 [codified at 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1201 et seq.]). The Lindbergh Act was named for Charles A. Lindbergh, a celebrated aviator and Air Force colonel whose baby was kidnapped and killed in 1932. The act provides that if a victim is not released within 24 hours after being abducted, a court may presume that the victim was transported across state lines. This presumption may be rebutted with evidence to the contrary. Other federal kidnapping statutes prohibit kidnapping in U.S. territories, kidnapping on the high seas and in the air, and kidnapping of government officials (18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1201 et seq., 1751 et seq.).

A person who is convicted of kidnapping is usually sentenced to prison for a certain number of years. In some states, and at the federal level, the term of imprisonment may be the remainder of the offender's natural life. In jurisdictions that authorize the death penalty, a kidnapper is charged with a capital offense if the kidnapping results in death. Kidnapping is so severely punished because it is a dreaded offense. It usually occurs in connection with another criminal offense, or underlying crime. It involves violent deprivation of liberty, and it requires a special criminal boldness. Furthermore, the act of moving a crime victim exposes the victim to risks above and beyond those that are inherent in the underlying crime.

Most kidnapping statutes recognize different types and levels of kidnapping and assign punishment accordingly. New York State, for example, bases its definition of first-degree kidnapping on the purpose and length of the abduction. First-degree kidnapping occurs when a person abducts another person to obtain ransom (N.Y. Penal Code § 135.25 [McKinney 1996]). First-degree kidnapping also occurs when the abduction lasts for more than 12 hours and the abductor intends to injure the victim; to accomplish or advance the commission of a felony; to terrorize the victim or a third person; or to interfere with a governmental or political function. An abduction that results in death is also first-degree kidnapping. A first-degree kidnapping in New York State is a class A-1 felony, which carries a sentence of at least 20 years in prison (§ 70.00).

New York State also has a second-degree kidnapping statute. A person is guilty of second-degree kidnapping if he or she abducts another person (§ 135.20). This crime lacks the aggravating circumstances in first-degree kidnapping, and it is ranked as a class B felony. A person who is convicted of a class B felony in New York State can be sentenced to one to eight years in prison (§ 70.00).

Two key elements are common to all charges of kidnapping. First, the asportation ordetention must be unlawful. Under various state and federal statutes, not all seizures and asportations constitute kidnapping: Police officers may arrest and jail a person they suspect of a crime, and parents are allowed to reasonably restrict and control the movement of their children.

Second, some aggravating circumstance must accompany the restraint or asportation. This can be a demand for money; a demand for anything of value; an attempt to affect a function of government; an attempt to inflict injury on the abductee; an attempt to terrorize a third party; or an attempt to commit a felony.

In most states, kidnapping statutes specify that any unlawful detention or physical movement of a child, other than that performed by a parent or guardian, constitutes kidnapping. An abduction of a child thus need not be accompanied by some other circumstance, such as extortion or physical injury, to qualify for the highest level of kidnapping charge. In the absence of an aggravating circumstance, an unlawful, non-consensual restraint or movement is usually charged as something less than the highest degree or level of kidnapping.

Many states have enacted special laws for carjacking, a specialized form of kidnapping. Generally, carjacking occurs when one person forces a driver out of the driver's seat and steals the vehicle. Carjacking is a felony whether the aggressor keeps the victim in the car or forces the victim from the car. In California, a carjacking statute is contained within the penal code's chapter on kidnapping, and it carries a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. (Cal. Penal Code § 209.5 [West]).

Kidnapping laws are similar to laws on unlawful or felonious restraint, parental kidnapping, and false imprisonment. These crimes cover the range of unlawful-movement and unlawful-restraint cases. Felonious or unlawful restraint, also known as simple kidnapping, is the unlawful restraint of a person that exposes the victim to physical harm or places the victim in slavery. It is a lesser form of kidnapping because it does not require restraint for a specified period or specific purpose (such as to secure money or commit a felony). False imprisonment is a relatively inoffensive, harmless restraint of another person. It is usually a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than a year in jail. Parental kidnapping is the abduction of a child by a parent. The law on parental kidnapping varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction: Some jurisdictions define it as a felony, others as a misdemeanor. Many states consider parental kidnapping to be less offensive than classic kidnapping because of the strong bond between parents and children.

The chief judicial concern with the charge of kidnapping is double jeopardy, which is multiple punishment for the same offense. It is prohibited by the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Kidnapping often is an act that facilitates another offense, such as rape, robbery, or assault. Rape, robbery, and assault often involve the act of moving a person against his or her will, which is the gravamen (i.e., the significant element) of a kidnapping charge. Thus, a persistent problem with kidnapping prosecutions is in determining whether a kidnapping conviction would constitute a second punishment for the same act.

Legislatures have passed statutes, and courts have fashioned rules, to prevent and detect double jeopardy in kidnapping cases. Generally, these laws and rules hold that for kidnapping to be charged as a separate crime, some factor must set the asportation apart from a companion crime. Most courts will sustain multiple convictions if the asportation exposes the victim to increased risk of harm or results in harm to the victim separate from that caused by the companion offense. In other jurisdictions, the test is whether the asportation involves a change of environment or is designed to conceal a companion offense.

In most states, an asportation of a few feet may constitute the separate offense of kidnapping; in other states, distance is not a factor. In New York State, for example, the focus of the kidnapping statute is not distance, but purpose. Thus, an asportation of 27 city blocks might not constitute kidnapping if it is merely incidental to a companion crime (People v. Levy, 15 N.Y.2d 159, 256 N.Y.S.2d 793, 204 N.E.2d 842 [N.Y. 1965]). Likewise, an asportation from the borough of Manhattan to the borough of Queens might not constitute kidnapping if it plays no significant role in the commission of another crime (People v. Lombardi, 20 N.Y.2d 266, 282 N.Y.S.2d 519, 229 N.E.2d 206 [Ct. App. 1967]).

Some states have eliminated the asportation element from their kidnapping statutes. In Ohio, for example, kidnapping is defined in part as restraining the liberty of another person (Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2905.01 [Baldwin 1996]). This creates an increased risk of double jeopardy in kidnapping convictions because, by definition, every robbery, rape, or assault would constitute kidnapping. However, the Ohio state legislature has enacted a statute that prohibits multiple convictions for the same conduct unless the defendant exhibits a separate animus (i.e., a separate intent) to commit a separate crime (§ 2941.25). Whether the prosecution proves a separate animus to kidnap is a question of fact based on the circumstances surrounding the crime.

In State v. Logan, 60 Ohio St. 2d 126, 397 N.E.2d 1345, 14 Ohio Op. 3d 373 (1979), the Supreme Court of Ohio held that the defendant could not be convicted of both rape and kidnapping when he had moved the victim a mere few feet and had released the victim immediately after the rape. Under the facts of the case, the asportation had no significance apart from the rape offense. According to the court, the defendant had displayed no animus beyond that necessary to commit rape, so punishment for both rape and kidnapping was not warranted.

In contrast, in State v. Wagner, 191 Wis. 2d 322, 528 N.W.2d 85 (Ct. App. 1995), the appeals court upheld a separate conviction for kidnapping. In Wagner, the defendant approached two women on two separate occasions in a laundromat. Both times, the defendant tried to force the women into a bathroom to rape them. He was convicted of two counts of attempted first-degree sexual assault, one count of kidnapping while armed, and one count of attempted kidnapping while armed. On appeal, he argued that he should not have been convicted of kidnapping because, under section 940.31(1)(a) of the Wisconsin Statutes, kidnapping is defined in part as the carrying of a person "from one place to another," and he had not taken his victims to another place. The court disagreed, holding that forced movement from one room to another falls within the meaning of the kidnapping statute. Ultimately, the appeals court affirmed the defendant's sentence of 72 years in prison.

The kidnapping of children has presented a particularly emotional issue for lawmakers. In 1984, in response to the kidnapping and murder of his child Adam, John Walsh founded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). NCMEC serves as a resource in providing assistance to parents, children, law enforcement, schools, and the community in recovering missing children and raising public awareness about ways to help prevent child abduction.

In 1996, the kidnapping and murder of Amber Hagerman in Texas inspired the Dallas/Fort Worth Association of Radio Managers and local law enforcement agencies in north Texas to create the nation's first "AMBER Alert" plan. AMBER, in addition to being Amber Hagerman's first name, also serves as an acronym for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. "Amber Alert" plans allow the development of an early warning system to help find abducted children by broadcasting information over radio and television to the public as quickly as possible. This information includes descriptions and pictures of the missing child, the suspected abductor, a suspected vehicle, and any other information available and valuable to identifying the child and suspect.

From its beginnings in Texas, the AMBER Alert system spread until, by 2002, 55 versions had been adopted at local, regional, and statewide levels. Eighteen states had adopted the plan by 2002, urged on by the NCMEC, which adopted the AMBER Alert as one of its top priorities. As a result, many people were convinced that the late 1990s and new millennium saw a sharp decline in child kidnappings, which were well publicized, thanks to AMBER Alerts. In fact, the FBI reported that child abductions had actually declined from the 1980s, from an average between 200 and 300 per year to only 93 in 2000.

The AMBER Alerts were considered so successful—credited with recovering 30 children—that Congress passed a national AMBER Alert bill as part of the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT) Act of 2003, Pub. L. No. 108-21, 117 Stat. 650. Under this bill, the attorney general, in cooperation with the secretary of transportation and the chairman of the federal communications commission (FCC), appoints a National AMBER Alert Coordinator to oversee the communication network. The AMBER Alert Coordinator at the justice department works with states, broadcasters, and law enforcement agencies to set up AMBER plans, to serve as a point of contact to supplement existing AMBER plans, and to facilitate appropriate regional coordination of AMBER Alerts. Grants were provided to help set up effective AMBER Alert programs at the state and local levels.

further readings

Blinka, Daniel D., and Thomas J. Hammer. 1995. "Court of Appeals Digest." Wisconsin Lawyer 68 (April).

Diamond, John L. 1985. "Kidnapping: A Modern Definition." American Journal of Criminal Law 13.

Hillebrand, Joseph R. 1991. "Parental Kidnapping and the Tort of Custodial Interference: Not in a Child's Best Interests." Indiana Law Review 25.

Kaplan, John, and Robert Weisberg. 1991. Criminal Law: Cases and Materials. 2d ed. Boston: Little, Brown.

Leahy, Patrick. 2002. Statement Regarding an AMBER Alert National System. Washington D.C.: Federal Document Clearing House (September 4).

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "National AMBER Alert Network Will Now Become Law." Available online at <>.

Onion, John F. 1995. "Mass Media's Impact on Litigation: A Judge's Perspective." Review of Litigation 14.


Hearst, Patty; Lindbergh Kidnapping.


views updated Jun 08 2018


KIDNAPPING. Powerful stories about abduction predate the history of the United States. Biblical, mythological, and historical tales recount the fates of prominent people—Joseph, the Sabine women, Helen of Troy, and various members of royalty—taken from their homelands. During the Middle Ages, peripatetic Jewish merchants talked of abduction as just another business risk, and contributing to a ransom fund for a landsman qualified as a substantial mitzvah.

The conquest and colonizing of the Americas generated new abduction tales. The slave trade, the business of abducting and enslaving millions of Africans (and lesser numbers of Indians), took shape during the early seventeenth century. As European diseases exacted a heavy toll on indigenous people, Indian warfare increasingly aimed at abducting members of other tribes to replenish populations. At the same time, stories of Indians carrying off European women, "captivity narratives," such as that of Mary Rowlandson, formed one of the earliest Euro-American literary genres. The term "kidnapping," which joined two English slang terms, emerged toward the end of the seventeenth century. It first denoted abducting young people from Britain and transporting them to North America as indentured laborers. Consequently, Sir William Blackstone, the eighteenth-century common-law jurist, characterized kidnapping, then a misdemeanor rather than a felony, as the crime of carrying someone away from their homeland and depriving them of their "personal liberty."

Stories about other kinds of kidnapping, many with an ethnic dimension, proliferated during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The antislavery movement characterized the capture of runaway slaves, authorized by the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, as a pernicious form of kidnapping. Drawing on Blackstonian legal terminology, many Northern legislatures passed "personal liberty laws" that unsuccessfully interposed state power against slave hunters. Other ethnically charged situations, such as the 1904 "rescue"—by Anglo-Protestant vigilantes—of forty Catholic orphans who had been placed with Mexican American families in Arizona could legally excuse abductions that might otherwise have been seen as cases of kidnapping.

Meanwhile, a much-publicized 1874 abduction in Philadelphia, in which several career criminals abducted for ransom (and later killed) four-year-old Charley Ross, inaugurated a growing emphasis on urban kidnapping stories. In response to the Ross case, Pennsylvania enacted a stiff antikidnapping law that made kidnapping a serious felony offense and became an early model for other states. As kidnapping for ransom became a highly publicized underworld enterprise, some perpetrators avoided the stigma attached to child abduction by making wealthy adults their target of opportunity. George "Machine Gun" Kelly became J. Edgar Hoover's "Public Enemy Number One" after kidnapping an Oklahoma City business leader in 1933. Around the same time, a brazen, daylight kidnapping of a wealthy businessman by gangsters in an up-scale neighborhood of St. Paul ended a police-gangster arrangement that had long made Minnesota's capital city a haven for interstate fugitives such as John Dillinger.

Two other widely publicized incidents, though, reinforced the connection between kidnapping and young children. The 1924 case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who abducted and killed a young boy in Chicago, focused attention on cases involving sexual motives, while the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of the fabled aviator, dramatized abduction for ransom. These cases produced lengthy, controversial "trials of the century" and sparked debate over broader issues including the insanity defense and the death penalty in the Leopold-Loeb case. In the aftermath of the Lindbergh case, Congress passed the "Lindbergh Act" of 1932, which expanded federal authority over kidnapping with its presumption that any abduction of more than twenty-four hours involved transportation across state lines. Many states adopted their own tougher, new antikidnapping measures called "Little Lindbergh laws."

During the last half of the twentieth century, kidnapping stories encompassed an ever wider array of fictive and real-life scenarios. The 1974 abduction of Patricia Hearst, the daughter of a prominent media mogul, by the Symbionese Liberation Army, recalled politically motivated kidnappings in other countries. Several years later, when an anti-American faction in Iran seized nearly one hundred people at the American Embassy in Tehran, the media proclaimed "America Held Hostage," and the incident played a key role in the 1980 presidential election of Ronald Reagan and the defeat of incumbent Jimmy Carter. The kidnapping of U.S. businesspeople and diplomats remained a prominent concern overseas, while abductions that accompanied carjackings and other crimes attracted considerable attention in the United States.

Still, cases involving young children attracted the most intense interest. Bitter controversy over child custody laws, for example, publicized a form of abduction in which one parent resorted to kidnapping in order to circumvent a court order granting custody to the other. In 1980, Congress responded with the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act, which mandated greater state-to-state cooperation in custody-related abductions. Advocates for children, though, insisted on a clear distinction between parental kidnappings and "stranger abductions," which became firmly associated with the specter of sexual exploitation. Several tragic cases of stranger abductions prompted new legislation, such as "Megan's Law," which aimed for the registration and monitoring of "sexual predators." Other prominent kidnappings produced new nationwide organizations, including the Adam Walsh Children's Fund and the Polly Klaas Foundation for Missing Children.


Fass, Paula S. Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Gordon, Linda. The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Morris, Thomas D. Free Men All: Personal Liberty Laws of the North, 1780–1861. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.


See alsoCaptivity Narratives ; Iran Hostage Crisis ; Leopold-Loeb Case ; Lindbergh Kidnapping Case ; Slave Trade .


views updated Jun 08 2018

kid·nap / ˈkidˌnap/ • v. (-napped , -nap·ping ; also -naped, -nap·ing) [tr.] take (someone) away illegally by force, typically to obtain a ransom.• n. the action of kidnapping someone: they were arrested for robbery and kidnap.DERIVATIVES: kid·nap·per n.


views updated May 09 2018

kidnap take someone away illegally by force, typically to obtain a ransom; the word dates from the late 17th century, and the second element represents the slang nap ‘nab, seize’.


views updated May 29 2018


SeeMissing Children