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The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Discussion Topic

Character analysis of Sam and Bill in "The Ransom of Red Chief"

Summary:

Sam and Bill, the two kidnappers in "The Ransom of Red Chief," are portrayed as bumbling and inept criminals. Their plan to ransom a child backfires when their captive, Johnny, turns out to be more trouble than anticipated. Sam is the leader, more level-headed but increasingly desperate, while Bill is more physically tormented and eager to escape the situation.

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What other crimes have Sam and Bill from "The Ransom of Red Chief" committed?

At one point during the story, Bill tells Sam that they have been together in many adventures, which include natural disasters such as fires, floods, cyclones, and earthquakes. In addition, they have experienced police raids and have been involved in poker games. He also mentions that they've been in train robberies together. Therefore, they seem to have been involved in gambling and theft in the past.

Bill and Sam are now attempting to commit what Sam refers to as a "a fraudulent town-lot scheme." To get the money necessary to carry out this scheme, they are trying to kidnap Ebenezer Dorset's ten-year-old son, who refers to himself as Red Chief, and to charge a ransom of $2,000. While they want to add fraud and kidnapping to their list of crimes, they are entirely unsuccessful as kidnappers. They wind up having to pay Dorset to take his horribly behaved child back at the end of the story.

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What other crimes have Sam and Bill from "The Ransom of Red Chief" committed?

We get the impression that Sam and Bill are career criminals although it isn't spelled out as such in the story. When the story opens, our two would-be kidnappers have managed to scrape together about $600 which they're going to put towards a town-lot scam they're planning in Western Illinois. But it's not enough. Sam and Bill figure they're going to need another $2,000 to swing the deal—hence, their ingenious kidnapping plan.

Although the two men prove themselves hopelessly incompetent, they do give the impression that they have prior experience of criminal activity. Sam goes into a lot of detail about the preparations that he and Bill Driscoll made when they first decided to kidnap a little boy in Summit, Alabama. It's instructive that he seems to know just what kind of response they can expect from the local sheriffs. This would appear to indicate that Sam and Bill have encountered law enforcement officials in semi-rural communities before.

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Are Bill and Sam villains in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

Bill and Sam were villains, their entire plot to kidnap the Dorset boy was aimed at funding another fraudulent venture in Western Illinois. The two men had raised six hundred dollars in funding but required an extra 2000 dollars to cover their cost for the venture. It was at that point that they had an idea to kidnap the Dorset boy in order to raise the amount.

Their initial research led them to believe that Mr. Dorset was capable of paying the amount because he was a prominent citizen and held a good job as a mortgage fancier. They kidnapped his son, the Red Chief. Little did they know that the boy was a menace, the Young Dorset terrorized Bill endlessly. The boy did this to a point that Bill conceded to botch the mission and hand over the child. However, at Sam’s insistence, he held on to the hope that they would make money out of their mission. Things did not go as planned, and the two kidnappers had to pay Mr. Dorset a sum of 250 dollars so he could take his son back.

'You know, Sam,' says Bill, 'I've stood by you without batting an eye in earthquakes, fire and flood--in poker games, dynamite outrages, police raids, train robberies and cyclones.

Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred dollars, and we needed just two thousand dollars more to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois with.

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Are Sam and Bill usually successful in their schemes in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

This is a perceptive question? Although "The Ransom of Red Chief" is presented as a funny tale, the moral of the story is clear: Crime does not pay. O. Henry sincerely believed that. He had spent about three years in state prison for embezzlement and never got over the guilt and shame. He wrote under an assumed name and dreaded having his past catch up with him. 

Sam and Bill appear to be middle-aged men who have been trying to make a lot of money through crooked schemes, such as the one Sam mentions at the beginning of "The Ransom of Red Chief." 

Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred dollars, and we needed just two thousand dollars more to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois with. 

O. Henry probably has Sam refer to the "fraudulent town-lot scheme" in order to show that these two men are career criminals. After all these years, Sam and Bill only have a joint capital of about six hundred dollars--and ultimately they are going to have to pay Ebenezer Dorset $250 of that capital to take their "victim" off their hands. Just the fact that they have so little money at their ages should prove that they are not usually successful in most of their schemes.

Their latest scheme to kidnap a little boy for ransom may be intended as an illustration of the fact that these two clowns are incompetent. They start off with high hopes and end up victimized by their intended victims. They can't even handle a little boy. Their latest caper is just one disaster in a series that leaves them, in middle age, with a net balance of $350. Their "fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois" will never come off because they needed $1400 before the kidnapping and now they need $1650. Even if Ebenezer Dorset had paid them the $1500 they demanded, they still would have had to add most of their $600 to finance that town-lot scheme.

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