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The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Discussion Topic

Motivations and adjustments of Sam and Bill regarding the ransom in "The Ransom of Red Chief"

Summary:

In "The Ransom of Red Chief," Sam and Bill initially kidnap Johnny, expecting an easy ransom. However, Johnny's behavior is so troublesome that they lower the ransom demand and eventually pay his father to take him back, illustrating their desperation and failure to handle the situation.

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What do Sam and Bill need the ransom money for in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

In O. Henry's short story, "The Ransom of Red Chief," Sam is the narrator of the story. He is part of a pair of men (Bill and Sam) who have come up with a scheme to get money. Readers are told only the following about their scheme: 

"Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois with." 

The two men come up with the idea to kidnap a kid in order to earn a ransom. They are hoping to get two thousand dollars in addition to the six hundred that they have. We know from what Sam says that this is not legal--it's a scam. The words "fraudulent" and "scheme" tell us this. What is not clear from the text is why they need money for this scheme and what exactly a town-lot scheme is. Readers need to make inferences. 

During the time period in which this story is set, when a town was being developed it was often divided into town-lots to be sold. Readers can infer that Bill and Sam are trying to sell town lots that either do not exist or aren't theirs to sell. 

The humor in the story comes from the fact that they kidnap a mortgage financier's son (a bit ironic, isn't it? or is that part of the scheme?) and believe they will easily get the ransom. When they meet Johnny, also known as Red Chief, he fights hard and hits one of them with a brick. They threaten to raise the ransom immediately by five hundred dollars for this act. However, Red Chief gives them so much trouble--incessant talking, hyperactivity, crazy acts--that they lose hope of ever receiving a ransom. At one point, one of the partners begs the other not to leave him alone with the child. 

When they receive a response to their ransom note from the father of Johnny, this is what it says: 

"Gentlemen, I received your letter today in regard to the ransom you ask for the return of my son. I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposal, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands." 

They started with $600. They hoped to make $2,000, which would have brought their total to $2600. They ended up paying $250 to get rid of Red Chief. They were the ones who were scammed. 

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What do Sam and Bill need the ransom money for in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

In "The Ransom of Red Chief," Bill and Sam need $2,000.00 more than the $600.00 that they possess in order to start their land scam in Western Illinois.  Of course, the irony of the opening words about the small town of Summit, Alabama, and the ease with which they will pull of the kidnapping job cannot be missed.

We knew that Summit couldn't get after us with anything stronger than constables and, maybe, some lackadaisical bloodhounds and a diatribe or two in the Weekly Farmers' Budget.  So, it looked good.

As it turns out, Sam and Bill lose $250.00 to buy back their freedom from "Red Chief."  Running out of Summit, Sam has trouble keeping up with Bill, even "as fat as he was."--A most amusing tale!

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What do Sam and Bill need the ransom money for in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

Bill and Sam want to start a land fraud scam and to get it going they needed an additional $2,000 to add to the $600 they had.

"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." (Henry) 

That is the only explanation that I could find to explain what Bill and Sam need the ransom money for, they are professional criminals, that is how they live.   

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What do Sam and Bill need the ransom money for in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

Sam and Bill are con artists. They are thieves and kidnappers as well, as this story will show. They have six hundred dollars with them at the beginning of the story. They figure that they need two thousand more in order to pull off another scam in which they will defraud people of more money: 

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. 

Sam never tells us (the reader) what the town-lot scheme is. However, given that these guys are con artists, thieves, and essentially professional criminals, it would probably have something to do with selling lots that do not belong to them. It may be a case where a new town is in development and a financier or the government (state or federal) is selling the plots in what will be the new town. Knowing where and when this would happen (Western Illinois, for example), Sam and Bill could go there before the real administrators get there. They could pose as the sellers, sell plots of land to people intending to move there, and then leave with the money before the real sellers get there. This is an example of a "town-lot scheme" and is a possible scenario of what Sam is talking about.

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What was the original ransom amount Bill and Sam asked for in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

Initially, Sam and Bill plan on attaining two thousand dollars by holding a child ransom in order to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois. Sam and Bill end up kidnapping a ten-year-old boy named Johnny Dorset, whose father is a wealthy mortgage fancier in the town of Summit.

Shortly after kidnapping Johnny Dorset, Sam and Bill discover that the boy is an absolute terror, who demands to be called Red Chief. Johnny ruthlessly tortures, scares, and physically harms Bill to the point that he begs Sam to lower the amount of money they request in the ransom note. Sam makes the concession and ends up demanding fifteen hundred dollars from Ebenezer Dorset for his son's return. Ironically, Ebenezer Dorset recognizes his son's power and demands $250 from Sam and Bill to take Johnny back.

Overall, Sam and Bill originally demand fifteen hundred dollars in their ransom note but end up paying Ebenezer Dorset $250 to take Johnny back.

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Why does Bill ask Sam to reduce the ransom amount in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

Bill asks Sam to reduce the ransom amount because he believes that it would be cruel to expect a father to pay so much for his ill-behaved child's return. It is also likely (based on his interactions with Johnny) that Bill has little faith Johnny's father will pay the two thousand dollars they are requesting.

To placate Bill, Sam asks for a ransom of fifteen hundred dollars in his letter to Ebenezer Dorset. However, Bill's fears are realized when he and Sam receive correspondence from Johnny's father. In his letter, Ebenezer Dorset tells the men that their ransom demand is much too high. Instead, he makes a counteroffer, requesting that the men pay him 250 dollars cash in order to take Johnny back.

Ebenezer finishes up his letter with a warning: the men had better bring Johnny back at night, so that the neighbors do not see the boy returning. Ebenezer hints that the neighbors will not be too pleased to see Johnny home and might take out their anger on Bill and Sam. This humorous story ends with Bill running as fast as he can towards the Canadian border after paying 250 dollars to Ebenezer Dorset to take Johnny back. 

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Why does Bill ask Sam if they can lower the ransom demand in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

It's at this point in the story where Bill and Sam start to realize that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to kidnap little Johnny after all. Ever since they snatched him, he's been nothing but trouble. He drives the two hapless criminals insane with his brattish behavior, taking control of a situation in which he's supposed to be the weak, helpless victim.

Johnny's becoming so much of a pain in the neck that Bill just wants him off his hands as soon as possible. That's why he asks Sam if he should lower the ransom; the lower the asking price, the quicker they can be rid of the annoying little brat once and for all. In the end, though, it's Bill and Sam who end up paying the boy's father to take him off their hands. Probably for the first time in criminal history, it's the kidnappers who pay the ransom.

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Why does Bill ask Sam if they can lower the ransom demand in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

Bill wants to lower the ransom amount because Red Chief, the boy who Bill and Sam have kidnapped, is terrorizing them, particularly Bill. Red Chief continually lets out blood-curdling war cries, and he also threatens to scalp Bill by sitting on his chest and holding a knife to his head. Later, the boy drops a hot potato down Bill's back and smashes it with his foot. Red Chief threatens to hit Bill with a rock, and then tosses a rock that hits Bill behind the ear. As a result, Bill falls into the campfire. Red Chief seems in no hurry whatsoever to get home, as he's having a grand time camping out with Bill and Sam. While Sam wants to ask for a $2,000 ransom, Bill begs him to lower the ransom to $1,500, as Bill doubts Red Chief's parents will want to pay the higher price to get their rowdy and troublesome son back.

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Why do Sam and Bill need two thousand dollars in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

In "The Ransom of Red Chief," Sam, the narrator, and his sidekick, Bill Driscoll, are petty criminals. They seem to make their living by moving from place to place, choosing areas where the law enforcement is not particularly strong. At the time the story opens, the two are in in Southern Alabama near a town called Summit. Their next major crime they want to pull off is a "fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois." This plan is not explained in any more detail than this. However, to pull off the crime requires a $2,600 investment. They currently have $600, so they need to "raise" $2000 more.

What might the "fraudulent town-lot scheme" entail? Presumably a new town was being laid out in Western Illinois. If the lots cost, say, $260 each, they could purchase ten lots. Then they could sell each lot to several different people, so they could potentially triple or quadruple their money over a period of a few weeks. The idea is that by the time the buyers realize that multiple people have purchased the same lot, Sam and Bill would have moved on to their next scheme. Whether this land scheme would have worked as they envisioned it is unknown, but given the unexpected way their kidnapping venture played out, perhaps Sam and Bill should consider going straight.

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