The Ransom of Red Chief Cover Image

The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Student Question

Why did Sam and Bill kidnap the boy in "The Ransom of Red Chief" and sign the letter as "Two Desperate Men"?

Expert Answers

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Bill and Sam are a pair of bumbling criminals.  Home Alone had a pair of criminals just like Bill and Sam.  Thought they were smart, but lost badly to a little kid.  

The text tells the reader that Bill and Sam have $600 to their name and they need $200 more.  

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.

In other words, Bill and Sam need more money in order to pull off a real estate scheme in Illinois.  They figured that kidnapping a kid from a small town would be easy ransom money.  

Bill and Sam chose to do their kidnapping in the town of Summit.  They chose Summit because it was big enough to have a population to spread the news, but it was also small enough to not have decent law enforcement.  

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.

Once the town was selected, Bill and Sam had to pick the victim.  They decided on Johnny Dorset for a few reasons.  One reason is that he is an only child.  His father is more likely to pay to get his one kid back.  A second reason is that Ebenezer Dorset is a fairly affluent member of the town.  He can afford to pay a small ransom to get Johnny back.  

We selected for our victim the only child of a prominent citizen named Ebenezer Dorset. The father was respectable and tight, a mortgage fancier and a stern, upright collectionplate passer and forecloser.

Unfortunately for Bill and Sam, little Johnny Dorset is no easy child.  He terrorizes Bill and Sam, and they eventually pay Ebenezer to take his own son back.  They are "desperate men" because they desperately want to get rid of this kid . . . not because they are desperately dangerous.  

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