The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Why did Bill and Sam kidnap a prominent citizen’s child?

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Sam and Bill decide to kidnap ten-year-old Johnny Dorset from the pleasant, tired town of Summit and hold him ransom for two thousand dollars in order to attain enough money to pull off a "fraudulent town-lot scheme" in Western Illinois. The two bandits end up selecting Johnny Dorset, who is the unruly, imaginative, aggressive child of the wealthy mortgage fancier Ebenezer Dorset. Sam and Bill initially thought that Ebenezer would break down and immediately pay the two thousand dollar ransom without hesitation, but they were sadly mistaken. Johnny Dorset ends up being a terror, begins acting like Red Chief, and even threatens to scalp Bill, who is afraid of the child and begs Sam to let him go. The kidnappers soon realize that Ebenezer is aware of his son's power, when they read his letter demanding that Sam and Bill pay him $250 to return Johnny. Eventually, the con men come up with a scheme to ditch their unruly playmate, who ends up chasing after them as they run for their lives.

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In "The Ransom of Red Chief," Sam and his partner, Bill Driscoll, have an idea for obtaining the money they need to pull off a "fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois" without having to do any work: kidnap a child and demand a ransom. They choose the town of Summit because they believe it is the type of community where parents are especially fond of their offspring and because the police force doesn't seem too intimidating. Because they need a large sum of money, they must steal the child of a prominent citizen. An ordinary citizen wouldn't have access to $2000 to buy his child back, especially considering that $2000 in 1900 would be worth over $58,000 today.

It turns out, though, that Sam and Bill's selection of a victim was not ideal. The description of Ebenezer Dorset Sam provides indicates that he might not have been the best target, even though he was wealthy. For one thing, he was "tight," or frugal, and for another thing, he was a "stern ... forecloser." Thus he was a no-nonsense man who was willing to turn the screws as necessary to retain his profit in his business dealings. The men find out that both Johnny Dorset and his father end up being more than they bargained for, and they actually lose money on their plot that was conceived "during a moment of temporary mental apparition."

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