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‘The Snatch Racket’ Explores The 1930s Kidnapping Epidemic In America — And St. Louis

032221_provided_Lindberghhome.jpeg New Jersey State Police Museum Lindbergh kidnapping
Provided / New Jersey State Police Museum
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State troopers investigate the possible use of a ladder in the Lindbergh kidnapping. The 1932 crime galvanized America — and led to changes that ended America's kidnapping epidemic.

It wasn’t just the Lindbergh baby. The horrifying kidnapping and murder of 20-month-old Charlie Lindbergh was just one of an estimated 3,000 kidnappings in 1932. The crimes became so depressingly common, the New York Times began publishing a regular feature called “Recent Kidnappings in America.” Wealthy families took out kidnap insurance.

Those details come from Carolyn Cox’s fast-paced, gripping new book, “The Snatch Racket: The Kidnapping Epidemic That Terrorized 1930s America.” The first-time author’s remarkable account draws on FBI files and a wealth of contemporaneous newspaper coverage to detail how kidnapping swept America — and how it was brought to an end, with a few civil liberties trampled along the way.

As Cox details in her book, St. Louis is a major part of the story. The city was dubbed “the Kidnap Capital of America,” with members of the city’s elite serving as both victims and accomplices.

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In one notorious case, the city’s leading ear, nose and throat specialist was lured from his home on Portland Place by a caller who claimed his nephew needed medical attention. When Dr. Dee Kelley arrived at the scene, he was ordered into a car at gunpoint and held for ransom. It took eight days, and his family paying the equivalent of $126,000, to secure his release.

Interestingly, a woman who moved in the same circles as Kelley was later charged for her role in his kidnapping. Nellie Muench was married to the chief of staff at what was then Barnes Hospital and had a comfortable home on Westminster Place. But, as Cox reports in her book, she also had friends in low places. She was later charged with being the “finger person” for the gangsters she met at the pool hall, suggesting society targets and gathering information to aid in their capture.

“She figured out Dr. Kelley was actually a great target, because he went on house calls at night,” Cox explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air.

After being charged for her role in the kidnapping a few years later, Muench was able to get her trial moved to Mexico, Missouri, where her father had been a prominent Baptist minister for decades. Her brother, a Missouri Supreme Court justice, sat next to her at trial. She was acquitted.

But if Muench and her cronies won the battle, they lost the war. The Kelley kidnapping galvanized the St. Louis business community. By the time he was snatched in 1931, Cox said, “people were beginning to realize, ‘Wait a second, this is a wave of kidnappings,’ primarily in the Midwest at that point.”

She added: “The Chamber of Commerce of St. Louis was particularly bothered by this, because St. Louis, according to the Chamber, was ideally situated to be an up-and-coming center of commerce and industry. And they put a lot of money into marketing St. Louis to tourists and to business. Publicity like this was really devastating.”

The head of the Chamber, Cox said, pulled together a group of prominent locals to set up a privately funded Crime Investigating Bureau to assist police in kidnapping cases. They also lobbied for Congress to make kidnapping a federal crime. It wasn’t until an even more high-profile kidnapping the following year, when little Charlie Lindbergh was snatched from his crib in New Jersey, and subsequently murdered, that Congress acted. At that point, Congress finally gave the FBI the tools to go after kidnappers wherever they struck and put an end to the epidemic that had plagued St. Louis and eventually the nation.

032221_bonniejohnson_carolyncox.jpg Bonnie E. Johnson Carolyn Cox
Bonnie E. Johnson
Author Carolyn Cox

Cox retired as a partner at the law firm WilmerHale in Washington, D.C., before beginning this book, her first. She said she’d long been fascinated by the crime of kidnapping. Once she realized the dearth of comprehensive books on the topic, and all the original sources available to her, she jumped into her topic.

“I live only about 15 miles away from the National Archives and Record Administration here in the Washington area, so I knew I had at my disposal an unbelievable treasure of archival material,” she said.

Seeing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s handwritten notes, it hit home that she’d chosen the right topic. “I definitely was startled when I would be flipping through these old files and I would see wet ink notes by J. Edgar Hoover, sometimes red — and I knew not to pass that one over — and sometimes blue ink,” Cox said.

In some cases, her research revealed how FBI officials had brushed aside civil liberties to get their man (or woman). “The FBI had one justification or another for wiretapping, even when they’d been forbidden to do it,” she noted. The most benign explanation, she added, would be that “Hoover and his special agents and prosecutors all felt very personally and deeply that kidnapping was one of the most horrid crimes ever, and getting the victim home to his or her family was their sacred duty.

“Beyond that, I think the FBI did get into some bad habits that are well documented in many other books and investigations, and this was no exception.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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