9 Infamous Kidnappings From History

These notorious abductions captured the attention of an entire nation in their era—and continue to fascinate even decades later.
A photo of a woman resembling Patty Hearst, with a weapon in hand, from the robbery of a bank by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
A photo of a woman resembling Patty Hearst, with a weapon in hand, from the robbery of a bank by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. / Consolidated News Pictures/GettyImages

On February 4, 1974, 19-year-old publishing heiress Patty Hearst was taken from her apartment in Berkeley, California. Fifty years later, people remain divided about one of the most famous crimes in history—but Hearst is far from the only abduction case to capture public attention. Here are nine infamous kidnappings that once had the nation on edge.

1. Patty Hearst

Patty Hearst
Patty Hearst on her way to court. / Keystone/GettyImages

When the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) captured Patty Hearst in 1974, the ransom request wasn’t your typical “unmarked bills in a suitcase” extortion. Four days after taking Patty, the militant group demanded the Hearst family give $70 worth of food to every person in need from Los Angeles to Santa Rosa. Aware of the SLA’s brutal reputation from their assassination of Oakland superintendent of schools Marcus Foster the year before, Randolph Hearst donated $2 million to a program called People In Need. The SLA wasn’t satisfied, though, and asked for an additional $4 million. The Hearsts agreed, but wanted Patty to be released first.

Before any of that could take place, however, the SLA released audio of Patty declaring her allegiance to them and decrying her parents’ capitalist crimes. Surveillance camera footage of Patty helping to rob a San Francisco bank, seemingly willingly, appeared to back up the tape.

For more than a year, Patty—now going by the name Tania—traveled the country with the SLA. When she was finally captured and arrested in September 1975, her legal team made the case that she had been brainwashed by her captors, a phenomenon also known as Stockholm Syndrome (a term that had only been coined two years prior). The jury didn’t buy it, and she was sentenced to seven years in prison. President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence to just two years, and President Bill Clinton later gave her a full pardon. As for the SLA, six of its members were killed in a shootout and fire at their hideout; several other members were arrested alongside Hearst.

2. Olive Oatman

Olive Oatman.
Olive Oatman. / Benjamin F. Powelson, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Olive Oatman may have survived her kidnapping, but she was forever marked by it—quite literally. In 1851, the 14-year-old was traveling through Arizona with her family in search of a place where they could settle down. As the Oatmans approached what is now Maricopa County, they were warned that forging ahead would not only mean difficult terrain, but likely a violent encounter with Indigenous tribes. Undaunted, the family of nine continued on, but they didn’t make it far before the ominous warning proved true.

About 90 miles away from Yuma, the family encountered some Native Americans, possibly Yavapai. What exactly happened isn’t clear, but six members of the family were killed. Fifteen-year-old Lorenzo Oatman had been beaten and left for dead, while sisters Olive and Mary Ann were simply gone.

Olive would later recount that, for a year, the sisters were forced into hard labor for the tribe, all while being beaten and burned with sticks. Death seemed imminent—until members of a different tribe, the Mohave, offered to trade for them. In exchange for a few horses, blankets, and vegetables, the Oatman sisters once again found their fates in the hands of strangers. But this time, it worked in their favor.

The girls were adopted by Mohave tribal leaders and treated as their own, which included marking them with cactus ink tattoos on their chins and upper arms—a ritual meant to help them be recognized as Mohave in the afterlife. By Olive’s own accounts, her time with the Mohave was nothing short of idyllic. That changed when a drought caused a crop shortage and major famine in the southwest. Mary Ann and many other members of the tribe starved to death; Olive survived thanks to her foster mother sneaking her rations.

In 1855, the Mohave received a message from the federal government: They had heard that a young white woman was living with the tribe and demanded her return. If they refused, the government threatened, the tribe would be destroyed. Olive’s Mohave family was devastated, but eventually, they reluctantly returned her to protect the rest of the tribe. Against her will, Olive was assimilated back into white society—but the Western dresses and fancy updos couldn’t disguise the thick blue lines on her chin. After she married a wealthy rancher in 1865, Olive had turned to veils and heavy makeup to try to hide the tattoos.

3. Cynthia Ann Parker

Fifteen years before the Oatman family’s fateful encounter, Cynthia Ann Parker had a similar experience a couple of states over. In 1836, young Cynthia Ann, her brother, and several others were taken when Fort Parker, her family’s residence in Central Texas, was attacked by Comanche warriors. While the other captives were released, Cynthia remained with the tribe for the next 25 years, marrying and having two sons and a daughter.

In 1860, Texas Rangers captured three Native Americans—and were shocked to find blue-eyed Cynthia Ann among them. Like Olive Oatman, Cynthia was forcibly taken from her Comanche family, leaving her young sons behind. It’s said she tried to escape many times, but was never successful. She died in 1870, allegedly from starving herself to death.

One of her sons, Quanah Parker, became a war chief and led his tribe in the battle against white expansion in Texas in the mid 1870s. When that failed, he agreed to settle on a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma and became, according to Britannica, the “principal chief of all Comanche,” an honor that had never before been bestowed. He interpreted white civilization to the Comanche while advocating for his people. He even became friends with Theodore Roosevelt and attended his inauguration in 1905.

Quanah had his mother reinterred near his home in Oklahoma in 1910, but they were moved again in 1957 to Fort Sill National Cemetery, joining other Native American legends like Satank (Sitting Bear), Satanta, and Kicking Bird.

4. Nell Donnelly

Nell Donnelly
Nell Donnelly was a '30s fashion icon, which made her a target for kidnappers. / Courtesy of the Ellen 'Nell' Quinlan Donnelly Reed Papers (KO444); The State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-Kansas City

There were thousands of kidnappings—including the abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s toddler son in 1932—during the economic hardship of the Great Depression. Among the victims was Kansas City, Missouri, resident Nell Donnelly, one of the nation’s preeminent fashion designers; her label Nelly Don provided a little style and flair to thrifty Depression-era women. She employed over 1000 people and grew Donnelly Garment Company into a $3.5-million business—unheard-of for the time, and also the reason she attracted the attention of the wrong people.

On December 16, 1931, Donnelly and her chauffeur were ambushed by armed men, who forced them out of the car and drove them to a safehouse an hour away. They made Donnelly write a ransom note demanding $75,000, adding that if it wasn’t received, the chauffeur would be killed and Donnelly would be blinded.

Panicked, Donnelly’s husband recruited their friend and neighbor James Reed, who happened to be a former U.S. senator with lots of helpful ties—including to organized crime. He contacted crime boss Johnny Lazia and threatened him: Either his syndicate could help find Donnelly, or he would go after his enterprise with figurative guns a-blazing. The threat worked. Lazia’s men found the kidnappers and told them to abort the scheme immediately if they didn’t want to run afoul of KC’s biggest mob boss. Like magic, Donnelly and her chauffeur were both released on December 18.

All three kidnappers were positively identified, arrested, and jailed. But that’s not where the story ends. A couple of years after her ordeal, Nell divorced her husband and married the man who had come to her rescue—James Reed. Maybe not so surprising, but decades later, the full story came out: Donnelly and Reed had been involved long before the kidnapping, even having a son, David, whom Donnelly and her first husband had claimed to have adopted.

5. Mary McElroy

This abduction also takes us to Kansas City in the 1930s. Mary McElroy was enjoying a hot bath in her home on May 27, 1933, when she was rudely interrupted: Two men disguised as delivery drivers had gained entrance downstairs, overpowered the staff with their revolvers, and then went upstairs to urge Mary out of the tub. They allowed her to get dressed—she even had time to put on a pair of hose—and then took her to a house about 10 miles away in Shawnee, Kansas, where they chained her to a wall in the basement.

The kidnappers demanded $60,000 from Mary’s father Henry McElroy, the city manager of Kansas City who had close ties to corrupt KC political boss Thomas Pendergast. After negotiating down to $30,000, Henry handed over the cash and Mary was released a day later—with cab fare, no less. Four men were arrested not long after; one of them was eventually sentenced to death. Mary, however, had grown sympathetic to her kidnappers, maintaining that they had been perfectly polite while holding her hostage, even giving her flowers before releasing her. She was so distraught at the death sentence that she recruited her father to help obtain a stay of execution.

Mary continued to visit her captors in jail for the rest of her life—but unfortunately, that wasn’t long. On January 20, 1940, she died by suicide. Mary left a note that said the men who had kidnapped her “are probably the only people on earth who don’t consider me an utter fool. You have your death penalty now—so please—give them a chance.”

6. Adolph Coors III

An empty car idling with the doors open and the radio on is rarely a good sign. That’s the scene a milk delivery man came across in Morrison, Colorado, when he headed out to make his daily rounds on February 9, 1960. Closer inspection revealed a hat on the river bank—and a reddish-brown stain spattered on the bridge railing.

The next day, Mary Coors received a typewritten ransom note requesting $500,000 for the return of her husband, heir to the Coors Brewing Company fortune and grandson of its founder. Authorities quickly focused on a distinctive car that had been spotted in the area around the same time as the kidnapping, a bright yellow 1951 Ford Mercury. The car was eventually linked to an escaped murderer named Joseph Corbett, Jr.

Seven months Coors’s disappearance, hikers near Sedalia, Colorado, discovered a pair of pants and a key ring engraved with “ACIII.” Skeletal remains were scattered in the forest nearby; the search for Adolph Coors was over. It was determined that he had been shot in the back.

The search for his killer continued for another two months, but on October 29, Corbett was finally arrested. His undoing? A fire-engine-red Pontiac. After his wanted photo appeared in Reader’s Digest, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police received several tips from people who had spotted Corbett, always driving the flashy car. He was finally captured when the car was seen in a motel parking lot in Vancouver. Corbett was convicted and sent to prison.

7. Frank Sinatra Jr.

Frank Sinatra Jr.
Frank Sinatra Jr. / Evening Standard/GettyImages

On December 8, 1963, the world was still reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy when disturbing news came from another American legend: Frank Sinatra. His 19-year-old son, Frank Jr., had been kidnapped. The younger Sinatra was just starting his own singing career and was at a performance at the Harrah’s Club Lodge near Lake Tahoe in Stateline, Nevada, when two men pretending to deliver a package abducted him from his dressing room.

The kidnappers contacted Frank Sr. two days later, demanding $240,000 (about $2.3 million today) for his son. The elder Sinatra (who had notified the FBI) was given specific instructions, including to only communicate using pay phones and to drop the money between two school buses in Sepulveda, California, on December 11. The FBI dropped the money, and while two of the kidnappers went to collect the ransom, the third kidnapper, John Irwin, came down with a case of cold feet. He released Frank Jr., who was later found wandering in Bel Air after walking for miles.

Although he hadn’t seen much, Frank Jr. was able to provide enough details to get the FBI to the house where he had been held in Canoga Park, where they found additional evidence. Then Irwin confessed the crime to his brother, who in turn called the FBI, and the three kidnappers were arrested.

It turned out that Barry Keenan, the brains behind the operation, knew Frank Jr.’s sister Nancy from high school. At one point, Keenan said they considered kidnapping Tony Hope, Bob’s son—but “it didn’t seem like a very American thing to do” given Bob’s support of U.S. troops. In the end, the kidnappers served less than five years in jail; upon release, Keenan got into real estate and was worth $17 million in 1983.

At the trial, the defense tried to convince the jury that the whole thing had been a publicity stunt; the rumor would surround the case for decades to come. But to know that it was the real deal, one need only look at the habit Ol’ Blue Eyes picked up for the rest of his life: He carried 10 dimes with him at all times, in case he needed to use a pay phone to negotiate with kidnappers. When he died in 1998, he was said to have been buried with a bottle of whiskey, cigarettes—and 10 dimes.

8. John Paul Getty III

Paul Getty III
John Paul Getty III. / Keystone/GettyImages

Kidnappers usually target wealthy families hoping for a big payday—but what happens when the family refuses to pay up?

J. Paul Getty III, grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, went missing in Rome on July 10, 1973, sometime before dawn. A couple of days later, his mother received a ransom note from Italian gangsters asking for $17 million, which was later followed by a handwritten note from her son begging, “Please don’t let me be killed.” But some members of the Getty family weren’t as concerned as you might think they would be—at least not initially—because Getty had joked before about staging a kidnapping to get money out of his grandfather.

The only family member that had $17 million to cough up was patriarch J. Paul Getty. Despite his levels of wealth, Getty Sr. was notoriously cheap—he even installed a pay phone in his house so guests wouldn’t rack up long distance bills. He staunchly refused to pay the cash for his grandson, but it wasn’t due to penny-pinching. “I have 14 other grandchildren,” he said. “If I pay one penny, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”

At one point during his five-month ordeal, Getty III’s abductors sliced off his ear, which they sent to a newspaper in Rome. If they didn’t receive the money soon, they threatened, his family would start receiving his body parts, piece by piece.

Finally, a reduced ransom of $2.89 million was agreed upon, but according to John Pearson’s book Painfully Rich, Getty Sr. “would only pay the portion of the ransom that would be tax deductible—the boy’s father [J. Paul Getty II] had to foot the rest.” (Getty II didn’t have the money, so Getty Sr. loaned it to him—with a 4 percent interest rate.) Getty III was released in December 1973, but the horrors of his captivity would continue to haunt him. He fell into a life of drug addiction, then, at the age of 25, suffered a massive stroke that impacted his mobility, speech, and sight.

Nine men were ultimately arrested for their involvement in Getty’s kidnapping, but only two were convicted.

9. Masterpiece

It’s not always people that get kidnapped. Imagine a dog more valuable (and perhaps more famous) than Lassie, Toto, or Rin Tin Tin. That’s Masterpiece, a silver-gray poodle who was the first toy dog to win the coveted trifecta at the Westminster Dog Show: the championship, obedience, and utility titles. Masterpiece’s owner, Alexis Pulaski, was a dog breeder, but also a master marketer who had figured out how to turn Masterpiece’s win into something bigger—much bigger.

Pulaski began exhibiting Masterpiece at private events and cocktail parties across the country, making him perform amusing tricks and showing off his extensive wardrobe. He opened Poodles Inc., a salon, kennel, and retail sales outlet in New York, where he showed off Masterpiece and a number of other poodles while they listened to harp music and lounged on cushions. Eventually, Masterpiece became such a celebrity that Pakistani prince Ali Khan offered $25,000 to buy the dog as a gift for his wife Rita Hayworth. (Pulaski said no.) Masterpiece was reportedly earning $11,000 a year through breeding and product endorsements; Judy Garland, Gary Cooper, and Eva Peron all had one of Masterpiece’s offspring as a pet.

Masterpiece was fêted from Brussels to Paris, where he required a police rescue from a dog show. He made the talk show rounds and modeled in store windows. The public was whipped into such a frenzy for this pampered pooch that it’s not all that surprising that in the spring of 1953, someone walked right into Poodles Inc., gave commands in a “dog-show fashion,” and walked right out with Masterpiece obediently in tow. Thirteen states were told to be on the lookout for Masterpiece and his kidnapper, but alas, neither dog nor kidnapper was ever recovered. Although Pulaski selected Masterpiece’s offspring Just Johnny to carry on the poodle’s legacy, he never achieved the same level of success as his father.