In early June of 1906, 42-year-old housing agent John Joseph Kean was at his wits’ end.
He had embezzled $320, which is roughly equal to $10,500 in 2023, and he had been found out. He had to repay the money or he was going to the penitentiary. There was no obvious way to get the money he needed. It was an odd predicament for a man who had been wealthy to find himself in. As the newspapers later revealed, “[Kean] had stolen one fortune, earned another fortune, and lost them both on the race track.” Kean had a few problems.
On Sunday, June 10, the answer to Kean’s current problem presented itself in unlikely form as he walked down Columbia Avenue in Philadelphia.
“I was passing Mr. Muth’s jewelry store one day and saw the boy sitting in the window. I heard someone say, ‘Now, don’t you go away, Freddie.’ It occurred to me how much they would give to get the boy back, if he did go away.” The boy he saw was 7-year-old Charles Frederick Muth, commonly known as Freddie.
Kean did not wait long to act. He was quite busy the next day with another matter, but he nevertheless managed to learn a lot about the child, for he ascertained that the family lived above their jewelry shop, that both the child’s parents were living, the name of his school, and the name of the school’s principal. Two days later, John Kean kidnapped little Freddie Muth.
On the day of the kidnapping, Freddie was in school. A little messenger boy with a freckled face went into the school and said he had a message for Miss Ring. When the message was given to her, the principal examined it closely. It said that Freddie’s mother was seriously ill and his father was at the hospital with her. Freddie should go with the messenger, who would take him to the hospital. Miss Ring went into the room where Freddie and his classmates were. She spoke quietly to the teacher and showed her the note, then the women pulled Freddie aside and told him the dreadful news. The frightened little boy was told to take his things and go with the messenger.
The messenger took Freddie only as far as Fifteenth and Oxford Streets, where Kean was waiting. The kidnapper took the child into custody. Kean first took Freddie to Broad Street Station and bought a picture book for him. They went to Keith’s Theatre then and Kean left the boy to make a phone call to the Muth household. It seems Mrs. Muth answered the phone. Kean told her that Freddie was in the neighborhood and would be back in an hour or so.
Suspicious, Mrs. Muth called to her husband. “Here’s the man that has Freddie.” The kidnapper was frightened and hung up.
At 11:20 p.m. that evening, Charles Muth, Freddie’s father, received a letter written on a piece of brown wrapping paper. It was postmarked Philadelphia at 10:50 p.m. It read:
“Mr. Muth—Your little boy will be placed in your hands tomorrow morning. There will be no need or any good in exciting your neighbors or the police. Hold yourself in check until then.”
Mr. Muth was already working with the police. For many hours, in fact, the police had been tracking the kidnapper and had already identified John J. Kean as their prime suspect. He had been spotted with Freddie Muth in three or four locations after the kidnapping.
Kean was well-known to the police, having stolen $20,000 from a Harlem bank in 1901. The police examined the notes Kean had written to the school and to Mr. Muth and positively identified Kean’s handwriting. Finally, they tracked down Kean’s employer, Mr. Cooke, who said Kean had recently gotten in financial difficulties and that he knew he must make good several hundred dollars or go to jail. The police also visited Kean’s wife and informed her that her husband was suspected of embezzling several hundred dollars. Mrs. Kean did not appear to be over-alarmed. She merely remarked that she had assumed her husband had run off with another woman.
The following day, Freddie did not appear but another letter from the kidnapper did. This one was postmarked at Wilmington.
Charles Muth, Esq.
Dear Sir: Your offer of $1,000 accepted. Now, first move you make to expose this information you will regret. To show your honesty, fold twenty $10 or $20 bills in a newspaper and address this to or deliver to 58 North Front Street, Philadelphia.
If this is done in good faith, in forty hours you will get the boy home. This is your chance to hold your silence. Remember every move you make is watched. The $800 will be demanded in ten hours after you receive this letter, and then It will be all over. Now, remember, we know everything you do or move you make.”
It’s not clear that Charles Muth did make an offer of $1,000 to his son’s kidnapper or, if he did, how he managed to do it.
But the Muths were willing to pay it. The next morning, Freddie Muth’s kidnapping made headlines across Pennsylvania and in New York City.