Can I bundle kidnapping insurance with my car?
Dumb Ideas that Changed the World, Episode 12 SLOW, LOW
Tease: Can I bundle kidnapping insurance with my car?
Intro: Welcome to “Dumb Ideas that Changed the World.” The views expressed are solely those of the host and do not reflect the opinions of this station or its funders.
Humanity has produced a delightful array of good ideas, like representative democracy, internal plumbing, and rocky road ice cream. In a healthy marketplace of ideas, wisdom rises and spreads; bad ideas are quickly discarded. So, it’s unsettling and disappointing when dumb ideas gain traction and linger, like a smelly couch left on the front lawn.
One of the dumbest ideas of all time was the sad episode of kidnapping in the 1930s. Crime had already become rampant in the Roaring Twenties. Then a bunch of thugs decided they could make fast money by kidnapping wealthy industrialists or their children for ransom. Yes, kidnapping was a growth industry during the Great Depression.
You may have heard of the Lindbergh Baby: aviator Charles Lindbergh’s first son was kidnapped for a $50,000 ransom—one million dollars in today’s currency. And like some other cases, the child was murdered even before the money was paid. Far from an isolated case, an estimated three thousand Americans were kidnapped in 1931 alone. Three thousand. Overwhelmed police departments were paralyzed. In Bartlesville, Oklahoma the founder of Phillips Petroleum built secret tunnels from his home to downtown because of his fear of being taken. A fellow Oklahoma capitalist was ransomed for $200,000, and private security was now big business nationwide.
Author Carolyn Cox notes that prominent kidnappings became a regular feature in newspapers. Millions of dollars were exchanged, incentivizing more kidnappings. The epidemic finally subsided in 1936 after Congress made it a federal crime and gave the FBI sweeping new powers.
We often assume that our troubles are the worst; that our parents and grandparents had it easy. No, history just trades one problem for another. Fortunately, there’s no longer a market for kidnapping insurance.
I’m Jeff Gentry
(If underwritten, ask announcer to acknowledge it here)
Best reference: Cox, C. (2021). The snatch racket. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Dumb Ideas that Changed the World copyright 2023 by Jeff Gentry. All rights reserved.