29 pages 58 minutes read

O. Henry

The Ransom of Red Chief

Fiction | Short Story | YA | Published in 1907

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Summary: “The Ransom of Red Chief”

“The Ransom of Red Chief,” first published in The Saturday Evening Post on July 6, 1907, is a comedic short story by American author O. Henry. Born William Sydney Porter, O. Henry was a prolific short story writer who penned nearly 600 stories in his lifetime. His works depict realistic characters and events, and his stories are classified within the genre of Realism. Like his most famous short story, “The Gift of the Magi” (1905), “The Ransom of Red Chief” reflects the hallmarks of O. Henry’s writing style, including the use of irony, metaphor, and surprise endings.

In “The Ransom of Red Chief,” O. Henry explores themes of Violence and Cruelty, Morality and Greed, and Desperation for Freedom through two career con men, Sam and his partner, Bill Driscoll. The story takes place in Alabama in the early 1900s and is narrated from Sam’s first-person point of view. Sam and Bill devise a ransom scheme and target Ebenezer Dorset, the most important man in the small Alabama town of Summit. After they kidnap Dorset’s 10-year-old son, the criminals soon find themselves at the mercy of a particularly spoiled, rambunctious, and clever boy who thwarts their plan. Like most of O. Henry’s stories, the story features an ironic twist ending that remains one its most enduring features. Although only a few pages long, the story is considered a classic of American literature for its humorous, fast-paced action and deft exploration of themes, including what drives people to crime, what justice truly is, and the extremes some people will go to in search of what they consider their American dream.

“The Ransom of Red Chief” is still widely read today and a staple of American literature classes. It has been adapted into television movies and a 1984 opera, and has inspired countless parodies and indirect adaptations. It is widely considered to be the inspiration for the 1990s hit movie series Home Alone, which also features a pair of hapless criminals and the clever child they target.

This guide refers to the 1999 Project Gutenberg version of “The Ransom of Red Chief” found in O. Henry’s Whirligigs, originally published in 1910.

Sam and Bill want to add $2,000 to their current stash of $600 so they can “pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois” (71). Bill suggests that they kidnap a local child and ask a $2,000 ransom for his safe return. Sam agrees, and they select a target—the 10-year-old son of Ebenezer Dorset. Dorset is the most prominent man in the town of Summit, Alabama. He works as a “mortgage financier,” so the men know he has the money.

The con men rent a buggy from a neighboring town and drive by the Dorset’s house at night, where they find Dorset’s son, Johnny, throwing rocks at a kitten. They offer the child candy and a ride in the carriage, but Johnny responds by whipping a brick fragment into Bill’s eye. Undeterred, the men grab the boy and drive away. After returning the hired buggy, Sam walks back to meet Bill and Johnny at the mountain where they’ve stocked supplies.

Sam returns to find Bill covered in “scratches and bruises.” Johnny is pretending to be “Red Chief,” and he has dubbed his captive Bill as “Old Hank, the Trapper.” Johnny brandishes a stick at Sam and calls him “Snake-eye, the Spy.” Johnny, adorned with two buzzard feathers in his fiery red hair, decides that he likes camping out in the cave. He says he does not want to go home. He plays and babbles late into the night, before quieting and allowing them all to get a little sleep.

Sam wakes up to Bill’s screams. Johnny is on top of Bill and pretends to “scalp” him with a real knife. Sam takes away the knife and tries to sleep again, but he is worried about Johnny trying to burn him at the stake, like the boy threatened while playing the prior evening. Bill questions whether someone will pay to get such a violent kid back, but Sam remains confident that Johnny is the kind of child who is spoiled by his parents.

After the sun comes up, Sam goes outside expecting to see furious townspeople gathering to search for the missing child, but Summit is quiet, save for a lone farmer ploughing his field. Disappointed, he returns to the cave to find Johnny threatening Bill with a rock. Bill had boxed Johnny’s ears after the boy dropped a hot potato down his shirt and smashed it with his foot.

The boy pulls a slingshot from his pocket and shoots a rock at Bill’s head. Bill falls unconscious into the fire, and Sam drags him outside and tends to Bill until he is awake and alert. After Sam threatens to take him home, Johnny apologizes and asks to play “Black Scout.” Sam announces that he is running an errand, so Johnny can play with Bill. Bill is upset at the prospect of spending more time alone with Johnny, but he concedes.

Before Sam departs, he and Bill work together to write a ransom letter. Bill begs for Sam to lower the ransom to $1,500 to ensure Dorset takes the boy back, and Sam acquiesces. Johnny asks again about playing “Black Scout” and explains that the game is about warning a village of settlers about an impending attack by an Indigenous American tribe. He says Bill will be the horse and must carry him 90 miles. Bill begrudgingly agrees.

Sam goes to a general store in the nearby town of Poplar Cove, where he overhears people talking about the missing boy in Summit. Happy, he sends his letter, buys some tobacco, and goes back to the cave. When he returns, he finds the camp deserted, so he sits down “to await developments” (77). Bill emerges from the bushes, and he starts rambling about how he sent the boy home and how they can get the money some other way. Sam asks if Bill has any heart disease in his family and then tells him to turn around. Johnny has silently followed Bill back to camp. Distraught, Bill sits down, pokes at the grass, and agrees to play a war game with the rambunctious child.

That night, Sam hides in a large tree overlooking a pasteboard box. He surveys the box where “old Dorset” is to deliver his reply and the $1,500. A messenger comes and goes, and Sam climbs down to fetch the letter. After waiting to make sure the coast is clear, he returns to camp and opens the letter. Dorset disagrees with the terms of the original offer, and he suggests a new proposition: Sam and Bill can pay him $250, and he will agree to take the boy back.

The con men accept the terms. They walk down to Summit after dark to avoid the neighbors who are upset at the child’s disappearance. When Johnny realizes he is going home, he becomes angry and tries to go back to camp. Dorset says that he can hold the boy for 10 minutes, and Sam and Bill take off running.

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