The Best Stories Ever Written About Patty Hearst, Elizabeth Smart, and Other Infamous Kidnappings

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Nov. 5 2011 7:45 AM

The Longform.org Guide to Kidnapping

The best stories about Patty Hearst, Elizabeth Smart and other infamous abductions.

Elizabeth Smart.
Elizabeth Smart after the sentencing of her kidnapper Brian David Mitchell in Salt Lake City, Utah

George Frey/Getty Images.

Every weekend, Longform.org shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter.

Whether it's an heiress-turned-bank-robber or American oil workers held in an Ecuadorian jungle, kidnapping tales evoke both a glued-to-the-news type of awe and, well, plain old terror. Here are six gripping stories of people who've been taken—and one about a guy who'll gladly kidnap your kid if you pay him.

Lisa R. Cohen • New York • May 2009

He's the first kid to be featured on the side of a milk carton—and his father thinks he knows who abducted him from a New York City street in 1979:

"For years now, Stan has had a face to concentrate on; twice a year, in fact, on Etan's birthday and on the anniversary of his disappearance, Stan sends one of the old lost child posters to a man who's already in prison. He won't be there much longer, however, unless the successor to Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau can keep him in jail. In the meantime, Stan's packages serve notice that someone is still paying close attention. On the back of the poster, he always writes the same thing: ‘What did you do to my little boy?' "

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Time • April 1974

From "comely heiress" to "armed terrorist," an overview of the Patty Hearst kidnapping published weeks after her debut as a bank robber:

"The robbers—a black man and four white women—strode swiftly into the Hibernia Bank branch in San Francisco's Sunset district, pulling out semiautomatic carbines from under their long black coats. "Get on the floor, get on the floor," barked the stubbly-bearded leader at the two dozen terrified employees and customers. Two of the women rushed to the cash drawers, while another, in the best Bonnie-and-Clyde style, proudly announced: 'We're from the S.L.A.' One of the gang gestured toward the young woman who had taken up a position at the middle of the seven tellers' cages and shouted: ‘This is Tania Hearst!' "

Nadya Labi • Legal Affairs • July 2004

Meet Rick Strawn, the man who'll abduct your problem child for a fee:

"In his first year of business, he escorted eight teens to behavior modification schools. Since then, his company has transported more than 700 kids between the ages of 8 and 17. Strawn has gone on about half of the trips himself; on the others he has sent agents. Either way, the company generally uses two escorts for the part of a trip that's on the road. Girls are escorted by coed teams; in the early years, Strawn relied on his wife, mother, or older daughter to help him on these trips. Now his wife, Susan, runs the company's office from the family home in the Atlanta suburb of Suwanee. After every trip, she sends the client a card with the message: ‘Just a note to say thank you for allowing us to assist your family.' "

David Rohde • New York Times • Oct 2009

Rohde was kidnapped while reporting in Afghanistan. His story—in five parts—in his own words:

"Our time as prisoners was bewildering. Two phone calls and one letter from my wife sustained me. I kept telling myself—and Tahir and Asad—to be patient and wait. By June, our seventh month in captivity, it had become clear to us that our captors were not seriously negotiating our release. Their arrogance and hypocrisy had become unending, their dishonesty constant. We saw an escape attempt as a last-ditch, foolhardy act that had little chance of success. Yet we still wanted to try. To our eternal surprise, it worked."

Here's Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and the epilogue.

Scott Carrier • Mother Jones • Dec 2010

Elizabeth Smart, age 14, was kidnapped from her bedroom in a Salt Lake City suburb. She was found nine months later with an itinerant preacher and his wife. Theories on why it took so long:

"Stockholm Syndrome seems like a good explanation for why Elizabeth didn't cry out or run away, and perhaps Elizabeth's father, Ed Smart, now denies this explanation because he is unwilling to accept that Elizabeth ever supported or sympathized with Mitchell, let alone that she believed he was the new prophet. Elizabeth has testified in federal court that she saw Mitchell as ‘evil, wicked, manipulative, sneaky, slimy, selfish, greedy, not spiritual, not religious, and not close to God.' She said Mitchell threatened to kill her and her family if she ran away. But, really, there were many opportunities, in public, where all she had to do was take off the veil … unless she believed Mitchell actually had magical powers. And maybe he did."

Tom Junod • Esquire • Fall 1995

Several American men working in the oil industry are kidnapped on the job in Ecuador:

"What's it like to be kidnapped and held for ransom, not as a political prisoner but as an economic one? What's it like to live in the Ecuadoran jungle for 141 days? What's it like not to sleep, to be bound in chains, to have your body invaded by living things, to waste away to the point of death? What's it like to have one of your fellow hostages killed when the negotiators fail at negotiation? What's it like? This is what it's like."

Francis Russell • New York Review of Books • Nov 1987

Did Bruno Hauptmann really kidnap the Lindbergh baby? An overview of the case amidst a bunch of arguing scholars:

"There is no complete book on the case, there are no complete facts. No matter what one reads, what position one takes, the enigma remains. Was Hauptmann guilty? The defense lawyer in his summing up accused some of the Lindbergh and Morrow servants of having collaborated in the kidnapping, with Isidor Fisch as the real Bronx agent. He pointed out that Violet Sharpe, who worked as a maid for the Morrows, had taken poison after being questioned by the police. ‘Colonel Lindbergh,' he concluded in a somewhat confused metaphor, ‘was stabbed in the back by the disloyalty of those working for him.' The explanation was one the Lindberghs refused to consider. "

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longformorg. For more great crime writing, check out Longform.org's complete archive.

Gretchen Gavett is a contributor to Longform.org.

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