Perception drives belief. It’s often asked why victims many times don’t try to escape from kidnappers. Could it be fear? Denial? Confusion? Whatever the case, many kidnappers are masters at manipulation. Billy Whitla’s story provides insight into how a victim can be made to comply.
At 9:30 on the morning of March 18, 1909, in Sharon, Pennsylvania, eight-year-old Billy Whitla walked toward the chalkboard in his classroom. His teacher had asked him to write the daily class motto on the board. Suddenly, the school janitor opened the door and stated that Billy’s father had sent someone to take him out of school for the day. The teacher helped Billy put on his coat and cap.
Billy walked outside and saw a man sitting in a buggy. The stranger helped Billy into the seat and told the child to call him "Jonesy." A few blocks away, they stopped at a mailbox and he ordered Billy to drop a letter into the slot. Jonesy said the letter would tell his mother where he was going. (It was actually a ransom note.)
Billy later recalled: “When I mailed the letter I thought I was going to dad’s office, but the man said right away: 'Billy...I am not going to take you to your dad’s office. I’m taking care of you for your dad. You know there’s smallpox around, and you’ve been exposed, and your dad says doctors are after you to take you to a pesthouse.'”
Billy dreaded the pesthouse. He knew that people afflicted with incurable diseases such as tuberculosis were placed in the hostels to die. In fact, many had ponds on the grounds where the dead were pitched in and left to decay. Billy was also terrified of smallpox. A friend had contracted the disease and it had left his face badly scarred.
Jonesy stated that he would be taking Billy someplace to hide from the doctors. As they drove along, the abductor placed Billy beneath a robe and told him not to move. “I didn’t like that very well,” Billy later said. “It was no fun, all dark and stuffy, and I asked Jonesy if I could not get out a while but he said no, that I must act like a spy in war escaping, and dad had told Jonesy I could act like a regular spy.”
The man known as Jonesy drove to Warren and stopped at the train station. He learned that the train that was going to their destination, Cleveland, Ohio, had already left. It would be more than an hour before another one arrived. Jonesy walked with Billy to a nearby lumber yard and found a small opening (“like a cave”) in the stacks of lumber. He told Billy to stay there until he returned. The boy did as he was told. By now, Jonesy had convinced Billy that doctors were searching for him and that he would be taken to the dreaded pesthouse if he were caught. Billy was also convinced that his father had arranged his “flight” from the medical establishment.
Billy was a prescient youngster. He recalled so many details of his journey that he later helped authorities establish an ironclad case against the kidnappers. After getting on the train to Cleveland, he remembered seeing signs that read “Ashtabula” and “Painesville” and memorized many of the street signs they passed.
When they got to Cleveland, Jonesy took Billy to the “safe house.” Billy later stated, “Mrs. Jones...was a nurse and dressed in nurse’s clothes, with [an] all white apron and a white cap. [Jonesy] said, ‘Here’s a little Jones for you,’ and she laughed and asked how I was and took off my things.”
Billy was ordered not to look out the window of the little apartment, but across the street he observed the Thorpe Hotel and a big stone church. He also memorized the names on the streetcars that regularly passed. Billy was allowed to roam about the apartment most of the time, but had to hide when someone knocked on the door. Several times, he was told that visitors were doctors searching for him.
Billy described Mrs. Jones: “[She] seemed to have light hair, but sometimes she talked funny, so I would think she was French or something. She was tall and not fat. She had awful red marks on her face, and said my face would be like that if I got smallpox at the pesthouse.”
After four days in the apartment, Jonesy hustled Billy down the stairs and took him outside. It was dark, and they waited in an unlit corner until a streetcar arrived. Billy later related: “When the car got close, [Jonesy] said, ‘Now run and get on quick.’ A man and a lady got on there, and I got on, too, and just looked back and Jonesy had sneaked [off].”
Billy Whitla’s abduction made national news. His father, James, was a lawyer and Billy’s uncle was steel millionaire F. H. Buhl. On the same afternoon that he was taken, Billy’s mother received a ransom letter demanding $ 10,000 for the safe return of the child. She immediately contacted her husband who notified police.
The letter gave instructions on where to deliver the money. The final line was chilling. It read: “Dead boys are not desirable.” As soon as the newspapers received word of the kidnapping, reporters descended on the small town. After four days of negotiating with the kidnappers and dodging reporters, Billy's father delivered the money and the boy was freed.
James Boyle was tried and sentenced to life in prison. He died while in confinement. Helen Boyle was given 25 years but was paroled after 10. She quickly descended into obscurity.