The Ransom of Red Chief

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"The Ransom of Red Chief."
Author O. Henry
Country  United States
Language English
Genre(s) Comedy
Published in Whirligigs[1]
Publication type story collection
Publisher Doubleday, Page
Media type short story
Publication date 1910

"The Ransom of Red Chief" is a 1910 short story by O. Henry first published in The Saturday Evening Post. It follows two men who kidnap and attempt to ransom a wealthy Alabaman's son; eventually, the men are driven crazy by the boy's spoiled and hyperactive behavior, and end up having to pay the boy's father to take him back.

The story and its main idea have become a part of popular culture, with many children's television programs using a version of the story as one of their episodes. The tale is a light-hearted example of the ultimate in "poetic justice" and fortuitous intervention for the public good: the crooks had intended to use the ransom money to fund an even larger and much more elaborate scam that would likely have caused widespread monetary damage to the local populace, and so having their plans "foiled in their infancy" by Red Chief's shrewd father saves countless other honest folks from financial ruin. It has also been often used as a classic example of two ultimate comic ironies—a supposed "hostage" actually liking his abductors and enjoying being captured, and his captors getting their just deserts by having the tables turned on them, and being compelled to pay to be rid of him.


Two small-time criminals, Bill and Sam, kidnap Johnny (10 years old), the red-haired son of an important citizen named Ebenezer Dorset, and hold him for ransom. But the moment they arrive at their hideout with the boy, the plan begins to unravel. Calling himself Red Chief, the boy proceeds to drive his captors to distraction with his unrelenting chatter, malicious pranks, and demands that they play wearying games with him. Growing tired of the boy, the criminals desperately write a letter to the boy's father to get rid of him, stating that they will lower the ransom. The father, who knows his son well and realizes how intolerable he will be to his captors and how desirous they will soon be to rid themselves of the delinquent child, rejects their demand and offers to take the boy off their hands only if they pay him. The men hand over the money and the howling boy—who had actually been happier being away from his stricter father and thus does not want to be "rescued" from his more-lenient captors—and flee after the father threatens to turn his son loose on them.


Direct adaptations of "The Ransom of Red Chief" include the 1952 television movie The Ransom of Red Chief starring Fred Allen and Oscar Levant (part of O. Henry's Full House), the 1984 opera Ransom of Red Chief (libretto, music and orchestration by Brad Liebl, premiere January 1984, Birmingham (Alabama) Opera) and the 1998 television film The Ransom of Red Chief.[2] There's also Le Grand Chef, a French direct adaptation made in 1959 by Henri Verneuil, with Fernandel and Gino Cervi [1]. Indirect adaptions include the episode "The Ransom of Red Chimp" of the 1990s Disney animated series TaleSpin, and The Ransom of Rusty Rex, a segment of the 2015 anthology film Tales of Halloween.[3] A 2015 episode of the BBC Radio 4 comedy anthology Stanley Baxter's Playhouse, titled "Two Desperate Men" after how the kindappers sign their note, relocated the story to rural Scotland in the 1930s.[4]

More generally, the concept of a hostage becoming too much for their captors to bear has become a familiar cultural trope, used in movies such as Too Many Crooks, Ruthless People, The Ref and Life of Crime. Television series, especially for children, often include an episode based on its idea; see for example the capture of Perfuma on She-Ra: Princess of Power, or the Dennis the Menace film, or the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "A Dog and Pony Show."


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