The Disappearance of the Good Baby

The parents of 3-year-old Michael Scimeca were careful. The little boy was allowed to play in the hallway of their apartment building at 2 Prince Street, but he was not permitted outside without his mother. Not even in 1910, when many neighborhood children left their crowded apartments and took the streets to play.

The Scimecas were being more cautious than other families—they had to be. His father was a successful doctor from Palermo, Sicily. In the past three years, he had received more than 15 threats from a group calling itself the Black Hand. They wanted payments ranging from $500 to $1000. Otherwise, his house would be blown up. Or his family murdered.

And so, Michael Scimeca stayed indoors. On the 21st of June, he was playing with two other children in the hallway when a man approached and said, “Come on, Michael, let’s get some candy.”

According to the New York Times, Michael went with the stranger. The other children followed, but the man said, “Go back, bad babies. Only Mike is a good baby.”

I was part of the milk-carton-kid generation. Following the abduction of Etan Patz in 1979, the National Child Safety Council ran pictures of missing children on the sides of milk cartons; in the days before AMBER alerts, this was seen as the most effective way to get the word out. If this seems like an overreaction to a well-publicized case, consider the fact that at the time, 1.8 million children were reported missing each year.

Kidnapping fascinated me. It seemed like a validation of all my childhood fears. There were monsters. They were coming to get you. And when they got you, terrible things happened in the dark and you never came back. I read endless books on the Lindberg case and the Leopold and Loeb murder, which started as a kidnapping. Murder on the Orient Express is my favorite Agatha Christie.

And when it came time to write my second book, I wanted that fear of a stranger who gets too close to be at the heart of it. But crimes go in and out of vogue. Was kidnapping prevalent in the 1910s?

Happily for Gilded Age mystery writers, the answer was yes. While there were gangs of every ethnicity in New York, Italian gangs working under the dramatic moniker of the Black Hand captured the public’s imagination. The Black Hand used kidnapping—as well as bomb threats and murder—as a way to extort funds from law-abiding and successful Italian immigrants. The beloved opera star Enrico Caruso was one victim of the Black Hand. And in 1910, the Scimeca family became another.

In July, Dr. Scimeca received a letter claiming that his son would be returned to him in pieces unless he paid $5,000. Dr. Scimeca could only raise part of the ransom, but he was told to go to City Park and hand the money to a stranger. In September, Michael was returned home after being missing for nearly three months.

The family insisted no ransom had been paid. But the Scimecas were criticized for their secrecy in handling the matter. In a classic case of blame the victim, McClure’s called the matter an “illustration of the backwardness (of) our Italian fellow citizens in coming forward when the criminality of one of their countrymen is at stake.”


In my book Death of a New American, Emilio Forti’s parents are more fortunate. Their child is rescued by the Italian Squad, under the supervision of Charles Tyler, who takes full credit in the media. Tyler feels he is above the prejudices of the time. He loves the Italian people; it’s the criminality he despises. His own children are completely safe. And so they are, until one night, a window is left open in the nursery and tragedy strikes.

These days, kidnapping for ransom is so rare as to be almost quaint, like train robbing. But we still watch our children on the playground, still warn them against strangers. And we still enjoy stories that speak to our darkest fears, perhaps because we hope those stories will be the most we ever know of evil.

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