“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 Alabamian’s son; eventually, the men are driven crazy by the boy’s spoiled and hyperactive behavior, and 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, the 10-year-old red-haired son of an important citizen named Ebenezer Dorset, and hold him for ransom. But the moment they arrive to 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. The criminals write a ransom letter to the boy’s father, lowering the ransom from two thousand dollars to fifteen hundred at Bill’s suggestion. 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 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.