It started with nine wine corks and 28 matches on a Tuesday afternoon in May.
What followed was a diabolical kidnapping, a nationwide manhunt, a clandestine rendezvous at sea, a daring payoff, and the arrest of the mastermind. It was all over in time for Sunday services.
A little Cape Cod town thrust onto the world’s front pages. A little girl forever scarred. It is a forgotten yarn, pieced together here from articles, interviews, and prison and court records, with some lasting lessons about the way society grapples with one of humanity’s most primal fears — the theft of a child.
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The saga from 1933 also shows how the aftermath of a crime can ripple outward, from those caught up in it, to a society fixated on it, and into future generations.
Trauma is highly transmissible — and so is terror.
Abduction is one of the oldest and most compelling stories that humans tell — from Helen of Troy to Joseph in Genesis. The word kidnap, to “seize” a “child” etymologically speaking, has a uniquely American history, referring to the seizure of juveniles to work in the New World. In Colonial times, parents worried about their children being stolen and integrated into tribes of Native Americans. Later, they worried about kidnap and murder. During the Depression, ransom was a regular modus operandi. Since the 1980s, sexual assault has been the terrifying common theme of the crime.
Child welfare groups, police organizations, and breathless news reports still talk about hundreds of thousands of abducted American children annually. Those numbers petrify parents, who have changed the way they raise their children in countless prophylactic ways. One of the most famous PSAs ever created posed the same question nightly: It’s 10 p.m., do you know where your children are?
Yet today, kidnapping — the type of stereotypical stranger-danger abduction that grabs the imagination by the throat and has become a trope in police procedurals — has nearly vanished statistically as a crime in this country.
Indeed, with the rise “free-range” parenting, the pendulum is again on the move. Last year, President Obama signed a bill barring states from passing laws that punish parents who allow their children to walk to school unsupervised. Senator Mike Lee cheered passage: “America faces great challenges today. Kids walking to school with their parents’ permission is not one of them.”
Kenneth Earle Buck wasn’t a varsity criminal. But he tried hard. Born in Harwich in 1905, Buck was the son of sea captain Joshua Buck, who dropped dead from dropsy when the boy was just 12 years old.
Four years later, the younger Buck was arrested for being an “accessory before the larceny of an automobile tire.” He later admitted to his prison caseworker that he faced only a fine for that infraction — $15 or $20, Buck couldn’t recall. He’d pinched other car parts, too, and never been caught.
He worked as an auto mechanic’s assistant, then a mason’s assistant, before landing a gig as a private chauffeur. It was good work, yet Buck wasn’t able to save much money. A string of speeding tickets didn’t help. “He’d never allow another car to pass him,” recalled a New York stockbroker whom Buck chauffeured around the Cape.
Buck’s mother worried though, particularly about the parade of bootleggers her son met with in front of her house. Then there was that time that he had been caught peeking in someone’s window. A shot into the air from the neighbor’s .45 caliber pistol seemed to have scared him straight, but one could never tell with the wayward.
The Depression cost Buck his job, and he was forced to move with his wife, Mary, and their 8-year-old son, Kenneth Jr., to a family house in Harwich.
In those days, the kidnapping of the son of the world’s most famous man was all that anyone was talking about.
American statistics on kidnapping, even today, are wildly misleading. Most vanished children run away only to return shortly thereafter. Most abductions stem from custody disputes.
So how many American children are kidnapped by strangers every year? The most recent statistics — released this summer by the Department of Justice — say around 100. That’s not nothing, but consider that 100 children are shot in this country every 48 hours.
Over time, the crime of kidnapping children has also grown dramatically less lethal. In 1997, 40 percent of all child kidnappings ended in homicide. By 2011, 92 percent of children were returned alive.
Technology has played a central role in abolishing kidnapping — cellphones, Amber Alerts, ubiquitous public safety campaigns. But that doesn’t fully explain the dramatic decline.
The reality is that at any given moment, there are people sitting around waiting to commit a crime. Yet they’re unlikely to select kidnapping from the available options because there are simply easier illegal ways to get money.
Though it thrives in many other countries today, kidnapping has simply fallen out of fashion with American criminals.
When the country plunged into the economic abyss in 1929, kidnapping swept the country with the popularity of the foxtrot. Prohibition fueled the growth of gangs, who frequently targeted other gangsters for abduction. Soon they turned to snatching up businessmen, too.
The Midwestern cities of Chicago, Kansas City, and Detroit were hotspots. Some 279 adults were seized for ransom in 1931 alone, according to congressional testimony. (The yellow press stretched that tally into the thousands.) Business groups agitated for federal legislation to combat the scourge.
When Charles Lindbergh’s infant was snatched from his crib in the family home in New Jersey in March 1932, the country saw kidnappers concealed in every shadow. When the Lindbergh child was found dead, curiosity turned to terror.
That story burned up the airwaves and front pages from Houston to Harwich with an incandescence that today is routine, but at the time was as revolutionary as a solo flight across the Atlantic. The public couldn’t get enough of the details; the minutia of the crime was like a narcotic. “The biggest story since the Resurrection,” ink-stained scribe H.L. Mencken called it.
Meanwhile, Americans like Kenneth Buck who’d been sitting around waiting to break the law were also noticing the new, trendy crime.
NOW 28 years old and unemployed, Buck was desperate for money. He pondered the problem for a few days in late April 1933 and devised a plan to solve it: ransom a little girl. The country was in the midst of a kidnapping frenzy, how hard could it be?
As for the father, Neil McMath, a successful engineer and boat builder in town, well, he’d refused to give the down-on-his-luck Buck a job several times.
Buck took a handful of cork stoppers and drove into the woods where he burned the corks, rubbing the charred ends onto his skin. The sides of his face came out far darker than the light areas around his eyes, and the disguise wouldn’t fly in Harlem, but Buck thought he could pull off the ruse in his small town. He tugged on white driving gloves, and the ensemble was complete.
“The funniest looking colored man I ever seen,” recalled John Silvia, an African-American cranberry picker who caught a glimpse of Buck driving by.
Buck first went to the post office and called the elementary school. Identifying himself as Neil McMath, he gave instructions to release his daughter early. A car and driver, he said, were on the way to pick her up.
A more impulsive villain might have sped directly to the schoolhouse. But Buck seems to have been more of a belt-and-suspenders type of fellow. What if the school called the McMath house to confirm the dismissal? From the same post office pay phone, Buck next dialed the McMath home, identifying himself as a telephone repairman.
Would the McMaths mind taking their phone off the hook for 10 minutes so the lineman could conduct some repairs?
Mrs. McMath didn’t mind in the least. She was curious, though, to hear the sound of a coin being dropped on the other end of the line. Why, she wondered, would a lineman use a pay phone?
Buck hung up, adjusted his chauffeur’s cap, and got behind the wheel.
Margaret McMath went by the name Peggy. Ten years old on Tuesday, May 2, 1933, she went to school wearing a dark blue jacket with brass buttons and tan socks that matched her Oxford shoes.
Near the school door, the blackfaced Buck told Peggy that her mother had sent him to pick her up. The fourth-grader hesitated for just a moment — the family had once had a black driver, but this didn’t look like him — before Buck pulled her up into the front seat.
“Shut up,” he said, speeding away, “or I’ll chloroform you.”
They drove to a wooded road and Buck tied Peggy’s hands and feet, put a gag in her mouth, placed her in the back seat, and drove to a shack at the edge of a cranberry bog near a golf course.
Buck must have felt the tension from the day’s events speed through his veins like a getaway car. School would soon be out and his crime discovered. Cigarettes were a weakness — smoking was the only infraction to land him in solitary confinement during his years in the slammer — and he surely must have felt the need for one that afternoon. Buck finished his smoke and headed back into town.
It is unclear whether it was Buck’s stray cigarette that caused a grass fire about 50 yards from the shack. But it is a likely scenario. It’s what Peggy said happened years later.
Fearing that the fire brigade would discover his captive, Buck did what any reasonable person in his position would have done: He decided to play a round of golf.
Buck convinced his friend Walter Cahoon to join him on the links, which was near the shack and would allow him to watch the fire brigade in action.
“I’m in a devil of a mess,” Buck admitted on the eighth fairway. He told Cahoon that he’d agreed to watch some purloined hootch for a gang of bootleggers, but instead found himself watching over a kidnapped girl. She was, Buck said, tied up in a shack nearby.
It wasn’t the first time Buck dragooned Cahoon into a scheme — when he’d once needed to hide 800 cases of liquor, the two had scouted spots near Pleasant Lake.
On the Cape, everyone knew bootleggers and knew not to cross them. Cahoon wanted no part of whatever Buck was mixed up in but said that a shack was no place to keep a child.
The two men watched from the course, but — amazingly — none of the firefighters looked in the shack as they put out the fire.
At 11 p.m., Buck returned to the shack and moved Peggy to a crawlspace under an unoccupied house across the street from his own home in Harwich. He gave her a mattress made of crumpled burlap sacks, a blanket, and a ham sandwich. He told her not to move or say a word, no matter what she heard, or he would hurt her parents.
Little starlight made its way into the cellar. Alone inside, it felt like a tomb.
Naming laws for lost children (apostrophe laws, as they’re sometimes called) both memorializes the fallen and affixes a specific narrative to anyone accused of violating them. There are dozens — Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act — though recently they seem to have fallen out of favor. (Amber Alerts, by the way, are officially an awkward acronym for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, but were named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old from Texas who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996.)
One of the first is the Kidnapping Act of 1932, known as the “Little Lindbergh Law.” Those Midwestern businessmen who’d begged for federal legislation finally got their wish in the wake of the famous tragedy.
Over the decades, American kidnapping become democratized, says historian Paula Fass, author of “Kidnapped: child abduction in America.” “This crime of kidnapping that once evoked horror and terror because it was rare and directed against the wealthy, began to evoke horror because it was so common,” she says. “The culture surrendered to fear.”
Faces of lost adolescents appeared on milk cartons. Insurance companies began offering ransom policies. Children were taught not to write their first names on their backpacks, lest a stranger abduct them with pseudo-familiarity. Today, cellphones — based on their location — automatically receive Amber Alerts through the same system that the government uses to warn of tornadoes.
When Peggy McMath didn’t get off the bus, her mother immediately thought of the clink of the coin and rushed to the school.
The town of Harwich had only recently formed a police force (Kenneth Buck campaigned unsuccessfully to be its first constable), and Neil McMath was leery about involving local lawmen and the press they’d surely bring along in what he immediately suspected was a ransom.
But, in the end, he reported his daughter missing — seized by a mysterious black chauffeur.
The police response was immediate and nationwide. The bridge to the Cape was patrolled and bulletins wired coast-to-coast. “Not since the Lindbergh kidnapping has the local Coast Guard engaged in such a search,” the Globe reported.
Officers in Detroit — where the McMaths had lived before moving east — began rounding up the usual underworld suspects, on the chance that they’d orchestrated the snatch and grab. Police in New York and New Jersey did so, too.
Two black men were arrested in Palmer on suspicion of involvement. George Sapier, a Native American, was arrested when police descended on the Mashpee tribal colony near Hyannis.
Sedley E. Lee, described by reporters as “a tall and dignified Negro with a soft and musical voice,” was pulled over by the North Adams police. The portly Rhode Island minister was driving in his car with what turned out to be not a white child — but a white dog.
Kenneth Buck, his scheme unraveling and his crime on the radio, must have reached for a few smokes. Out of ideas on how to contact Neil McMath without revealing himself, Kenneth enlisted his elder brother, Cyril, to act as a go-between. Meanwhile, Peggy McMath, bound but not gagged in the cellar, could hear people on the sidewalk outside, search parties. She stayed silent, remembering Buck’s threats.
Cyril took the McMaths Peggy’s lunch box along with a handwritten note as a proof of life, and a demand for $250,000.
Neil McMath despaired. “There’s not that much money in Detroit,” he told Cyril. “If Peggy’s return depends upon my raising that amount of money, then I’ve lost my daughter.”
As Cyril parleyed, Kenneth Buck strode into the post office to get the lay of the land with the locals. Chatting with some neighbors, he feigned shock about the kidnapping. “It’s the last thing I’d expect to happen down here,” he said. By the way, had they heard of his good fortune? After months on the dole, Buck had landed a big new job and planned to leave town within the week.
With negotiations proceeding, Neil McMath told the police that he suspected Peggy was being held in Mashpee, knowing it would divert attention from Harwich, where Cyril all but told him the girl was still being held. “I was doing everything in my power to secure the safe return of my child,” McMath later admitted. “I wanted that in spite of the police, the State of Massachusetts, and the whole country.”
By Thursday, Cyril had returned with a new offer: $60,000 — that’d be a little north of $1 million in 2016. McMath sent to Boston for the cash. Cyril set up the exchange.
Bill Lee, a McMath family friend, was brave enough to act as an agent to kidnappers, but his creativity in naming watercraft left much to be desired: The houseboat where he lived with his wife was christened The Bob.
It was in the aft cabin of The Bob that Neil and Cyril met with Kenneth, who was wearing a hood with eye holes, women’s stockings over his hands, and boots several sizes too large on his feet. (They were Cyril’s boots.)
Peggy was later returned to her father that Thursday night in a car driven by Cyril with Kenneth in the passenger seat. Kenneth’s absurd hood had pointed corners that the 10-year-old later told police “looked like a bunny.”
Cyril, Peggy, Neil, and Bill then went back on board The Bob for an agreed 48 hours, to allow Kenneth time to leg it out of town.
But by noon on Friday, the State Police, including Commissioner of Public Safety General Daniel Needham and a team of officers, including a lieutenant named Sherlock and a captain named Bligh, got wind of the news that Peggy had been returned under their noses. Needham called in the Coast Guard, which moved in on The Bob with news cameras rolling.
Cyril was interrogated by police overnight until he gave up his brother. Cyril and Kenneth were both arrested. All the money was found hidden in Kenneth’s house.
“What was the impulse that made you do this? Money, lack of work, or what?” officers asked Kenneth.
“Yes,” he answered.
His fanciful yarn about the bootleggers was dismissed by the police as a lie.
Peggy was recovered by her father, while the police seized the credit. “The kidnapping of Peggy McMath was solved by the State Police chiefly through the process of elimination and deduction,” Needham crowed to the Globe.
Peggy was back in school on Monday.
The family decided never speak of the 60-hour ordeal again.
At trial in June, Cyril blanched in court when his brother was found guilty. “I know the Commonwealth wants to make an example of this case,” Buck’s lawyer said, jumping to his feet as the verdict was read, his voice breaking. “Why can’t we have a sentence that is not too long. We can punish him for his crime, and also help his poor mother, his wife, and little son.”
Kenneth Buck was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Cyril was acquitted of extortion and walked.
Buck was a model prisoner. He appealed his conviction all the way to the Supreme Judicial Court, which declined to throw out one of his several confessions. He tried to get out of prison in 1944, when many inmates were released to serve in the war, but was denied.
Peggy McMath joined the Navy as a meteorologist’s mate near the end of the war. The McMath family moved away from the Cape after the crime, though they returned often in the summers.
In 1947, Neil McMath joined an appeal to reduce Buck’s sentence, and the kidnapper was paroled in 1949.
Recent scientific studies suggest that trauma can be transmitted, passed down through generations in our DNA. The field of study is still new, but its implications aren’t surprising.
Frances Herring Rich, Peggy’s daughter, lives in Harwich and drives by the house where her mother was held nearly every day.
Peggy always loved the Cape and loved to sail, Rich says. Peggy rarely talked about what happened, but the aftermath was long. “Growing up, my mother could never let me out of her sight. My curfew was always 11 p.m., and I’d be home by 10:40 otherwise my mother would become frantic, yelling, just frantic,” says Rich. “I would feel a knot in my stomach when it was getting close to curfew time, there was a physical reaction.”
“She never ever ever got over it — just pretended that she had a happy childhood and that was it,” Rich says. “I’ve made a commitment to not bring my kids up with any of the fears that my mother had.”
Peggy McMath died in Harwich in 2014 at the age of 91. The first draft of her obituary included mention of the kidnapping, but Rich decided that her mother would have wanted it omitted.
Kidnapping has many stakeholders — police, publishers, politicians, the perpetrators themselves. The kidnapping frenzy that peaked in 1933 had a tremendous impact not only on the people involved, but on the society at large that began to demand protection from the evil thought to be all around.
Each sensational kidnapping brought with it a wave of ink — from both the press and from lawmakers. The rearing of children was forever changed. A fear of strangers was forever instilled in American youth.
The stories of kidnappings are still compelling, from Peggy McMath to Patty Hearst. They’re the subject of dark comedy, like “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and thrillers, like “Gone Baby Gone.” Halle Berry stars in the upcoming film “Kidnap” as a mother who tracks down those who snatched her child with a vengeance. “You took the wrong kid,” she snarls in the trailer.
But it is striking to see how the impact of the McMath case was passed down through the generations — a painfully enduring fear of being snatched. Similar fears remain widespread, even for the vast majority of Americans who have and will only experience kidnappings through other people’s stories.
Marshall Sloane contributed research to this article.
Produced by Elaina Natario, Laura Colarusso, Heather Hopp-Bruce, Alex Kingsbury, Jeremy D. Goodwin, and Mary Creane
Lead image by Alejo Porras