"The Ransom of Red Chief" is a humorous short story by the American author William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pseudonym of O. Henry. It was first published in the magazine The Saturday Evening Post in 1907 and was later republished in the 1910 anthology Whirligigs.
The plot is set in motion when two conmen need to raise money to finance a large scale scam they are planning. They decide that a kidnapping is an easy way to get the cash. The victim they select is a ten-year-old boy, the only son of a wealthy landowner from a small town in rural Alabama. The two criminals soon come to regret having abducted the boy. Not only does the boy enjoy getting away from home and sleeping in the crooks' cave hideout, which he considers to be a camping trip, but he also annoys his abductors by constantly talking and making them join in with his games. The boy also seems to have difficulty telling the difference between his games and reality and is prepared to make good on threats of violence he makes while playing. The two conmen soon begin to doubt that the boy's father will pay to take him back.
The story has been adapted for stage, film and television and has had a significant impact on popular culture.
The story's narrator is a conman who is known only as Sam. He and his partner Bill Driscoll need to raise an extra $250 in order to start a major real estate scam in Illinois. It occurs to them that a kidnapping would be an easy way to raise the money. They decide to carry out the crime in a rural area, where there are fewer police officers and newspaper reporters and where people have greater love for their families. They select the small town of Summit, Alabama as the ideal location.
The victim that they choose is Johnny Dorset, a ten-year-old boy who is the only son of wealthy landowner Ebenezer Dorset. After sunset, they ride a horse-drawn buggy to Ebenezer Dorset's house and find Johnny Dorset in the street, throwing rocks at a kitten. Johnny is not fooled by the two men's offer of "a bag of candy and nice ride". He puts up a struggle, throwing a piece of brick at Bill Driscoll's eye. However, Bill and Sam manage to force him into the buggy and take him to the cave outside of town which they are using as their hideout. Sam drives the buggy back to the village where he hired it and returns to the cave on foot. By the time that Sam gets back, the boy seems to have calmed down a great deal and he and Bill appear to be getting on well. The boy has two feathers in his hair. Bill explains that they are "playing Indian" and Johnny declares himself to be "Red Chief, terror of the plains". He says that, at dawn, he will scalp Bill and burn Sam alive.
Johnny enjoys his dinner of bread, bacon and gravy. He talks constantly during dinner, talking about himself and his father, asking his captors personal questions and also asking them questions such as, "Why are oranges round?" Johnny is excited to hear that he will be sleeping in a cave. He does not want to go home, saying that he has no fun there. He is happy in the company of Sam and Bill, saying, "I never had such fun in all my life."
Sam and Bill do not get much sleep because Johnny still wants to play. Each time that he hears a noise, he fancies that enemy outlaws are approaching and wakes up the two men. At sunrise, Sam is awoken by a horrible scream. He sees Johnny sitting on Bill's chest. The boy has a handful of Bill's hair in one hand and a knife in the other, apparently getting ready to scalp the man. Sam takes the knife off the boy and makes him go back to bed. Sam then remembers that Johnny said he would burn him alive at dawn and is unable to get back to sleep.
Bill expresses doubts that Johnny's family will pay a ransom for the return of such a badly behaved boy. Sam reassures him that they will, saying that the boy is badly behaved because he is spoiled. Sam goes to the top of a nearby small mountain. He expects that from the top of the mountain he will be able to see local people with improvised weapons searching for the kidnappers. Instead, the whole area is quiet and peaceful. When Sam returns to the cave, he finds the terrified Bill being threatened by Johnny with a rock. It is revealed that the boy put a hot potato down Bill's back, Bill struck Johnny, which made the boy angry. Sam seems to calm down the situation but, soon afterwards, the boy uses a slingshot to hit Bill with a stone, making the man fall face first into a frying pan full of hot water.
Sam and Bill write a ransom note for Ebenezer Dorset, explaining where he can leave messages for them and saying that Johnny will be returned if he pays them $1,500. Sam goes off to post the letter. Johnny says that he wants to play "Black Scout", which involves Bill acting as the boy's horse. The man is forced to get down on his hands and knees and Johnny declares that he will ride him for ninety miles. When Sam returns, he finds Bill alone. Bill says that the boy made him eat sand, which he said were oats for his horse, and then spent an hour asking him to explain things such as why grass is green. Bill explains that he could not put up with the boy any longer, took him to the road back to Summit and forced him to start walking down it. As soon as Bill has finished speaking, it is revealed that Johnny has returned and is standing behind him.
The kidnappers receive a note from Ebenezer Dorset. He expresses sympathy for the men for having put up with his son. However, not only does he refuse to pay the ransom, he writes that he will only take Johnny back if the two men pay him $250. Bill comments that this is a very reasonable offer.
Johnny can only be persuaded to go home when he is told that he is only going there temporarily to pick up a rifle which his father has bought for him. He is upset when he realizes that Sam and Bill are leaving without him and tries to go with them. Ebenezer Dorset grabs the boy but says that he can only promise to hold him for ten minutes. Sam and Bill run off as fast as they can.
A short silent movie adaptation of "The Ransom of Red Chief" was released in the United States in 1911. "The Ransom of Red Chief" is also one of five short stories by O. Henry to be adapted for the 1952 American anthology film O. Henry's Full House. The segment based on the story, directed by Howard Hawks, stars Fred Allen and Oscar Levant as the two kidnappers, called Sam "Slick" Brown and Bill Peoria in the film, and Lee Aaker as J.B., the name given to the young kidnapping victim. Delovye Iyudi (known in English as Strictly Business and Business People), a 1962 Russian-language anthology film from the Soviet Union, is based on "The Ransom of Red Chief" and two other short stories by O. Henry. The section based on the story stars Georgy Vitsin as Sam, Alexei Siminov as Bill Driscoll and Sergey Tikhonov as Johnny Dorset.
"The Ransom of Red Chief" has been adapted three times for American television, the three different adaptations first airing on NBC on August 16, 1959, on ABC on October 22, 1977 and on the Hallmark Channel on August 16, 1998.
An opera called The Ransom of Red Chief, with music and libretto by Brad Liebl, was first performed in Birmingham, Alabama in January 1984.
The hostage who proves too much trouble for his or her captors to handle and whose family may not want to take him or her back has become a familiar theme in popular culture. It can be seen in movies including Too Many Crooks (UK 1959), Ruthless People (USA 1986), The Ref (USA 1994) and Life of Crime (USA 2013). Episodes of television shows, especially ones aimed at children, also often have plots which are similar to that of "The Ransom of Red Chief". The influence of O. Henry's story can also be seen in later works of fiction in which children get the better of criminals, such as the 1990 film Home Alone and its sequels in which a small boy outwits two burglars and does not flinch from doing physical harm to them.