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 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.


"The Ransom of Red Chief" has been adapted many times, directly and indirectly. Direct adaptations include the 1952 television movie The Ransom of Red Chief starring Fred Allen and Oscar Levant (part of O. Henry's Full House), the segment "The Ransom of Red Chief" in the 1962 Soviet black-and-white comedy film Strictly Business by Leonid Gaidai, the 1984 opera Ransom of Red Chief (libretto, music, and orchestration by Brad Liebl, premiered in January 1984 by the Birmingham (Alabama) Opera), and the 1998 television film The Ransom of Red Chief;[2] there is also Le Grand Chef, a French direct adaptation made in 1959 by Henri Verneuil, with Fernandel and Gino Cervi.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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


  1. ^ Henry, O. (2007). The Ransom of Red Chief. Mankato, MN: Creative Education. p. 29. ISBN 1583415858.
  2. ^ The Ransom of Red Chief (TV 1998) on IMDb
  3. ^ Gangster Boss (1959), Le grand chef (original title) on IMDb
  4. ^ Wilson, Staci Layne (2 February 2015). "Ryan Schifrin: My segment is called "The Ransom of Rusty Rex." I wrote it; it's a horror riff on the classic O. Henry short story "The Ransom of Red Chief"". Dread Central. Dread Central Media LLC. Retrieved 2 February 2015.
  5. ^ "Stanley Baxter's Playhouse: Two Desperate Men, Series 7". BBC iPlayer. BBC. Retrieved 13 January 2016.

External links

  • The Ransom of Red Chief public domain audiobook at LibriVox
  • Full audio dramatization also available free from WOUB Public Media (Athens, Ohio) online here.
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