"The Ransom of Red Chief" can be summed up in one short phrase that has been the downfall of everday men and great empires alike: "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
You know the story—a seemingly smart, well thought out plan goes completely, horribly wrong, and hilarity (sometimes) ensues. We see this story play out all the time, whether it's dumb criminals on TV, embarrassing business decisions, or hilarious GIFs, sometimes there's nothing better than chuckling at others' short-sighted expense.
O. Henry was on to this when he wrote "The Ransom of Red Chief" in 1907. In the story, two small-time, two-bit criminals—Sam and Bill—whip up a wicked plot to kidnap a kid to rustle up an extra couple thousand dollars. How could it go wrong?
Well, as the famous comedian W.C. Fields once said, "Never work with animals or children." These boys are the personification of that quote. They confidently saunter into the town of Summit with the intention of abducting a rich man's kid for a quick ransom.
They chose the town since the locals are "as undeleterious and self-satisfied a class of peasantry as ever clustered around a Maypole" (2). The boys figure that the casual abduction of the busy rich man's son will go uncontested. No fear of lynch mobs, no self-righteous townsfolk with tracking dogs, not even a pesky sheriff to show up and say "put that kid back!" What could go wrong, right?
"The Ransom of Red Chief" is a great example of satire for the everyday man. The story adopted a folksy, charming voice that speaks to a general "just plain folks" part of the population, but with real teeth under its surface. It works well because it makes us comfortable—Henry's tone is not talking above anyone's head, and the points he makes aren't difficult to grasp. This makes the story's message much clearer and more direct—it hits us that much harder.
O. Henry was known for this style of writing, with last-minute twists that turned the entire narration on its ear. Tons of other writers emulated the style, including the likes of Agatha Christie, Richard Matheson, Daphne de Maurier, and Rod Serling, whose show The Twilight Zone was practically centered on the notion of a twist. O. Henry gave them all a road map to follow, and literature as a whole has benefitted as a result.
For starters, you'd be shocked at how many people have been inspired by this short story. Movies like Ruthless People and The Ref are nearly direct adaptations, and even the Home Alone franchise owes O. Henry a lot of credit. The Simpsons touch on it too (witness Bart's babysitter in one early episode, reduced to a babbling head case), and if you watch enough television, some version of this story will eventually appear.
Beyond that, this story is an example of schadenfreude at its finest. That's a German term that translates as "shameful joy," and it refers to the malicious glee we feel at the suffering of others.
We love to watch a villain bumble through something that we know is wrong, make bad decisions and suffer the torments of the damned. In this case, the villains are more sympathetic than they might be in another story, but don't forget—they're still engaged in a get-rich-quick scheme centered around child abduction. In light of that, we don't feel too sorry for them when they get kicked around a little.
It's even better that it comes at the hands of a kid, which also adds a little catharsis into the mix. Children tend to feel pretty powerless in life. Johnny, the abducted child, is a balm for all of that. O. Henry plays with the everyday behavior that we all expect and turns it into a weapon, of sorts, that empowers Johnny with a certain aloofness that allows us to laugh at the otherwise horrible idea of kidnapping a child.
We all feel helpless and powerless in our lives from time to time, so it's always enjoyable to see a powerless figure take control, especially when you're a kid. "The Ransom of Red Chief" gives us a way to release that tension in a safe and thoroughly enjoyable way.
O. Henry's Biography
A reliable breakdown of the author's life, thanks to the good people at Biography.com.
Another Biography of O. Henry
Here's another one, with a closer look at the author's literary impact. Let's just say, he was pretty darn impactful. There are even prizes named after him—a sure sign you've made it big as an author.
The Ransom of Red Chief (1998)
This production stars Christopher Lloyd as Sam, Michael Jeter as Bill, and Haley Joel Osment as young Johnny. It was a TV movie that suffered from a poorly developed script and padding intended to flesh out the characters, but only ended up slowing everything down. The cast does a good job, but it just can't seem to get out of its own way.
The Ref (1994)
Denis Leary holds a family hostage on Christmas Eve. The family turns out to be so difficult to deal with that we get to enjoy the brilliantly overstressed Denis Leary just reacting for 93 minutes. It's rated R, mostly for language, but it's an excellent opportunity to remind yourself how normal your own family is.
Ruthless People (1986)
Who doesn't love Danny DeVito playing a scumbag? In this nearly direct adaptation, it's not a troublesome child, but a wife that DeVito hopes to unload upon some foolish kidnappers out to make a quick buck. The indomitable Bette Midler plays the adult, female, red-headed Red Chief. This is also an R-rated film, with some sexual content and plenty of language. It is fairly tame by today's standards, but worth checking if you're concerned.
Native Americans and "The Ransom of Red Chief"
Here's an interesting article on "The Ransom of Red Chief" as it relates to American Indians.
Irony and "Ransom"
Seattle PI gives us a look at irony as it appears in the story.
Here's a Blogspot entry analyzing the story. What do you do in your spare time?
An Old Movie Version
Here's a complete version of the story, from a 1952 anthology entitled O. Henry's Full House.
The Audio File
An MP3 of the Ransom of Red Chief, for your listening pleasure.
The man himself poses for a picture. Dig that crazy mustache!
He Sees Dead People!
A very young Haley Joel Osment as Red Chief in the 1998 film version of the story.