The Ransom of Red Chief

The Ransom of Red Chief Study Guide

O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief," written in 1907, is a comedic short story about two kidnappers who are traumatized by the ten-year-old they abduct, eventually having to pay the boy's father to take him back. Although the kidnappers are confident that a rich Alabaman man will pay to have his ten-year-old son returned, the criminals become exhausted by the emotional and physical toll of taking part in the boy's sadistic games of make-believe, one of which involves the boy pretending he is a Native American warrior named Red Chief. Knowing that his son can be a terror, the father rejects the kidnapper's ransom demand for $1,500 and proposes that they pay him $250 to take the boy back. The criminals accept the offer and run as fast as they can to get away from the boy.

"The Ransom of Red Chief" exemplifies O. Henry's trademark use of situational irony. Instead of the boy fearing his captors, the kidnappers come to fear the boy, and instead of collecting a ransom for the boy's safe return, the kidnappers pay a reverse-ransom to get the father to take the boy off their hands. With these twists of the reader's and characters' expectations, O. Henry explores themes of hubris and poetic justice.

Released in the August 1, 1907 edition of the American magazine Saturday Evening Post, "The Ransom of Red Chief" has been adapted for film, television, animation, opera, and radio. The story was republished in O. Henry's 1910 story collection Whirligigs.