In “The Ransom of Red Chief,” Sam and Bill kidnap ten year-old Johnny for ransom. Once he is their captive, however, Johnny treats them more cruelly than they do him, and getting rid of him ends up costing them money. One might expect a story about a failed ransom scheme to have a clear moral lesson, but “crime doesn’t pay” is not exactly the point of this tale. As a writer who spent three years in prison, O. Henry was not a stranger to the complexities of justice, and how fairness and balance (rather than virtue) are the measures of just results. O. Henry shows that while Sam and Bill are criminals, and Ebenezer and his son Johnny are nasty in their own ways, everyone is at least partly forgivable, if not redeemable, and everyone gets a little of what they want and what they deserve in the end.
Every character in this story is flawed by a range of vices, from callous cruelty and selfishness to dishonesty and criminality. Sam and Bill, for instance, are bad actors. They have plans “to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme,” which is the reason they need money and decide to kidnap a child for ransom. But the child they kidnap, Johnny, is also not nice. He throws rocks and bricks at animals and people, and he tries to scalp Bill with a knife. His treatment of Bill is sometimes truly alarming, as when he hits him with a rock and Bill “loosened himself all over and fell in the fire across the frying pan of hot water.” Furthermore, Johnny's father, Ebenezer, may be the meanest and most selfish of them all. He takes homes from people who can’t afford their payments (he is “a forecloser”), doesn't give to the church he attends (“a collection plate-passer”), and he extorts $250 from Sam and Bill, effectively profiting from the misfortune of his only child. His cool negotiation of a reverse-ransom for the return of his kidnapped child indicates the low value he places on Johnny’s wellbeing.
Despite the fact that these characters are morally flawed, O. Henry doesn’t judge them too harshly for their sins—instead, he contextualizes their behavior, which engenders sympathy. Bill, whose intention is to kidnap a child, is immediately hit with a brick. His reaction (“That will cost the old man an extra five hundred dollars”), shows what a mild-mannered character he is, and he remains so through many injuries and humiliations perpetrated by his young captive. While Bill is sweet and patient, Sam, the narrator, is shown to be not so much evil as deluded in his contrivance of ridiculous schemes. He shows his lack of realistic self-assessment, for example, when relating his laughably-convoluted plans for the ransom. Without irony, he says that his ludicrous scheme “ought to commend itself to professional kidnappers.” Furthermore, his inauspicious use of fancy language to put on airs (“Philoprogenitiveness, says we, is strong in semi-rural communities”) makes him a silly and blundering character rather than a heartless crook.
For Johnny’s part, though he’s a pest and a troublemaker, his misdeeds seem forgivable, given that he is a 10 year-old child who longs for parental attention and friendship. Johnny’s loneliness is illustrated by his attachment to Bill, his powerful play imagination, and his excited chattering at mealtimes, saying to his kidnappers, “I like this fine. I never camped out before.” Even Ebenezer, who is perhaps the least sympathetic character, is softened somewhat in context. It's certainly a character flaw to be more interested in turning the kidnapping to his financial advantage than concerned about his child's welfare, but he is also not the one who came looking for this trouble, and he doesn’t call the constables to arrest Bill and Sam. His letter in reply to the ransom demand seems humanely calculated to seek redress and restoration of the status quo, rather than to ruin the lives of the bumbling Bill and Sam, and it also shows his sense of humor about his rambunctious child’s behavior.
While each of the characters is, in his own way, sympathetic, this does not absolve them of justice, and nor do their flaws guarantee their destruction. In the end, these characters pretty much get what they deserve, while also gaining something they need. Sam and Bill, for instance, get their comeuppance for kidnapping someone else’s child when they have to pay a fee to Johnny’s father to return him, rather than receiving a ransom. However, their fate isn’t all bad—Ebenezer doesn’t turn them over to the cops, so they live to scheme another day, “legging it trippingly for the Canadian border.” This is a hopeful outcome for them—considering they could have paid a serious legal price for their crimes, they get away cheap. For his part, Johnny is returned to his father, which is the logical and inevitable outcome of this ill-conceived kidnapping scheme. While this is something of a punishment for him, he also benefits from the experiences he has had by getting from Sam and Bill something akin to the parental attention he lacked at home. And Ebenezer, of course, gets his troubled son back, which is both punishment and reward.
O. Henry portrays these characters with a balance of flaws and redeeming qualities. Johnny is mean and violent, but sympathetic as an attention-deprived child. Ebenezer is stingy and uncaring, yet not violent, angry, or vengeful when wronged. Sam is arrogant, and both he and Bill are criminals, yet the poor fellows take quite a bit of physical and mental abuse at the hands of their captive, can hardly achieve any of the grandiose schemes they intend, and barely get away with the shirts on their backs. With a few twists, reversals, and a gentle touch of humor, O. Henry shows what justice might look like through sympathetic portrayals of these flawed characters, each of whom finds a little grace or compensation rather than meeting with destruction.
Justice Quotes in The Ransom of Red Chief
The father was respectable and tight, a mortgage fancier and a stern, upright collection-plate passer and forecloser.
“I like this fine. I never camped out before.”
[T]hey were simply indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars. It's an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate, fat man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak.
I expected to see the sturdy yeomanry of the village armed with scythes and pitchforks beating the countryside for the dastardly kidnappers… There was a sylvan attitude of somnolent sleepiness pervading that section of the external outward surface of Alabama that lay exposed to my view.
I never lost my nerve yet till we kidnapped that two-legged skyrocket of a kid... it ain't human for anybody to give up two thousand dollars for that forty-pound chunk of freckled wildcat.
“The boy is gone. I have sent him home. All is off. There was martyrs in old times…that suffered death rather than give up the particular graft they enjoyed. None of 'em ever was subjugated to such supernatural tortures as I have been.”
Bill turns and sees the boy, and loses his complexion and sits down plump on the ground and begins to pluck aimlessly at grass and little sticks. For an hour I was afraid for his mind. And then I told him that my scheme was to put the whole job through immediately…
I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands.
We took him home that night. We got him to go by telling him that his father had bought a silver-mounted rifle and a pair of moccasins for him, and we were going to hunt bears the next day.
When the kid found out we were going to leave him at home he started up a howl like a calliope and fastened himself as tight as a leech to Bill's leg. His father peeled him away gradually, like a porous plaster.