By JACK MAJOR
The tragic 1932 kidnapping and murder of toddler Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. shocked the nation and prompted several states to enact laws that carried harsher punishment — including the death penalty — for kidnapping.
Despite the new laws and increased awareness — and fear — that resulted from the Lindbergh case, kidnappings increased in 1933.
Gangsters rarely, if ever, abducted children, though there weren't yet enough statistics in the early 1930s to support that statement. When 10-year-old Margaret "Peggy" McMath was kidnapped from a grammar school in Harwich Port, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, May 2,1933, she became the year's youngest victim of a crime involving a ransom demand. The man in charge of the investigation had a gut feeling the girl might have been kidnapped by a well-organized gang, perhaps the people responsible for the Lindbergh crime, which was still unsolved and subject to all kinds of speculation.
But the McMath case bore little similarity to the Lindbergh case. "Peggy" McMath was returned to her family, unharmed, late Thursday evening, about 60 hours after she'd been abducted.
IT WAS a dastardly crime, but "Peggy" McMath, perhaps in a daze, remained remarkably calm through the whole awful experience, until she faced a curious public and prying journalists a few hours after being released from captivity. Fatigue plus her sudden status as both heroine and celebrity momentarily flustered her, but she quickly escaped with her parents, went home and got much-needed rest. A day or two later, she became a regular Nancy Drew, helping police wrap up the crime, later testifying in court.
Contrary to all initial theories of the kidnapping, the crime was the work of only one man. He was no gangster, though he would later claim two gangsters had forced him to commit the crime. Still later he would say it was a rum-runner named Bill. He didn't know the man's last name.
Except for the cruelty and uncertainty inflicted upon a young girl who was tied up and forced to spend two nights in a cave-like basement, the crime had several elements comic enough to be worthy of a movie by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. Granted, there were several "Fargo"-like kidnappings in 1933, but the McMath case is in a class by itself.
Unfortunately, the stories I found about the case raised questions that were never answered, including some drawn from the first few words of the following story, which otherwise does a good job of summarizing the first day of the case:
Syracuse Journal, May 3, 1933
Kidnappers Given Grace Period
HARWICH, Massachusetts (INS) — A 48-hour period of grace to give the kidnappers of 10-year-old Peggy McMath, heiress to a fortune, an opportunity to return the child unharmed was agreed upon today by members of her family and state police. The child is a niece of Mrs. Harold Edwards of Syracuse.
Announcement of the “moratorium” was made by William Lee, spokesman for the family and an associate of Neil McMath, father of the kidnapped child, in a boat-building business here.
For the next two days, Lee announced, the telephone line in the McMath home will be kept open to give the kidnappers free access to the house in the event they wish to take advantage of McMath’s offer to pay a ransom and ask no questions.
Through Lee, McMath issued the following statement concerning the abduction of his daughter from her school room:
“All I am interested in is the return of my child. That is our whole concern. I will pay all I can raise to the kidnappers, and will not prosecute if the child is returned. The kidnappers can feel safe to bring the child to our house here. The state police have agreed to give the kidnappers a 48-hour moratorium.”
The “truce” which McMath hopes will result in the return of his daughter was decided upon while the most intensive search since the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby was in full swing here.
State police made no secret they believe they are dealing with a desperate band of organized kidnappers.
Peggy’s paternal grandfather is Francis McMath, Detroit engineer, reputed to be a millionaire, and her maternal grandfather is William R. Kales, a Detroit industrialist reported to be a close friend of Henry Ford.
Kidnappers had telephoned Peggy’s school and asked that the girl be dismissed early and advising that the family would call for her.
State police questioned children and teachers and learned that two 10-year-old boys, John Shaughnessy and Russell Hall, had seen Peggy enter the kidnap car which was driven by a Negro.
“I went out to get a drink,” Russell said. “I saw Peggy standing by the car. She talked to the man for a minute before she got in.”
Neither John nor Russell could furnish any clues beyond agreeing the kidnap car was a blue sedan.
The inquiry at the school was carried on by police under command of Corporal Robert Rhodes. Among those questioned was C. H. Pratt, local superintendent of schools.
Pratt said Mr. and Mrs. McMath came to the school after they learned their daughter had been kidnapped. Their suspicions were aroused, they said, when the bus which usually brought Peggy home about 3:30 failed to deposit her at the usual time. They then called the school and learned the kidnappers had telephoned in advance and that no one at the institution suspected a plot.
Pratt said there was nothing unusual in an automobile calling for a pupil before the regular dismissal hour, but admitted the McMaths had never before sent a car for their daughter.
The search for the kidnappers spread out along the coastline and along all roads out of town and as far away as the Canadian border. It is considered a possibility the kidnappers may have taken their victim out to sea. The girl’s schoolhouse is only a five-minute ride to the waterfront.
The McMaths have one other child, a son, Francis, 7.
There would be no further mention of a 48-hour period of grace or any kind of moratorium.
So why consider this case as Coen-brothers worthy? For the answer, it's necessary to reveal the kidnapper — a 28-year-old Harwich Port resident, Kenneth Buck, an unemployed chauffeur and a man badly in need of a job. Any job.
That his chosen profession was chauffeur struck me as strange, until I considered the era and his location. The McMaths targeted in the kidnapping were one of several well-to-do families in Harwich Port. I'm assuming some of them employed chauffeurs, at least part-time.
Kenneth Buck was married and a father. He also was desperate. Later, rather than face up to what he had done, he would bob and weave through so many wacky versions of his crime that authorities thought the man might be crazy.
Syracuse Journal, June 7, 1933
Pronounced Sane, Kenneth Buck
Returns to Jail
BARNSTABLE, Massachusetts (INS) — Pronounced sane and overjoyed because of the verdict, Kenneth Buck, self-confessed kidnapper of 10-year-old Margaret “Peggy” McMath, was back in his cell at Barnstable jail today from Bridgewater State Hospital, to which he was taken following an attack of hysteria.
Buck, with his brother, Cyril, goes on trial June 12 on charges arising out of the kidnappings May 2
Oh, yes, Cyril Buck. He's a whole other story that I'll get to later.
Eventually, most everyone — or, at least, the 12 people who mattered most — agreed that Kenneth Buck was the "mastermind" of the kidnapping and had acted alone. His plan had elements of genius — evil genius, anyway — that forecast an infamous Massachusetts crime — the 1989 murder of Carol Stuart, committed by her husband, Charles, but initially blamed on a black gunman.
In preparing for the kidnapping, Kenneth Buck used corks and lampblack to darken his face and disguise himself as a Negro. This disguise fooled people at the school who saw him pick up Peggy McMath, who also was completely fooled, telling police days later that the man who called for her at the school wasn't Buck, but "a real Negro." Obviously, the girl had never attended a minstrel show.
Buck's disguise didn't convince every person who spotted him. By the time the case came to trial, the district attorney had located an expert witness of sorts, a fellow who could be portrayed in the movie by Chris Rock. Imagine him offering this interesting testimony:
Syracuse Journal, June 16, 1933
'That ain't no colored man'
John Silvia, a young Negro cranberry picker, said, “Kenneth was the funniest looking colored man I had ever seen. I saw him driving by in a sedan and I told my buddy, ‘That ain’t no colored man. He’s light around the eyes.’ ”
Defense Attorney Burwick tried to shake the cranberry picker’s story recalling Silvia had seen the man for only a second or two.
“That was enough,” laughed the witness.
Unfortunately for Brigadier General Daniel Needham, recently appointed the Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Safety and head of the state police, Silvia wasn't located until the investigation was well underway. Thus Needham and his men believed for awhile that it indeed was a Negro who drove off with Peggy McMath. If not a Negro, then someone whose skin was too dark to be Caucasian.
Frank Rodick, a dark-skinned, 45-year-old Portuguese man, was taken into custody for questioning. It was almost immediately obvious he had nothing to do with the crime.
Police also were dispatched to Mashpee to interview native Americans, because six members of the Mashpee tribe had recently done gardening work on the McMath property.
Most embarrassing was something that happened far from Harwich Port, in the Berkshires in the northwest corner of the state. For some reason police not only were looking for a Negro, but also for a little coupe, not the sedan that had picked up Peggy McMath at the school.
If I were writing a headline for the following item — that is, writing a headline in the computer age — it would be "Profiling for Dummies."
Nashua (NH) Telegraph, May 5, 1933
NORTH ADAMS, Massachusetts (AP) — Search for the kidnappers of Margaret McMath today severely inconvenienced Rev. Sedley E. Lee, Negro minister of Westerly, Rhode Island.
Rev. Mr. Lee was driving along in his little coupe, quite preoccupied by funeral services for a parishioner, when he was stopped by the police and taken to headquarters.
Rev. Lee explained it was all a mistake when he was reported driving through Pittsfield last night with a white child in his car. He did have a white dog in the car, which he exhibited to the police. Rev. Mr. Lee recently accepted a call to a local church.
(I picture Samuel L. Jackson as the Reverend Lee. "So let me get this straight. officer. You thought this" — he points to his white Siberian husky, obediently sitting in the passenger seat, looking out the window — "was a 10-year-old white girl? You damn well better hope the girl's parents don't hear about you calling their daughter a dog!")
At the same time, three men were detained in Hartford while police there waited for Brig. Gen. Needham's men to provide more details of their suspects. But, of course, there were no details to provide since all they had to go on was a statement by a 10-year-old boy at the Harwich School who had seen Peggy McMath get into a car driven by "a Negro." This boy also was certain there was another man in the car. (There wasn't.)
And while some police were chasing little coupes, others, in New York City, were looking for a 16-cylinder Cadillac sedan owned by a New Yorker who once lived in Revere, Massachusetts, and may have driven to Cape Cod a few weeks before the kidnapping.
No leads, but Needham had "a hunch"
Brigadier General Daniel Needham — that was his National Guard rank — might well have been an intelligent, capable man, but stories of the McMath case picture him as someone dutifully on his way to nowhere in particular. (Think the Lloyd Bridges character in the two "Airplane" movies.)
As one point he told the press, "There is a possibility that if we solve this case, we might solve the Lindbergh case at the same time. There is nothing inconsistent in the theory that this may be the work of a clever kidnap gang. There is some similarity in this case with the Lindbergh case and it may have been done by the same crowd."
Needham admitted he had no leads, but said he was acting upon "a hunch."
A big part of Needham's problem was the McMath family. They didn't want the police involved, believing their best chance to get their daughter home — unharmed — was to deal directly and secretly with the kidnappers.
The William Randolph Hearst-owned International New Service (INS) had one of its best-known reporters, James Kilgallen, covering the story, and he did so in unremarkable fashion, depending mostly on Needham for information. Needham's scenario was that outsiders were involved, gangsters who might have flown off with the girl or taken her to Long Island in a boat from nearby Wychmere Harbor, or driven her to Canada.
Meanwhile, back in Harwich Port . . .
On the other hand, unnamed reporters for Hearst's Boston Evening American. who conducted their own investigation, concentrated on Harwich Port and quickly concluded there were no gangsters involved in the kidnapping. Their source was never revealed, but it might well have been the kidnapper himself or one of his friends . . . because the newspaper's stories had many elements of the different versions of the crime that Kenneth Buck would later tell police.
According to the Evening American, the kidnapping was staged by men who lived in the town. The newspaper story also said the kidnapper had rehearsed the crime beforehand and had blackened his face and worn white chamois gloves when he went to the South Chatham post office on Tuesday to place his call to the school, identifying himself as Neil McMath and asking that his daughter be dismissed early.
The woman who took the call was Ruth C. Holmes, secretary to Harwich School principal Charles H. Pratt. She would willingly engage in one of those odd, 15-minutes-of-fame rituals common at the time. That is, she gladly — perhaps proudly — posed for a newspaper photo that would be published under the headline, "WOMAN FOOLED IN PLOT."
The Boston Evening American wasn't completely correct, however. The newspaper predicted four arrests; there were only two.
The newspaper, either through a mistake in the writing or the editing, also said the kidnapping had been planned in the McMath home, which threw suspicion on the girl's father, who had nothing to gain from the crime, especially as it was executed. (I think the newspaper meant to say "hometown" instead of "home.").
The two men arrested were Kenneth Buck and his older brother, Cyril, 32. Cyril, at least, was well known around town. He operated a garage and occasionally performed as an amateur magician.
Cyril's involvement raised delicate legal issues that were nicely handled by members of the jury, who, on June 24, declared the man not guilty. It was a wise verdict, the kind often delivered in a small town where people are more interested in truth than evidence.
A Criminal Mastermind? Hardly
Kenneth Buck changed his story several times, alternately implicating and exonerating brother Cyril, but the only version that made sense was the one in which Kenneth Buck took full responsibility for planning and executing the kidnapping.
Syracuse American, May 7. 1933
Statement of Kenneth Buck:
“About two days before the kidnapping, I thought of this idea. I had no grudge against these McMaths or any of that family. I knew they had considerable wealth. I merely had a desire to get money.
“I worked on my plan without assistance from anyone. I left my brother’s garage in West Harwich about 1 o’clock on Tuesday. I went home and got some cork stoppers and went back of my house into the woods and blackened my face, putting on a pair of white gloves. I then went to the South Chatham post office and made two telephone calls, one to Miss Ruth Homes at the the school, saying I was Mr. McMath and wanted Peggy dismissed early and that a car would call for her.
“I made another call, to the McMath home. I told the woman there I was a lineman repairing the wire and told her to leave the receiver off the hook for 10 minutes. I then went to the school and got the girl and went down Parallel Street to Bank Street. From Bank Street, I went to Long Road, which is about half a mile, when I turned right on a small wood road, which comes out on Gorman Road.
“After going a short distance, I stopped and bound up Peggy and put her in the back seat and then went through to Gorham Road, back to Bank Street, and then to a small house not far away near a cranberry bog. The exact location I will show you, but it is too difficult to describe. I left her there, returning to my brother’s garage, and left there at 10 minutes of 3 to get my own little boy, Kenneth Jr.
“The car I used was my own Hupmobile, a black sedan, 1927, registration 165068. After I returned home, I had a bad fright because a grass fire broke out not far from the little house in which the little girl lay and the fire department went down to put out the fire.
"I thought they would surely find the little girl.
“In an effort to determine this, I went out and played golf. The eighth fairway at the Harwich Port Golf Club runs very near the small building where Peggy was concealed. However, I did not learn anything then because I did not go to the building.
“I went there afterward and I took her to the house almost opposite to where I live. She was not gagged. She promised to be quiet.
“That is where she stayed until Thursday night. That house was not occupied. She stayed in the basement until I took her to the boat Thursday night.
“She was returned to her father in front of the house where she had been concealed, but Mr. McMath was blindfolded at the time. When the fire broke out Tuesday night near the shack, I had a letter in my pocket addressed to him, telling him not to report the kidnapping to the police or the press. I was afraid she might have been found by the firemen. I tore up the note and threw it away.
“I then couldn’t figure out a way to contact Mr. McMath. I finally decided to appeal to my brother, Cyril, to act as intermediary. I did this the following morning, Wednesday.
“It was the first time my brother had any knowledge of the kidnapping. My brother at first refused, but later on agreed to act as intermediary.
“The first figure I asked for was $250,000. Mr. McMath offered $25,000. I then told my brother to get as much as he could.
“McMath went up to $52,000 and on the next contact agreed to $70,000, and that ended the negotiations and we turned the child over to her father.
“I can only say I am very sorry I did this. I feel terribly ashamed.”
Buck kept talking, police stopped listening
That Kenneth Buck played a round of golf as a way of keeping an eye on firemen was another bizarre element of the story. And he didn't play alone. He asked a neighbor, Walter Cahoon, to join him, and while they played, Buck confessed his crime to Cahoon, but said he had been forced into it by two big city mobsters. Cahoon said later he was afraid to contact police, since he claimed to believe Buck's story about the mobsters.
Kenneth Buck had used the two-mobster version in order to convince his brother, Cyril, to act as a go-between with the McMath family. Cyril Buck first advised his brother to release the girl and turn himself in; later he decided on a more cautious plan of action on the possibility — however small — that Kenneth was telling the truth about the two gangsters.
This version was an outgrowth of a story Kenneth Buck had told his brother before the kidnapping that two out-of-town (probably Boston) gangsters had contacted him about finding a place in Harwich to store cases of liquor. Kenneth told Cyril the gangsters were offering to pay $1 per case for storage.
On Wednesday, the day after the kidnapping, Cyril Buck visited the McMath home and opened ransom negotiations, considering himself simply a go-between, the same as McMath's business associate, William Lee. Cyril Buck said later he urged McMath to contact police about their meeting, but the father said he preferred to wait until his daughter had been returned to him.
Cyril Buck did not try to hide his identity, but did not reveal to McMath that the kidnapper was his brother, who was known to McMath, having asked the boat builder for a job at his factory.
Nowhere but in the first story on this page is there a mention of that 48-hour moratorium the McMath family and the state police reportedly were giving the kidnapper. Either Kenneth Buck was unaware of the offer, or he had some wild notion he could make his kidnapping plan work.
Negotiations are concluded
Just when things couldn't get crazier, they did. McMath needed proof he was dealing with the real kidnappers. He had Cyril Buck take a note to his daughter, asking her to name a pet dog that had died several months earlier. Buck took her answer back to her father: "Peter the Great." Correct.
So McMath got serious about raising money, and on Thursday informed Cyril Buck that he had $52,000 in cash and could get another $18,000. McMath, Cyril Buck and William Lee arranged to meet that evening on Lee's boat, called "Bob" (I kid you not).
When Cyril Buck showed up for that meeting, he was accompanied by a masked man, his brother Kenneth, who never revealed his name, never even spoke, and carried on his end of the conversation by writing notes.
After much dickering, McMath produced $70,000, saying it was all he could raise. Kenneth wrote that $50,000 was to go to the kidnappers, $10,000 to himself and $10,000 to Cyril as the contact man.
Cyril Buck refused to accept the money, giving it back to McMath.
During his trial Kenneth Buck would switch to the one-gangster theory, claiming that Bill, the rum-runner, told him Peggy McMath's father was in on the crime. Police, who had heard so many stories from Buck, did not give this one any credence.
After Kenneth Buck took the $60,000, a mask was put on McMath, and Cyril Buck drove him over a lonely, winding road. Eventually they stopped and picked up a passenger — Peggy McMath.
McMath and his daughter were delivered back to the boat where McMath reportedly agreed to wait 48 hours before contacting police in order to allow the kidnappers to escape. Perhaps that was the moratorium McMath had in mind when he talked to the press earlier.
However,it was oily a few hours later that police learned the girl had been released. I found no information on how the police found out, but suspect either Cyril Buck called, or that Neil McMath phoned his wife and she contacted police.
It wouldn't take long for the case to be wrapped up, especially since there was no reason to believe any of the stories Kenneth Buck was telling police, except the one in which he took full responsibility for the crime. However, his brother Cyril also would be charged for his role in the kidnapping because police suspected he may have been in on it the whole time.
That's precisely what Kenneth Buck would say after his arrest, retracting it only after he and Cyril argued in Barnstable County jail and nearly came to blows.
Cyril Buck, man in the middle
Neil McMath would admit the Cyril Buck had attempted to help him, saying that while his daughter was held captive, he was so upset and disoriented that he was oblivious to what Buck was telling him, such as his advice that McMath contact the police.
McMath's business partner and contact man during the kidnapping, William Lee, crumbled under the pressure of the situation and became hysterical when police boarded his boat unexpectedly while he, McMath and young Peggy were sitting inside, killing time while Kenneth Buck supposedly was fleeing the area.
Police, finding the situation suspicious, took the girl, her father and Lee on a long boat ride to the Coast Guard base at Woods Hole where they were questioned. Several hours later, the girl was returned home; police were satisfied her father had played no part in her abduction.
The trial in late June got bogged down in Kenneth Buck's story that he had been pressured by a mobster named "Bill" to kidnap the girl, and that the girl's father was in on it. Nobody believed the story, but Kenneth Buck's attorney, Elias Burwick, kept insisting it was true.
More successful was Willard Carleton, defense attorney for Cyril Buck, who convinced jurors his client was innocent of any wrongdoing.
Kenneth Buck's guilt, a foregone conclusion, was affirmed by the jury and the young man was sentenced to the rather unusual term of at least 24 years, but not more than 25, behind bars.
What happened to the Buck brothers? I've looked, but have found nothing, except that in 1934 a petition was circulated in Harwich for the release of Kenneth Buck from prison. As far as I know, the petition was not successful.
Margaret "Peggy" McMath went on to lead a long, full and happy life. She died February 18, 2014. Her obituary — posted online by Morris, O'Connor & Blute Funeral Homes of South Yarmouth, Massachusetts — does not mention the kidnapping, though it is interesting that the McMaths left Massachusetts shortly after her release and returned to Detroit, where Peggy was born. After living in Canada most of her adult life, she returned to Cape Cod — at the age of 83.
Margaret McMath Herring
Passed away peacefully at Rosewood Manor in Harwich, MA on February 18, 2014, at the end of a long and fulfilled life.
Peggy was born in Detroit, Michigan on February 6, 1923. Throughout her life she saw more of the world than most people of her era.
After an early childhood in Detroit her family moved to Harwich in 1931, where her father co-founded the Harwich Port Boat Works and Stone Horse Yacht Club.
She learned the ways of the native Cape Codders who mentored and befriended her becoming a life-long sailor and nature lover.
In 1933 her family returned to Detroit, where she attended Kingswood School. After graduation she enrolled in Vassar College, graduating with the Class of ’44-’45, their studies shortened by World War II.
Peggy joined the U.S. Navy at the end of the war and became a meteorologist’s mate, thereby fostering a life-long appreciation of weather and climate.
While attending graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor she met Kenneth Herring on a blind date. They fell in love and married in 1948.
Peggy evolved from Michigan city girl to Canadian farmer’s wife with ease and grace, making Lennoxville, Quebec her home for nearly 60 years. Her community involvement was strong and she participated in women’s organizations such as Beta Sigma Phi, church women’s group, and later became Quebec Commissioner of Girl Guides (Girl Scouts in the U.S.), all while raising 4 children.
After years of hiking, downhill and cross country skiing and enjoying the woods, people said that she knew the family farm better than anyone else.
After the kids grew up and left home, she and Ken followed their passions, notably world travel and photography. They collaborated with Lindblad Travel and were among the very first eco-tourists, journeying to locales as varied as Antarctica, Africa, the South Pacific, and to a wide selection of remote and wonderful places.
As dedicated bird watchers, Peggy and Ken recorded viewing hundreds, if not thousands, of species over the years, even though they refused to keep a bird list! Their travel slide shows became legendary in both Canada and the USA.
Finally, in 2006 they moved from Canada back to Cape Cod to live with daughter Frances. Peggy always considered Cape Cod as one of her homes, along with Detroit, Lennoxville, and Man O War Cay in the Bahamas.
Peggy is pre-deceased by her husband, Ken. She is survived by sons Neil and wife, Pam (North Hampton, NH); Bruce and wife Candace (Lennoxville, Quebec); and Kit and wife Diana (Seattle WA); daughter Frances and husband Ron Rich (Harwich Port, MA); by grandchildren Erica, Graham, Katherine, Amelia, Alex, Alida, Vanessa, Meghan, Angela and Shawn, and by great-grandchildren Reed, Braydon and Lilia.