'Birthright': The Astonishing Story Behind 'Kidnapped' In his new book, Birthright, author A. Roger Ekirch gives a historical account of the 18th-century kidnapping of 12-year-old British aristocrat James Annesley. The story captivated public attention and inspired at least five novels, including Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure tale Kidnapped.

'Birthright': The Astonishing Story Behind 'Kidnapped'

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: A. Roger Ekirch tells the true story in his book "Birthright," and he joins us from member station WVTF in Roanoke, Virginia. Welcome to the program.

M: Thank you, Liane.

: Why did this story captivate the public in the 18th century?

M: Any tale involving aristocratic shenanigans, certainly one as venal and violent as this, was destined to capture public attention, which large numbers of people of all social ranks were able to follow closely, given the explosion of newspapers and periodicals and coffee houses, which served as centers of public gossip and information. But beyond that, at stake was the largest family fortune ever to be put before a jury.

: Why was James' lawful inheritance even in question?

M: It was in question because his legitimacy was in question. He was portrayed by his uncle as the bastard son of his father, his uncle's elder brother.

: Nonetheless, I mean, he had a father and he had a mother, right?

M: Indeed, he did. But his father, an impoverished Irish baron, banished his mother, allegedly for adultery, from the family seat. The father ultimately turned young Jemmy Annesley out onto the streets of Dublin. His father mysteriously dies - I'm convinced is poisoned by his younger brother. Within several months of the funeral of Jemmy's father, Uncle Dick, Richard Annesley, who sees Jemmy as an obstacle to inheriting as many as five aristocratic titles in Ireland and England, conspires to have him kidnapped.

: Well, he was 12 when...

M: He was.

: ...he was kidnapped. What happened to James when he was in the colonies? I mean, he did have to serve as a servant.

M: He did. Most indentured servants were consigned to serve for three to five years. He ended up serving for 12 years in northern Delaware. He actually embarked in Newcastle, lying just south of Wilmington today, and served on a succession of farms. Why so long? Because he persistently attempted to escape.

: Now, how did he manage to get back to Ireland and England?

M: He runs away to Philadelphia, which was not uncommon for indentured servants. Philadelphia was a magnet, both as a place of employment, but more importantly as a shipping port. Whereupon he becomes employed aboard a merchant vessel bound ultimately for England, but it has to stop first in Jamaica. At that point, he enlists in the Royal Navy and then chooses shortly thereafter to declare his identity, which catches, ultimately, the attention of Admiral Vernon, the commander of the British Royal Navy. He is utterly persuaded of Jemmy's rightful claim and within a matter of weeks- is brought back to London.

: Did James Annesley ever get satisfaction?

M: Well, not to duck your question, Liane, but that depends on what you mean by satisfaction. He was vindicated during the trial in Dublin in 1743. The jury found, indeed, that he was his father's legitimate heir. On the other hand - and I don't want to give the end away, if you don't mind. Jemmy is toasted by high society and low on both sides of the Irish Sea. He is ultimately redeemed, and he does achieve a strong measure of poetic justice.

: Thank you very much.

M: My pleasure, Liane.

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