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'Birthright': The Astonishing Story Behind 'Kidnapped'

Feb 7, 2010 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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A. Roger Ekirch

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"To commit the care of a minor to him who is next in succession to him is like committing a lamb to be devoured by the wolf."

That quote begins A. Roger Ekirch's new book, Birthright: The True Story that Inspired Kidnapped — a historical account of the 18th-century kidnapping of 12-year-old British aristocrat James Annesley.

Annesley's story captivated public attention in the 18th century and inspired at least five novels, including Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure tale Kidnapped.

The Annesleys were a wealthy English family who also achieved wealth and fame in Ireland and Wales. After the death of James Annesley's father, heir to the Annesley estate, James was to receive his inheritance. But his Uncle Richard had him kidnapped and sent to America as an indentured servant.

"Any tale involving aristocratic shenanigans — certainly one as venal and violent as this — was destined to capture public attention," Ekirch tells NPR's Liane Hansen. It was the largest family fortune ever to be put before a jury.

"Large numbers of people of all social ranks were able to follow closely, given the explosion in newspapers and periodicals," Ekirch says.

Once James Annesley was in the colonies, he worked as a servant for 12 years in northern Delaware — longer than most indentured servants — "because he persistently attempted to escape," Ekirch explains.

Annesley finally ran away to Philadelphia, which was not uncommon for indentured servants — the city was a place of potential employment and also a shipping port. He found a job aboard a merchant vessel bound ultimately for England, which had to stop first in Jamaica.

In Jamaica, he enlisted in the Royal Navy and decided to declare his identity. He caught the attention of Adm. Vernon, the commander of the British Royal Navy.

"[Vernon] is utterly persuaded of Jemmy's rightful claim, and within a matter of weeks is brought back to London," Ekirch says.

In a trial in Dublin in 1743, a jury vindicated Annesley and ruled that he was indeed his father's legitimate heir.

"Jemmy is toasted by high society and low, on both sides of the Irish Sea," Ekirch says. "He is ultimately redeemed, and he does achieve a strong measure of poetic justice."

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