In 1860, wealthy kidnapper Elizabeth Thorndike Rice hid in Derby, Vt., with her son as her abusive ex-husband tried to find them. Henry Rice was hell-bent on recapturing their only child, 8-year-old Allen Thorndike Rice, and he was unlikely to share custody of him. After he reneged on their agreement to let Allen visit them alternately on school vacations, Elizabeth Rice hired several men to abduct him from his school in Nahant, Mass.
She enlisted the help of a family friend and a chivalrous stranger in Derby, Vt., to escape from her husband and his small army of detectives.
Henry Rice was a wealthy Baltimore businessman and a gambler. He had begun to abuse his wife shortly after their marriage. Her health had failed and she refused to sign a will drawn up by him – a will that left all her money to him and his heirs.
For weeks, she and Allen hid out in the woods and in strangers’ homes, always ready to move on at a moment’s notice and several times coming close to discovery. Newspapers eagerly covered the celebrated custody case, with sightings of Allen and his wealthy kidnapper mother reported throughout New England.
Allen Thorndike Rice Kidnapped
Allen Thorndike Rice was kidnapped by several men who drove up to his school, carried him out and threw him into a carriage.
Elizabeth Rice had paid the men to abduct Allen and bring him to her in Boston, where she disguised him as a girl. They quickly set out for a hotel in Stanstead, Quebec, with two other women.
The carriage driver returned to Boston and, under the influence of alcohol, gabbed about his journey.
Henry Rice’s detectives heard about it and headed for Stanstead, where they posed as salesmen, drovers and summer visitors. Sheriffs, constables and police throughout New England and New York were notified to be on the lookout for them.
Elizabeth Rice began to get nervous. She wrote to a trusted friend in Boston, William Dwight, asking if he knew anyone who could hide her and her son.
Dwight replied she should contact John Kelley, a prosperous merchant and hop dealer in Derby, Vt., just over the border. He also wrote to John Kelley and told him Mrs. Rice was a much persecuted woman. It would be a generous thing to do to, he wrote, to help her keep her child.
John Kelley to the Rescue
Elizabeth Rice found John Kelley in Derby. Kelley sent a team to Stanstead to bring them to Derby Center. All four were brought to his brother Daniel’s house, where they stayed a week.
Meanwhile, Kelley began to suspect strangers in town were Rice’s detectives. Rice had promised a reward of $500 for returning his child, and townspeople were aiding in the search. And then a clerk in his store heard a telegraphed message from one detective to another about clues in the search. They were getting close, and Elizabeth Rice was no longer safe.
John Kelley knew he had to do something, but what?
At dusk he hitched up his wagon, hid under the seat and had his clerk drive to his brother Daniel’s house. He had brought food and blankets, and took mother and son into the woods with his brother William. They spent 24 hours in the woods under William’s care. The next morning Henry Rice and his detectives came to John Kelley’s door.
That night, Kelley returned to the their hiding place in the woods undetected. He told them they must find a new hiding place with one of the few townspeople they could trust.
Under Cover of Darkness
It was a moonlit night, though clouds occasionally obscured the moon. They traveled stealthily through the woods and arrived at the main road. When the moon hid behind the clouds they dashed across the road. At one point they heard the voices of detectives looking for them.
They arrived at Alvin Robbins’ house and knocked at the door, but it was so late the inhabitants didn’t answer it for quite some time. Finally the door opened and Kelley asked Robbins to take in Elizabeth and Allen Rice. Robbins said he couldn’t because the house was filled with girls who picked his hops. Robbins’ wife, moved by the sight of the bedraggled, tired and wet mother and child, persuaded her husband to take them in.
They stayed for three weeks locked in a room that had a trap door in the floor covered by a rug. When anyone came to the house, they vanished into a hole under the cellar. To throw off suspicions that they were staying in the house, the Robbins had a party for the hop pickers.
Rice’s detectives hadn’t let up the hunt. They staked out John Kelley’s house to glean a clue about the fugitives’ whereabouts. Elizabeth at all times filled her pockets with cayenne, with which she intended to blind anyone who tried to catch her.
Alvin Robbins sent for Dr. Carpenter on the pretense that someone in the house was sick. Dr. Carpenter took messages back and forth between the Robbins and Kelley houses. In that way they came up with a plan to throw the detectives off their trail.
Kelley’s clerk, dressed as a woman, climbed into Dr. Carpenter’s wagon. Dr. Carpenter drove the wagon out of his barn at full speed and in view of the watchful detectives. The detectives harnessed their horses and followed.
About a mile toward Island Pond, the clerk got out and walked back to town. Dr. Carpenter stayed at a friend’s house that night. The following day he threw buckets of water over his horse to make it look as if it had been driven hard, and rode openly into Derby Center. The detectives assumed he had taken Allen to Island Pond, 20 miles away, and resumed their search there. Frustrated, they gave up and returned to Boston.
William Dwight and John Kelley came up with a plan to spirit Elizabeth and Allen Rice out of the country. Allen hid under the seat of a wagon and was taken to a train, which carried him to Biddeford, Maine. Elizabeth Rice took a separate train and met her son in Biddeford. They boarded a schooner, which intercepted an oceangoing vessel bound for Europe.
Elizabeth and Allen Rice settled in Germany and France. Elizabeth died in 1866 and Allen returned to America, where he lived with his father. Henry Rice died three years later, and Allen matriculated at Oxford. In 1877, he purchased the North American Review and dramatically expanded its circulation. He was named minister to Russia by President Benjamin Harrison, but died unexpectedly in May 1889 before assuming the post.
With thanks to Proceedings of the Orleans County Historical Society, for the Year Ending August 1888. For the story of Henry Cabot Lodge testifying against the kidnapper, click here. This story was updated in 2021.