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Kidnapped heiresses: from Patty Hearst to the Mackintosh sisters of Boston

Having written about kidnapped heiresses in the colonial period, I was interested to delve into a modern case and so watched CNN's limited series, "The Radical Story of Patty Hearst," which concluded last night, with great interest. For Patty Hearst, a granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, her 1974 kidnapping was lengthy and brutal, full of violent crimes in which she participated, and marked by her apparent conversion to the side of her captors, the Symbionese Liberation Army. As Hearst and her family did not participate in the series, it relied heavily upon the accounts of one of her former captors, William Harris, who clearly had an ax to grind: his smug, self-serving comments repeatedly cast doubt upon Patty Hearst's account of events. Inevitably, I found myself feeling more sympathetic to Hearst and wishing her side of the story had been presented more fully. Perhaps her book, Every Secret Thing, answers some questions left lingering from the six-part series.

While the cases are vastly different, I was reminded of research I conducted for my book, Witches, Rakes, and Rogues, on one of colonial America’s most unusual kidnapping cases involving two fabulously wealthy orphaned girls in Boston. Elizabeth and Mary Mackintosh were brazenly seized in 1736 by an uncle from Scotland in order to control a family fortune, transport them overseas, and forcibly marry them to men in their ancestral homeland. Cases of abduction and forced marriages have a curious history in Scotland: as Sir Walter Scott put it in Manners, Customs, and History of the Highlanders of Scotland, “Scottish law-books are crowded with instances of this sort of raptus.” Orphaned from a young age with no relatives in North America to guide them, Elizabeth and Mary Mackintosh inherited not only an important family estate in Scotland, but also had significant financial interests in England, South America, and New England, making them vulnerable to a fate they could not have foreseen or even imagined.

Unlike Patty Hearst, the Mackintosh girls were quickly recovered, their captor banished, and their lives, to the extent possible, returned to normalcy. Elizabeth Mackintosh went on to marry wealthy landowner Isaac Royall, Jr., who was instrumental in the founding of Harvard Law School. The sisters, who knew loss and terror as young women, are forever linked in a beautiful Royall family group portrait by colonial artist Robert Feke.

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