How the case of the kidnapped paperboys accelerated the “stranger danger” panic of the 1980s.
By Paul M. Renfro
In the early morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 5, 1982, 12-year-old Johnny Gosch vanished while delivering copies of the Des Moines Register. Two years later, 13-year-old paperboy Eugene Wade Martin disappeared under virtually identical circumstances on the south side of Des Moines. These cases terrified residents of Des Moines and Iowa, many of whom believed that the Midwest—a “safe,” and implicitly white, place—ought to be immune from “this type of terrorism,” as one local put it in 1984. “This city and this geographical area are supposed to be comfortable, safe places to raise children, work and lead productive lives,” he wrote in a letter to the Register.
Gosch and Martin disappeared amid an intensifying moral panic concerning “stranger danger” and child exploitation. They joined other high-profile cases—namely those of Etan Patz in Manhattan (1979), Adam Walsh in South Florida (1981), and Kevin Collins in San Francisco (1984)—to distort Americans’ understanding of the threats confronting the nation’s children. Publicized by concerned politicians, bereaved parents (such as John Walsh and Johnny Gosch’s mother, Noreen), and an increasingly tabloidized news media, these cases and the inflated statistics surrounding them drastically exaggerated the “stranger danger” threat. (Some insisted that 50,000 or more children fell victim to stranger kidnapping in the U.S. each year.) The media and political emphasis on these sorts of cases seemed to imply that white children like Gosch and Martin were most likely to be victimized. Yet stranger kidnappings were and remain extremely rare (fewer than 300 cases annually), and children of color have long been underrepresented in news media coverage of missing children.
Present-day accounts often trace the origins of the 1980s “stranger danger” scare, which still haunts parents today, to the Etan Patz and Adam Walsh kidnappings. But the lesser-known kidnappings of Gosch and Martin played a crucial role in stoking this panic and the parental anxieties associated with it. Even though Gosch and Martin were never seen again, and their cases were never solved, they live on—not only as cautionary tales for Iowa parents and children, but also as potent symbols of endangered white childhood. That’s partly because Gosch and Martin were the first missing children to be featured on the sides of milk cartons. After two Des Moines dairies began placing missing children’s photographs, including Gosch’s and Martin’s, on their products in the fall of 1984, the practice caught on in the Midwest and then nationwide. All told, some 700 dairies took part, producing and distributing approximately 3 billion milk cartons adorned with images of missing kids. At a moment of national economic and political uncertainty, as fears of familial and national decline abounded, the image of imperiled white childhood resonated far and wide, from the prairies to the sea. The consequences have been dire.
People, wether children or adults, will be abducted by someone. No amount of law passing or enforcement will ever stop this or any other crime from happening. The search for a utopian society where everyone respects each other’s space and life is a futile endeavor. Property will be taken. People will be injured and lives will be taken.
More laws and more bills and more police and more community involvement will never stop this. Just get the F*** over it and when something happens, deal with THAT problem as THAT problem, not A PROBLEM that needs a solution. There has never been a reported crime spree of child abductions in the U.S. And even if there was, it was done by one person, not an evil Cabal of unaccounted for offenders.
This whole thing has been and always will be one of the reasons the U.S. is laughed at by the world community. The intense overreaction to EVERY event is ridiculous.
A person being abducted is horrible for the family. If it happens in a small community, they rally. If in a city, it isn’t noticed beyond the 6 o’clock news. With 7.6 billion people on Earth, can one really expect EVERY person to be safe EVERY second of their lives?
Bottom line is, does every perceived problem have to have a final solution. The Nazis tried that, and it didn’t work!
And when the abduction is done by a family member…
I remember these two boys and wondered then as I do now, what if the boys walked off on their own not wanting to be found by anyone and live under other names today.
Of course, I cannot resist, did they become children of the corn?
My first experience with sex offenders came in a meeting with a shrink named Dr. Bob. In that initial interview he breaks out several photo albums full of news paper articles about kidnappings, abductions, rapes and child murder. ” This is my life” he said to me.
He walked me into a common area and left me to look through all of them. I was astounded and felt sickened by the reading and those pictures of missing kids, beaten and bruised women and stolen kids. All kinds of mysterious disappearance of people. Story after story after story. When i was done, after an hour and a half, I went to hand them back. He asked me what I thought about it all. I told him it was nuts that so much had gone on. Lots of crazy mother(t)ruckers. Dr. Bob took exception to my choice of language. He confronts me about it. That caught me of guard. I couldn’t follow why he had a beef, he’d asked me and I’d given it to him straight! He clearified. He referred the word “crazy.” Crazy people, he said, do not plan their actions. He informed me ” most people plan to do evil. “
I remember the look of fear in my moms eyes when she would tell us stories about what happened to those children on the milk cartons, so I understand how and why the registry was created. Before SORNA predators would cross state lines just to snach children knowing police and people in the community would start their search locally before nationally giving them time to escape with their victims.
I hate to admit it but since Megan’s law was created you really don’t hear about kids getting snatched by random strangers like you did back in the 70s 80s 90s with today’s technology it’s not as easy to move in and out of city’s and community’s with out leveling some kind of digital evidence of you being their
So yeah I support the registry to a certain extent, As a parent of 3 most likely I’ll have grandchildren I’d be stupid if i didn’t want my family protected under the Sex Offender Registration Notification Act the FBI created to protect innocent women and children in America do I agree with it entirely no