Heritage & HistoryHistory

The Soft Hearted Kidnappers

In today’s insecure and hostilitiesthorn world little is known of the first modern hostage crisisthat occurred in Macedonia in the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1901 the country was part of the shrinking Ottoman Empire and the only large European territory still possessed by the once mighty conquerors. Freedom fighters led mainly by teachers, peasants and a few dropouts of the military academia organized themselves into small squads called ceta (pronounced ‘cheta’), established an extensive operational network in the Macedonian mountains and surrounding plains. Yet, the ceta-s lacked arms and military skills to engage in serious fights with the Ottoman militia. For that they needed money. The most ambitious cetnik leader of that time, voivode Jane Sandanski (later named Pirin Tsar) plotted to obtain funds for armaments by taking ransom. His initial moves to kidnap a rich Ottoman bey were fruitless. So he turned towards American protestant missionaries who managed to built friendship and trust with the local population. While embracing the new protestant faith, the locals nevertheless remained dedicated to the liberation cause. So voivodeSandanski  was informed about the missionary plans and routes of the devout Americans. The highly respected Dr. House cancelled his trip the last moment, so the rebels found themselves in a strange situation of kidnapping a female missionary, Miss Ellen Stone and her pregnant fellow missionary and friend Katerina Stefanova-Cilkaof Macedonian origin. The cetniks ambushed the missionary caravan in the gorges of Rila and Pirin mountains (in present day Bulgaria), released the companions and took only the precious missionary woman and her pregnant friend. They made them write a letter to Dr. House, saying that kidnappers wanted a ransom of 25 000 Turkish lira (around 100 000 US dollars at the time) to free the hostages. Thus started the notorious “Miss Stone Affair”. The hostage crisis lasted for five months. The kidnapping happened in September 1901 and lasted until the beginning of February 1902. The kidnappers had harsh negotiations over the ransom amount and conditions of the delivery of the money.

There was a strong diplomatic pressure from the United States, Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. American and European press paid great attention to the affair, thus creating publicity for the kidnappers and their cause, which was not at all in favor of the Ottomans, who organized a major search for the kidnappers and offered 50 liras for Sandanski’s head. But the cetnik’s logistics and aides network proved unbreakable. In harsh weather conditions, high in the mountains, they managed to transfer the hostages from one location to another leaving no traces behind. At the same time, they insisted on their original ransom demand, which showed their superior understanding of their position and the possible traps. They insisted on receiving the money in full weight golden coins, avoiding banknotes or other forms of payment which could be marked and later lead the authorities to them. They wanted to first receive the payment and then free the hostages, leaving enough time for them to secure their people involved in the physical transfer of the ransom. Eventually they agreed to reduce the amount to 14 500 Turkish lira, estimating that a smaller but immediate transfer would be more beneficialto the cause.

In the meantime they had to handle the extremely uneasy situation of caring for an old lady and her pregnant companion. The tough rebels were doing their best  to provide comfortable conditions for the ladies kept in the mountainous wilderness. They provided horses, secured cooked meals that were even served on plates. And when the time came, they provided a cottage and secured the services of an experienced midwife to assist the delivery of the baby girl. A few days after the delivery, when prolonging their stay in one place increased the risk of being discovered by the authorities, they moved their hostages to another hiding place, carrying thenew mother in a big coffin.

Five months into the crisis, in the middle of January, the money was finally transferred. The hostages were released in the beginning of February, after the whole ceta brought them near the village ofGradasorci near Strumica. There they left them in the care of two unarmed men who made sure the ladies were handed over to the authorities and taken to safety. Thus the drama of the three females in the hands of the strong warriors ended successfully. Stone was obviously affected by the ‘Stockholm syndrome’as during interrogationsfollowing her release she did not give away any details which would help the Ottoman authorities apprehend the kidnappers. During the whole affair the authorities wrongly suspected Ivan Gavranov, a leader of the Revolutionary Organization, and not Sandanski, who was only consulting but not following the instructions of Goce Delcev, the mastermind of the Organization. Only two weeks later an Ottoman telegram referred to Sandanski as the main conspirator. Stone testified that their captors hid their faces and identity,never speaking in front of the ladies and that the communicating with themat night time and under poor light. Yet, in the later years, she herself