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What is a Ransom?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A ransom is a sum of money paid to release a person or object which is being held until. This word can also be used to refer to the act of paying a ransom, as in "she ransomed her husband after negotiating with the kidnappers." The practice of kidnapping or stealing and demanding a ransom payment is illegal, and attempts at orchestrating such activities can result in severe legal penalties, including jail time.

The origins of such payments are ancient. Numerous ancient cultures demanded ransom in war; once a battle was over, a list of prisoners would be sent, giving the opposing side an opportunity to pay to have some hostages released. Prisoners not ransomed would be enslaved or killed, and typically only members of the upper classes could expect to be ransomed if they were captured in war. This practice also carried on into civilian life, with criminals abducting high ranking members of society and only releasing them when demands are met.

Although people often mean a sum of money when they refer to a ransom, someone can also be held for payments in property. This could include works of art, real estate, and other objects which the kidnappers value. Sometimes hijackers will hold crew and passengers for ransom and demand safe passage, another example of a variation on traditional ransoming activities. Other concessions may also be demanded as part of a kidnapping or hijacking attempt.

When someone is kidnapped, law enforcement agencies recommend that they be contacted immediately, even before the kidnappers make contact. A negotiator can work with friends and family members to retrieve someone who has been taken, sometimes by paying the ransom and sometimes with the use of other techniques. As a general rule, many governments refuse to buy back prisoners when they are approached with payment demands, under the argument that doing it once would set a very dangerous precedent. This refusal to negotiate is criticized by some citizens.

Objects are held for ransom more rarely, as criminals correctly suspect that in most cases, people would rather give the object up than buy it back. Criminals have targeted national treasures or extremely valuable works of art for ransom attempts, however, and in a few cases, they have even stooped as low as holding human remains, under the assumption that family members will be disinclined to let the remains of a relative go without a fight.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By animegal — On Oct 04, 2011

Our school recently had a fun time doing a role-playing game, where one of the students was "kidnapped" and we had to figure out what to do about the ransom note that was left. We got to play detective and figure out where our friend was being held so that we could free them without having to pay out a lot of cash.

It ended up that our principal had hidden our classmate in one of the classrooms that no one really used. We ended up winning the game by finding our classmate before the ransom deadline. It was a really fun activity and I wish more schools could have more fun games like that.

By letshearit — On Oct 03, 2011

There are so many movies about ransoms that it seems to be a bit of a cliche now to use ransom money as a plot device. I remember seeing at least half a dozen movies where someone gets kidnapped and the hero had to save them before the ransom money was paid out and lost forever.

Has anyone seen the movie titled "Ransom", that starred Mel Gibson a few years back? It pretty much followed the exact plot line I just went over. It would be nice to see some movies that just didn't follow the same predictable plot. I honestly think that Hollywood is just making movies and switching about the actors sometimes.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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