History

Fear in the Heartland

How the case of the kidnapped paperboys accelerated the “stranger danger” panic of the 1980s.

An abandoned wagon with newspapers in it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by mikespics/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Flanked by his dachshund Gretchen, Johnny Gosch, with his red wagon in tow, set out to deliver copies of the Des Moines Register on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, 1982. By 7:45 a.m., one of the boy’s 37 customers, growing impatient, phoned the Gosch residence to determine the whereabouts of their Sunday paper. Johnny’s father, John, checked the boy’s bedroom but found no trace of his son. Stranger still, the family’s dachshund had returned home. “We went searching and found his little red wagon,” Johnny’s father told the Register. “Every single [newspaper] was in his wagon.” After delivering the papers his son never had the chance to distribute, John Gosch called the police around 8:30 a.m.

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The ensuing investigation yielded few meaningful leads, which aggravated John and his wife, Noreen Gosch, and prompted them to hire their own private investigators. In the months following her son’s disappearance, Noreen also began to cultivate a public persona as an outspoken victims’ rights advocate. She routinely lambasted local law enforcement officials in the press and petitioned for more robust laws to safeguard children from kidnapping and exploitation.

Her efforts transported her to Capitol Hill, where she testified before an August 1984 Senate committee concerning the “effect of pornography on women and children.” In her prepared statement, Gosch falsely accused the North American Man/Boy Love Association of abducting her son as part of “organized pedophilia operations in this country”—a speech that now feels like an antecedent to the conspiratorial thinking of QAnon.

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In her testimony, Gosch also underscored the notion that nefarious, presumably exogenous forces had shattered the suburban Midwestern idyll in which her family lived before Sept. 5, 1982. “We lived in a nice quiet neighborhood in which one would least expect this type of tragedy to occur,” she told the Senate hearing. This claim—that the Gosches’ West Des Moines neighborhood and, more broadly, Iowa and the Midwest should be insulated from such tragedies—carried obvious racial and class implications. It also proved central to news media coverage of, and public responses to, the Martin disappearance.

Four days after Gosch testified on Capitol Hill, Gene Martin went missing while delivering copies of the Sunday Des Moines Register. Almost immediately, Iowans connected the Gosch and Martin cases and insisted that they marked the arrival of what Register editor Jim Gannon called a “dark threat of terror” in their previously safe and secure communities. As Gannon wrote in the wake of Martin’s disappearance:

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Somebody has singled out Des Moines, Iowa, for a special brand of terror. Here, in the normally safe-and-sane heartland of middle America, where clean living, neighborliness and a sense of security are supposed to prevail, a sinister shadow darkens our doorways and our lives. It took Johnny Gosch. Now it’s taken Gene Martin. It has raised questions that violate everything we hold dear about living in this comfortable, contented community: Is it no longer safe to let our youngsters walk our neighborhood streets? Will Des Moines, as if it were Detroit or Newark or Chicago, shut itself behind closed doors and cede the streets to the shadowy threat of terror?

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Here Gannon juxtaposed light with dark, safety with danger, and Des Moines with several implicitly nonwhite spaces. For Gannon, violence and crime were commonplace and predictable in urban areas like Detroit (62.7 percent Black in 1980), Newark (58.2 percent Black in 1980), and Chicago (39.5 percent Black in 1980), each of which had experienced major racial rebellions in the late 1960s. Conversely, Gannon imagined that Des Moines (6.9 percent Black in 1980) should remain untouched by such violence. “So now the national media, the television networks and the national press are fascinated with an unlikely tale,” he wrote, “terror in Des Moines, of all places. We are on display, each one of us bit players in a drama that examines what’s wrong in a place that’s supposed to be so right.”

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Because Gosch and Martin symbolized all that was “so right” with the “heartland of middle America,” their disappearances registered with a broad cross-section of the American public. After all, these were white, middle-class, Midwestern paperboys snatched from their supposedly secure surroundings. To that end, on ABC’s World News Tonight, anchor Peter Jennings suggested that the Gosch and Martin cases spelled doom—not just for the idealized craft of newspaper delivery, but also for a certain way of life. “It wasn’t so long ago in this country that having your own newspaper route was part of the American dream,” he explained. “It’s an early way to learn responsibility and earn a little pocket money at the same time. It has not been that way in Des Moines, Iowa.”

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Given the widespread appeal of these cases, Gannon and others (within and beyond Iowa) marshaled the names and faces of Gosch and Martin to petition for greater “police protection” and the formation of “neighborhood-watch program[s].” Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad organized a conference called “Children in Jeopardy,” during which participants demanded more rigorous background checks for those working with young Iowans and tougher penalties for child sexual abuse. Some ordinary Iowans adopted vigilantist sensibilities and reappropriated Gannon’s rhetorical flourishes, specifically his suggestion that Iowa had been deliberately targeted by “terroris[ts].” “This type of terrorism should be a call to arms and a call to anger for all law-abiding citizens,” one Des Moines man wrote in a letter that was published in the Des Moines Register. In another letter to the Register, a Sioux City man proposed a “constitutional amendment divesting criminal rights” and the reinstatement of the “death penalty for certain crimes.” (Iowa had outlawed the death penalty in 1965.)

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President Ronald Reagan championed and contributed to these efforts. Shortly after Martin’s abduction, Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush visited Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for a campaign rally, during which the president addressed the paperboy disappearances. “We must continue cracking down on crime,” he declared. “And I’m pleased to learn that Iowans have made a particular effort to seize the initiative in combating crime. You’ve established a crime prevention citizens’ watch program in every one of your counties. That’s an accomplishment that few states can match.” The president pledged his “full support in the search for these two boys” and noted the recent passage of the federal Missing Children’s Assistance Act. “Nancy and I join all of you, I’m sure,” he told the audience, “in praying for the safe return of Johnny and Eugene. And I pledge to you that none of us will rest until the streets in Iowa and throughout this nation are once again safe, particularly for our children.”

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Critically, Reagan also couched his discussion of the paperboy cases and his vows to “crack … down on crime” within a celebration of Iowa’s settler-colonial past. “This was open prairie,” he insisted, obscuring the Indigenous communities that had long called Iowa home. “And then the pioneers began to settle here: Yankees, Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, and immigrants from many other nations—men and women as hardy as the land. They plowed the sod, they planted crops, they dotted the land with farmhouses and built lovely towns like Cedar Rapids. And soon, Iowa contained some of the richest farmland in history, feeding tens of millions in America and around the world.” By presenting Iowa as a mythic, racially homogenous, bucolic wonderland, Reagan could portray the paperboy kidnappings (and “crime” generally) as existential threats to a way of life that never truly existed.

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The milk carton campaign, launched the same month as Reagan’s campaign event in Cedar Rapids, built on the interwoven pastoral and domestic ideals that animated so many responses to the paperboy cases. Des Moines’ Anderson Erickson Dairy started producing and distributing milk cartons with Gosch’s and Martin’s faces on them. Another Des Moines dairy soon followed suit. These campaigns drew upon and reinforced the intimate associations between milk, the Midwestern landscape, and maternal nurturance and child development. With their striking images of lost and endangered (white) childhood innocence, these milk cartons confronted children and families gathered around the breakfast nook or dinner table, warning them of the dangers ostensibly threatening their way of life.

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The practice quickly caught on elsewhere, first throughout the Midwest and then nationwide. Chicago’s Hawthorn Mellody Dairy, in collaboration with the city’s police department, rolled out its own milk carton program in late 1984. Given Hawthorn Mellody’s large footprint throughout the Midwest, the national news media took notice, and by March 1985, more than 700 of the nation’s dairies and milk processors were placing missing children’s photographs on their products. As one Associated Press reporter noted at the time, “They are the faces of the nation’s missing children, and their images are rapidly becoming fixtures of American culture.”

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This imagery helped justify a spate of new laws and cultural practices designed to keep children safe from “stranger danger.” Since the emergence of the milk carton campaign, virtually every child honored through local, state, and federal “memorial laws” intended to safeguard children and penalize “perverts” has been white. Initiatives named for, or passed in honor of, Adam Walsh, Jacob Wetterling, Polly Klaas, Megan Kanka, Jimmy Ryce, Amber Hagerman, Carlie Brucia, Jessica Lunsford, and many others expanded the state’s capacity to surveil and incapacitate individuals deemed dangerous to certain children in the 1990s and 2000s. An elaborate system of sex offense registries, reporting requirements, civil commitment protocols, and residency restrictions has taken hold as a result.

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Today, nearly 1 million people are listed on sex offense registries in the U.S., even though many experts consider such registries not only ineffective but ultimately counterproductive. Those previously convicted of sex offenses have relatively low rates of reoffending, and some studies show that the registration and community notification regime “eliminates the possible deterrent effect of having to register for committing a sex crime”—in other words, once you’re registered, you’ve suffered the consequences, and any such deterrent effect is gone. Individuals listed on sex offense registries are also subject to a form of civil death—unable to secure housing or gainful employment, unable to participate in the political process, and unable to find redemption or basic human dignity.

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Ironically, children and adolescents—the very people that registries and other tools purport to protect—have been inordinately harmed by these measures: According to the Juvenile Law Center, some 200,000 individuals are listed on sex offense registries for offenses they committed as minors.

As Americans reckon with QAnon, another corrosive moral panic focused on child abduction and exploitation, they should acknowledge the role of white childhood innocence and its associated imagery in fueling fears of “stranger danger.” Rather than accurately depicting the dangers confronting American youth, lurid tales of “sex slavery,” sinister cabals, and stranger kidnapping reflect and perpetuate a cultural obsession with childhood innocence and the external dangers that supposedly threaten it. Other, more common and more severe threats to children—including poverty, car accidents, and COVID-19—often play second fiddle to sensationalized perils.

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If Americans truly wish to protect all children (and adults) from kidnapping, exploitation, and other forms of sexual and physical harm, we must recognize that cases like Johnny Gosch’s and Eugene Martin’s are extremely rare. Stranger abduction and exploitation understandably terrify parents and other family and community members in acute ways, yet family members and acquaintances are far more likely to perpetrate harm against children. Sex offense registries and related mechanisms counterintuitively locate the threat outside of the idealized family home and, through their reliance on narratives and images of endangered (white) childhood, imply that all registered “sex offenders” represent threats to children and adolescents.

In reality, white children are no more vulnerable than others, and those opposed to mass incarceration and criminalization must acknowledge how notions of white victimhood have been leveraged in support of draconian and largely ineffective laws, such as the infamous crime bill signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 or the 2016 International Megan’s Law signed by President Barack Obama. As truly devastating as cases like Gosch’s and Martin’s are, they also reveal a deep and enduring cultural and legal fixation—one that has damaged countless lives while doing little to ensure the safety and well-being of all people.

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