Inspired by a suggestion from Ana of the Well-Appointed Desk, I decided I wanted to know more about the classic ransom note. You know the one, with its message written out in letters meticulously cut from newspapers and magazines. The idea is to conceal the handwriting of the sender. I’ve tried making them for fun, and discovered that they take a long time to do and, to me, are more trouble than they’re worth. However, I was making them on a lark, not using them as a tool to disguise my identity during nefarious acts.
The first recorded ransom note of this style was… any guesses? Well, it’s a trick question. According to a CBS 48 Hours program write-up on famous ransom notes, the “… kind of ransom note you're used to imagining - letters cut out of a magazine and pasted onto a piece of paper. As far as I can tell, that exists only in the imagination of Hollywood screenwriters.” –Peter LaRosa They do have an interesting, if morbid, gallery of famous ransom notes here.
Well then, where did it start? There’s a faxed cut paper ransom note sent in The Big Lebowski, but that movie is from 1996 and is itself homage to tons of older movies. According to a thesis entitled “The Ransom Note Effect: Cut-and-Paste Typography in American Visual Culture,” Arden Stern claims that the first instance of the iconic cut paper note is from Sherlock Holmes “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” This wasn't even a ransom note, really, but it was a warning. Still, all evidence seems to show that is the progenitor for all the notes in popular culture that follow.
The FBI does keep a database of papers, glues, typefaces, toners, and all other sorts of paper identifiers around just in case life imitates art imitating life in the case of the ransom note. If you’re into making one of these creations for fun purposes only, there is currently a call for participants in the “Handsome Ransom” project through UPPERCASE magazine.