On 18 May 1904, Perdicaris and Ellen’s son Cromwell were kidnapped from their home by Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli‘s bandits. Several of Perdicaris’s servants were injured by Raisuli’s men, and Ellen was left behind alone. Shortly after leaving Tangier, Perdicaris broke his leg in a horse fall. Raisuli demanded of Sultan Abdelaziz of Morocco, $70,000 ransom, safe conduct, and control of two of Morocco‘s wealthiest districts.
Despite the circumstances, Perdicaris came to admire and befriend Raisuli, who pledged to protect his prisoner from any harm. Perdicaris later said: “I go so far as to say that I do not regret having been his prisoner for some time… He is not a bandit, not a murderer, but a patriot forced into acts of brigandage to save his native soil and his people from the yoke of tyranny.”
US president Theodore Roosevelt was angered by the kidnapping, and felt obliged to react. His Secretary of State, John Hay, described the demands as “preposterous”. At the urging of Hay and the Consul-General of Tangier, Samuel R. Gummere, Roosevelt dispatched seven warships under the command of Admiral French Ensor Chadwick, and several Marine companies, commanded by Major John Twiggs Myers, though with little idea of what US forces could achieve on such hostile foreign soil. They were not to be used without express orders from Washington; the only plan for using them was to seize the custom-houses of Morocco, which supplied much of its revenue, if the Moroccan government did not fulfill the demands of the United States, which were to make the concessions necessary to persuade Raisuli to release Perdicaris, and to attack Raisuli if Perdicaris were killed anyway. The only Marines actually to land on shore were a small detachment of a dozen men, carrying only sidearms, who arrived to protect the Consulate and Mrs. Perdicaris.
Roosevelt’s resolve weakened when he was advised on 1 June that Perdicaris was not a U.S. citizen, that in fact he had forfeited his American passport for a Greek one forty years earlier; but Roosevelt reasoned that, since Raisuli thought Perdicaris was an American citizen, it made little difference. Roosevelt tried to get Britain and France to join the U.S. in a combined military action to rescue Perdicaris, but the two countries refused and France actually reinforced its garrison in anticipation of an American assault. Instead, the two powers were covertly recruited to put pressure on the Sultan to accept Raisuli’s demands, which he agreed to do on 21 June. Hay saw the need to save face so he issued a statement to the Republican National Convention:
This government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.
According to all witnesses, the Convention, which had been lukewarm towards Roosevelt up until then, went wild at this remark. One Kansas delegate exclaimed, “Roosevelt and Hay know what they’re doing. Our people like courage. We’ll stand for anything those men do.” This famous catchphrase quickly caught on, and helped Roosevelt secure his election in 1904.
Perdicaris and Varley were met personally by Gummere and Chadwick, who had spent much of the time of their capture with Perdicaris’s wife. When Ellen Varley asked for the admiral to provide a doctor for her husband, every medical officer in the American fleet volunteered.
The detailed facts of the incident (especially the fact that Perdicaris was not an American) remained secret until 1933, when historian Tyler Dennett mentioned it in his biography of John Hay.