The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping

Oct 13, 2009 - by Lona Manning - 1 Comment

March 4, 2007

Lindbergh baby

More than seven decades after his execution for committing "the crime of the century," Bruno Richard Hauptmann still has his defenders and sympathizers.

by Lona Manning

As Bruno Richard Hauptmann counted down the days to his execution at the State Prison in Trenton, N.J., his wife Anna went on the lecture circuit, asking her fellow German immigrants to donate to the Hauptmann defense fund. Her husband was not guilty of the "Crime of the Century," she pleaded -- he had not kidnapped and murdered the little Lindbergh baby.

Many checks were mailed directly to Hauptmann at the Death House. He realized that the donors who sent only one dollar didn't necessarily believe in his innocence, they wanted him to endorse the check so they could have the autograph of the man condemned for killing the child of the world-famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh.

But he's acquired a host of new supporters in the decades since he died in the electric chair. Conspiracy theories abound about the Lindbergh kidnapping case, and many people unfamiliar with – or dismissive of – the evidence, believe Hauptmann was framed.


The Lone Eagle

"Do you have the baby, Mrs. Lindbergh?" the nursemaid, Betty Gow, asked her employer.

"No." Anne Morrow Lindbergh looked at Betty in bewilderment.

"Perhaps Colonel Lindbergh has him, then." Betty ran downstairs to the study. "Colonel Lindbergh, have you got the baby, please don't fool me."

"The baby? Isn't he in his crib?"

The wind rattled the shutters against the window glass. The night outside was pitch black. A ransom note lay on the nursery windowsill. The crib was empty.

So began the most celebrated kidnapping case of the last century, a case that is still hotly debated today. Who stole little Charles Lindbergh, Jr., on March 1, 1932? And was Bruno Hauptmann wrongfully convicted?

Charles Lindbergh became an overnight world-wide celebrity in May of 1927 when he flew his single-engine aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, across the Atlantic, becoming the first person to fly solo non-stop from New York to Paris. The publicity and adulation for Lindbergh was intense. He was young, (just 25 years old), six foot three inches tall, handsome in a clean-cut All-American way, nonchalant about his bravery, and good to his mother. He was called "Lucky Lindy" and the "Lone Eagle." More than two hundred songs were written in his honor. There were ticker-tape parades, torchlight parades, poetry contests. News photographers dogged his every move.

In the five years following his transatlantic flight, The New York Times alone mentioned him over 2,700 times. In 1929, Lindbergh married Anne Morrow, the pretty, gentle daughter of a wealthy diplomat; their first son was born a year later. But the family's fame made their baby a vulnerable target. The Lindberghs chose a secluded spot to build their spacious home, on 360 acres near the small town of Hopewell, N.J., about 60 miles from New York City. On the night of March 1, the Lindberghs, their servants and their pet dog were downstairs when the kidnapper climbed a ladder to the second-story nursery and escaped before the baby's disappearance was discovered by the nursemaid, who had gone to check on him.

The ransom note was marked with a distinctive device of two overlapping circles and three punched holes. The note demanded $50,000 (roughly equivalent to several million dollars today) and warned, in badly-spelled English, not to make "anyding public or for the polise."

Not make anything public? Impossible. This was the Lindbergh baby. This was the "crime of the century." His birth "was one of the biggest news stories of 1930," said a contemporary newspaper report, "and his first photograph was one of the most prized pictures in the history of journalistic photography." "For the second time in five years," Lindbergh's biographer A. Scott Berg noted, "the world revolved around Charles Lindbergh." The kidnapping of the "Little Eaglet" awakened a wave of sympathetic grief, horror and outrage across the nation and the world. Church-goers prayed for the baby's safe return. Boy Scout troops turned out to search ditches, fields and forests. Even Al Capone, the notorious gangster, vowed he would do everything possible to help find the baby – if the authorities would just let him out of prison.

"The crime has brought on the biggest newspaper scoop in the history of journalism, not excepting the [first] World War," said the Hopewell Herald, the local paper. "Over 900 writers, photographers, telegraph operators, radio announcers and engineers, aviators, police, [and] detectives… are stationed in this area…. Every form of communication known to science connects Hopewell at the present time with the world. The town is shrouded in a veritable web of telephone wires… and at least 18 or 20 telegraph outlets including also the radio broadcasting setups."

The New Jersey State police took over the case from the small local police force. Their commander was Norman Schwarzkopf, whose son would later distinguish himself during the First Gulf War. The police checked into the backgrounds of everyone who worked on building the house. Border guards searched cars passing from the Northeastern United States into Canada. Everyone carrying a blue-eyed child with blonde curls came under scrutiny. Lindbergh insisted that the priority be getting the baby back, not catching the kidnappers. "Lindbergh leading hunt for his baby," the newspapers proclaimed, adding "Lindbergh is ready to pay [ransom] if he can get the baby safely back to its mother's arms." The State of New Jersey posted a $25,000 reward for information and people across the country sent in contributions for the ransom.

A week later, the kidnappers mailed more letters, which complained "We have warned you note to make anything public…. It is [is it] realy necessary to make a world affair out of this… We will form you latter were to deliver the money. But we will note do so until the Police is out of the cace and the pappers are qute [papers are quiet]."


"Jafsie" Enters The Case

Dr. John Condon was a retired teacher who lived in New York. Eccentric, self-important, intelligent and outgoing, he loved to air his opinions in letters to the editor. After the story of the Lindbergh kidnapping broke, Condon wrote to his favorite newspaper, the Bronx Home News, to publicly offer his services to help recover the lost child.

This impulsive act on Condon's part might have come to nothing – except that the kidnappers saw the letter and wrote him, accepting his services as a go-between. The letter to Condon used the same symbol as the other ransom notes – two overlapping circles with three holes punched inside them.

The ransom note

The ransom note "singnature", photo courtesy  Kelvin Keraga.

 

Condon plunged into a secret world of intrigue, with Lindbergh's blessing. He communicated with the kidnappers by placing cryptic messages in the newspaper, signing himself as "Jafsie," a name based on his initials J.F.C. The kidnappers communicated through notes which were delivered to the house. Those notes in turn contained instructions for where to find other notes which would direct Condon to a meeting place. (For example, "Take a car and drive to the last supway station from jerome Ave here. 100 feet from this last station on the left seide is a empty frankfurther stand with a big open Porch around, you will find a notise in senter of the porch underneath a stove.") At one point, Condon asked for a "code" to communicate with the kidnappers. "It is note necessary to furnish any code," the kidnappers replied. "You and Mr. Lindbergh know ouer Program very well."

Following his instructions, Condon was led to a cemetery on the night of March 11 and was met by a man with a German accent who called himself "John." John wore his hat pulled low over his forehead and his coat collar turned up, but Condon later provided a description for a composite sketch.

John didn't have the baby with him and Condon had no ransom money at that first meeting, but they agreed to meet again.

A month had gone by since the kidnapping, when Condon and Lindbergh followed a second trail of notes that guided them to a night rendezvous at another cemetery. Lindbergh stayed behind while Condon entered the cemetery, but was close enough to hear a man call, "Hey, Doc." Condon handed over the money in exchange for a note which read "The boy is on the Boad Nelly. It is a small boad 28 feet long. Two persons are on the boad. The are innosent. you will find the Boad between Horseneck Beach and gay Head near Elizabeth Island."

Lindbergh and the Coast Guard searched the Martha's Vineyard area for the boat Nelly. The boat was never found.

Although, at Lindbergh's request, the ransom money was not marked – the kidnappers had warned him not to – investigators kept note of all the serial numbers. A portion of the ransom was paid in gold certificates, which were worth their face value in gold.

Investigators knew that next year, all citizens were required to exchange gold certificates for regular greenbacks because people were hoarding gold during the Depression, which drained the country's gold reserves. That meant the kidnapper would have to deposit or spend his gold certificates, increasing the chance that someone would spot a matching serial number.

There were other false leads, and an extortionist who pretended to be negotiating with the kidnappers was caught and arrested, but there was no break in the case. The local police, the state police, border and customs officials, and the FBI were all involved in the investigation. But the massive publicity was more of a hindrance than a help. As a recent FBI article noted, investigators were buried in "a mass of misinformation received from well-meaning but uninformed, highly imaginative individuals, and a deluge of letters written by demented persons, publicity seekers, and frauds."

Tips came in from all over the world – sightings of the Lindbergh baby were reported from England, France, South America and India. But the tragic truth was that he had never gone far from home.


A Heart-Breaking Discovery

Two and-a-half months passed, while Anne Lindbergh agonized over her missing baby and her husband stoically worked with the investigators. The ransom notes had repeatedly emphasized that the "child is in gut care," "There is no worry about the boy. He is very well." But on May 12, a truck driver pulled over to the side of the road a few miles away from the Lindbergh property and walked into the woods to relieve himself. There he spotted the partially buried body of a small child. Only the back of the head and upper body of the tiny corpse were visible. The exposed flesh was dark like tanned leather.

The body was badly decomposed, and mauled by animals. But it had golden curls, it was wearing a little flannel undershirt the nursemaid had sewn hours before he disappeared, and its toes overlapped, a Lindbergh family trait. The Lone Eagle was called to the Trenton morgue to identify his son. The attending physician declared that the child had died of a blow to the head, and had probably died on the night of the kidnapping. Lindbergh instructed that the body be cremated.

The perfunctory autopsy and hasty cremation were the subject of much criticism later. Lindbergh was trying to protect his son in death from the thousands of people who obsessed about the case and might even want to rob the corpse from the grave.

Now the search shifted to finding a murderer. The New York Police Department was already involved and the FBI, under its long-time commander, J. Edgar Hoover, joined the investigation. Early on, it was surmised that the kidnappers must have had some inside information on the Lindbergh household. Who knew that the Lindberghs had decided to stay at Hopewell that night, instead of going to Anne's mother in Englewood, as they had originally planned? How had the kidnappers known which room was the nursery, or that the shutters on one particular window were warped and couldn't be locked? The servants were interrogated, and Violet Sharpe, a maid who worked for Anne Morrow Lindbergh's mother, came under suspicion because she resisted questioning and couldn't remember the name of the movie she'd supposedly been to that night, nor the friends she'd been with. After several interviews with police, Sharpe committed suicide by drinking a poisonous cleaning product. In time, police established that she'd been with some men at a local speakeasy, a place where alcohol could be illegally purchased during the alcohol-free Prohibition years.

Sharpe may have wanted to hide her personal life from her employers, but understandably, suspicion about her possible role in the kidnapping has persisted. No proof has ever been established.

The only tangible leads were the ransom notes and a home-made wooden ladder found on the ground outside the house. The language and handwriting of the ransom notes suggested a foreign-born writer, possibly German. The ladder was built in three sections, designed to fit into a car, and had been left behind as the kidnapper fled. It was built of random pieces of lumber, and the side rails of the middle section had split lengthwise along the grain. Investigators surmised the kidnapper, descending with the additional weight of the baby, had broken the ladder and fallen. This may have been when the baby sustained his fatal head injury. The kidnapper might have injured himself as well.

Any other forensic evidence, such as foot prints or tire tracks, was destroyed when the Lindbergh property was overrun with police, reporters, and sympathetic citizens in the hours after the baby's disappearance. However, modern-day critics who condemn the investigation as "botched" seldom acknowledge the enormous resources thrown into the case, the sustained effort put forward to catch the kidnappers, and the problems the authorities had to contend with.

The investigation was thorough and recognizably modern in its approach. FBI agents searched through boat registrations, looking for the boat Nelly. The employees of the cemeteries where Dr. Condon and "John" had met were screened. New York police checked the names and signatures of anyone who rented a safe-deposit box that spring. They checked every person who had once been a pupil under Dr. Condon to see who had criminal records, and every person released from a mental hospital before the kidnapping. Previous kidnapping cases were re-examined, in hopes of turning up a similar modus operandi.

But it was the painstaking forensic work of an employee of the U.S. Forest Service Laboratory, Arthur Koehler, which most resembles a modern CSI sleuth. He analyzed the marks from the saw used to mill the lumber and contacted 1,600 lumber mills. He eventually determined that most of the wood for the ladder had been milled in South Carolina and sold at a lumberyard in the Bronx.

One of the uprights on the top-most section of the ladder did not come from the lumberyard; it appeared to be recycled wood because it had some extra nail holes in it. Because the wood was unweathered, Koehler figured that wherever it came from, it must have been indoors in a dry place. This piece came to be known as Rail 16.

The authorities delivered 250,000 copies of a pamphlet with serial numbers of the ransom money, concentrating on the New York area where the mysterious man who called himself "John" apparently lived. They visited and re-visited banks and business institutions to urge that the case not be forgotten. It's probable that much of the money was spent and was never checked. In early May, 1933, over $2,000 worth of gold certificates was deposited at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. But the depositor had used a false name and address. By early 1934, the trail went dry. Nine long months went by and no ransom money surfaced.

In September, individual ransom bills began popping up all over New York. Some merchants were able to provide descriptions of the customer because they remembered the man who made small purchases, as little as 10 cents, but paid with a ten dollar gold certificate, which meant handing over a lot of change. The customer spoke with a pronounced German accent, was of average height and build, with high, broad cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. The case, J. Edgar Hoover proclaimed, went "red hot."

On Sept. 15, a gas-station manager suspiciously eyed a $10 gold certificate from a man paying for 98 cents' worth of gas. The manager knew that gold certificates were supposed to be out of circulation. "You don't see these much anymore," he ventured. Suspicious, the manager jotted down the license plate number of the customer's car on the bill, as per company policy.

Three days later, a teller going over a deposit from the gas station realized the certificate matched one of the ransom serial numbers. The license plate number written on the note provided investigators with a name and address.

Soon, investigators were staring at Bruno Richard Hauptmann's application for a driver's license. His handwriting formation was distinctively European. He spelled New York with a hyphen, just like the kidnapper. He placed the dollar sign after the number, "5$" instead of "$5," just like the kidnapper. The kidnapper spelled "night" as "nihgt." Hauptmann spelled "light" as "lihgt."

Hauptmann's distinctive
Hauptmann's distinctive "x", which looks like two "e"'s.
A comparison of the ransom note with his driver's registration from the 1937 book,
The Hand of Hauptmann.

 

After two and a half years, investigators were certain they had found "John."

Hauptmann was picked up on the evening of Sept. 19, 1934. An angry mob gathered outside the Greenwich Police Station, where he was taken.


Bruno Richard Hauptmann

Hauptmann was born in Germany in 1899. He and two of his brothers fought in World War I but only Hauptmann survived. Post-war Germany was in desperate economic straits, and the unemployed Hauptmann became a burglar and also committed armed robbery. He escaped from prison and stowed away on a ship to the United States. Caught and returned to Germany, he made one more failed attempt before successfully entering the U.S..

Hauptmann was a good-looking, athletic man who resembled the composite picture of "John." Once in America, Richard Hauptmann found work as a carpenter and married another German immigrant, Anna Schoeffler, who worked in a bakery. Later, Time magazine would unkindly describe Anna as the "loyal, horse-faced wife."

Although eyewitness testimony was used, to dubious effect, in the trial, it was circumstantial evidence that damned Hauptmann to the electric chair.

  • When Hauptmann was arrested, he had $20 of the ransom money in his pocket. Police found $14,000 more stashed in the garage he rented.

  • Hauptmann had quit his job as a carpenter, where he made $100 a month, on the very weekend that Dr. John Condon paid the ransom money to "John." Since then, he had only worked occasionally. His wife also quit her job at the bakery.

  • That same month, he opened an account with a brokerage firm to buy stocks. He told friends that he was living on his stock earnings, a remarkable accomplishment during the Depression.

  • He had another bank account his wife didn't know about, and in April, he started depositing change and small bills, like someone who had broken larger denominations by making small purchases.

  • As the prosecutor exclaimed: "He had more money than this jury and myself, all of us put together…Here is a poor carpenter, that had slaved for $100 a month, frugal, thrifty, and he spends $400 for a radio. When? During a time when the country was in the midst of the worst depression in its history, 1932. $125 for field glasses. Field glasses! Talk about luxury! Trips to Florida….. He buys a canoe. He sends his wife to Germany…She bought a chest of silverware there."
  • Hauptmann's explanation, which came to be derisively known as "the Fisch Story," was that his friend and occasional business partner, Isidor Fisch, gave him a shoebox before Fisch left for Germany.

    Fisch, a failed businessman with a knack for conning friends out of money, died of tuberculosis and never returned to the U.S. Hauptmann claimed that he stored the shoebox in a closet but it had gotten soaked by a leaky pipe. He claimed the shoebox disintegrated, revealing thousands of dollars. Hauptmann explained that since Fisch owed him money, he decided to pay himself back. He said that he had no idea it was the Lindbergh ransom money. He took the money out of the shoebox, dried it, and hid bundles of money here and there in his garage.

    Authorities had strong evidence to tie Hauptmann to the ransom demands. But did he have anything to do with the kidnapping and death of little Charles? What if he was just an extortionist? If he was the kidnapper, had he acted alone, or did he have an accomplice? Hauptmann was questioned aggressively day and night and also beaten. He insisted he knew nothing about the Lindbergh kidnapping.

     

    Rail 16 – The Ladder

    While searching the attic of Hauptmann's rented home for more ransom money or other clues, police Det. Lewis Bornmann noticed that an eight-foot section of the attic wood flooring was missing and there was a little pile of sawdust where it had been sawn away. In the single most damning piece of evidence against Hauptmann, wood expert Arthur Koehler matched Rail 16 of the kidnap ladder with the flooring from the attic. The four irregularly spaced extra nail holes in Rail 16 matched up perfectly with the holes in the attic floor joists.

  • Hauptmann had worked part-time at the Bronx lumberyard which sold some of the wood for the ladder.
  • The kidnap ladder was made with 8-penny nails from the Pittsburgh Steel Company. Hauptmann had a keg of these nails in his garage.
  • Koehler matched the nicks and groove marks made by Hauptmann's hand planer, to nicks and grooves on the wood used in the kidnap ladder, much as a ballistics expert would match bullet scratches to the barrel of a particular gun. Hauptmann had worked very little since the time of the kidnapping, and apparently had not resharpened his plane, which still retained the distinct series of nicks in the blade
  •  

    The Defense

    Modern celebrity trials, like O.J. or Michael Jackson, have been compared to circuses. But no modern trial could compare to the Hauptmann trial, held in Flemington, N.J. Thousands thronged the courthouse, lining up at 3 in the morning to get a seat inside. Movie stars and politicians got some of the coveted seats. Ordinary folk who couldn't get inside waited outside all day in the rain and sleet for a glimpse of the Lindberghs. Vendors sold little model kidnap ladders. The noise from the crowds out front sometimes grew so loud that the attorneys could not hear the witnesses.

    The jurors were ordinary working class men and women for whom the $3 a day stipend was real money after five years of the Depression, while being sequestered at the local hotel with free meals was the equivalent of a holiday. In addition, there was the glamour of seeing the Lindberghs up close and all of America's top journalists such as Walter Winchell and Damon Runyon, in town to cover the proceedings.

    A New York tabloid paid the bills for Hauptmann's lawyer in exchange for access to Hauptmann and his wife. The lawyer they selected, Edward J. Reilly, was the bombastic, emotional type who could be relied on provide colorful copy for the papers. History hasn't been kind to Reilly, but he was a well-respected defense lawyer in his day. Court observers were surprised when Reilly conceded that the corpse found in the woods was the Lindbergh baby instead of trying to cast doubt on the identification. When it came to the ladder, however, Reilly recognized how dangerous that evidence was for his client and unsuccessfully tried to keep the ladder out of court. Arthur Koehler's testimony proved to be devastating. Time magazine noted Reilly's "nimblest cross-examination failed to shake this implacably precise witness."

    The defense promised seven experts who would testify that Hauptmann had not written the ransom notes, but in the end could only produce one, who argued that the letter-formation and spelling peculiarities in the ransom notes were common among Europeans, not just Hauptmann. The prosecution provided eight handwriting experts who testified that only Hauptmann could have written the notes. Prosecutor Wilentz broke up their dry testimony by bringing on a statuesque beauty, Hildegarde Alexander, described as "a blonde pajama model," who testified that she saw Hauptmann staring at Dr. Condon in a telegraph office. Alexander was one of many eyewitnesses for both sides whose testimony seems contrived.

    Even Lindbergh's claim that he recognized Hauptmann's voice as being the same voice that said "Hey, Doc," at the cemetery two-and-a-half years earlier seems far-fetched. But he was the Lone Eagle. As the prosecutor told the jury, "And Lindy remembered that voice. And who is to say he didn't? Are you going to substitute your judgment for his?"

    Major trials seem to attract a certain type of odd duck – people who appear at the last minute, people who claim to have been holding on to devastating evidence, but who never thought to mention it to anybody until the cameras and crowds gather for the trial. (This strange phenomenon continues today – a man showed up at the trial of the Long Island Shooter, claiming that someone controlled the murderer with a microchip implanted in his brain.)

    At the Lindbergh trial, a man almost caused a mistrial when he stood up in the courtroom and yelled that he knew the identity of the killer and that Hauptmann was innocent. (Between 200 and 250 people confessed to the Lindbergh kidnapping over the years, authorities say).

    What is inexplicable, even inexcusable, is that lawyers for both sides put some of these bizarre people on the stand. One 87-year-old Hopewell man, testifying for the prosecution, claimed that Hauptmann drove by his house the morning of the kidnapping. That is, he remembered the face of a stranger in a car, before he had any reason to take notice of him, and could pick him out in the courtroom three years later. Only after the trial, the defense learned that this witness was legally blind. Another local yokel with an amazing memory for faces was well-known around Hopewell as a thief and liar.

    An equally dubious line-up testified on behalf of Hauptmann. Even with his imperfect English, Hauptmann could see that it didn't do his case any good when a defense witness swore they saw somebody else with the baby, or saw Hauptmann at his wife's bakery, and then the prosecution got up and brought out that the witness was an ex-mental patient or a criminal. "Where are they getting these witnesses from?" Hauptmann complained. "They're really hurting me." His wife Anna, a meticulous housekeeper, testified that she cleaned her closet "almost every week," but never cleaned the top shelf and so never noticed if there was a shoebox full of money up there. Hauptmann himself made a poor showing on the stand, alternately arrogant and surly.

    The defense suggested that Violet Sharpe, the dead maid, and Isidor Fisch, the dead business partner, were the real kidnappers, but they couldn't take apart the forensic evidence of the kidnap notes, the ransom money, and the ladder. "I don't care about handwriting! I don't care anything about wood!" Reilly blustered, but in vain.

    Hauptmann was found guilty on Feb. 13, 1935. A messenger boy inside the courthouse ran to a window and shouted the news to the thousands of people waiting outside. The courthouse bell began to toll. A great roar of satisfaction swept over the crowd as they learned the jury had decided on the death penalty.

    Although Hauptmann was executed only 19 months after his arrest, his case was reviewed formally and informally and he was allowed several stays of execution. New Jersey Gov. Harold Hoffman, who was no fan of Schwarzkopf of the State Police, publicly aired his doubts about Hauptmann's guilt.

    Sam Leibowitz, one of the nation's best attorneys, spent hours with Hauptmann, reviewing the evidence against him. Leibowitz told him frankly there were weaknesses in his story that he had to explain.

    Hauptmann steadfastly insisted he was innocent. He turned down a newspaper's offer of $75,000 – more money than the ransom amount – to confess and name any accomplices. Hauptmann went to the electric chair in the Death House in Trenton State Prison on April 3, 1936.

     

    Hauptmann Rehabilitated

    Hauptmann continues to attract defenders and sympathizers 70 years after his death. Anna Hauptmann stayed loyal to her husband for the 60 years of her widowhood. "I know my Richard could never do such a thing," she repeatedly declared. Over the years, dozens of men, (and one African-American woman!) have come forward, claiming to be the Lindbergh baby. The New Jersey State Police conducted a review of the case in 1981. As part of their research, the police used an electron microscope to analyze the clothes found on the baby's corpse. They confirmed that the clothes on the body came from the Lindbergh home.

    Ten years later, Hauptmann's widow, aged 92, pleaded one last time for the case to be reopened. Robert R. Bryan her lawyer, told The New York Times that the "evidence was faked and that witnesses were both pressured and bribed to support the state's case." Bryan, an anti-death penalty activist, had also done legal work for one of the Lindbergh baby claimants. Bryan declared the "Trial of the Century was the greatest fraud in U.S. legal history."

    Bryan went through the reams of Lindbergh files, which included the thousands of letters with false leads, crazy theories, and dubious eyewitness sightings. He decided the prosecution had buried vital exculpatory evidence, that is, evidence that could have raised a reasonable doubt or even exonerated Hauptmann. He gave the example of Frieda von Valta, who claimed she saw Hauptmann on the subway the night of the kidnapping. Jim Fisher, a Lindbergh historian, has countered that this claim was not suppressed – according to police reports at the Lindbergh case archives, she came forward at the trial and Reilly refused to put her on the stand. She was a crackpot who constantly phoned the police with accusations against her neighbors. Anna Hauptmann's suit garnered much publicity but went nowhere.

    Nevertheless, Hauptmann's trial was undeniably unfair, for a number of reasons:

  • The trial was unfair because of the overwhelming media attention and public clamor. However, this publicity was not created by the prosecution or the Lindberghs and was often as much of a burden on them as it was on the defense. For example, the newspapers broke the news that ransom money was being tracked by serial numbers – certainly something that could have made the kidnapper stop passing bills. But if Hauptmann was guilty of killing the world's most famous baby, it is an act of unmitigated gall to complain that the publicity engendered by his actions was unfair to him. (As one of the kidnap notes said, "[is it] realy necessary to make a world affair out of this"? And the author of that note knew that the baby was dead.)
  • The trial was unfair in the sense that all trials of that period were unfair by modern standards. The prosecution brought forward "surprise" eyewitnesses without giving the defense time to prepare. Handing over all evidence which may be exculpatory was not explicitly required of prosecutors until the 1963 Brady case.
  • The Hauptmann trial took place before Brady and before the Miranda you-have-the-right-to-remain-silent ruling of 1965. Hauptmann was not singled out for unfair treatment in this respect, he received treatment that other defendants of the time received, treatment that today we regard as unfair.
  • The trial was unfair because of the prejudice against Hauptmann as a foreigner and a German. Wilentz, the prosecutor, made inflammatory remarks such as: "[The kidnapper] wouldn't be an American. No American gangster and no American racketeer ever sank to the level of killing babies. Ah, no! Oh, no, it had to be a fellow that had ice water in his veins, not blood."
  • Prosecutors today could probably not get away with charging Hauptmann with felony-murder. Manslaughter committed in the course of a burglary was a capital offence. Hauptmann was charged with stealing the clothes the baby was wearing, and thus the prosecutors could ask for the death penalty.
  • But modern-day champions of Hauptmann are not upset because a baby killer didn't get a fair trial. They are conspiracy theorists who argue Hauptmann was innocent, deliberately framed with manufactured evidence.

     

    The Microscope Effect

    In his analysis of the O.J. Simpson trial, Patrick Frey, a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County, wrote: "I have a theory. Put anything in life under an intense microscope – anything – and you can find questions. Especially if you want to find them, and you proceed off of incomplete information and jump to conclusions…. people ignore simple theories based on basic evidence in favor of huge, unwieldy conspiracies that could never be kept together in real life. Or they focus on one piece of evidence at a time without looking at the big picture…. I call it the Microscope Effect."

    The Microscope Effect could equally well apply to the Lindbergh case. The ransom notes, the lumber from the attic, the ransom money in Hauptmann's possession, all tie Hauptmann to the crime. Nevertheless, some researchers pore minutely over the case archives and have built ramshackle theories which obscure the basic facts.

    Not that the conspiracy theorists agree with one another. Det. Ellis Parker thought the corpse in the woods wasn't the Lindbergh baby; investigative journalist Ludovic Kennedy calls the suggestion "ludicrous." Kennedy believes Hauptmann's "Fisch" story about the money in the shoebox, others acknowledge that Hauptmann was an extortionist, but argue he wasn't the kidnapper. Virtually everyone connected with the case has been accused, at some time or another, of being complicit in the murder, including Dr. John Condon, the mysterious Isidor Fisch, the nursemaid, the other servants, Lindbergh's sister-in-law, and Lindbergh himself. Other suspects have no known connection to the case – a disbarred lawyer, the Purple Gang of Detroit, Lufthansa Airlines. The investigators, the prosecutor and Arthur Koehler the wood expert have been accused in no uncertain terms of fabricating evidence, committing perjury, and sending an innocent man to the chair.

    In fact, there was friction, rivalry, and resentment between the State Police, the NYPD, and the Treasury Department, and vociferous arguments about how to conduct the investigation and who should get credit for what. It is difficult to imagine them pulling together an air-tight conspiracy under such circumstances.

    There are unresolved issues, evidence of police bungling or overzealousness, and unexplained discrepancies in the thousands of pages of the case file. There are questions about whether the time sheets and payroll records at Hauptmann's last job were tampered with. Dr. Condon was such an eccentric character that particulars of his testimony are suspect. He initially hedged when asked to identify Hauptmann in a live line-up, but at trial he had no doubts. Hauptmann's wife and friends gave him reasonable alibis for the kidnapping night and the night the ransom money was exchanged. Experts can quibble forever over the ransom notes, although a majority of forensic experts who compared Hauptmann's writing with the notes have concluded Hauptmann probably wrote them. But sweep every dubious witness – for both sides – every crackpot confession, every anonymous tip, off the table; the circumstantial and forensic evidence speaks loud and clear.

    Hauptmann told reporters, "If I made that ladder, I would be a second-rate carpenter." (The kidnap ladder was cleverly but crudely made.) And why would a carpenter, with ready access to lumber, go up to his attic of his rented home and start ripping up floorboards? And yet, even if there is no obvious explanation, physical evidence trumps psychological theorizing. Ludovic Kennedy believed Rail 16 did not come from Hauptmann's attic, but if it had: "It would of course have been conclusive proof – as good as a set of fingerprints – that Hauptmann had been actively involved in the kidnapping…"

    In 2005, 70 years after Hauptmann's conviction, Court TV presented a re-investigation of the physical evidence.

    "I was surprised by the strength and the overwhelming amount of forensic evidence linking Hauptmann to this crime," Paul Dowling, the show's producer, told the Associated Press. The program presented the findings of Kelvin Keraga, an independent researcher, who coordinated an extensive study of Rail 16. He compared it to the remaining piece of wood found by Bornmann and to the rest of the planking in the attic. Using meticulous comparison of wood grain, wood rings, mill planing marks, and nail holes, Keraga concluded that there was "irrefutable evidence that Rail 16 was indeed part of Bruno Richard Hauptmann's attic floor prior to the kidnapping." It therefore follows, Keraga added, that the serious accusations against the police and Arthur Koehler regarding Rail 16 are baseless.


    A diagram by Kelvin Keraga showing the alleged position of Rail 16 in the attic.

    A diagram by Kelvin Keraga showing the alleged position of Rail 16 in the attic. (click to enlarge)

     

    Since the physical evidence and the case files in the Lindbergh saga have been preserved, (much of it at the New Jersey State Police Museum), future technological advances may bring more revelations about the case. William J. Fitzpatrick, a district attorney in New York, suggested in the New York Law Journal that the envelope flaps on the ransom notes could be tested for DNA. He predicted "HBO will do a sequel to the Crime of the Century called Gee, Hauptmann Really Did It."

    Questions remain, of course. Was the baby killed deliberately or accidentally? Did Hauptmann act alone? Did Violet Sharpe, the maid, commit suicide because she was racked with guilt for some involvement in the kidnapping? Was it chance that Hauptmann successfully picked the right room, the right window, the right night for his crime? Why didn't he confess in a plea-bargain? Hauptmann took these mysteries to the chair with him.


    Epilogue

    Charles and Anne Lindbergh went on to have five more children. In the years following the trial, Americans grew disillusioned with Lindbergh when he made a friendly visit to Nazi Germany and urged America to stay out of the coming European conflict. For his part, Lindbergh was disillusioned with America and Americans. Lindbergh, more than anyone, was hounded by America's least desirable characters – wackos, extortionists, bogus psychics and the reporters who treated him and his family like exhibits in a zoo. On two occasions after the kidnapping, obsessive stalkers climbed up to the Lindbergh's second-story windows with ladders. He finally took his yong family abroad to England, a move that sparked a brief flurry of self-recrimination in the nation's tabloids, which faded as q.uickly a.s it did after the car accident in which Diana, Princess of Wales, died. In his later years, Lindbergh became an ardent conservationist. Lindbergh died in August, 1974 and his wife in February , 2001.

     


     

    Further Reading

     

    There is much more fascinating detail available about the Lindbergh case.

    This writer recommends Loss of Eden: a biography of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, by Joyce Milton and Kidnap: the Shocking Story of the Lindbergh case, by George Waller.

    Lindbergh, by A. Scott Berg, is a Pulitzer-prize-winning biography. Berg interviewed Anna Hauptmann and nursemaid, Betty Gow, 60 years after the kidnapping. Berg told Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air, "it was a fervent hope of mine that I would find enough evidence to clear Bruno Richard Hauptmann…Unfortunately, the deeper I got into the case and the more I studied the evidence, the more I read the transcripts…. the guiltier he came up."

    Attorney Robert R. Bryan remains convinced that Hauptmann was framed: "My goal remains to historically right this terrible wrong." A number of books, such as Scapegoat, by Anthony Scaduto, The Airman and the Carpenter, by Ludovic Kennedy, and Crime of the Century: The Lindbergh Kidnapping Hoax, by Gregory Ahlgren and Stephen Monier, promote the view that Hauptmann was framed, although they present different theories of the crime.

    The Lindbergh Case and The Ghosts of Hopewell: Setting the Record Straight on the Lindbergh Case, both by Jim Fisher, put the case for Hauptmann's guilt and answers many of the conspiracy theories.

    Crimes of the Century, by Gilbert Geis and Leigh B. Bienen, has a chapter on the Lindbergh case, with a useful discussion of the legal issues.

    Charles Lindbergh and Ann Morrow Lindbergh published numerous books about their life and work. Lindbergh wrote The Spirit of St. Louis about his epochal flight. Anne's most famous work is Gift from the Sea, a meditation on being a woman. Her published journal, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, covers the period of the kidnapping. Their daughter Reeve Lindbergh has written Under a Wing, about growing up a Lindbergh.

     

    Internet resources

    Kelvin Keraga's forensic study of Rail 16 of the kidnap ladder (.pdf report) is part of Court TV's Forensic Files web site on The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping: Investigation Reopened.

    Prof. Douglas O. Linder developed the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School Of Law's Famous Trials web site that includes photos, a discussion of the case, and excerpts from the trial transcripts: Famous American Trials: Richard Hauptmann (Lindbergh Kidnapping) Trial 1935.

    A website with Frequently Asked Questions: members.aol.com/LindyTruth/.

    Featured Subject: Charles A. Lindbergh is a selection of New York Times articles about Lindbergh (free registration required).

    The New Jersey based Hunterdon County Democrat newspaper has a special online section on the Lindbergh Trial.

    Famous Cases: The Lindbergh Kidnapping is an FBI article discussing how Hauptmann was tracked down with the ransom money.

    A Charles Lindbergh tribute site: charleslindbergh.com.

    The Hauptmann kidnapping trial is periodically reenacted in the courthouse where the real trial took place by Famous Trials Theater.

    Bruno Richard Hauptmann Denies Lindbergh Baby Killing, April, 1935 (:37): A sound clip of Richard Bruno Hauptmann proclaiming his innocence, and more pictures at The Authentic History web site.

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    1 comment on "The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping "

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    Watch Who Killed Lindbergh's Baby? on PBS. See more from NOVA.

    Program Description

    In the aftermath of his 1927 solo transatlantic flight, Colonel Charles Augustus Lindbergh–the Lone Eagle–became the most famous human being on earth. And when he and his lovely wife Anne produced an adorable baby son, Charlie, an eager press quickly dubbed him Little Lindy or sometimes just the Eaglet. But on the evening of March 1, 1932 Lucky Lindy's luck ran out. Bold kidnappers snatched his baby from the family home near Hopewell, New Jersey, while everyone in the house was awake. Negotiations with the kidnappers stretched out for weeks. But Little Charlie never came back. His body was discovered not five miles from Hopewell. Now, NOVA is reopening one of the most intriguing, grisly, and confounding crime mysteries of all time as a team of expert investigators employ state-of-the-art forensic and behavioral science techniques in an effort to determine what really happened to Lindbergh's baby and why.

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