Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping

Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping
Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping

When twenty-month-old Charles Lindbergh, Jr., son of the world-famous aviator, was kidnapped on 1 March 1932, the story made headlines around the globe. More than two years later, when the authorities announced they had arrested a suspect in the crime, German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the outcry of relief was immense. Newspapers in the United States as well as Europe covered the “Trial of the Century,” trumpeting Hauptmann’s arrest, conviction, and execution with screaming headlines.

Yet, almost from the moment of his arrest, questions have arisen regarding Hauptmann’s actual degree of involvement in the case. A small but dogged group of researchers has set forth a number of troubling charges, including lying by witnesses, police fabrication of evidence, and dereliction in Hauptmann’s legal defense.

Together, these journalists, attorneys, and documentary filmmakers—and a fervid group of Hauptmann’s latter-day supporters who continue to research the case—argue that Hauptmann was the victim of a conspiracy. Law enforcement agencies, they assert, were influenced by Lindbergh’s immense celebrity, the fervent anti-German sentiment in the United States in 1934, and the growing pressure to solve such a high-profile case.

Some of the supporters of a conspiracy theory (e.g., Ahlgren and Monier) even point the finger at Lindbergh himself. They suggest that the pilot who became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic in May 1927 may have originally intended simply to play a prank on his wife by “kidnapping” the baby (he had, once before, taken the baby and hidden it in a closet while his wife frantically searched for him) but he accidentally fell off a ladder, killing the baby and requiring a “cover story” to preserve his reputation as a national hero.

Other writers who have examined the case (e.g., Behn) have posited the prospect of an inside job— pointing to a disgruntled employee or mentally unbalanced relative of the family. And there are those researchers who have not attempted to finger the guilty party, but instead focus on what they see as inexplicable lapses in police procedure and gross negligence on the part of the courts in protecting the rights of Hauptmann.

All of the conspiracy theorists build their respective cases on the assumption that the New Jersey State Police, needing a suspect and perhaps working in concert with Lindbergh, coerced and bribed witnesses, altered or manufactured evidence, lied in police reports, and denied Hauptmann adequate representation or access to witnesses and resources that would have proved his innocence.

The Facts of the Kidnapping

The kidnapping occurred between 8 and 10 P.M. The Lindberghs would not normally have been in Hopewell (they always spent their weekdays in the Morrow estate in Englewood, New Jersey, several miles away), but little Charles was said to be suffering from a cold, and as the weather was miserable, the family delayed returning to Englewood.

In the house at the time were Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Elise and Oliver Whately (the cook and the butler), and the baby’s nursemaid, Betty Gow. Charles Lindbergh arrived about 8:30 P.M., having come from New York City. (He was supposed to have been away longer that evening, giving a speech at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. He told investigators he “forgot” the appointment.)

The family dined late, and around 10 P.M., Gow went into the nursery to check on Charles, Jr. When she couldn’t find him, she told Charles and Anne that the baby was gone. Anne raced into the nursery with Gow, and then Charles went in and discovered an envelope on the windowsill, which he insisted not be opened until the police arrived. Later that night, during the investigation of the grounds, a homemade ladder with a broken rung was found. No other physical evidence or usable fingerprints were discovered at the scene.

A week after the kidnapping, a retired teacher from the Bronx named John Condon received a message from the kidnappers. Police verified that the purported kidnapper was not a fraud; Condon received some of the kidnapped child’s clothing in the mail.

Negotiations led to midnight meetings in a Bronx cemetery, and eventually, $50,000 in gold certificates were exchanged with the kidnapper. In return, Condon was given a letter that stated that the baby could be found on the “Boad Nelly”—a puzzling reference that neither the police nor Lindbergh understood.

In April, some of the ransom money began circulating in the Bronx. In May, a truck driver passing through Hopewell reported the discovery of a small corpse in the woods a few miles from the Lindbergh home. Though the body was badly decomposed, the Lindberghs positively identified the body as their son (it was wrapped in little Charles’s clothes).

The New Jersey State Police were under intense international scrutiny. No substantive progress had been made in the case. The investigation was being superintended by the chief of the state police, Norman Schwarzkopf (father of the U.S. military’s Gulf War general), who disavowed all offers of assistance from the FBI. When the baby’s body was found, Schwarzkopf boldly announced in the press that the perpetrators would soon be in custody.

Almost a year and a half later, in September 1934, following one of the paths of the ransom-money trail, police arrested Hauptmann at his home in the Bronx, charging him first with extortion and then, later, kidnapping and murder.

The prosecution’s case was made up of witnesses who reportedly identified Hauptmann from the Bronx cemetery or near the Lindbergh house; handwriting samples that allegedly matched the ransom notes; the presence of John Condon’s phone number, written in pencil, in Hauptmann’s closet; and a missing plank from Hauptmann’s attic floor, which was said to have been used in the ladder at the crime scene. He was also found to be in possession of most of the ransom money, which was stored in his garage.

Hauptmann was represented at trial by a flamboyant, alcoholic attorney named Edward Reilly, who was hired by Hearst Newspapers to put on a good show before the inevitable conviction. In the four months before the trial, Reilly spent less than one hour talking to Hauptmann.

The “airtight” case against Hauptmann has proved, on closer examination, to be rather porous. Several researchers (especially Kennedy) have uncovered the dubious origin of much of the case against Hauptmann.

For example, of the two “eyewitness” accounts of Hauptmann at the crime scene, one was given by eighty-seven-year-old Amandus Hochmuth—who was partially blind due to cataracts (but nonetheless was given a $1,000 “reward” for coming forward as an eyewitness); the other was an illiterate and impoverished man named Millard Whited, who stated both the day after the kidnapping and seven weeks later that he had seen nothing suspicious in the neighborhood.

When police informed him he would be able to share in the $25,000 reward money if his testimony proved helpful, he changed his story and said he saw Hauptmann drive by in his car on the day of the abduction.

The writing of Condon’s phone number inside Hauptmann’s closet? In the years since the trial, three different reporters who were covering the case at the time said a fellow reporter from a New York daily newspaper put it there to create a big story for the next issue.

Investigators after the fact have disagreed with the official testimony that the floorboards in Hauptmann’s home matched the wood used for one of the rungs of the ladder—the infamous “rail sixteen.”

Researchers have pointed out that police did not originally note a missing floorboard in Hauptmann’s attic, even though they investigated the house no less than nine times, looking for incriminating evidence. The missing piece of wood was officially noticed only after the police had been scouring Hauptmann’s home for a week.

Further, it has been questioned why Hauptmann, a carpenter who had a garage full of wood, would have ripped up a piece of floorboard, and why he would have “planed” it smooth if it was only going to be a step on a ladder. Also, why was “rail sixteen” one-sixteenth of an inch thicker than the rest of the floorboards? (This discrepancy, according to Ahlgren and Monier, caused then-New Jersey governor Harold Hoffman to accuse prosecutors of “fabricating the evidence.”)

Handwriting experts testified that the ransom note’s misspellings matched the sample the police received from Hauptmann during interrogation. But Hauptmann claimed the police, after twenty straight hours of questioning, asked him to provide writing samples and told him how to spell certain words, such as “rihgt” for “right.”

Regarding the ransom money, Hauptmann said he was given a package from an acquaintance, Isidore Fisch, to hold for him. Hauptmann said Fisch (who, records indicate, journeyed to Germany and then died shortly after Hauptmann accepted the package) had owed him money. When he didn’t return to get the package, Hauptmann began spending some of the money, he testified.

Other questions researchers have puzzled over include:
  1. How could Hauptmann, or anyone outside the immediate family, have planned a kidnapping from the Hopewell home on a night when the Lindberghs were always to be found at their Englewood home?
  2. Why would someone attempt a kidnapping during a time when all the lights were on, the domestic staff—including the nursemaid—was in residence, and the family was at home having dinner?
  3. Hauptmann’s footprints were never found at the scene. The ladder contained more than 400 sets of fingerprints. Not one belonged to Hauptmann.
  4. Why did Lindbergh and Schwarzkopf refuse the assistance of the FBI?
  5. Why did Hauptmann maintain his innocence—even after he was offered a commutation of his sentence to life in prison if he would simply confess? (This offer was available right up until the time he was executed.)
In 1981, Anna Hauptmann, widow of Richard, petitioned the New Jersey courts to reopen her husband’s case, based largely on the questions raised in the decades since his conviction. The court dismissed her appeal. She died in New Holland, Pennsylvania, in 1994.

Since then, other authors (most notably Fisher) have responded to the wave of “Hauptmann-was-framed” charges with their own charges of Lindbergh revisionist hysteria and conspiracy theory fever. Several books published in the 1990s argue unequivocally for the soundness of the original case against Hauptmann and the paucity of evidence pointing to anyone else, or to any organized conspiracy.

Additionally, not withstanding the admittedly slack legal representation provided to Hauptmann, neither the New Jersey courts nor the New Jersey legislature, after reviewing the transcripts, evidence, and more than 30,000 documents now available about the case, has seen fit to reconsider the original findings or to censure—or even question—the legitimacy of police or prosecutor conduct in the matter.