The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case: Crime of the 20th Century

    Today marks the 86th anniversary of the Lindbergh kidnapping case. The following is a thumbnail account of the crime of the 20th century:     On the night of Tuesday, March 1, 1932, someone climbed into the second-story bed…

    Today marks the 86th anniversary of the Lindbergh kidnapping case. The following is a thumbnail account of the crime of the 20th century:

     On the night of Tuesday, March 1, 1932, someone climbed into the second-story bedroom of Charles and Anne Lindbergh's house near Hopewell, New Jersey, and snatched their 20-month-old son, Charles, Jr. After being the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in April 1927, Charles Lindbergh had became internationally famous. Colonel Lindbergh and his wife were living in their recently built mansion in the remote Sourland Hills in central New Jersey. The kidnapping made headlines around the world, and for months would dominate the news.

     Upon arrival at the scene of the crime, the police discovered the homemade ladder the kidnapper had used to gain entry into the house. That wooden, three piece extension ladder, and a ransom note containing several misspelled words and a symbol comprised of two intersecting circles and three holes, were the key crime scene clues. (Several other ransom letters containing the same symbol and exact misspellings would be sent to the Lindberghs, and would lead to the payment of a $50,000 ransom, on April 2, 1932. A ransom intermediary paid the money to a shadowy figured in a cemetery in the Bronx. Despite the exchange of ransom money, the Lindbergh baby was not returned.)

     On May 12, ten weeks after the kidnapping, a truck driver relieving himself in the woods stumbled upon the partially decomposed body of the Lindbergh child in a shallow grave about two miles from the Lindbergh estate. The police identified the remains by matching his homemade undershirt with the cloth remnant from which it had been cut by his English nursemaid, Betty Gow. Other points of identity included the abducted child's teeth, hair, dimple on his chin, and overlapping toes. Decomposition made fingerprint identification impossible.

     The investigation, spearheaded by the New Jersey State Police, was painstaking and remarkably professional, but plagued by false suspects and wild-goose chases. The case floundered for two and a half years until a Manhattan, New York gas station attendant penciled a customer's car license number on a $10 gold certificate given to him in payment for the fuel. This was a large bill in those days, and because the country had converted to green-back bills, the gas station attendant was suspicious enough to jot down the license number. A bank clerk, aware the Lindbergh ransom had been made up of gold notes, called the police, and, as it turned out, this bill had been part of the ransom pay off. (The police had a list of the ransom bills' serial numbers, and knew that dozens of them had been spent in The Bronx and Manhattan.)

     Investigators traced the license number to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German-born carpenter in the country illegally who lived in The Bronx with his wife Anna and their young son. Hauptmann, who met the description of the man who received the ransom money in the Bronx cemetery, possessed a criminal record in Germany. The police arrested him the next day, and in his garage, found $14,000 of the unspent ransom money. Hauptmann had quit his carpenter job on the day the ransom money had changed hands, and during the next two and a half years, in the midst of the Great Depression, had invested and lost $35,000 in the stock market.

     In January 1935, Hauptmann went on trial for murder in Flemington, New Jersey. The sensational trial lasted six weeks, and produced front-page newspaper headlines around the world. The prosecution offered the jury two theories of how the child had died. The kidnapper had either killed the baby in his crib, or had dropped him while climbing down the ladder which had split. Eight prominent handwriting experts testified that the 36-year-old defendant had written all fourteen of the extortion letters, including the note left in the nursery. Four other prosecution forensic document examiners had been held back to testify on rebuttal, but were not needed because the Hauptmann defense failed to produce a qualified expert to say that Hauptmann had not written the ransom documents.

     A federal wood expert from Wisconsin named Arthur Koehler testified that the carpenter tools in Hauptmann's garage had left their unique marks on the kidnap ladder. He also identified one of the boards on the ladder, called Rail 16, as having once been part of a floor plank in Hauptmann's attic. Investigators also found a sketch of the ladder in one of the defendant's notebooks.

     The intermediary who had delivered the ransom money to the man in the cemetery, John F. Condon ("Jafsie"), identified Hauptmann as the man he had given it to. Colonel Lindbergh, who had waited in the car that night as the ransom exchanged hands, testified that Hauptmann's voice was the voice he had heard coming from the cemetery. Several other witnesses testified they had seen Hauptmann near Hopewell on the day of the crime. Another witness, a movie cashier, identified Hauptmann as the passer of a ransom bill.

     Although the prosecution's case was circumstantial--Hauptmann didn't confess and no one saw him kidnap or murder the baby--it was based on physical evidence and expert testimony. The Hauptmann defense, by comparison, was weak in the face of the handwriting and wood evidence. As an alibi, Hauptmann and his wife claimed they were together at her place of employment in New York City on the night of the kidnapping. Hauptmann further maintained that he had earned the money he had been spending by playing the stock market. The defendant said he had received the ransom bills found in his garage from a business associate named Isidor Fisch who had given it to him in a shoe box. (About a year before Hauptmann's arrest, Fisch had returned to Germany where he died of tuberculosis. At the time of his death he was penniless.) According to Hauptmann, he had no idea what was in the shoe box until he opened it and found the cash. Since Fisch owed him money, Hauptmann felt he had the right to spend some of it. He never let on to his wife that he had found the money, and denied knowing it had anything to do with the Lindbergh case. People came to refer to this account as the "Fisch story."

     Hauptmann's chief defense attorney, a Brooklyn attorney named Edward Reilly, tried to prove that the kidnapping had been an inside job by implicating the Lindbergh servants working in concert with John Condon, and others. He failed miserably, putting on the stand a motley assortment of crackpots, criminals, and obvious liars who embarrassed and hurt Hauptmann's case. Hauptmann took the stand on his own behalf, and turned out to be an unsympathetic witness who got caught in several lies that incriminated him further. Unable to produce one qualified witness to counter the handwriting and ladder evidence, and unable to satisfactorily explain possessing all of that money for so long, the Hauptmann defense degenerated into tragic burlesque, then collapsed.

     On February 13, 1935, after 32 days of testimony, the jury found Hauptmann guilty of first degree murder, and sentenced him to death in the electric chair. Hauptmann's attorneys immediately appealed the case, but the New Jersey Appellate Court unanimously affirmed the conviction. Following a 30 day reprieve, two hearings before the New Jersey Court of Appeals and Pardons, and a last minute stay of execution, Hauptmann, on April 6, 1936, died in the electric chair at the state prison in Trenton. Only a handful of protestors stood outside the prison that night, and when told of Hauptmann's electrocution, they quickly dispersed and went home.