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The Lindbergh Kidnapping

Crime Files
The Lindbergh Kidnapping

At the time of the kidnapping of Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr in 1932, his father, Charles Lindbergh, was one of the most famous men in America. His solo flight across the Atlantic, from New York to Paris, in May 1927, was the first ever and he shot to international fame. He was dubbed ‘The Lone Eagle’ by an avid press corps, who scrambled daily for details of his glamorous life, making him the first international celebrity.

Lindbergh married Anne Morrow, the daughter of a wealthy financier and diplomat, in May 1929, and she shared her husband’s passion for flying. She became the first American woman to earn a glider pilot licence, and accompanied her husband on many of his pioneering flights.

In the early 1930’s, their glamorous lifestyle provided endless tabloid copy, devoured by a populace in the first throes of the Depression, and broadsheet newspapers were as eager for details as other less salubrious publications. It was into this media maelstrom that Charles Jr, known within the family as ‘Little It’, was born on 22nd June 1930.

Neither Lindbergh nor Anne were prepared for the sheer ferocity of press interest and intrusion, and Lindbergh built a home for them on a 390-acre estate in a remote part of New Jersey, as a weekend escape, to minimise intrusion. They spent weekdays at his wife’s family estate in Englewood, New Jersey.

On the last weekend of February 1932, the Lindbergh’s deviated from their usual routine, deciding to remain an extra few days at their new weekend home, as baby Charles had contracted a cold. On the evening of Tuesday, 1st March 1932, baby Charles’ nanny, Betty Gow, checked in on her 20-month old charge at about 8pm, It was the last time the boy was seen alive.

Lindbergh had been to New York on business that day, returning home at about 8.30pm for dinner with his wife. Before retiring for the evening, Gow went to check on the baby again at 10pm and noticed his cot was empty. She went to check if either of his parents had moved him, at which point it was realised that something was seriously amiss. When questioned later, Lindbergh recalled having heard a noise around 9.15pm, which sounded to him like a crate falling on the floor, but he didn’t investigate the noise at the time.

Lindbergh inspected the nursery himself, saw a note on the windowsill, which he didn’t touch, and instructed the estate caretaker to call the police at 10.25pm. He took a rifle and conducted a quick inspection of the grounds around the house. When the police arrived, a more through inspection revealed footprints outside the nursery window, as well as a broken ladder, which had been discarded nearby. No attempts were made, at the time, to take plaster impressions of these footprints, and they were subsequently obscured by other policeman at the crime scene. This later raised questions about the quality of the initial police investigation.


22nd June 1930 - Charles Lindbergh Jr born 1st March 1932 - Kidnapping 1st March 1932 - First ransom note 4th March 1932 - Second Ransom Note 9th March 1932 - Third Ransom Note 12th March 1932 - First contact with kidnappers 2nd April 1932 - Ransom delivery 12th May 1932 - Body foundBruno Richard Hauptmann: 26th November 1899 - Born 19th September 1934 - Arrested 2nd January 1935 - Trial 14th February 1935 - Convicted 3rd April 1936 - Execute

The Arrest

More than two years later, on 15th September 1934, the police had the breakthrough they needed: a petrol station manager, Walter Lyle, suspicious of an old-fashioned gold-backed ten dollar note he received in payment for petrol, wrote down the license plate number of the purchaser. It was traced back to a 35 year-old German immigrant, a carpenter called Richard Bruno Hauptmann, who lived in the Bronx.Hauptmann was discovered to have entered the United States illegally in 1923, and had a criminal record for robbery, in one case having used a ladder to commit the crime. Significantly for the police, he had suddenly given up his carpentering trade around May 1932, and become a stock investor.Hauptmann was found to have another Lindbergh note on his person, when he was arrested outside his home on 19th September 1934. His home was practically dismantled in the subsequent search, and over $14,000 of the ransom money was found hidden in the wall joists of a garage, which Hauptmann had built himself. In addition, a missing rafter in Hauptmann’s attic exactly matched an upright strut in the kidnap ladder.Under intense interrogation, Hauptmann maintained that a former business partner, Isador Fisch, had given the money to him, before he departed for Germany in December 1933, although, as Fisch had died of tuberculosis in Germany in March 1934, Hauptmann could not provide corroboration of his account. He was required to provide a sample of his handwriting, which experts concluded matched the handwriting in the ransom note.

The Trial

On 10 October 1934, a New Jersey grand jury indicted Hauptmann on kidnapping and murder charges, and he was extradited to Flemington, New Jersey, where his trial commenced on 2 January 1935. As expected, media interest was intense.Given the high profile nature of the case, the prosecution was led by the Attorney General of the State of New Jersey, David Wilentz, who outclassed Hauptmann’s defence team at all levels, led by a shambling alcoholic named Edward Reilly.Wilentz made the most of what was, essentially, circumstantial evidence: the ransom money, the ladder, and the handwriting analysis, and a dubious eyewitness statement that placed Hauptmann near the scene of the crime on the night of the kidnap. The prosecution also called Lindbergh to the stand, who identified Hauptmann’s voice as that which had shouted "Hey, Doctor!" at St Raymond’s Cemetery.Defence counsel countered all this evidence poorly; the ladder had a dubious chain of evidence providence, none of the crime scenes were ever secure, the eyewitness who placed Hauptmann at the crime scene was almost legally blind, and even Lindbergh would have had a hard time accurately identifying a voice which had spoken two words over a considerable distance. Reilly also allowed the identification of the corpse as that of baby Charles to stand uncontested, despite the irregularity of the identification process.When Hauptmann took the stand he was skilfully attacked by Wilentz, making a poor impression on the jury, with his inability to adequately explain the money and the handwriting expert testimony.On 14th February 1935, the jury found Richard Bruno Hauptmann guilty of kidnapping and murder, and he was sentenced to death in the electric chair.On 9th October 1935, Hauptmann’s first appeal was denied. A second appeal, this time to the US Supreme Court, was similarly denied.In December 1935, unable to stand the pressure of media scrutiny any longer, and following kidnap threats to their new baby son, Jon, Lindbergh and his wife sailed to England to escape the relentless publicity.Hauptmann’s wife, Anna, appealed to New Jersey Governor, Harold Hoffman for a stay of execution on 16th January 1936, which Hoffman granted but, following the final denial of clemency by the Board of Appeals, on 30th March 1936, Hauptmann’s execution date was finally set for 3rd April. Hauptmann was offered a last-minute opportunity to have his death sentence commuted to a life sentence, without parole, if he admitted his guilt but he refused to do so.He died in the electric chair on 3rd April 1936.Anna Hauptmann continued to maintain her husband’s innocence until her own death, in 1994.With the Lindbergh family’s ‘defection’ to England, and later Europe, US public sentiment soured towards the former American hero. His pro-fascist sympathies, prior to the Second World War, tarnished Lindbergh’s reputation further, and reinforced the doubt surrounding the circumstantial case built against Hauptmann, in the Lindbergh kidnapping.A number of authors have presented alternate scenarios to the disappearance of baby Charles, including that a member of the Lindbergh family had killed the child, with Lindbergh concocting the kidnap story as an elaborate ruse.There has always been doubt about the circumstances surrounding the identification of the corpse: one theory claims that the body was not baby Charles, but another procured and planted by bootleggers, who were tired of having their lucrative business, of supplying liquor during Prohibition, disrupted by constant police searches of the area, following the kidnapping.A television programme, made in 2005, maintains that while the circumstantial case against Hauptmann was largely credible, it does not conclusively prove that he committed the murder and kidnap, merely that he might have been part of the ‘Cemetery John’ hoax that managed to extract money after the kidnapping. There is still no explanation of how Hauptmann, living in the Bronx, with no connection to the family, knew of the exact location of the nursery, and the last minute change in the Lindbergh family travel itinerary.

The Investigation

The note on the windowsill was dusted for fingerprints, revealing no useful information, and the envelope contained a ransom note, written in very poor English. It warned Lindbergh not to contact the police, and demanded that a $50,000 ransom in $20, $10 and $1 notes be prepared, for a delivery that would be advised within the next 2 to 4 days. The letter was signed with a drawing of two interlocking circles, with three holes punched into the design, to enable Lindbergh to distinguish genuine kidnap correspondences from any potential hoaxers.News of the kidnap spread quickly, and the estate was soon overrun with police and reporters. Lindbergh contacted his close friend, and lawyer, Colonel Henry Breckinridge, who arrived to assist with the investigation. The police were in awe of Lindbergh and, to a large extent, allowed him to control the development of the case, which would have been unthinkable in almost any other circumstances.On 4 March a second ransom letter, postmarked from the Bronx in New York, was received, complete with the interlocking circles signature, upping the ransom demand to $70,000, on the basis that Lindbergh had ignored the instruction not to contact the police. A copy of this letter was also sent to Colonel Breckinridge's office, to be delivered to Lindbergh.Lindbergh favoured the belief that his son was in the hands of professional kidnappers. The police, however, believed that a family employee might be involved, taking into account the relatively small ransom, and the apparent insider knowledge such as the location of the nursery, and the Lindberghs last-minute decision to extend their weekend stay. Lindbergh and Breckinridge discouraged the police from active investigation, believing that meeting any demands that the kidnappers might make would be the best way to secure the release of baby Charles.The most significant indirect participant to enter the picture was 72-year old Dr. John F. Condon, known as ‘Jafsie’ who, on 8 March 1932, offered his services as a go-between for Lindbergh and the kidnappers. He contacted his local Bronx newspaper with an offer to add $1,000 of his own money to the ransom being demanded, if the kidnappers would contact him directly. According to Condon, they did so, sending a ransom letter directly to him the next day, which contained a note for him, as well as one for Lindbergh, in which the kidnappers accepted Condon’s offer to act as intermediary.Condon telephoned Lindbergh, who accepted that the correspondence was genuine, once he realised that it contained the interlocked circle signature, and he arranged to meet with Condon at his New Jersey home. They agreed that Condon would place an advertisement in a newspaper advising that the ransom money had been prepared. On 12 March, Condon received written instructions from the kidnappers to meet at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. It was decided that he would not take the money, insisting first on seeing the baby alive before any ransom would be paid.When Condon arrived at the cemetery, he met a man who identified himself as the kidnapper, calling himself John. He spoke with a Germanic accent, and refused to produce the baby as demanded, although he agreed that Condon would be sent proof that they were the real kidnappers, in the form of the baby’s sleeping suit.After Condon's initial meeting with “Cemetery John” in Woodlawn Cemetery, the child's sleeping suit was mailed to Condon, as John had promised, and Lindbergh made arrangements to have the ransom money prepared; the numbers of the individual notes were noted so that they could be traced later, but were not marked in any way.On the night of 2 April 1932, Lindbergh drove Condon to the designated drop point, another cemetery in the Bronx area called St. Raymond's. “Cemetery John” summoned Condon with a shout of “Hey, Doctor!” which was heard by both Condon and Lindbergh, and Condon exchanged the box of money for a note which, John claimed, contained the whereabouts of baby Charles: a boat called Nelly, situated near Martha’s Vineyard. Lindbergh piloted an airplane for more than two hours over the area described in the note, and again the next day, but saw no sign of the boat, and he was forced to admit that he had been tricked. They were back to square one.

Given that Lindbergh was in control of the investigation amidst a huge media circus, and had made it clear that he would meet the demands of the kidnappers, it is unsurprising that hoaxers attempted to take advantage of the situation. A number of attempts were made to extract funds from Lindbergh over the weeks and months following the kidnapping.Lindbergh had been convinced, initially, that the kidnapping was a professional job by organised crime, and he recruited a small-time crook called Rosner, who in turn provided two other hoodlums, Salvatore Spitale and Irving Bitz, whom Rosner claimed had the contacts to set up negotiations with the kidnappers. Instead of helping, they arranged a lucrative deal with a newspaper to provide classified information not available to the press, like the original ransom note with the secret signature, which quickly became common knowledge. It offered a possible explanation of how Condon had the information about the interlocking circles signature that had convinced Lindbergh to trust him, suggesting that Condon himself might have been a hoaxer. Despite this, Lindbergh remained supportive of Condon and his efforts to help, even when the treachery of Spitale and Bitz came to light.A definite hoaxer was a Virginia boat builder named Commodore John Hughes Curtis, who made a credible case for his own direct connections with the kidnappers, through his close contacts within the Morrow family. Curtis exploited Lindbergh’s vulnerability after the failed ransom drop in St. Raymond’s, leading Lindbergh on a wild-goose chase for the kidnappers, claiming that he was in constant contact; even claiming on one occasion that he had seen baby Charles alive.The discovery of a child’s body, on 12 May 1932, soon revealed the ruse, however, and Curtis admitted the fraud, pleading extreme financial hardship as his motivation. He received a $1,000 fine, and a one-year suspended jail sentence, for obstruction of justice.Conman and former F.B.I. agent, Gaston B. Means, who attempted to extort ransom money from a wealthy Washington D.C. socialite, Evalyn Walsh McLean, perpetrated another, less direct, hoax. He convinced her to give him $100,000, which he would exchange in return for the Lindbergh child. She became suspicious of Means, however, when he claimed that the kidnappers had taken the money without returning the child, and she contacted the police: he eventually received a fifteen-year jail sentence for larceny, in June 1932.On 12 May 1932, a truck driver named William Allen pulled over at the side of a road, about 4 miles from the Lindbergh home, intending to relieve himself in the trees next to the road.Here he discovered the decaying corpse of a young child, and immediately alerted the police. The body was found face down, and had been severely damaged by animal activity, missing part of the left leg and hand, and was so badly decomposed that it was not possible to identify initially whether the victim was male or female.It was transported to a morgue in Trenton, New Jersey, and the next day identified by Lindbergh and the baby’s nanny, Betty Gow, as Charles Lindbergh Jr. The identification took less than three minutes, and was based upon a small deformity of the toes of the right foot, and an item of clothing found with the body. Interestingly, the baby’s paediatrician, who also saw the body, claimed he couldn’t possibly be certain that it was baby Charles, given the extent of decomposition.The autopsy conducted was cursory, offering less than a page of detail, and no photos were taken at the time. It concluded that the child had died from a blow to the head. The advanced state of decomposition meant that baby Charles may well have died the night of his abduction, perhaps as a result of being dropped when the ladder, used to reach the nursery window, had broken. The body was cremated less than 24 hours later, at the instruction of Charles Lindbergh.Because Lindbergh and Breckinridge had restrained the investigative agencies during the attempt to retrieve the child, very little progress had been made in the search for the kidnappers. Although Lindbergh now gave the investigators free rein to pursue the killers, they had very little evidence, apart from the broken ladder and ransom notes, to proceed with.With the assistance of a wood expert, Arthur Koehler, the ladder was examined and determined to be of a variety of wood types, and from widely different sources, but some of the wood was eventually traced to a lumber merchant in the Bronx, tying it to the ransom note posting area and the ransom drops. Kohler also believed that it had been expertly modified at some point, most likely by a skilled carpenter.Police still considered the participation of family employees highly likely, given the intimate knowledge of the house and travel plans, and suspicion fell on a 28-year old Morrow estate maid, Violet Sharpe, who had failed to provide a believable alibi for the night of the kidnapping. Intense questioning by the police led to her committing suicide, but later investigation confirmed her alibi for the 1st March 1932, and police concluded that her suicide was probably due to the threat of losing her job, rather than an admission of complicity in the kidnapping plot. There was widespread condemnation of the heavy-handed police tactics that had led to her suicide.Dr Condon was also questioned vigorously, as police blindly sought another viable suspect after the Sharpe fiasco, and his home was searched, and but he was eventually released without charge. Lindbergh continued to publicly support Condon for his assistance during the ordeal, and Condon was never found in possession of any of the ransom money.Fortunately Lindbergh had allowed the serial numbers of the ransom notes to be recorded, so they proved the only substantial lead in an ongoing investigation that was otherwise going nowhere.The notes began to surface shortly after the 2nd April ransom delivery, after details of the serial numbers were distributed to banks nationwide, but usually in such small numbers that tracing their source was impossible.