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On March 1, 1932, one of the most famous men in the world, Charles Lindbergh, found that his 20-month-old son had been taken from his crib.
It was the biggest news story of the era and it has been called the crime of the century.
90 years later, people are still enthralled with the crime and are searching for clues.
Learn more about the Lindbergh Kidnapping on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
It is hard to express just how big of a deal Charles Lindbergh was in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
I think the reason we have such a hard time conceiving of how popular he was is that we live in a world today that has lots of major celebrities, and the feat for which he was famous, flying across the Atlantic, is routinely done today.
This was the dawn of mass media and celebrity culture, and Lindbergh was really one of the first big media celebrities.
He got book deals, did speaking engagements, and did promotional tours. It was on such a tour in Mexico City in 1927 that he met the woman who he would marry, Anne Morrow.
Anne was extremely intelligent and her father was an Ambassador to Mexico as well as a partner at the bank, JP Morgan. They were engaged after only four dates.
The couple was married in 1929 and created a home in New Jersey, not far from the Morrow estate where Anne grew up. Anne became the first woman in America to receive a glider pilot license, and the couple was the first to fly from Africa to South America.
Their first child, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., was born in June of 1930. FYI, Anne broke the transcontinental flying record when she was seven months pregnant. The birth of the child was a widely celebrated public story.
The events in question took place on March 1, 1932, at the family home in East Amwell, New Jersey.
Around 10 pm, the child’s nurse, Betty Gow, noticed Mrs. Lindbergh come out from having taken a bath and wasn’t with little Charlie. When she alerted Mr. Lindbergh, they went up to the child’s room and found the crib empty, and a ransom note.
Lindbergh then grabbed a gun and went outside with the family butler where they found part of a ladder below the window as well as a baby blanket.
The butler contacted the local police department and Lindbergh contacted the state police.
Within hours, the story had spread around the world.
When the police arrived and the investigation began, there was little evidence to be had.
The first, and most important clue, was the ransom letter itself. It was written in poor English. The letter read:
Dear Sir! Have 50.000$ redy 25 000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days we will inform you were to deliver the mony. We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police the child is in gut care. Indication for all letters are Singnature and 3 hohls.
It is hard to tell when I read it, but to give you an example of the spelling, ready was spelled, redy, money, mony, good, gut, and holes, hohls.
There was also a symbol at the bottom of the letter. There were two interconnecting blue circles that crossed like a Venn diagram. Inside the two circles was a solid red circle, and then there were three holes punched in the middle of the red circle and on either side of the blue circles.
A handwriting analyst who was brought in determined that the letter was probably written by someone German, who was new to the United States.
No adult fingerprints were found anywhere in the room, including fingerprints from people who lived and worked in the house. The only fingerprints that were found were those of the baby.
The other piece of evidence was the ladder that was found. It appeared to have been handmade. Samples were taken to analyze the types of wood found on the ladder, and even the nail holes were analyzed.
There were two sets of footprints found below the window.
I should note that all of this occurred at a period when forensic science was still very new. This level of evidence analysis was crude compared to what can be done today, but still pretty advanced compared to what would have been done just a few decades earlier.
As soon as word got out, offers to help flooded in. J. Edgar Hoover offered the services of the FBI, even though they had no jurisdiction over the case.
Al Capone even offered to use his underworld connections to try to find the baby.
An enormous manhunt was underway. However, hundreds of people showed up at the house to see the scene of the crime, and they destroyed most of the evidence, such as footprints, which would have been found on the ground.
Just as a fun fact, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police who spearheaded the early investigation was a man by the name of H. Norman Schwarzkopf. If that name rings a bell, that is because he was the father of the US Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. from the Iraq War.
The state of New Jersey offered a $25,000 reward and the Lindbergs offered another $50,000. The inflation-adjusted amount would be worth $1.1 million dollars today, and it was probably worth even more as it was in the middle of the Great Depression.
On March 6, a second ransom letter arrived by mail at the Lindbergh home. It was postmarked March 4th in Brooklyn, and it had the same identifying circles and holes of the original letter. This letter increased the ransom amount to $70,000.
On March 8, a third letter was sent to Lindbergh’s attorney, Henry Breckenridge, again with the identifying marks, and it declared that a man named John Condon, who was a retired teacher in his 70s, who lived in the Bronx should be the intermediary. They also dictated the type of box the money should be delivered in.
Condon met with a man who called himself “John” in the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York, but he couldn’t identify him after this first meeting because the man stood in the shadows. However, he did say that he didn’t seem to have an American accent.
More letters were sent, and classified ads were placed in newspapers to reply.
Eventually, on March 16, the child’s sleeping suit was sent as proof that they had the child, and on April 2nd, $50,000 was transferred in bills with the serial numbers recorded.
“John” claimed the child could be found on a boat off of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts called the “Nellie” in he was in the care of two women who were not part of the plot.
A search immediately was conducted to find the boat, but there was no such boat to be found.
There were no new leads in the case and nothing was heard from the kidnappers again.
On May 12, two truck drivers accidentally discovered the body of a toddler near the side of the road about 4 ½ miles from the Lindbergh home. The body was identified as Charles Lindbergh Jr.
The cause of death was a blow to the head, and it appeared that he had been there ever since the night of the kidnapping.
With the discovery of the body, the investigation shifted. Rather than just trying to get the child home safe, it was now trying to find the killer or killers.
Investigations were conducted on almost everyone who was tangentially involved with the case, including the servants in the house, and John Condon, the man who served as the intermediary.
The only real leads were when bills with the serial numbers appeared. A quarter-million pamphlets with the serial numbers were distributed, mostly in New York.
Some bills showed up as far away as Minneapolis and Chicago, but most of them appeared in New York.
In particular, bills kept appearing in stores located along the Lexington Avenue subway line connecting the Bronx with eastern Manhattan.
The big break in the case came on September 18, 1934, when a bank teller at the Corn Exchange Bank and Trust Company noticed that a gold certificate had been cashed in Manhattan with one of the suspect serial numbers.
On the bill was written a license plate number. The license plate number was written by the owner of a gas station who deposited the note in the bank. He wrote it down because it was the license number of the man who gave him the note. He thought the man acted suspiciously and might have been a counterfeiter.
The license was traced to one Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant with a criminal record. Inside his garage was found a box with $14,000 of the ransom money.
A further search of his house found more evidence. There was a notebook with a sketch of the ladder used in the kidnapping. Wood matching the ladder was found in the attic. John Condon’s telephone number and address were found written inside of a closet.
Samples of his handwriting were sent to the FBI in Washington DC, and they found strong similarities with Hauptmann’s handwriting and that from the ransom notes.
He also bore a striking resemblance to the image created by a sketch artist based on the description by the intermediary, John Condon based on their subsequent meetings..
Hauptmann was arrested in New York on charges of extortion and then transferred to New Jersey to stand trial for capital murder.
The trial began in New Jersey on January 3, 1935.
The evidence against Hauptmann was all circumstantial, but it was significant.
Hauptmann’s defense was that the money came from his friend named Isidor Fisch. Fisch was German and had returned to Germany in December 1933, and died of tuberculosis in March 1934. Hauptmann claimed that he kept the money because he was owed money by Fisch from a failed business venture.
Fisch was constantly in trouble with the law and always running scams, died penniless in Germany. Several people from Germany came to the US to testify that he had no money, and if he did, he would have sought medical treatment.
Likewise, his landlady in New York said he could barely afford his $3.50 weekly rent, and others came forward saying he couldn’t have been at the scene of the crime.
Hauptmann’s wife testified that he had picked her up from work on the night in question, and there was documented evidence that during the day he was at work doing carpentry projects.
Not surprisingly, Bruno Hauptmann was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
After several attempts at appeal, Hauptmann was executed by electric chair on April 3, 1936.
Despite the guilty verdict and the execution of the Hauptmann, the Lindbergh case has never disappeared from public conscience.
Hauptmann declared his innocence until the very end, and never admitted his guilt.
There was never an explanation for the second set of footprints found outside the window.
Hauptmann’s widow sued the state of New Jersey and fought to clear her husband’s name until she died at the age of 95 in 1994.
Many people have come forward with alternate theories, and have pointed out problems with the case presented against Hauptman.
Some legal historians admit that Hauptmann’s trial wasn’t fair and there was evidence tampering, but ultimately he was probably still guilty.
Others claim that two other men were involved, John and Walter Knoll, that escaped justice.
Some theories say that Anne Morrow’s sister killed the baby out of jealousy, or even that Anne’s brother killed the baby.
Still, others claim that Charles Lindbergh himself killed his son. Either the boy was disabled, and Lindbergh was trying to quietly send him away to Germany, or he was trying to pull a prank when he accidentally dropped his son when trying to take him out of the window.
Despite the very real problems with the Hauptmann trial, these other theories have even less evidence than the case against Hauptmann did.
Given the incredibly high profile of the Lindbergh kidnapping, it is not surprising that the crime of the century and the trial of the century are still being discussed almost a century after they took place.