Category Archives: History

The Death of JFK and the Birth of Conspiracy Nation

As most of us know, this November will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and if you weren’t already aware, I’m sure you soon would have been, with the countless numbers of TV specials, newspaper and magazine articles, and new and reprinted books that will shortly be coming our way. A half century later, JFK’s murder not only the most significant event of my lifetime, but also a bonding mechanism that links everyone past their mid-50’s together for what can described as a national shared experience. But President Kennedy’s assassination did more than provide a moment where almost all Baby Boomers can remember where they were the very moment they heard about it…it also kicked off a cottage industry of conspiracy theories, available through several books and television documentaries. Share some time with ten 60 year old Boomers, and you’ll probably come away with five or six explanations of what happened in Dallas on the afternoon of November 22, 1983.

As soon as we heard the news that Kennedy had been shot, the world seemed to come to a complete stop. Coming back from recess, my fifth grade teacher breathlessly informed of what had happened, or at least what was known at that moment. Our principal came over the intercom and confirmed what we had just been told, and minutes later, relayed the news that the President had died. Over the next few hours, our collective energy switched back and forth between grieving and wanting to know the details of the murder. Before the sun set

 on November 22, 1963, we learned the name Lee Harvey Oswald, and were given a rough sketch of that day’s event at Dallas’s Dealey Plaza.

If we weren’t already in a daze, watching Jack Ruby cut down Oswald, live on national television really pushed a lot of us over the edge. Here we were, tuned in to President Kennedy’s funeral procession when the networks cut away to live coverage of Lee Harvey Oswald being transferred from Dallas police headquarters to the county jail, just in time to witness our nation’s first televised murder. Although Oswald’s death deprived us of what might have been the trial of the century, we were already being assured of Oswald’s guilt, and that his conviction was a mere formality. As a means to settle all doubt, on November 29, 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the “Warren Commission,” to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy, which resulted in an 889 page report that concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in shooting the President. Anyone thinking the Warren Commission’s findings would be the final word would be proven wrong soon and often.

The first notable descent from the “Oswald lone shooter” theory came from Mark Lane, whose “Defense Brief for Oswald” appeared in the December 19, 1963 edition of the National Guardian. The first Kennedy conspiracy book, Thomas Buchanan’s “Who Killed Kennedy?” was published in May of 1964. Before long, hundreds of books and even more magazine articles were written, usually taking issue with the conclusions of the Warren Commission. Terms like “second shooter,” “magic bullet,” and “grassy knoll” became familiar terms, as conspiracy theorists pointed fingers at a wide variety of suspects. The mafia, CIA, anti-Castro Cuban exiles, Castro himself, LBJ, the KGB and the FBI were just some of the individuals or groups who have been tied to the murder of JFK. In 1966, a New Orleans D.A., Jim Garrison conducted an investigation that led him to conclude that a right-wing extremist named Clay Shaw headed a successful effort to kill Kennedy, using Lee Harvey Oswald as a patsy. Although Garrison succeeded in bringing Shaw to trial, the latter was found not guilty in 1969. Garrison’s efforts were later the basis for the 1991 film, “JFK.”

Described as “the best photographic evidence” of President Kennedy’s assassination, the Zapruder film has long been the centerpiece for anyone studying the actual moment of JFK’s death. Although the footage, shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder, provides a clear picture of the actual moment of the fatal bullet’s impact, it too, has its critics, going as far as saying the home movie has been altered in order to conform to the Warren Commission’s findings. Of course, the tampering of evidence and harassment of witnesses has always been constant theme. Jim Marrs, who wrote the book, “Crossfire” (1989) presented a list of 103 people having some connection to the assassination, either as a witness or possible suspect, who died “convenient deaths” within a few years of the crime.

Every aspect of the Kennedy assassination has been a source of controversy and disagreement among experts. The number of shots fired, Oswald’s marksmanship, the murder of policeman J.D. Tippit, and the legitimacy of Kennedy’s autopsy have all been called into question. To this date, it has been estimated that as many as two thousand books about the Kennedy assassination have been published, with 95% of them having a pro-conspiracy, anti-Warren Commission point of view. It’s no wonder that a 2003 Gallup poll reported that 75% of Americans do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. And new theories continue to find their way into the national discussion, including the most recent one that suggests that one of the bullets hitting Kennedy was fired in error by a Secret Service agent…at least it’s described as an accident.

The popularity of Kennedy assassination conspiracy books sparked the beginning of what some have called “conspiracy nation.” Whether it was FDR having advance knowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or Hitler escaping to South America, it seemed that any published work offering an alternative look at any historical event would find an eager audience. Conspiracy theories eventually would attach themselves to practically everything, even the Moon landing, which some people believe was faked.

Being skeptical can be a good thing, and not buying into everything that we are told by our government is not only healthy, but sometimes necessary. On the other hand, to reject everything we see or read about as lies can only lead to a paranoid existence. If you provide a “9-11 truther” or an Obama “Birther” with overwhelming evidence that disproves their beliefs, they will simply expand their conspiracy theory to include the fabrication of whatever information you offered. But don’t get me wrong…conspiracy theories have provided me and others thousands of hours of fascinating reading, possibly the only silver lining the Kennedy assassination has provided.

Note: Although network television programming was immediately suspended upon the assassination, there was a lack of consistency around the country in terms of what events were canceled and which ones were not. On Saturday, November 23, 1963, the NCAA canceled college football games, while the NHL and NBA went ahead with their contests. The next day, the National Football League played all seven scheduled games, while the American Football League called their games off. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle later admitted that going ahead with his league’s games was a mistake. Out in California, Capuchino High School

went ahead with its Friday afternoon home game against Hillsdale, which was played about three hours after the President’s death. In Marysville, the Beach Boys performed a Friday night concert, as city leaders felt the show would allow kids to get their minds off tragedy for awhile. Brian Wilson later said it was one of their better shows.

Trivia: Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald had a direct influence on TV sports broadcasting. Watching Oswald’s killing on television, CBS Sports producer and director Tony Verna was very impressed with rival NBC’s use of replays during their Ruby-Oswald coverage. Verna decided to use the same cutting edge video technology two weeks later during the CBS telecast of the Army-Navy game. On December 7, 1963, after an Army touchdown, announcer Lindsay Nelson advised his viewing audience, “This is not live, ladies and gentleman…Army did not score again.” What viewers were seeing was the first use of instant replay.


Is Anyone’s Job Safe?

If ever we needed a reminder that all of us are potentially expendable, it certainly came recently when George Zimmer, founder and longtime commercial spokesman of Men’s Warehouse, was ousted as the company’s executive chairman by its board of directors. Citing Zimmer’s desire to sell the clothing firm to private investors as contrary to the board’s wishes, Zimmer was dismissed from the company he started in 1973, and where he has been its public face for as long as anyone can remember. As surprising as this development may seem, Zimmer is not the first individual to become estranged from an enterprise he or she seemed permanently linked to, as the following examples will attest.

Although McDonalds was founded by a pair of brothers, it was businessman Ray Kroc who successfully turned a small burger chain into a multi-billion dollar corporation. In 1953, Kroc was a multi-mixing milkshake machine salesman, who became intrigued when Richard and Maurice McDonald, owners of a small hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino, ordered eight of his mixers. Kroc saw the huge potential of the McDonald’s operation, and convinced the McDonald brothers to allow him to aggressively franchise their business. By 1961, Kroc had become frustrated by his two partners’ intent to limit the number of McDonald restaurants to only a few locations, so Kroc offered to buy them out for $2.7 million dollars, plus 1.9% of future royalties. (It was a handshake deal, which allowed Kroc to renege on the royalties, due to it not being in writing). As part of the agreement, Richard and Maurice were able to retain the San Bernardino property, where they opened a hamburger stand called “The Big M.” In brutal fashion, Kroc surrounded “The Big M” with a number of McDonald restaurants, forcing the actual McDonald boys out of the burger business forever.

Colonel Harlan Sanders franchised his first KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) restaurant in 1952, and today, 32 years after his death, remains the official face of the company. But his relationship with the business he founded did not always go well during his lifetime. After selling the KFC Corporation in 1964 for $2 million dollars, Sanders eventually went on to become the company’s most strident critic. In 1973, the Colonel sued KFC’s parent company, Heublein Inc. over alleged misuse of his image and associating his name with products he had not helped develop. Two years later, Heublein unsuccessfully sued Sanders for libel after he publically compared KFC’s gravy to “wallpaper paste.” I always thought it was the wallpaper industry that should have sued.

Legendary football coach Paul Brown’s association with Cleveland’s All-American Football Conference franchise was obviously close from its 1946 beginning…the team was named after him. For all four seasons of the AAFC’s existence, the Cleveland Browns won the league title, and continued their success in 1950, winning the NFL championship their first year in the league. All told, Brown’s Cleveland teams played for the title each of his first ten years as head coach, cementing his status as one of the most successful NFL coaches in history. But after 1955, the Browns began a slow drift downward, frequently falling out of championship contention over the next seven seasons. After finishing 3rd for the second straight year in 1962, Paul Brown was let go from the team he had led for 17 years. But pro-football had not heard the last from Paul Brown. In the late 1960’s, Brown joined a group of investors who were granted an American Football League franchise in Cincinnati. When the Cincinnati Bengals began operations in 1968, Paul Brown was named head coach. In 1970, after a 1-6 start, the Bengals won their final seven games, winning their first AFC Central Division title. One of the teams Cincinnati defeated during their streak…the Cleveland Browns. Paul Brown described that 14-10 win as “my greatest victory.”

For much of their existence, the Beach Boys were a family operation. Not only were three of the California rock group’s founding members brothers (Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson), but also, during their formative years, their manager was the Wilson boys’ father, Maury Wilson. This arrangement made sense in the early days, when the Beach Boys were not yet a major act, and a concert tour simply meant loading up the family station wagon. At the outset, managing the group was no more complicated than coaching a little league team, but by 1964, the Beach Boys were selling millions of records, and the job had outgrown Maury, whose previous occupation was selling industrial equipment. Not only was Maury inexperienced in the higher echelons of the music business, but he also constantly blurred the line between manager and father, imposing strict curfews on the road, fining the boys for tardiness and bad language, and even maneuvering band member David Marks out of the group in 1963. Even worse, Maury, a frustrated songwriter, began to battle with son Brian over the musical direction of the group. In late 1964, the Beach Boys had had enough, and fired dear old dad right before their first ever European tour.

Eager to prove that he was the reason for the Beach Boys’ success, Maury Wilson found five other young men, and used them to form a Beach Boys clone group called the Sunrays, who enjoyed only brief and moderate success. But Maury still had his hands in the Beach Boys’ pocket, as he co-owned the royalty rights to the group’s songs with son Brian. In 1969, without Brian’s permission or knowledge, Maury song the entire catalog to A & M records for a reported $700,000, a fraction of its value. In 1990, 17 years after Maury Wilson’s death, Brian Wilson successfully sued the law firm he felt had misrepresented him in the transaction, and collected $25 million dollars in lost revenue and unpaid royalties. After that settlement was completed, Beach Boys lead-singer Mike Love sued Brian for an equal share of the court winnings, claiming that Brian and Maury had withheld songwriting credit from Mike on 35 songs. Mike went on to win that legal battle, and the acrimony it caused between Brian and Mike demonstrated Maury Wilson’s ability to create problems from the grave.

Then there are those that held cushy positions as TV spokespersons for high profile products, only to be done in by their own foolish behavior. Entertainer Anita Bryant was hired by the Florida Citrus Commission in 1969, and was featured singing “Come to the Florida Sunshine Tree” for almost a decade until her outspoken stance against homosexuality led to her contract being allowed to lapse. Actor Ben Curtis had a sweet gig as “Steven,” the Dell Computer lad beginning in 2000, but his popular “Dude, you’re getting a Dell” commercials ceased in 2003 when Curtis was arrested for criminal possession of marijuana. And who can forget the lovely young model appearing on the box of Ivory Snow soap 40 years ago? One can only imagine Proctor & Gamble’s embarrassment when that same model, Marilyn Chambers, turned up in the pornographic film classic, “Behind the Green Door.” I still wonder what “99 & 44/100% pure” was supposed to mean.

But there is another example that may cause George Zimmer to take heart. In 1985, Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer, was driven out of the company he helped start, when CEO John Sculley successfully pulled off a boardroom coup. Rather than conduct a lengthy lawsuit, Jobs founded NeXT Computer with $7 million. Attracting outside venture capital, Jobs made NeXT Computer a success, and in 1996, sold the company to Apple for $427 million. Apple’s acquisition of NeXT brought Steve Jobs back to Apple, where he eventually became CEO. I can hear the wheels turning in George Zimmer’s head as we speak.


When Worlds Collide

Early in life, I think we all become aware that we live in a universe that is comprised of two worlds…our own and a larger, outside one. Our own world is comprised of friends, family, school, and takes place in the immediate area that surrounds our home. The other world is the one that we read about in the newspaper, or observe while watching television…the world that is populated by famous people, and is the setting for important events in the fields of politics, sports and entertainment. Usually, except in cases of nationwide disasters or war, the two worlds remain separate, allowing most of us to live a normal life, regardless of what is happening in the outside world. But occasionally, the two can briefly intersect, sometimes by accident, a phenomenon I experienced for myself 45 years ago.

History will tell you that 1968 was one of the most traumatic years of our lifetime. Assassinations, anti-war demonstrations, and major social unrest all contributed to what seemed like general chaos in the U.S., while Europe was busy dealing with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. But my world was remarkably unaffected by any of this, as I was much more preoccupied with the day to day drama of my first year of high school. Yes, I paid attention to all of the major events happening in and around our nation in 1968, but frankly, I was more concerned with my algebra class than anything Walter Cronkite was talking about. And when school let out in June, my attention was directed at hanging out with friends and playing softball, and not to the riots taking place in Detroit and Chicago. It was the daily search for fun that led me and three of my friends directly into a brush with the outside world.

One of our favorite sources for amusement was the San Francisco International Airport. In 1968, SFO was much smaller than it is now, with fewer terminals, free parking (if you knew the layout) and a lot less security. On a hot summer night, I, along with my buddies Bill, John and Larry, hopped into Larry’s Chevy, and made the short drive over to the airport. Usually, our nights at SFO consisted of “goofing” on people, paging fake names on the white courtesy telephones, and playing catch in the hallways with the football that Bill always brought along. But this night would be different, as shortly after hearing “Dr Zachary Smith…white courtesy telephone…” over the intercom (good one John), we were handed a flyer informing us that Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Democratic candidate for president, was scheduled to arrive by plane in San Francisco at one of the outside gates within the hour. With little warning, our paths had crossed with the 1968 Presidential Campaign.

For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember, or are old enough but have just forgotten, the 1968 race for the presidency was a wild ride that took several unexpected turns. Early in the campaign, President Lyndon Johnson, struggling with the Vietnam War, and facing strong primary challenges within his own party from Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, announced he would not be a candidate for reelection in November. Now pitted against each other, Kennedy and McCarthy squared off in the crucial California primary, with the winner having a clear path to the nomination, and the loser facing elimination. Tragically, minutes after winning a decisive victory, RFK was murdered by an assassin’s bullet. McCarthy’s loss and Kennedy’s death almost immediately elevated Hubert Humphrey’s candidacy, much to the chagrin of the many young people who were attracted to McCarthy’s anti-war message, and had devoted many months working on his behalf.

When the four of us arrived at the gate, there were already hundreds of people gathered behind the barricade that had hastily been set up to separate Humphrey’s plane from the throng. As we quickly noticed, the crowd was split evenly between supporters of the Vice-President and sore loser remnants of the McCarthy campaign, who were there to heckle Humphrey (unless you counted Larry and Bill, who were solidly behind Humphrey’s Republican opponent, Richard Nixon). Clutching Bill’s football, I could see Humphrey’s plane taxi toward the gate. Just as the Vice-President disembarked and started to make his way over to the crowd for some campaign handshaking, I felt a firm tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and saw that I was confronted by two large men in dark suits…Secret Service agents who were very curious about me and the football I was holding.

One has to remember that we were still living in the wake of the Martin Luther King and RFK assassinations, and our government was understandably a bit jumpy when it came to the lives of presidential candidates. While one agent held me in a hammerlock, the other carefully inspected the football. To be honest, I found the situation quite thrilling. Moments earlier, I was merely a dorky lad of 15, but now I was a suspected terrorist. But it didn’t take long for the agents to realize that the football was harmless, and that I was as unimportant as I appeared. With little emotion, they gave me back the football, and disappeared into the darkness. Before long, Humphrey too was gone, whisked away by limo, no doubt to meet with some of his top Northern California donors. Soon, the entire crowd had dispersed, and the four of us were heading home in Larry’s car. As we were leaving the airport’s grounds, we spotted a McCarthy supporter hitch-hiking in front of the 101 on-ramp. At this point, Bill requested that Larry slow down enough for Bill to address the young man. As we pulled alongside the long-haired chap, Bill shouted, “**** you, and **** McCarthy.” His point eloquently made, Bill rolled his window back up, and Larry returned us to the safety and tranquility of our own world.


Hatfield-McCoy Feud Brought to Life on History Channel

Known more for documentaries, the History Channel will depart from its usual format with the premier of “Hatfields & McCoys,” a six hour mini-series that explores America’s most well known family feud. Debuting on Monday, May 28, at 9 pm, “Hatfields & McCoys will run on three consecutive nights, with numerous rebroadcasts throughout the near future. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, the program features Kevin Costner as Hatfield patriarch “Devil” Hatfield and Bill Paxton as McCoy family head, Randall McCoy. Based entirely on actual events that took place in 19th century America, “Hatfields & McCoys” well undoubtedly become the authoritative work on a subject that is well known, but has never been entirely told on film.

The saga of the Hatfields and McCoys dates back to 1865 in a region near the Kentucky-West Virginia border. Asa Harmon McCoy, a returning Union Army soldier, was murdered on January 7, 1865, supposedly by a group of men led by “Devil” Hatfield, who were not happy that Asa had sided with the North during the Civil War. No suspects were ever brought to trial. Tension between the two families festered for several years, until 1878 when a dispute over the ownership of a pig led to open hostility. Floyd Hatfield had possession of the pig, but Randolph McCoy claimed rightful ownership, asserting that it had merely wandered on to Hatfield property. The matter was brought before a judge, who ruled in the Hatfield’s favor, largely because of the testimony of Bill Staton, a relative of both families. Staton was killed later by two McCoys, who were acquitted on grounds of self-defense.

The feud reached a higher level in 1880 when Roseanna McCoy became romantically involved with “Devil” Hatfield’s son, Johnson “Johnse” Hatfield. The Roaseanna-“Johnse” courtship contributed to an escalation of the hostilities that would eventually cost the lives of a dozen men over a 20 year period, not to mention the destruction of livestock and property. Trials resulting from criminal charges brought against the warring clans lasted until 1901.

Stories about back country family feuds have been part of American popular culture for many years, often in the form of comedy. The image of mountain people chasing each other around with shotguns has always been a sure source of humor, whether it was the comic-strip “Lil’ Abner” or TV’s “Beverly Hillbillies.” Well, viewers will find nothing funny in “Hatfields & McCoys”…the program is dark, cynical and violent, with Costner’s “Devil” Hatfield bearing no resemblance to Jed Clampett. But despite the beatings, killings and home burnings, “Hatfields & McCoys” promises to be compelling television, and hopefully will generate the kind of ratings that will encourage the History Channel to produce similar fare in the near future.

Trivia: Contrary to some speculation, the term, “The real McCoy” was not inspired in any way by the famous feuding family. The expression, which is used to identify something as “the real thing” or the “genuine original,” first appeared as “The real Mackay,” in 1856 Scotland as part of an advertising campaign for G. Mackay & Co. Ltd’s whiskey (“A drop of the real MacKay). The term was altered to “McCoy” in Canada in 1881, when a short story made reference to a “real McCoy.” Over the years, there have been several bogus explanations for the phrase’s origin, including the theory that it had something to do with the West Virginia-Kentucky Hatfields. A once common myth held that “The real McCoy” was actually boxer Norman Selby, best know for his fighting name Kid McCoy. Selby/McCoy fought during the 1890’s, and there are at least a half a dozen stories that explain how “The real McCoy” is linked to the colorful middleweight. The “Kid” may have been “The real McCoy,” but he wasn’t the first.

Eighty Years Ago: Lindberg Baby Kidnapped

Decades before the assassination of JFK, or the O.J. Simpson murder trial, depression era Americans were caught up in their own version of the “Crime of the Century.” The Lindberg kidnapping case was a four year saga that began on March 1,1932 with the abduction of Charles A. Lindberg, Jr., and ended on April 3, 1936 when Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the crime’s only suspect, was executed. The kidnapping and subsequent murder of the son of one of the country’s greatest heroes, famed aviator Charles Lindberg, was one of the biggest news stories of the 1930’s, and an early example of the media’s increasing role in the sensationalizing of an event, as the relatively new phenomenon of talking motion picture newsreels were constantly feeding the public’s insatiable appetite for the case. Although considered an open and shut case in its day, questions remain 80 years later surrounding the trial of Hauptmann, and the validity of the final verdict.

Five years removed from his memorable trans-Atlantic flight, publicity-shy Charles Lindberg was living in a rural area outside of Hopewell, New Jersey along with his wife Anne and his son, the 18-month-old Charles A. Lindberg, Jr. At 10pm on the night of March 1, 1932, nursemaid Betty Gow discovered that the infant was missing from his crib. A brief search of the child’s second story bedroom yielded a crudely written ransom note, demanding $50,000, with further instructions to follow, in exchange for the infant’s safe return. The message included two interconnected circles, colored blue and red, with three holes punched in and around the circles, obviously meant to be a code to assure the Lindbergs of the authenticity of the subsequent messages. Within 20 minutes, local law enforcement was on the scene, and soon three sections of a home-made ladder was discovered, solving any mystery of how the kidnapper(s) were able to enter the second story window.

Although Lindberg’s celebrity status would have guaranteed him all the government assistance he ever could have asked for, he instead took over the investigation himself, causing the case to take several unfortunate turns. When a second ransom letter arrived by mail, Lindberg turned the letter over to Mickey Rosner, a Broadway figure, one of several men with supposed Mob connections that Lindberg had foolishly allowed to become attached to the case. Rosner had promised to circulate the letter among his underworld associates, but instead sold its contents to the New York Daily News. It wasn’t too long before copies of the ransom letter were being purchased on street corners all over New York by a public hungry for any information pertaining to the kidnapping. Unfortunately, the compromising of this key piece of evidence would forever call into question the legitimacy of every ransom note received from that point on.

The Lindberg kidnapping case took another weird twist with the involvement of John F. Condon. Condon, a retired school teacher with no affiliation with the Lindberg family, wrote a letter to the Bronx Home News offering his services as a go-between in any negotiations between Lindberg and the kidnappers. Condon received a response in care of the newspaper, which included the same circled markings of the original ransom note. Condon brought the letter to Charles Lindberg, who, upon being convinced that letter was authentic, brought Condon into the case’s inner circle. Now nicknamed “Jafsie,” Condon became Lindberg’s intermediary, and a meeting took place between Condon and an individual, purported to be a representative of the group holding the baby at a Bronx cemetery. A man, calling himself “John,” told Condon he was part of a gang made up of three men and two women, and assured “Jafsie” that the Lindberg child was safe. Although Condon did not get a good look at “John’s” face, he did detect what he later described as a Scandinavian accent. After a few weeks of additional communication, the final arrangements were made for the ransom to be paid in exchange for the whereabouts of the baby. On the evening of April 2, 1932, Lindberg accompanied Condon to Saint Raymond’s Cemetery, where $50,000 in Gold Certificate currency was tuned over to “John,” who then handed “Jafsie” a note explaining that the Lindberg baby was being held at Martha’s Vineyard, on a boat called the Nelly. Although the bills were not marked, the serial numbers had been duly recorded. Also, Gold Certificates were a year away from being phased out of circulation, with May 1, 1933 the deadline to exchange them for the new currency. “John” left with the money, and was not followed. A careful search of the Martha’s Vineyard harbor produced no boat called the Nelly, and no baby.

On May 12, 1932, a truck driver discovered a badly decomposed body of a toddler less than five miles from the Lindberg home. Charles Lindberg indentified the corpse as being his son, and the kidnapping case now became a murder investigation. With few leads to go on, police focused on tracking the ransom money, as merchants on the East Coast were given lists of the serial numbers, and banks were asked to keep track of anyone exchanging large amounts of Gold Certificates. In September of 1934, almost 2 ½ years from the kidnapping, a ten dollar gold certificate indentified as Lindberg ransom money spent at a New York City gas station was traced to a German immigrant named Bruno Richard Hauptmann. A search of Hauptmann’s home produced over $13,000 in ransom money, plus other items and information that would later become evidence. Hauptmann claimed the money had been left with him by a friend named Isidore Fisch, who had died after returning to Germany on March 29, 1934. Hauptmann, who denied any involvement or knowledge of the crime, was indicted in New Jersey for the murder of Charles A. Lindberg, Jr. The “crime of the century” now became the “trial of the century.”

Needless to say, the trial, held between January 2 and February 13, 1935, was a true media circus, as the Hunterdon County Courthouse in Flemington, New Jersey was packed with representatives from every news outlet in the country, equipped with typewriters, radio microphones and newsreel cameras. Hauptmann’s defense was arranged by the Hearst newspaper, hiring Edward J. Reilly in exchange for the rights to publish Bruno Richard Hauptmann’s life story. While Reilly put forth a half-hearted effort, the State of New Jersey overwhelmed Hauptmann with a mountain of evidence, introducing handwriting experts who claimed the ransom notes had been written by Hauptmann, lumber experts testifying that the wood used to build the ladder used to enter the Lindberg house matched wood found in Hauptmann’s attic, and eyewitnesses who placed Hauptmann near the Lindberg home the day of the kidnapping. Perhaps the most damaging testimony came from Lindberg himself, as the aviator swore that the voice he heard shout “hey doctor” (meaning Condon) at the cemetery almost three years earlier was definitely Hauptmann’s. Despite aggressive cross examination by New Jersey Attorney General David Wilentz, Bruno Hauptmann continued to profess his innocence. Found guilty of the crime, Hauptmann was sentenced to death in the electric chair, and was put to death on April 3, 1936, turning down a $90,000 offer from the Hearst newspaper in exchange for his confession.

Eighty years later, several questions remain about the Lindberg case, many which have been raised in countless books and documentaries on the subject. Some have argued that Bruno Hauptmann was only involved in the extortion of the ransom money, and not part of the kidnapping, a plausible theory given that the original ransom note’s contents became known to many just days after baby’s disappearance. Others have claimed that Hauptmann was totally innocent, and was railroaded due to the fact that a crime of this magnitude needed a scapegoat to achieve eventual closure. Guilty or not, it is certain that Bruno Hauptmann did not receive a fair trial, as the Hunterdon County Courthouse was brimming with tainted evidence, unreliable witnesses and a defense team that was little more than a joke. But regardless of what really happened, the Lindberg kidnapping case gave Americans an early taste of the modern media’s role in sensationalizing a news story, which would only increase in later years with the advent of television.

Trivia: A 1976 made for television movie, “The Lindberg Kidnapping Case,” featured Anthony Hopkins playing the role of Bruno Richard Hauptmann.

U.S. Presidents… Can’t they all just get along?

Presidents Day always gives me a chance to revisit one of my first lifelong obsessions, studying U.S. Presidents. I first became interested in our Chief Executives in the third grade, and soon I was annoying people with my ability to name all of the presidents, in order, in less than 30 seconds (I could do it sooner if I didn’t have to name Grover Cleveland twice). I happy to say that my passion for the subject remains strong to this day, probably because a month does not go by where a new book or documentary is released, containing fresh presidential stories and facts not available to me before.

Lately, I’ve become curious about how our Chief Executives felt about each other. Since becoming president places one into a very exclusive club, you would think that a mutual admiration society would have developed. Although would expect that a certain amount of animosity would exist among those presidents that ran against each other ,careful research proves that there was often more rancor built between individuals who were never rivals for the office. One only needs to start with George Washington to learn of some examples.

Washington and Thomas Jefferson had what might be called a complicated relationship. Although Washington had appointed Jefferson as the country’s first Secretary of State, the two had major differences regarding the size and role of the federal government. During Washington’s second term, Jefferson’s frustration with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s influence over Washington prompted him to join forces with James Madison in founding the Democratic-Republican Party. Washington, who feared the development of political parties would eventually tear the country apart, was appalled at Jefferson’s actions. Jefferson resigned in December of 1793, and never spoke directly to Washington again. Assessing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson felt that the Father of Our Country lived a charmed life, taking credit for every success and letting others take the blame for any misfortunes. Jefferson also felt that Washington left the presidency at the perfect time, feeling that an economic bubble was ready to burst just as Washington’s second term was coming to an end. The break between Jefferson and Washington did collateral damage to Washington’s relationships with future presidents James Madison and James Monroe, as both men were protégés of Jefferson. Open criticism of Washington did not end with his fellow Virginians. During his final address to Congress in 1796, Washington may have noticed that the lone congressman from Tennessee, still angry over the Jay Treaty of 1794, was not applauding at the end of the speech. The congressman was, of course, Andrew Jackson.

Abraham Lincoln is, almost without argument, one of our greatest presidents, and has received praise from every U.S. President that has followed him. But what about the presidents came before him? At the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency, there were five living former U.S. Presidents. In the 1860 election, won by Lincoln, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and John Tyler all supported John C. Breckinridge, while Millard Fillmore and Martin Van Buren cast their votes for Stephen Douglas. Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan were still around for the 1864 election, and all three voted for Lincoln’s opponent, George McClellan. Not only did Lincoln never receive the vote of an ex-president, but was also a constant target of their criticism throughout the Civil War, particularly from Pierce, who’s Secretary of War and good friend Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy.

We are constantly reminded of the current harsh tone in Washington D.C., but I keep coming across quotes by Theodore Roosevelt saying that William McKinley had the backbone of a “chocolate éclair”, Harry Truman calling Richard Nixon a “no good lying bastard” and Woodrow Wilson referring to Teddy Roosevelt as a “self-appointed divinity.” In 1994, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, spoke eloquently at the funeral of a Republican president, Richard Nixon. Compare that to what ex-president Andrew Jackson had to say in 1841, when William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office…”A kind and overruling providence has interfered to prolong our glorious Union and happy republican system, which General Harrison and his Cabinet were preparing to destroy under the dictation of the profligate demagogue, Henry Clay. Fortunately, Harrison’s death put a halt to such dire possibilities.” Ouch! At least when Theodore Roosevelt died, Woodrow Wilson kept his glee private.

Note: Since President’s Day usually calls to mind our nation’s great presidents, it’s only fair to recall the lyrics to the song, “Mediocre Presidents,” introduced on “The Simpsons.”

All: We are the mediocre presidents.

You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!

There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler,

There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes.

There’s William Henry Harrison,

Harrison: I died in thirty days!

All: We… are… the…

Adequate, forgettable,

Occasionally regrettable

Caretaker presidents of the U-S-A!