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.