The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping Mystery

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After Charles Lindbergh flew The Spirit of St. Louis from New York to France in 1927, completing the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight, he became America’s most admired hero. “The Lone Eagle,” as he was called, then helped develop aviation and married Anne Morrow, daughter of diplomat Dwight Morrow. Anne learned to fly, and she and Charles made spectacular intercontinental flights together. In 1930, the first of their six children, Charles, Jr. (left), was born, dubbed “the Eaglet” by the press.

But tragedy struck on the windy evening of March 1, 1932. The child was snatched from his second-story bedroom. The kidnapper(s) left a crude note demanding $50,000 ransom. It bore a mysterious “signature”: overlapping red and blue circles, and three punched holes. On the ground outside, police found a chisel and homemade three-piece ladder.

The Lindberghs’ Response

As the largest manhunt in American history began, police and reporters swarmed the Lindbergh estate in Hopewell, New Jersey. Thousands of letters poured in from both well-wishers and cranks. Among these were notes from the kidnappers bearing the strange signature. These scolded Lindbergh for violating their instructions not to involve police. The Lindberghs publicly pleaded for the child’s return, promising to meet the kidnappers’ demands.

Because Charles Lindbergh suspected organized crime, his attorneys contacted known racketeers. The latter offered to make inquiries – but, they warned, the kidnapping didn’t seem like work of “the Mob,” who would have asked more than $50,000 for Lindbergh’s son.

On March 8, John Condon, a retired New York City school principal, published a newspaper announcement, offering to be the intermediary for the ransom exchange. Condon then received an anonymous message authorizing him as go-between, with an enclosed letter addressed to Lindbergh. Because that letter bore the unique symbolic signature, Lindbergh met Condon, and accepted the old man as intermediary.

Condon communicated with the kidnappers through coded newspaper messages. On the night of March 12, at the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery, he met their representative, who became nicknamed “Cemetery John.” Condon told “John” the Lindberghs wanted proof his gang had the baby.

A baby’s sleeping suit was mailed to Condon’s home. Lindbergh identified it as his son’s. The ransom money was gathered; though unmarked (as the kidnappers demanded), each serial number was recorded.

On the night of April 2, Condon received ransom-drop instructions. Lindbergh, with the money – and a pistol – drove Condon to St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, where the old man gave “Cemetery John” the cash in exchange for a note on the baby’s location – the boat Nelly off Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Lindbergh chartered a seaplane and, with Coast Guard help, scoured the region for two days – but no such boat existed.

Further newspaper messages to the kidnappers went unanswered. On May 12, about four miles from Lindbergh’s house, the baby’s corpse was found in roadside woods by a trucker who’d stopped for a call of nature. However, police and volunteers had already searched this area. Furthermore, advanced decay suggested the body might have been kept someplace warmer – then deposited, conceivably as a “present” for Lindbergh. Outrage filled the nation.

The Police Response

The police suspected an “inside job.” The kidnappers knew where the baby’s nursery was. Furthermore, the Lindberghs always stayed at the Morrow mansion in Englewood, New Jersey, on weekdays, while building their own home in distant rural Hopewell, where they stayed weekends as construction finished. On the week of the kidnapping, however, the baby came down with a cold, and the Lindberghs decided to remain longer at Hopewell. Without a tip, the kidnappers shouldn’t have known about this variation in routine. The baby was snatched on a Tuesday.

Suspicion fell on Violet Sharp, a Morrow maid. Sharp had taken Anne Lindbergh’s phone call about the change in plans. She lied to the police about her whereabouts the night of the kidnapping, saying she went to the movies – but couldn’t recall the film or her date’s name. On subsequent interrogation, she said she actually visited a roadhouse with an Ernie Brinkert – but Brinkert denied it. After the baby’s corpse was found, Sharp became increasingly disturbed. When the police came to question her again, she was dead, having swallowed cyanide. Oddly, a different “Ernie” later corroborated her roadhouse alibi. Today, investigators of the kidnapping still debate the reason for Sharp’s suicide – or was it even murder?

Another evidence of “inside help”: Police found no fingerprints in the nursery – not even the child’s, his nurse’s, or the Lindberghs’. Eventually, Dr. Erastus Hudson – pioneer of a silver nitrate fingerprint process – lifted latent prints from the nursery. Hudson stated the only explanation for the missing fingerprints was someone methodically wiping down the nursery after the abduction. It hardly seemed likely the kidnappers waited around to do this. At the time of the crime, five adults were in the house – Mr. and Mrs. Lindbergh, the baby’s nurse, the cook, and butler. Only the butler, Oliver Whateley, was unobserved during the kidnapping. And like Violet Sharp, Whateley died suddenly, in 1933 of peritonitis.

Heading the investigation was New Jersey State Police Superintendent H. Norman Schwarzkopf – father of “Stormin’ Norman” of Gulf War fame. A “political” appointee, Schwarzkopf’s only criminal justice experience before this position was as a department store floorwalker. President Herbert Hoover ordered federal agencies to assist the investigation – a process facilitated when Congress made kidnapping a federal crime. J. Edgar Hoover offered the superior criminology resources of the Bureau of Investigation (BI – later called FBI), but Schwarzkopf refused. While some might commend this as keeping police independent of federal intrusion, Schwarzkopf also rejected local assistance. New Jersey’s Governor authorized the state’s most famous detective, Ellis Parker, to help. Known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes,” Parker had solved over 200 murders. Yet Schwarzkopf declined, saying Parker was not in his jurisdiction. Since the kidnapping went unsolved for over two years, Schwarzkopf’s refusal of top resources was sharply criticized.

Investigation focused on tracing ransom bills, which appeared in a trickle. Since most were passed in New York City – outside Schwarzkopf’s own jurisdiction – this entailed interagency cooperation. Tracing money was difficult, however; few cashiers delayed customers to check serial-number lists. Most was found when later turned in at banks, but efforts to trace bills to original passers either failed or located someone cleared of suspicion.

A Suspect at Last

The case broke in September 1934. A Bronx carpenter, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, passed a $10 ransom bill at a gas station. Police found about $14,000 more in ransom money hidden in his home.

The German-born Hauptmann told police he’d discovered the $14,000 in a box left with him in December 1933 by an associate, Isidor Fisch, who’d gone to Germany where he died of tuberculosis. (Fisch had indeed been in a joint venture with Hauptmann and died in Germany.) Fisch’s brother was coming from Germany to settle the estate. Hauptmann meanwhile decided to spend some of the cash he’d found – Fisch owed him over $7,000 anyway, and Hauptmann said he didn’t know it was ransom money.

The police, however, dismissed Hauptmann’s explanation as a “Fisch story”; he was extradited to New Jersey for trial. In newspapers, the case appeared open-and-shut. Hauptmann had entered the United States as a stowaway, with a prison record in Germany for robberies. John Condon identified him as “Cemetery John.” Condon’s address and phone number were found scrawled in Hauptmann’s closet. Two eyewitnesses placed Hauptmann near the Lindbergh residence around the time of the kidnapping. Handwriting experts indicated similarities between the ransom notes and his writing. A federal wood expert said a board in Hauptmann’s attic matched a rail in the homemade ladder left at the crime scene. The three-quarter-inch chisel found at the scene was asserted to be Hauptmann’s – when police confiscated his tools, the prosecution said, only the three-quarter-inch chisel was missing.

The prosecution claimed Hauptmann alone did the kidnapping, murder, and ransom exchange. Brushed aside was the improbability of a Bronx carpenter knowing about changes in the Lindberghs’ plans. The jury found Hauptmann guilty; he was sentenced to death. When Harold Hoffman, New Jersey’s Republican Governor, learned much was wrong with the prosecution’s case, he granted Hauptmann stays of execution while investigating – to jeers of newspapers, who accused the Governor of protecting a child murderer. Asserting innocence to the end, Hauptmann died in the electric chair in 1936. Then the case was gradually forgotten – except by Hauptmann’s widow Anna, who spent nearly 60 years seeking her husband’s vindication.

A breakthrough came with publication of Scapegoat (1976) by crime reporter Anthony Scaduto, who examined police and prosecution records that had been under wraps for decades.

The Players

After World War I, food was scarce in Germany. Hauptmann, 19 and unable to find work, did turn to theft with a fellow ex-soldier. But after prison, he promised his devout mother, Paulina, it would never happen again. In 11 years in the United States before his 1934 arrest, Hauptmann never committed a known crime. He always went by his middle name “Richard,” but newspapers called him “Bruno” – it sounded more ruthless.

To her regret, Anna Hauptmann was persuaded by the Hearst newspaper chain to engage attorney Edward Reilly. In exchange for exclusive interviews, they would pay Reilly’s fee. With Hauptmann behind bars and Anna caring for a baby, the family could not afford the enormous defense costs – so Anna welcomed the proposal. Reilly, however, though once notable, was now an alcoholic and two years later landed in a mental institution, suffering effects of syphilis. Before being hired, he opined that Hauptmann was guilty and should burn – sentiments echoed by the Hearst press that paid him. Reilly spent less than 40 minutes with Hauptmann before the trial, and though showing occasional adeptness in court, made mistakes that cost his client dearly. After one key blunder, assistant defense counsel Lloyd Fisher – who never doubted Hauptmann’s innocence – shouted at Reilly, “You are conceding Hauptmann to the electric chair!” Some think Reilly was hired to deliberately lose; he was seen dining and boozing with prosecutors.

New Jersey Attorney General David Wilentz, a powerful Democratic Party figure, led the prosecution. Responsibility should have fallen to the county prosecutor, and Wilentz had never before tried a criminal case. Some attribute his involvement to “ambition.” As we will see, there may have been another reason.

Physical Evidence

  • Scaduto discovered the original New York police receipts for Hauptmann’s tools, including his three-quarter-inch chisel; later he found the chisel itself in storage at New Jersey State Police headquarters in Trenton. The prosecution had lied about this being missing.
  • Hauptmann writing John Condon’s phone number in his closet made no sense, since the Hauptmanns had no phone, and the number was in the phone book anyway. New York Daily News reporter Tom Cassidy eventually acknowledged scrawling it there to get a “scoop.”
  • Not one fingerprint linked Hauptmann to the crime – neither in the nursery nor on the 13 ransom notes. Fingerprint expert Dr. Erastus Hudson lifted about 500 prints (including partials) from the homemade ladder at the scene – but not one was Hauptmann’s. This seemed improbable if – as prosecutors claimed – he built it. New Jersey State Police Captain John Lamb then asked Hudson a stunning question: Could fingerprints be counterfeited? Hudson indignantly said yes, but that counterfeiting was detectable. The police then washed the ladder clean of fingerprints, and Schwarzkopf refused to let the public know Hauptmann’s were never found on it.
  • Hauptmann’s shoes were confiscated for comparison to footprints at the crime scene and cemetery. The prosecution omitted this evidence – presumably they didn’t match.
  • The prosecution’s challenge, then, was something to physically link Hauptmann to the kidnapping. The New Jersey State Police took over the lease on the Hauptmanns’ apartment. Detective Lewis Bornmann – whose superior was Lamb – actually lived there. He suddenly reported discovering a partially missing floorboard in Hauptmann’s attic – even though this was unnoticed in nine documented previous searches of the attic by 37 law-enforcement agents. At the trial, the prosecution claimed a kidnap-ladder rail matched the remaining partial-board in Hauptmann’s attic, though of different width and depth. Why would Hauptmann – a professional carpenter with abundant lumber in his garage – rip a board from his attic to help build a ladder? Nonetheless, this became the prosecution’s “smoking gun.”

Changing Testimonies

  • Hauptmann said he worked at the Majestic Apartments in New York City until 5 p.m. the day of the kidnapping. His supervisor Joseph Furcht confirmed this in a sworn affidavit with attached documentation. But after being summoned to the New York District Attorney’s office, Furcht was no longer “positive,” and work records for that time vanished.
  • Both of the witnesses placing Hauptmann near the crime scene were discreditable and handsomely paid. Unknown to the defense, 87-year-old Amandus Hochmuth was partially blind and admitted to prosecutors pretrial that he couldn’t identify Hauptmann. When Governor Hoffman interviewed Hochmuth, he couldn’t identify a flower vase 10 feet away. Illiterate Millard Whithed, labeled a chronic liar by neighbors, had denied to police seeing anything suspicious after the kidnapping – but came forward two years later, motivated by reward money.

Hauptmann had much better witnesses for the kidnapping time-frame. On Tuesdays his wife Anna worked late at Fredericksen’s, a New York bakery-café. Hauptmann always waited there for Anna, and sometimes walked the Fredericksens’ dog. Not only did the Fredericksens confirm Hauptmann was there on the kidnapping evening, but August Von Henke saw Hauptmann walking the dog. Mistaking it for his own lost dog, he argued with Hauptmann. Louis Kiss, a bakery customer, remembered the argument. Von Henke and Kiss weren’t friends of Hauptmann, had no incentive to lie, and threatened the prosecution’s case.

The day after Kiss testified, a New York attorney named Berko pressed him to change his testimony with a threat of arrest and an offer of money. Berko admitted his legal career was failing, but that Attorney General Wilentz offered to help him get a position on Manhattan special prosecutor Thomas Dewey’s staff if he could persuade Kiss to recant his testimony. Kiss informed Berko he’d told the truth in court and wouldn’t change it for any price. He summarized the incident in a sworn deposition corroborated by a witness.

  • When Hauptmann was arrested, Condon declined to say he was “Cemetery John.” FBI agent Leon Turrou wrote: “He [Condon] remarked on one occasion that Hauptmann is not the man because he appears to be much heavier, different eyes, different hair, etc.” Yet in court, after reportedly being threatened with “obstructing justice,” Condon emphatically identified Hauptmann as “Cemetery John.”
  • After Hauptmann’s arrest, the New York police gave samples of his writing to handwriting expert Albert D. Osborn, who reported they didn’t match the ransom notes. But after the frustrated police told Osborn large ransom sums were in Hauptmann’s residence, Osborn requested more samples. The police forced Hauptmann to write the ransom note words dozens of times; “best” examples were selected. Osborn changed his mind, explaining in court that Hauptmann made the same spelling errors as the actual ransom notes. But as Scaduto revealed, the police forced Hauptmann to write with the spelling mistakes dictated to him.

The state paid eight handwriting experts over $33,000 to testify that Hauptmann wrote the notes. But “experts” testify for who pays their fee, and many differences in Hauptmann’s writing were disregarded. The defense could only afford one handwriting expert, who was simply outnumbered.

  • Isidor Fisch, who Hauptmann said left the “money box,” had been a confidence man in many swindles, even swindling Hauptmann in their joint venture. Fisch was seen laundering “hot money” after the ransom payment, and applied for a passport the day the baby’s body was found. Hauptmann’s friend Hans Kloppenburg saw Fisch give him the box before departing for Germany. Kloppenburg told Anthony Scaduto that prosecutor Wilentz warned him: “If you say on the witness chair that you seen Fisch come in with the shoe box, you’ll be arrested right away.” Kloppenburg testified anyway.
  • Wilentz used a partner of Isidor Fisch – ex-con Charlie Schleser – to spy on defense witnesses. Feigning friendliness to Hauptmann, Schleser learned about defense plans and reported to Wilentz.

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