Most know that aviator Charles Lindbergh famously flew his single engine plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, for 33 hours from Long Island to Paris in 1927, becoming the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo. The blond, handsome airmail pilot, only 25 years old, became an international superstar, receiving numerous awards and accolades (think today of a movie-star crossed with a sports-star type of fame).
What most do not know is that 5 years later ‘Lucky Lindy’ would be at the center of The Crime of the Century. On Tuesday, March 1st, 1932, two year old Charles Lindbergh Jr. was suffering from a winter cold. Charles Sr., his wife Anne and son were at home on their new estate in Hopewell, NJ. Little Charlie’s nurse, Betty Gow, put him to bed around 7:30 pm. His parents sat in the parlor, reading and listening to the radio. At 10pm, the nurse returned to check on him and made a horrifying discovery – Charlie Jr. was gone and the bedroom empty! Lindbergh rushed upstairs, flung opened the nursery door, and found the bed empty. He noticed an open window with an envelope lying on the sill.
The envelope contained a badly written ransom note that said:
“Dear Sir, Have $50,000 ready … After 2-4 days 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.”Excerpt of Lindbergh Kidnapping Ransom Note
A kidnapper had used a homemade ladder to climb to the 2nd floor and left muddy footprints in the room. Lindbergh dashed downstairs, grabbed his hunting rifle, and with their butler, went out searching the woods. Charles Lindbergh ignored a warning in the note and called the local and state police. A massive search of of the surrounding woods ensued. By 10:30 pm, the radio was announcing the news to the world. They next day, every U.S. newspaper gave the story its headlines. Soon, false sightings of the Lindbergh baby were coming from all corners of the country. None were real.
Col. Norman Schwarzkopf of the NJ State Police was in charge of the case, but ceded responsibility for the investigation to the famous Lindbergh himself. Headquarters for the investigation were established in the family’s home. Lindbergh’s inexperience however produced some major goofs – footprints near the house were trampled by the searchers and evidence was mishandled by to many people. No fingerprints were found. The state police offered a $25,000 reward for anyone who could provide information pertaining to the case.
Then, a follow-up letter showed up on March 6th, with more instructions, this time demanding $70,000 as penalty for going public.
Other blunders and oddities would follow …
Even gangster Al Capone offered his assistance – in return for being released from prison. The authorities did not take him up on it. A week later, John Condon, a retired teacher from the Bronx, called the Lindberghs, claiming he had made contact with the kidnappers! Condon had written a letter, published in the Bronx News, offering to act as independent intermediary. A man named John, claiming to be the kidnapper, wrote to him. Condon was allowed by a desperate Lindbergh and the police to make contact with the kidnappers.
On April 2nd, the ransom money, in gold certificate bills, was delivered by Condon to a Bronx cemetery, while Lindbergh himself waited with police in a nearby car. The kidnapper said they were a gang of Scandinavians and gave Condon a note, supposedly revealing the baby’s safe location. It led them to the New Jersey coast in search of a boat called Nelly. No boat nor the Lindbergh baby were ever found. They’d been double-crossed.
On May 12th, 72 days after the kidnapping, a truck driver named Orville Wilson stopped on the side of the road in New Jersey to relieve himself. He found the decomposed body of a baby boy in the woods, less than 5 miles from the Lindbergh house. The child had been dead from a fractured skull, presumably dropped from the ladder the night of the kidnapping. He had been dead all along.
The kidnapping case was now a murder investigation.
Serial numbers from the ransom money first surfaced in New York City. Over the next two years, more and more of the dollars would pop up. Finally, in September 1934, a marked bill turned up at a gas station in Manhattan’s east side. The attendant wrote down the license plate of the customer, who gave him a $10 bill for 98 cents of gas. It was tracked to a German immigrant carpenter by the name of Bruno Hauptmann. When his Bronx home was searched, detectives found $14,000 of the Lindbergh ransom stuffed in an oil can. Despite his pleas of innocence, Hauptmann was arrested and indicted for murder, 2 years after the crime.
The Crime of the Century became the Trial of the Century.
60,000 people besieged the tiny town of Flemington, NJ. Hauptmann was defended by “Big Ed” Reilly, a flamboyant attorney who had seen better days. Lindbergh himself testified that he recognized Hauptmann’s voice from the night he & Condon delivered the ransom money in the graveyard. Hauptmann took the stand and strongly denied any involvement. He claimed a friend, who had died in March, and had distrusted banks, had given him the money to hold. He said he had been beaten by the police while in custody and forced to alter his handwriting to match the ransom note.
The prosecution’s case was not airtight. Besides the money, the main evidence was testimony from handwriting experts and the prosecution’s claim of a connection between Hauptmann, a carpenter, and the wood used in the kidnapping ladder.
Following 11 hours deliberation, the jury found Hauptmann guilty of first degree murder.
The evidence and public demand for blood were enough to convict. Hauptmann was sentenced to death. Appeals were made all the way to the Supreme Court, but none were successful. NJ Governor Harold Hoffman voiced doubts about the case and the verdict, and even visited Hauptmann in his cell. Questions were raised – ranging from witness tampering, to evidence planting, to who his co-conspirators might be? Nevertheless, Hauptman was executed at Trenton State Prison on April 3, 1936 in the electric chair. Conspiracy theories abound to this day, claiming poor Hauptmann was framed and the kidnapping was in fact ‘an inside job’ within the household staff.
In the aftermath of the infamous crime, kidnapping was made a federal offense via the ‘Lindbergh Law‘ in 1932. To escape the intense publicity, Charles Lindbergh and his wife moved away from Hopewell in 1936, living in England. They returned to the US in 1939 prior to World War II to live in Connecticut. During the war, he was suspected by President Franklin Roosevelt and the White House of being a Nazi sympathizer due to his anti-war speeches and strong anti-Semitic beliefs.
He and his wife Anne went on to have 5 more children. After the war, he also secretly fathered 7 illegitimate children with 3 different German mistresses. They never knew the famous Charles Lindbergh was their father until after his death. Lindbergh died from lymphatic cancer in Hawaii in 1974 at age 72. Anne Lindbergh lived a long life and passed away at age 94 of a stroke. DNA tests conducted in 2003 have since confirmed their lineage of Charles 7 illegitimate children.
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