The Lindbergh Kidnapping-The Folly of Hero Worship
One of the most infamous criminal cases in the United States began in New Jersey on March 1, 1932 when the two year old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh was taken from his nursery at the family estate called, Hopewell. The nursery was on the second floor of the mansion with entry gained by a ladder leaned against the house. The kidnappers left a note on the window sill demanding $50,000 in exchange for the child. A strange emblem consisting of three interlocked circles served as the signature. Eventually an illegal German immigrant named Bruno Richard Hauptmann was executed for the kidnap and murder of the child.
This sounds like a typical kidnapping gone bad, however, it is far from it. The fiasco that was the Lindbergh Kidnapping case would never happen today. The suspect would have been promptly detected and apprehended regardless of his celebrity status. But it was 1932 and Charles Lindbergh was the darling of America, one above reproach much less suspicion. The police played a secondary role in the investigation with Lindbergh heading up the case and making all decisions. You might ask what does flying an airplane over the Atlantic have to do with criminal investigation, the answer, of course, is absolutely nothing, but Lindbergh directed every aspect of the case with law enforcement taking a back seat.
The kidnapper’s note was full of mistakes that no actual German would make. I am a translator of French, German and Dutch to English and the first thing I noticed was how hard the writer was trying to appear “German”. The writer attempted to write like a German speaking English, which is ridiculous. Germans writing English know correct spelling, which is unrelated to difficulties in pronouncing certain English sounds.
The first odd thing Lindbergh did was to contact underworld types and distribute the ransom letter to supposedly discover the identity of the kidnappers. This resulted in numerous copies of the letter spread about so that anyone who desired could extort the Lindbergh family since dozens, if not hundreds, of people now knew the unique signature of the kidnappers.
The second act was to advertise in the newspapers for intermediaries between Lindbergh and the kidnappers. Why this was necessary is open to debate, but was not something the police approved; and then enters Jafsie, otherwise known as Dr. John F. Condon who offered to barter the transactions between the Lone Eagle (a Lindbergh nickname) and the unknown kidnappers. Jafsie was the moniker he invented to intercede with the criminals holding the baby. He was basically a con man who enjoyed the sound of his own voice and who initially did not identify Bruno Richard Hauptman as the man in the cemetery who is known to history as “Cemetery John”. The man in the cemetery was to collect the ransom money from Condon.
When the police did offer good ideas such as staking out the mail boxes from which the numerous kidnapping notes were mailed, Lindbergh exploded and forbid it claiming it would endanger the child. Police also suggested tapping Condon’s telephone to discover the origin of the kidnapper calls, but again Lindbergh nixed the idea. In any way possible Charles Lindbergh screwed up the investigation of his son’s disappearance. Why would he do that?
For months there were no leads, which would trigger another look at the family and household staff in today’s world, especially when you consider that this was the third kidnaping episode involving Colonel Lindbergh. Before Charles dated Anne Morrow he was first interested in her younger sister, Constance, who did not return his affection. When Anne and her parents (Dwight Morrow was a banker and U.S. ambassador to Mexico) went to Europe Constance went to college where she received a letter stating that unless the writer was given $50,000 she would be kidnapped. It was the exact same amount demanded by whoever kidnapped the Lindbergh baby. Two months before the Lindbergh baby went missing from Hopewell, his father had played a sadistic joke on his wife and the Hopewell staff. He hid the child in a closet and let his terrified wife believe the baby had been kidnapped. (Lindbergh was well known in personal circles for his mean jokes. Amelia Earhart had witnessed one where Charles had dripped water onto his wife’s silk dress in front of company, knowing that the dress would be ruined. Earhart did not like being called; “Lady Lindy” and his in-laws bore him little affection).
When the child disappeared on the evening of March 1, 1932 Anne Lindbergh and the nanny, Betty Gow, both thought that Charles had taken the baby. There was no kidnapping note when the two women searched the nursery; it only appeared later after Lindbergh entered the room. His first response upon entering the room had been, “Anne, they have taken our baby.” Rather than open the note, Lindbergh ordered no one to open it as fingerprints could still be on it. It was the only time he displayed any concern for preservation of evidence or respect for law enforcement.
The police did manage to override Lindbergh in marking the ransom money, which led to the arrest of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who maintained his innocence despite being offered large sums of money to confess. He claimed to have received the money from an acquaintance named Isadore Fisch, a con man to whom Hauptmann had lost $7000. Fisch gave Hauptmann a sack of money to hold and since the man owned him money, Hauptmann withdrew some of the bills, which were gold certificates recently recalled by the government and spent them. Police had placed the certificates in the ransom payoff and recorded the serial numbers so that they would be easy to trace. Aside from the bills, no other evidence ever connected the German to the Lindbergh kidnapping and murder. Later the prosecution would mention Condon’s contact information written inside a closet at the Hauptmann house and a missing board from the attic allegedly from the kidnap ladder, which amazingly was not missing when police searched the attic the first time. The information etched in the closet had been placed there by a reporter who later admitted it.
The child’s body was found on May 12 not far from Hopewell, tossed in a ditch. The American public was outraged and already prejudiced against Germans after the First World War and the Nazi activities abroad (though Lindbergh was an ardent Nazi supporter), so Hauptmann was doomed from the start. He was shafted by his lawyers and Lindbergh sat at the prosecutor’s table further fanning the flames against the poor carpenter who would never have made such a flimsy ladder.
The prosecution claimed that Hauptmann placed the ladder against the house, outside the only window that had shutters that did not latch. (A recent book Cemetery John claims that Hauptmann then took off his shoes and tiptoed upstairs to snatch the baby, which is farfetched. However, the contention that a man named John Knox could have been Cemetery John is entirely possible, since many people had access to the initial kidnapping letter.) Charles Lindbergh sat fifteen feet from the front door of an isolated house built for the purpose of evading snooping reporters and fans, so why would the door be left unlocked? Charles reported that he heard the sound of wood breaking sometime around 9pm, but never got up to check it out. Odd, since he put on a good show of running about the house with a rifle two months earlier during his practical joke. Anne heard nothing. The dog, a viscous one that Lindbergh bought for that very reason, failed to hear strangers outside or inside the house, but barked at police or anyone else entering the property. The baby was not checked on until 10 pm per Lindbergh’s orders that the child not be pampered.
It was definitely an inside job since the Lindberghs were not usually at Hopewell, but had been staying with the Morrow’s. Someone close had to have been involved to know the change in plans. The nanny later committed suicide prompting suspicions toward Gow and her boyfriend who was later deported, but not charged. Charles telephoned his wife the afternoon of March 1 and told her not to bring the baby out in the rain since he had a cold, but Anne wrote to her mother-in-law that the baby was over the cold and either way could have been bundled up. The fatherly concern does not hold water as Lindbergh ran his household like a boot camp, being very hard on his future children.
Lindbergh was extremely focused on details and planning, so his later explanation for arriving at Hopewell at 8:25pm and honking the horn to announce his presence is suspicious. He had an important speaking engagement that night and claimed that he just got the dates mixed up. He should not have even been at Hopewell or the Morrow’s residence that evening.
To anyone with common sense Charles Lindbergh should have been considered a suspect, especially with a kidnapping practical joke just two months earlier. The public never knew the inconsiderate side of Lucky Lindy that make his pregnant wife fly thousands of feet in the air with no oxygen for hours, more than likely causing some damage to the fetus. Whether Charles Jr. suffered mentally or physically from that incident is unknown, but Lindbergh would hardly have had any sympathy for a disabled child.
Recently, the sleeper and other items kept as evidence were released to the family who plan to lay the whole incident to rest. The evidence should have remained in a museum as historical exhibits. Questions about the identity of the body recovered will remain unanswered as Charles Lindbergh had the body of Charles Jr. cremated before any examination could be done, which is strange right in the middle of a criminal investigation and once again nobody stopped him.
An interesting note on the sleeper that helped put Hauptmann in the electric chair was that it was new or recently washed with nothing to distinguish it from thousands of others on the market. Why would kidnappers wash a sleeper before sending it in an age before DNA? It’s obvious that someone bought one and sent it to the Lindberghs to identify it as belonging to their son.
The case is an interesting one and too complicated to fully investigate here, but even in grade school I wondered why Lindbergh was never investigated or questioned regarding the death of his child. For further reading check out;
The Crime of the Century: The Lindbergh Kidnapping Hoax by Gregory Ahlgren and Stephen Monier
Cemetery John by Robert Zorn
The Airman and the Carpenter: The Lindbergh Kidnapping and the Framing of Richard Hauptman by Ludovic Kennedy