On March 1, 1932, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., 20-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, was abducted from the crib in the upper floor of his home in Highfields in East Amwell, New Jersey, United States. On May 12, the child's corpse was discovered by a truck driver by the side of a nearby road.
In September 1934, a German immigrant carpenter named Richard Hauptmann was arrested for the crime. After a trial that lasted from January 2 to February 13, 1935, he was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Despite his conviction, he continued to profess his innocence, but all appeals failed and he was executed in the electric chair at the New Jersey State Prison on April 3, 1936. Newspaper writer H. L. Mencken called the kidnapping and trial "the biggest story since the Resurrection." Legal scholars have referred to the trial as one of the "trials of the century". The crime spurred Congress to pass the Federal Kidnapping Act, commonly called the "Lindbergh Law", which made transporting a kidnapping victim across state lines a federal crime.
At 7:30 p.m. on March 1, 1932, Lindbergh family nurse Betty Gow put 20 month-old Charles, Jr. into his crib. Around 9:30 p.m. the baby's father Charles was in the library just below the baby's room when he heard a noise that he imagined to be slats breaking off a full crate in the kitchen. At 10:00 p.m., Gow discovered that the child was missing from the crib. The nurse also found that the baby was not with his mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who had just come out of the bathtub. Gow then alerted Charles Lindbergh, who immediately went to the child's room, where he found the kidnapper's ransom note in an envelope on the windowsill; the note contained bad grammar and handwriting. He then took a gun and went around the house and grounds with butler Olly Whateley. They found impressions in the ground under the window of the child's room and pieces of a cleverly designed wooden ladder. They also found a baby's blanket. Whateley telephoned the Hopewell police department to inform them of the missing child. Charles Lindbergh then contacted his attorney and friend, Henry Breckinridge, and the New Jersey state police.
Within 20 minutes, police were en route to the home.
After midnight, a fingerprint expert examined the ransom note and ladder; no usable fingerprints or footprints were found, leading experts to conclude that the kidnapper(s) wore gloves and had some type of cloth on the soles of their shoes. No adult fingerprints were found in the baby's room, including in areas witnesses admitted to touching, such as the window, but the baby's fingerprints were found.
The brief, handwritten ransom note was riddled with spelling mistakes and grammatical irregularities:
At the bottom of the note were two interconnected blue circles surrounding a red circle, with a hole punched through the red circle and two more holes to the left and right.
Word of the kidnapping spread quickly. Hundreds of people converged on the estate, destroying any footprint evidence. Along with police, well-connected and well-intentioned people arrived at the Lindbergh estate. Military colonels offered their aid, although only one had law enforcement expertise—Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. The other colonels were Henry Skillman Breckinridge, a Wall Street lawyer; and William J. Donovan, a hero of the First World War who would later head the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Lindbergh and these men speculated that the kidnapping was perpetrated by organized crime figures. They thought that the letter was written by someone who spoke German as his native language. At this time, Charles Lindbergh used his influence to control the direction of the investigation.
They contacted Mickey Rosner, a Broadway hanger-on rumored to know mobsters. Rosner turned to two speakeasy owners, Salvatore "Salvy" Spitale and Irving Bitz, for aid. Lindbergh quickly endorsed the duo and appointed them his intermediaries to deal with the mob. Several organized crime figures – notably Al Capone, Willie Moretti, Joe Adonis, and Abner Zwillman – spoke from prison, offering to help return the baby in exchange for money or for legal favors. Specifically, Capone offered assistance in return for being released from prison under the pretense that his assistance would be more effective. This was quickly denied by the authorities.
The morning after the kidnapping, authorities notified President Herbert Hoover of the crime. At that time, kidnapping was classified as a state crime and the case did not seem to have any grounds for federal involvement. Attorney General William D. Mitchell met with Hoover and announced that the whole machinery of the Department of Justice would be set in motion to cooperate with the New Jersey authorities.
The Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) was authorized to investigate the case, while the United States Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Immigration Service and the Washington, D.C. police were told their services might be required. New Jersey officials announced a $25,000 reward for the safe return of "Little Lindy". The Lindbergh family offered an additional $50,000 reward of their own. At this time, the total reward of US$75,000 (equivalent to $1,377,256 in 2018) was a tremendous sum of money, because the nation was in the midst of the Great Depression.
On March 6, a new ransom letter arrived by mail at the Lindbergh home. The letter was postmarked March 4 in Brooklyn, and it carried the perforated red and blue marks. The ransom had been raised to $70,000. A third ransom note postmarked from Brooklyn, and also including the secret marks, arrived in Breckinridge's mail. The note told the Lindberghs that John Condon should be the intermediary between the Lindberghs and the kidnapper(s), and requested notification in a newspaper that the third note had been received. Instructions specified the size of the box the money should come in, and warned the family not to contact the police.
During this time, John F. Condon — a well-known Bronx personality and retired school teacher — offered $1,000 if the kidnapper would turn the child over to a Catholic priest. Condon received a letter reportedly written by the kidnappers: It authorized Condon to be their intermediary with Lindbergh. Lindbergh accepted the letter as genuine.
Following the kidnapper's latest instructions, Condon placed a classified ad in the New York American reading: "Money is Ready. Jafsie " Condon then waited for further instructions from the culprits.
A meeting between "Jafsie" and a representative of the group that claimed to be the kidnappers was eventually scheduled for late one evening at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. According to Condon, the man sounded foreign but stayed in the shadows during the conversation, and Condon was thus unable to get a close look at his face. The man said his name was John, and he related his story: He was a "Scandinavian" sailor, part of a gang of three men and two women. The baby was being held on a boat, unharmed, but would be returned only for ransom. When Condon expressed doubt that "John" actually had the baby, he promised some proof: the kidnapper would soon return the baby's sleeping suit. The stranger asked Condon, "... would I 'burn' if the package were dead?" When questioned further, he assured Condon that the baby was alive.
On March 16, Condon received a toddler's sleeping suit by mail, and a seventh ransom note. After Lindbergh identified the sleeping suit, Condon placed a new ad in the Home News: "Money is ready. No cops. No secret service. I come alone, like last time." On April 1 Condon received a letter saying it was time for the ransom to be delivered.
The ransom was packaged in a wooden box that was custom-made in the hope that it could later be identified. The ransom money included a number of gold certificates – gold certificates which were about to be withdrawn from circulation, and it was hoped this would draw attention to anyone who was spending them. The bills were not marked but their serial numbers were recorded. Some sources credit this idea to Frank J. Wilson, others to Elmer Lincoln Irey.
On April 2, Condon was given a note by an intermediary, an unknown cab driver. Condon met "John" and told him that they had been able to raise only $50,000. The man accepted the money and gave Condon a note saying that the child was in the care of two innocent women.
On May 12, delivery truck driver Orville Wilson and his assistant William Allen pulled to the side of a road about 4.5 miles (7.2 km) south of the Lindbergh home near the hamlet of Mount Rose in neighboring Hopewell Township. When Allen went into a grove of trees to relieve himself, he discovered the body of a toddler. Allen notified the police, who took the body to a morgue in nearby Trenton, New Jersey. The skull was badly fractured and the body decomposed, having been chewed on by animals; there were indications of an attempt at a hasty burial. Gow identified the baby as the missing infant from the overlapping toes of the right foot and a shirt that she had made. It appeared the child had been killed by a blow to the head. Lindbergh insisted on cremation.
In June 1932, officials began to suspect that the crime was an inside job that was perpetrated by someone the Lindberghs knew and trusted. Suspicion fell upon Violet Sharp, a British household servant at the Morrow home. She had given contradictory information regarding her whereabouts on the night of the kidnapping. It was reported that she appeared nervous and suspicious when questioned. She committed suicide on June 10, 1932, by ingesting a silver polish that contained potassium cyanide just before what would have been her fourth time being questioned. After her alibi was confirmed, it was later determined that the threat of losing her job and the intense questioning had driven her to kill herself. At the time, the police investigators were criticized for heavy-handed tactics.
Following the death of Violet Sharp, John Condon was also questioned by police. Condon's home was searched but nothing was found that tied Condon to the crime. Charles Lindbergh stood by Condon during this time.
After the discovery of the body, Condon remained unofficially involved in the case. To the public, he had become a suspect and in some circles was vilified. For the next two years, he visited police departments and pledged to find "Cemetery John."
Condon's actions regarding the case were increasingly flamboyant. On one occasion, while riding a city bus, Condon claimed that he saw a suspect on the street and, announcing his secret identity, ordered the bus to stop. The startled driver complied and Condon darted from the bus, although his target eluded him. Condon's actions were also criticized as exploitative when he agreed to appear in a vaudeville act regarding the kidnapping. Liberty magazine published a serialized account of Condon's involvement in the Lindbergh kidnapping under the title "Jafsie Tells All".
The investigators who were working on the case were soon at a standstill. There were no developments and little evidence of any sort, so police turned their attention to tracking the ransom payments. A pamphlet was prepared with the serial numbers on the ransom bills, and 250,000 copies were distributed to businesses, mainly in New York City. A few of the ransom bills appeared in scattered locations, some as far away as Chicago and Minneapolis, but those spending the bills were never found.
By a presidential order, all gold certificates were to be exchanged for other bills by May 1, 1933. A few days before the deadline, a man brought $2,980 to a Manhattan bank for exchange; it was later realized the bills were from the ransom. He had given his name as J. J. Faulkner of 537 West 149th Street. No one named Faulkner lived at that address, and a Jane Faulkner who had lived there 20 years earlier denied involvement.
Arrest of Hauptmann
During a thirty-month period, a number of the ransom bills were spent throughout New York City. Detectives realized that many of the bills were being spent along the route of the Lexington Avenue subway, which connected the Bronx with the east side of Manhattan, including the German-Austrian neighborhood of Yorkville.
On September 18, 1934 a Manhattan bank teller noticed a gold certificate from the ransom; a New York license plate number (4U-13-41-N.Y) penciled in the bill's margin allowed it to be traced to a nearby gas station. The station manager had written down the license number because his customer was acting "suspicious" and was "possibly a counterfeiter." The license plate belonged to a sedan owned by Richard Hauptmann of 1279 East 222nd Street in the Bronx, an immigrant with a criminal record in Germany. When Hauptmann was arrested, he was carrying a single 20-dollar gold certificate and over $14,000 of the ransom money was found in his garage.
Hauptmann was arrested, interrogated, and beaten at least once throughout the following day and night. Hauptmann stated that the money and other items had been left with him by his friend and former business partner Isidor Fisch. Fisch had died on March 29, 1934, shortly after returning to Germany. Hauptmann stated he learned only after Fisch's death that the shoebox that was left with him contained a considerable sum of money. He kept the money because he claimed that it was owed to him from a business deal that he and Fisch had made. Hauptmann consistently denied any connection to the crime or knowledge that the money in his house was from the ransom.
When the police searched Hauptmann's home, they found a considerable amount of additional evidence that linked him to the crime. One item was a notebook that contained a sketch of the construction of a ladder similar to that which was found at the Lindbergh home in March 1932. John Condon's telephone number, along with his address, were discovered written on a closet wall in the house. A key piece of evidence, a section of wood, was discovered in the attic of the home. After being examined by an expert, it was determined to be an exact match to the wood used in the construction of the ladder found at the scene of the crime.
Hauptmann was indicted in the Bronx on September 24, 1934, for extorting the $50,000 ransom from Charles Lindbergh. Two weeks later, on October 8, 1934, Hauptmann was indicted in New Jersey for the murder of Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. Two days later, he was surrendered to New Jersey authorities by New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman to face charges directly related to the kidnapping and murder of the child. Hauptmann was moved to the Hunterdon County Jail in Flemington, New Jersey, on October 19, 1934.
Trial and execution
Hauptmann was charged with capital murder, which meant that a conviction would result in the death penalty. The trial was held at the Hunterdon County Courthouse in Flemington, New Jersey, and was soon dubbed the "Trial of the Century". Reporters swarmed the town, and every hotel room was booked. Judge Thomas Whitaker Trenchard presided over the trial.
In exchange for rights to publish Hauptmann's story in their newspaper, Edward J. Reilly was hired by the New York Daily Mirror to serve as Hauptmann's attorney. David T. Wilentz, Attorney General of New Jersey, led the prosecution.
Evidence against Hauptmann included $20,000 of the ransom money found in his garage and testimony alleging handwriting and spelling similarities to that found on the ransom notes. Eight handwriting experts (including Albert S. Osborn) pointed out similarities between the ransom notes and Hauptmann's writing specimens. The defense called an expert to rebut this evidence, while two others declined to testify; the latter two demanded $500 before looking at the notes and were dismissed when Lloyd Fisher, a member of Hauptmann's legal team, declined. Other experts retained by the defense were never called to testify.
Based on the work of Arthur Koehler at the Forest Products Laboratory, the State introduced photographs demonstrating that part of the wood from the ladder matched a plank from the floor of Hauptmann's attic: the type of wood, the direction of tree growth, the milling pattern, the inside and outside surface of the wood, and the grain on both sides were identical, and four oddly placed nail holes lined up with nail holes in joists in Hauptmann's attic. Additionally, Condon's address and telephone number were written in pencil on a closet door in Hauptmann's home. Hauptmann admitted to police that he had written Condon's address:
Additionally, a hand-drawn sketch which Wilentz suggested was that of a ladder was found in one of Hauptmann's notebooks. Hauptmann said this picture, along with various other sketches contained therein, had been the work of a child who had drawn in it.
Despite not having an obvious source of earned income, he had enough money to purchase a large $400 radio (nearly $7,000 today) and to send his wife on a trip to Germany.
Hauptmann was positively identified as the man to whom the ransom money was delivered. Other witnesses testified that it was Hauptmann who had spent some of the Lindbergh gold certificates, that he had been seen in the area of the estate in East Amwell, New Jersey near Hopewell on the day of the kidnapping, and that he had been absent from work on the day of the ransom payment and quit his job two days later. Hauptmann never attempted to find another job afterward, yet continued to live comfortably.
When the prosecution rested, the defense opened up their case with a lengthy examination of Hauptmann himself. In his testimony, Hauptmann denied being guilty, insisting that the box found to contain the gold certificates had been left in his garage by a friend named Isidor Fisch, who had returned to Germany in December 1933 and died there in March 1934. Hauptmann claimed that he had one day found a shoe box left behind by Fisch, which Hauptmann had stored on the top shelf of a kitchen broom closet, later discovering the money which, upon counting, added up to nearly $40,000. He further claimed that since Fisch owed him around $7,500 in business funds, Hauptmann kept the money for himself and had lived on it since January 1934.
The defense called Hauptmann's wife Anna to corroborate the Fisch story. However, upon cross-examination she was forced to admit that while she hung her apron every day on a hook higher than the top shelf, she could not remember seeing any shoe box there. Later, rebuttal witnesses testified that Fisch could not have been at the scene of the crime, and that he had no money for medical treatments when he died of tuberculosis. Fisch's landlady testified that he could barely afford his $3.50 per-week room.
In his closing summation, Reilly argued that the evidence against Hauptmann was entirely circumstantial, as no reliable witness had placed Hauptmann at the scene of the crime, nor were his fingerprints found on the ladder, the ransom notes, or anywhere in the nursery.
Hauptmann was convicted and immediately sentenced to death. Hauptmann's attorneys appealed to the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals, then the state's highest court; the appeal was argued on June 29, 1935.
New Jersey Governor Harold G. Hoffman secretly visited Hauptmann in his cell on the evening of October 16, accompanied by a stenographer who spoke German fluently. Hoffman urged members of the Court of Errors and Appeals to visit Hauptmann.
In late January 1936, while declaring he held no position on the guilt or innocence of Hauptmann, Hoffman cited evidence that the crime was not a "one person" job and directed Schwarzkopf to continue a thorough and impartial investigation in an effort to bring all parties involved to justice.
It became known among the press that on March 27, Hoffman was considering a second reprieve of Hauptmann's death sentence, but was actively seeking advice concerning the legality of his right as governor to do so.
On March 30, 1936, Hauptmann's second and final appeal asking for clemency from the New Jersey Board of Pardons was denied. Hoffman later announced that this decision would be the final legal action in the case, and that he would not grant another reprieve. Nonetheless, there was a postponement when the Mercer County grand jury, investigating the confession and arrest of Trenton attorney, Paul Wendel, requested a delay from Warden Mark Kimberling. This final stay ended when the Mercer County Prosecutor informed Kimberling that the Grand Jury had adjourned after voting to discontinue its investigation without charging Wendel.
Hauptmann turned down a large offer from a Hearst newspaper for a confession and refused a last-minute offer to commute his sentence from the death penalty to life-without-parole in exchange for a confession. He was electrocuted on April 3, 1936, just over four years after the kidnapping.
Following Hauptmann's death, some reporters and independent investigators came up with numerous questions regarding the way the investigation was run and the fairness of the trial. Questions were raised concerning issues ranging from witness tampering to the planting of evidence. Twice during the 1980s, Anna Hauptmann sued the state of New Jersey for the unjust execution of her husband. Both times the suits were dismissed on unknown grounds. She continued fighting to clear his name until her death at age 95 in 1994.
A number of books have asserted Hauptmann's innocence, generally highlighting inadequate police work at the crime scene, Lindbergh's interference in the investigation, ineffectiveness of Hauptmann's counsel, and weaknesses in the witnesses and physical evidence. Ludovic Kennedy, in particular, questioned much of the evidence, such as the origin of the ladder and the testimony of many of the witnesses.
According to author Lloyd Gardner, a fingerprint expert, Dr. Erastus Mead Hudson, applied the then-rare silver nitrate fingerprint process to the ladder, and did not find Hauptmann's fingerprints, even in places that the maker of the ladder must have touched. According to Gardner, officials refused to consider this expert's findings, and the ladder was then washed of all fingerprints.
Jim Fisher, a former FBI agent and professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, has written two books, The Lindbergh Case (1987) and The Ghosts of Hopewell (1999), addressing what he calls a "revision movement" regarding the case. He summarizes:
Another book, Hauptmann's Ladder: A step-by-step analysis of the Lindbergh kidnapping by Richard T. Cahill Jr., concludes that Hauptmann was guilty but questions whether he should have been executed.
According to John Reisinger in Master Detective, New Jersey detective Ellis Parker conducted an independent investigation in 1936 and obtained a signed confession from former Trenton attorney Paul Wendel, creating a sensation and resulting in a temporary stay of execution for Hauptmann. The case against Wendel collapsed, however, when he insisted his confession had been coerced.
Several people have suggested that Charles Lindbergh was responsible for the kidnapping. In 2010, Jim Bahm's Beneath the Winter Sycamores implied that the baby was physically disabled and Lindbergh arranged the kidnapping as a way of secretly moving the baby to be raised in Germany.
One theory is Lindbergh accidentally killed his son in a prank gone wrong. In Crime of the Century: The Lindbergh Kidnapping Hoax, criminal defense attorney Gregory Ahlgren posits Lindbergh climbed a ladder and brought his son out a window, but dropped the child, killing him, so hid the body in the woods, then covered up the crime by blaming Hauptmann.
Robert Zorn's 2012 book Cemetery John proposes that Hauptmann was part of a conspiracy with two other German-born men, John and Walter Knoll. Zorn's father, economist Eugene Zorn, believed that as a teenager he had witnessed the conspiracy being discussed.
In popular culture
- 1934: Agatha Christie was inspired by circumstances of the case when she described the kidnapping of baby girl Daisy Armstrong in her Hercule Poirot novel Murder on the Orient Express.
- 1971: Thomas Tryon's novel The Other is set in 1935, where the kidnapping is a much-discussed recent event that leads to a similar crime.
- 1981: The kidnapping and its aftermath served as the inspiration for Maurice Sendak's book Outside Over There. In the 2009 documentary Tell Them Anything You Want, Sendak says that he has been obsessed with the case of the Lindbergh baby since he was a youth.
- 2007: The novel Blaze by Stephen King (under his pseudonym Richard Bachman) is loosely based on the Lindbergh kidnapping.
- 2013: The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin is a work of historical fiction told from the perspective of Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
- 2016: Cold Morning: An Edna Ferber Mystery by Ed Ifkovic is a murder mystery centered around the trial.
- 1976: In the television movie The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case, Anthony Hopkins played the role of Bruno Hauptmann, while Cliff DeYoung played Charles Lindbergh and Sian Barbara Allen played Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
- 1995: In The Simpsons episode "Mother Simpson", Abe Simpson claims to be the Lindbergh baby.
- 1996: The Lindbergh kidnapping was the subject of a 1996 Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated TV movie titled Crime of the Century. Bruno Hauptmann was played by Stephen Rea and his wife Anna by Isabella Rossellini.
- 1999: In the Family Guy episode "Brian in Love", when Lois says it is time for Stewie to start potty training, Peter says, "You know what happened to the Lindbergh baby." This leads to a cutaway of Charles Jr. potty training and accidentally flushing himself down the toilet, much to the dismay of Charles and his wife, where they make the kidnapping up. Mrs. Lindbergh then says, "What about Amelia? She saw the whole thing," where it is revealed Amelia Earhart also witnessed it before Charles says, "You leave her to me," implying he was the cause of her disappearance.
- 2009: In the American Dad episode "Weiner of Our Discontent" Stan and Roger encounter a man living out of a storage unit adjacent to Roger's 'fortress of solitude' unit, who asks them, "Excuse me, gentlemen, if I just found out I'm the Lindbergh baby, whom do I tell?"
- 2010: In Fringe when Peter returns to the alternate universe from where he was kidnapped, his disappearance is said to have made international news. In response Peter says "So I'm the Lindberg Baby?" only to discover that no such kidnapping occurred in that universe.
- 2011: The Clint Eastwood-directed film J. Edgar includes reference to the Lindbergh kidnapping. Josh Lucas plays Charles Lindbergh, Damon Herriman was cast as Bruno Hauptmann and Stephen Root was cast as Arthur Koehler, an expert on wood who testified at the trial.
- 2013: On July 31 the PBS program Nova aired "Who Killed Lindbergh's Baby?", an investigation conducted by the former FBI forensics expert, John Douglas. Douglas explored the incident and trial of Hauptmann, then investigated various theories about who else was likely to have been an accomplice.
- 2016: In another episode of American Dad, "Fight and Flight" Stan tries to help Steve do a video project on Charles Lindbergh, which include several fictitious versions of events including the kidnapping.
- 2018: In an episode of Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon's character "Debette Goldry" said she was the babysitter of the baby, and she lost him when she had to go to an audition.
- 2018: In the Netflix comedy special, John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, Mulaney states jokingly, “If the Lindbergh baby had steel toed boots, he’d still be alive today”
- May 1932: Just one day after the Lindbergh baby was discovered murdered, the prolific country recording artist Bob Miller (under the pseudonym Bob Ferguson) recorded two songs for Columbia on May 13, 1932, commemorating the event. The songs were released on Columbia 15759-D with the titles "Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr." and "There's a New Star Up in Heaven (Baby Lindy Is Up There)".
- The musical Baby Case dramatizes the events of the Lindbergh trial and the media circus that surrounded it.
- William Cameron's full-length play, Violet Sharp, is based on the story of the young British maid working at the home of Anne Lindbergh's mother. Sharp's contradictory testimony about her whereabouts on the night of the crime raised the suspicions of the police investigators and of the public, though after she killed herself, it was found her alibi was indeed true and there was talk the police were being heavy-handed with their tactics.
- Thimbleweed Park contains a character that confesses to the kidnapping.