Charles Lindbergh was subject to unusual veneration. His heroic act of flying the Atlantic solo in 1927 had brought together two continents and had become the symbol of progress. His fame was complimented by a boy-next-door appearance and manner. He also didn’t care for publicity and never grandstanded. He was sincere. Though living largely reclusively by 1932, his book Wings still delighted people with his firsthand account of the historic flight.
Icon status was blinding to an era that worshipped heroes. Lindbergh was no investigator and he was too emotionally involved in the kidnapping of his baby, Chas Jr., to have ever been considered even an advisor on the attempts to recover the baby from the kidnappers. Yet, extraordinarily, he was basically in charge of it and had far too much to say about the investigation.
This and this alone must explain the extraordinary decision to allow that grandstanding stumblebum, retired Bronx teacher Dr. John Condon, to act as a go-between. His emergence into prominence was shadowy. He had put a plea in the Bronx newspaper Home News and offered $1,000 dollars to the kidnappers if they delivered Baby Lindy to a Catholic priest. A grandstanding act. Amazingly, the kidnappers read the Bronx Home News. Even more amazing, the kidnappers approached Condon by letter and asked him to act as a go-between in the $50,000 ransom payoff they had asked for. They even upped it to $70,000, which looked a little suspicious with Condon now involved.
Naturally, this means something quite remarkable. The kidnappers had gone to a lot of trouble to get the most famous baby in America, but as yet they had not worked out how to actually get their payoff. And as I have shown in the previous Lindbergh Kidnapping posts they (or “him”) had gone to some work to get the baby– they had watched the house or coerced inside information, they had rigged a makeshift ladder, they had even anticipated the publicity and devised a careful and intricate signature that would identify their ransom notes from any fakes that erratic pranksters might send.
There was no easy angle to watch the house and determine the nursery.
With Condon now involved there were those who thought that perhaps the extortion was a complete fraud and not even being perpetrated by the actual kidnappers. Quite a coincidence that the kidnappers read the Bronx Home News, was it not? Quite a coincidence for a kidnapping that occurred in the remote woods of New Jersey, is it not?
Suspicion about Condon grew a month after the payoff when the baby’s remains were found in the woods near Hopewell, New Jersey, about a mile or so (some say under 5) from the Lindbergh house. He had died that very night, March 1, 1932, when he had been kidnapped. Condon had not required any real proof that Baby Lindy was alive. He hadn’t arranged for the payoff and for the baby to be exchanged in a believable way at that time. He had merely acted as a middleman getting lots of publicity. The night of the payoff basically comes down to Charles Lindbergh sitting in the car on the road while Condon stumbled through St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. Lindbergh only heard “Hey, doc!” from the kidnapper as he called to attract Condon.
The result was that the kidnappers got the money and Lindbergh did not get his baby. Condon got lots of publicity, which he loved, and even appeared in a New York vaudeville show recreating the chilling scenario he had lived through.
Condon was a poor choice, but then giving Lindbergh such judgment and power was also a poor choice to begin with.
There is more than one way to interpret why the kidnappers would suddenly think John Condon a necessary go-between. The death of the baby that night may have called it off for one or more of the others in the conspiracy, leaving the one or more remaining to try the stunt of recovering the ransom on his/their own. Thus he needed some new plan now, some insulation between he and Lindbergh’s people. Condon generating news for himself by his stunt in the local newspaper suddenly seemed a viable choice.
Quite a few, however, if not everybody, have been disturbed by the outcome of the payoff cavalcade. Nothing seemed to have been arranged properly, and then those coincidences raised their head again. Once again, that the “kidnappers” just happened to read a Bronx newspaper. Eventually, the suspicions would get worse.
When Bruno Hauptmann was finally tagged for the kidnapping (due to passing one of the ransom bills) he too was a Bronx resident. He didn’t live far from either meeting area (first at Woodlawn Cemetery, then St. Raymond’s), both in the Bronx. This is extraordinary considering what the kidnappers went through to find a very secluded house in New Jersey’s woods. Now they remained anchored to the Bronx, right where they lived? All within reach of Hauptmann’s house on East 222nd Street? The extortion racket, clearly instigated after Condon’s boastful ad in the local paper, looks entirely separate to the kidnapping, or all of the above was just too coincidental.
But it is a fact that if Bruno Hauptmann was only one of those involved, attempting a desperate bid to get a ransom, he split it with somebody else, three ways or two ways. They only found a fraction of the money on him.
The Lindbergh Phenomenon is squarely rooted in the fact that so much power was granted Charles Lindbergh, and the branches grow out of all the unusual decisions and oversights that followed. There was excessive zeal to burn Bruno Hauptmann alone despite the fact he only had a fraction of the ransom money. Although the police rightfully pursued the idea of an inside co-conspirator or, at least, of someone who ignorantly tipped off one of the kidnappers where the nursery was at the house, it was dropped after the curious suicide of Violet Sharp, one of the maids to the Morrows, Lindbergh’s in-laws and grandparents of the baby.
There is no attempt to explain the death of the baby as accidental or intentional. There is a big difference. Accidental death means the kidnapper had to have preplanned a way of caring for the baby. Bruno Hauptmann couldn’t do that alone without involving his wife, and she seemed genuinely ignorant of all this. Intentional death, of course, would mean the kidnapper didn’t need to have such plans. The fact that the baby was found at the edge of the woods by the road argues for accidental death. If the kidnapper intended it, you would think he could take the kid as far as he could and quietly dispose of him so he could not be found. Leaving the body close by risks quick discovery. The whole extortion plot would instantly fail.
To this day it is difficult to say why more clarity was not brought to bear on identifying how and exactly by whom the kidnapper/s could have known the nursery window. It is said that Isador Fisch, the man Hauptmann blamed, had contacts in those rural areas, but since he had died a pauper in Germany, to where he went back, it more or less is glossed over that the man sent up for the crime, Bruno Hauptmann, really didn’t have the rural contacts in New Jersey. He lived far away in the Bronx, the only coincidence being with Condon’s grandstanding.
All in all $50,000 was given to a single man, a man shrouded by night and mist in a Bronx cemetery nicknamed “Cemetery John.” About $35,000 dollars of that ransom, equivalent to over half a million today, was never recovered, nor apparently sought after Hauptmann was captured. It was a staggering amount of money for back then.
The actions of the District Attorney seems to be based on believing the money would not turn up. If it did, it would be hard to put total blame on Hauptmann. Not something that would look good for the DA while Hauptmann lingered on death row for a year. Yet Hauptmann was tried as though he alone was responsible. Yet they never found the bulk of the loot at Hauptmann’s home or on his property, only that fraction that indicated a share and no more. They had to suspect there was another. The discovery of this other person or the discovery that more bills were being passed while Hauptmann was on death row would call into question the judgment against Hauptmann, and possibly even mitigate it.
You would think that Lindbergh would want every man associated with the crime. Yet from the point of view of the sensational trial it would be disastrous to bring up evidence that mitigated Hauptmann’s guilt. The bulk of the ransom outstanding would only make Hauptmann look like an accessory and therefore perhaps not even responsible ultimately for the death of the baby. He had been a carpenter, and someone had built that nifty makeshift ladder that was left under the nursery window. But this didn’t tell police who had been to the house that night or how many. If another suspect was even intimated at the trial, it would be hard to burn Hauptmann with all these loose strings dangling out there.
Thus there is fertile grounds for the “Lindbergh Phenomenon” — the belief their was conspiracy against Hauptmann and that someone else was actually to blame. How did the DA know the rest of the loot and another co-conspirator would not be found? Why would Lindbergh insist he could identify Hauptmann’s voice when he only heard “Hey, doc” from a distance? John Condon initially couldn’t identify Hauptmann as “Cemetery John.” Had it been Isador Fisch? Cemetery John supposedly had a cough. Fisch would die of tuberculosis. Where then was his share of the money? Hauptmann essentially claimed he was innocent and that he had found Fisch’s share.
Had Hauptmann only started naming others, others than the dead Isador Fisch, it might have gone better for him. But he insisted on total innocence to his dying breath. This only helped the slipshod investigation blame him alone.
With Charles Lindbergh in charge, the unusual evolution of every facet of the aftermath of the kidnapping seems tied to him. Conspiracies thrive in a medium of contradictions and paradoxes. Some will tell you that the child who died wasn’t Charles Lindbergh Jr. Some will propose fanciful theories involving Lindbergh and the Morrows, but one thing remains fact: the investigation, the payoff, nothing can be made heads or tails of. It is not necessarily because there was a diabolical conspiracy inside the Lindbergh house. It was because Lindbergh was not capable of making the right and intellectual choices, and he was fawned over far too much by the authorities and catered to far too much by a grandstander like John Condon.
The upshot is the Lindbergh Phenomenon. Too much doubt that Hauptmann acted alone. too much doubt whether the extortion and kidnapping were even perpetrated by the same people. Too many things left unexplained.
Today a huge fortune remains outstanding and undiscovered. It argues for more than one person. It argues that perhaps Bruno Hauptmann was not even responsible for the baby’s death. However, all this should have been just as clear back then. Conspiracies are easier to introduce today than back then, and they thrive because too many things do not make sense.
Thus we have the “Lindbergh Phenomenon.” It is the basis for Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and for many real life attempts to make sense out of all that must have happened both before, during, and after the kidnapping.
In the next post we’ll begin to explore the theory that the extortion was separate from the kidnapping.