It is the most famous kidnapping in modern history, and perhaps one of the most convoluted. Questions remain to this day. Was the man accused, tried and eventually executed, truly guilty? Had he acted alone?
For many it is a solved crime. Bruno Hauptmann did it and that is that. For others they see fantastic conspiracy theories. But the truth lies in between the extremes. It is unlikely that Hauptmann could have acted alone in this, and yet he was tried as if solely guilty. In the heat of emotions, a nation did not demand enough answers to obvious questions.
Charles Lindbergh was the most famous man in America since he had flown the Atlantic solo in 1927. He was the first man to do so, and it was an era that loved real life heroes. He received a ticker tape parade and became a national hero. He ranked with Will Rogers and Admiral Byrd and soon Amelia Earhart joined their coveted ranks. A book deal by Putnam had followed. Newsreel footage flickered over every screen in every theatre in the US. Yet he detested publicity. He retired to a quiet life, married Anne Morrow and settled down to their nice country house near Hopewell, New Jersey.
Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr was born soon thereafter. He was a beautiful, blond baby, and newsreel footage showed he was Baby Lindy, America’s baby.
About 20 months old, he was kidnapped from his crib in his upstairs nursery room. It was the night of March 1, 1932. The time about 9:30 p.m. The nurse went in to check on him and he was gone. She checked with his mother. He was not there. She rushed downstairs. Lindbergh was alone in the study. They rushed outside. There leaning against the house under the nursery window was a makeshift wooden ladder. A ransom note was attached. Lindbergh let the police open it. It demanded $50,000– a huge sum in 1932. It was written in a strange way: It began with “Dear Sir,” which sounds so sinister when compared to the horrible nature of the letter. More letters were promised by the writer. As proof they were authentic, there was a complex graphic– it was two blue circles interlocking around a red solid circle and there were 3 holes aligned. The kidnapper apparently anticipated there would be a lot of publicity and that many forgeries might be sent. This guy covered his bases.
A flamboyant, garrulous school teacher in New York, John Condon, had put a plea in the paper, and this appears to have attracted the kidnapper. He sent a letter to Condon to be the go-between. Lindbergh agreed. Finally another ransom note was received with instructions. They were to meet at St. Raymond’s cemetery and make the payoff.
It was now a month after the kidnapping. The $50,000 was delivered to a man standing in the shadows. He had identified himself only as John. He had a German accent. He became known as “Cemetery John.”
The baby, however, was not delivered. It seems this was a very foolish payoff. Nothing was heard for a month. Then a by-chance discovery was made in the woods about a mile from the Lindbergh house. The decomposed corpse of a small boy was found. It was eventually identified as the Lindbergh baby. He had never left the property. He apparently had died that very night.
The Treasury and Feds had been smart. They had used the rarer gold certificate money, soon to be withdrawn from circulation, to make the payoff. It would be easier to track these bills. The serial numbers of those bills used as ransom had also been recorded. Soon money started popping up here and there. Finally in September 1934 a bill was passed at a gas station in Manhattan. Bruno Hauptmann, a young German immigrant carpenter had passed it.
The police quickly searched his house. They found nearly $15,000 of the ransom money in a tin box. In his attic they found that a beam from the ceiling had been removed. They were able to match the grain with the makeshift ladder. It made sense now. Of course a carpenter could do this!
Flemington, New Jersey, the trial began January 2, 1935. It lasted 31 days. In about 11 hours the jury decided Hauptmann’s fate. Guilty. Death. This was carried out on April 3, 1936. Hauptmann went to his death proclaiming his innocence.
The question remains. Was he? Should the question even be one of innocence or guilt? Perhaps the question should be “How much guilt?” Analyzing the Lindbergh kidnapping and the scenario by which Hauptmann was found guilty reveals enormous holes in it, at least if assuming only one man was involved, especially someone like Hauptmann. It presupposes that this New York resident would know the exact room that was used for the nursery in the country house. Without inside information it would take watching the house with binoculars for some time in hope, just in hopes, that through the windows he might see the baby put in his crib, thus identifying the room. How did he know the Lindberghs were to be around at this time as well?
The police rightly feared there was an inside mole. They even talked to the morrow household, Baby Lindy’s maternal grandparents. They focused on one of the Morrow’s maids, Violet Sharp. Just before she was to be questioned her 4th time, she committed suicide. If one reads and believes that frightful factoid Subhumanpedia, they will get he impression the police were all wrong because her alibi was soon proven. What alibi is needed? She need not be present during the kidnapping. All it took was to tipoff the kidnapper as to what room was the nursery and what was the general schedule of the household. She could have done that weeks before.
Moreover, no one seems to ask what happened to the other $35,000 dollars. That was a sum that would make a man rich. Hauptmann wasn’t living fancy. He hadn’t spent it. It was never found. Clearly someone else had a big portion of the ransom. It seems hard to believe there was not another accomplice.
Hauptmann tried to blame Isador Fisch, a one time business partner of his who had a criminal record and had gone back to Germany and there died by the time of the trial. Fisch, of course, could not speak, but the lack of finding the other $35,000 dollars should have said there was an accomplice. One would think someone would have to hold the tall, makeshift ladder while the other climbed down with the baby.
The Lindbergh baby obviously died before leaving the property. This is pretty clumsy for kidnappers, and some have felt that this was not intentional. The baby may have fallen out of the kidnapper’s arm as he came down. Autopsy showed he had died by a massive head contusion. If so, the whole plot was foiled. But the ransom note was left anyway. They would bluff to get their money. The baby was hastily buried close to the road before they left the rural area. Maybe yes, maybe no.
But Hauptmann was the only one tagged. Yet the evidence, and certainly the clues, suggest more than one person acted on this caper. As such, how can one say that Hauptmann had killed the baby? It sounds more or less that he was the man required to make the ladder and assist the kidnapper. His cut was probably $15,000 dollars. (The ransom note had asked for $25,000 in 20s, $15,0000 in 10s, and the other in 5s.) Hauptmann mostly got the 10s.
It was impossible to pursue Fisch, and the Morrow maid had offed herself. Perhaps if the DA’s office believed there was more to this, they felt Hauptmann was the last one of the trio left. They hung full guilt on him. Poetic justice. . . . Or was it?
Isador Fisch’s family spoke up. Isador was too sickly and died poor in Germany. He didn’t have any chunk of the money, and why would he leave behind his cut of the ransom? He needed medical help for TB badly. Therein, of course, was a motive for the kidnapping plot. But why then had Fisch not spent his share? According to Hauptmann, Fisch left it behind and said important papers were in the box. When Hauptmann finally opened it, long after Fisch had died, he discovered the stash of money. Not too convincing a story.
Yet all the circumstances argue for someone else having been involved. There was still $35,000 dollars of that ransom money floating about. Someone had to have it. Hauptmann sure didn’t. Who else had been involved? Suspicion also fell on Condon. His participation seemed a little too well timed. But Hauptmann went to his death without trying to save himself by naming another.
Hauptmann was in a pretty pickle unless he could produce another mastermind, someone else to hang the killing on so he could only be an accessory. Fisch was made to look like an unlikely accomplice. But Hauptmann’s actions aren’t those of a man who can produce a living partner. Fisch was dead, and if he was the head kidnapper then Hauptmann’s protests of innocence of having dropped or intentionally killed the baby were pointless. There was no living person to hang this on. He could only maintain his complete innocence and hope he would win. He failed. He consorted with a bad lot and came up the only survivor.
It is the lack of finding that $35,000 dollars. It is the inability to explain how Hauptmann knew where the nursery was. It is the lack of explaining why the window was unlocked on a cold March 1, that brings in the conspiracies. Some of them are pretty farfetched, proposing that the dead, decomposed body of the baby was not Chas Jr. Some involve the Morrows. Some involve Lindbergh. The whole genre has become known as the “Lindbergh Phenomenon.” But one thing no one has been able to answer. What happened to that other $35,000? Why did Hauptmann start passing bills that were rare? It was no secret these were being looked for. It had been reported in the newspapers. The real kidnappers would be skittish to pass these, after discovering they had rare gold certificates pushed on them. From the looks of missing $35,000 someone else was involved, and apparently they never spent their cut.
If Hauptmann acted alone then he buried this money. It is now rare, incredibly rare, and must be considered another lost treasure. It must be worth a fortune. Somewhere it sits in an old basement, in a secret cubby hole, behind a dislodged brick in the wall, somewhere it lies buried. But it is not the stuff of fiction like old Mr. Applegate’s treasure of pirate doubloons. It has a real, sad story behind it, more intriguing than those invented in thriller fiction.
I agree that Hauptmann could be innocent . . .but innocent of killing Baby Lindy. I believe he made the ladder, accompanied someone, and assisted whomever. But he was still accessory. Left alone he had no choice but to maintain total innocence.
It’s impossible to figure it otherwise. No one can just walk up to a house with a makeshift ladder. They had to know what window to go to, know its height from the ground first (to make the ladder). They had to know the household’s routines. I doubt watching the house would be enough to tell them all this. And from aerial photos of the time, the woods weren’t so close to the house to make surveillance easy.
The DA’s office probably knew that technically they did not have evidence to find Hauptmann guilty of murder or even of kidnapping, except as an accessory. But he was most certainly that. The child died because he helped. So many questions remain unanswered, so many leads not followed through (like what happened to the other $35,000?) because too much would then come forward that would merely finger Hauptmann as an accessory and not the single-o guilty party. To them he was the only remaining guilty party alive. So did they justly act outside of the law to bring justice about?
An interesting question . . .but it presupposes the law knew the other $35,000 would never be found. If it turned up, it would be a trail to somebody else, somebody who had the lion share, somebody who would be a better fit to burn than Hauptmann. They wouldn’t exactly look good for giving Hauptmann the chair.
If Hauptmann was not the only kidnapper left living . . .well, we must pursue these ramifications in another post.
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Since 1990 Gian J. Quasar has investigated a broad range of mysterious subjects, from strange disappearances to serial murders, earning in that time the unique distinction of being likened to “the real life Kolchak.” However, he is much more at home with being called The Quester. “He’s bloody eccentric, an historian with no qualifications who sticks his nose into affairs and gets results.” He is the author of several books, one of which inspired a Resolution in Congress.