“…comparisons between Lindbergh and Hauptmann –that the two men were very similar in an unbelievable number of ways, physically, through life and family history, etc. …it was as though Hauptmann was the dark side of Lindbergh. But, if the latest theories have any validity at all, it seems as though Lindbergh was the real dark side.”
On March 1, 1932, Ollie Whateley, butler at the Charles Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey, called the local police to report that the Lindbergh’s infant son had been stolen. Within hours, local and state police, plus press and ordinary sensation seekers were all over the grounds. While local police saw a crude ladder, built in sections, lying near the window from which it appeared the baby had been taken, and two grooves where the ladder had rested, most other footprints and possible clues were obliterated in the rush to investigate the rain-soaked grounds.
Lindbergh, hailed as the great American hero after his historic New York to Paris flight in 1927, took charge of the
investigation himself. He refused to allow other members of the household to be questioned. According to him, the child was discovered missing when his nursemaid, Betty Gow, went in to check on him and found the crib empty. She reported this first to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the child’s mother, then they went to Colonel Lindbergh’s room.
“Do you have the baby?” asked Anne. Lindbergh denied having the child, and accompanied his wife to the nursery.
The crib was empty. Lindbergh turned to his wife. “Anne,” he said. “They have stolen our baby.”
Instructing his wife and Betty Gow to remain where they were, Lindbergh shouted to the butler to phone the police, grabbed a rifle, and raced outdoors. When the butler came to report, he found Lindbergh sitting in his car. Lindbergh asked the butler to drive into town and buy a flashlight, so that he could investigate. But before Whateley could do so, the police arrived.
Lindbergh led them straight to the window under the child’s room, pointed out the discarded ladder, and led them to the prints which the ladder had left, and a footprint. According to police reports, he was very calm and collected.
He then led the police upstairs to the nursery, where he pointed to an envelope resting against the window. He told police that he had ordered that it not be touched until a fingerprint expert could be summoned.
The envelope was opened in the presence of the police. Anonymous, it bore an elaborate coded symbol as a signature, and claimed that the writer and associates were holding the child for ransom and would communicate the particulars later. The letter appeared to have been written by someone foreign, probably Germanic.
The fingerprint expert found no prints on the envelope or letter. Nor did he find any on the window, or the child’s crib. He didn’t even find Lindbergh’s prints, or those of the nursemaid or Anne Lindbergh, who had searched the room before police arrival (incidentally, failing to notice the ransom note .)
Over the next several months, Lindbergh continued to spearhead a most unusual investigation. He rejected the FBI’s offer of assistance, but called in Morris Rosner, a member of the underworld. Claiming that he was convinced that the kidnapping was the work of organized crime leaders, he asked Rosner to circulate the ransom note and see if he could get any information from his underworld connections.
Soon after, Lindbergh received a call from Dr. John F. Condon of the Bronx. Condon had placed an ad in the Bronx Home News offering to add his $1000 life savings to the ransom money if the child would be safely returned. Condon told Lindbergh that he had received a note from the kidnappers, appointing him the go-between for the ransom negotiations. Lindbergh accepted this, and it was Condon, operating under the code name of Jafsie, who went to the cemetery where the transfer of money was supposed to take place. Condon, on his second visit, turned a wooden box containing $50,000 in gold certificates to a man whom he called “Cemetery John.”
John, he claimed, was of medium build, with a pointy face, high cheekbones, slanted, dark, almost “oriental eyes”, and a cough. His accent sounded either German or Slavic, although Jafsie claimed that he attempted some German, but “John” did not appear to understand.
Although the money was delivered as instructed, the child was not returned. Instead, Jafsie was given a letter which gave directions to the childs supposed location on “boad Nellie” (the allegedly Germanic spelling of “boat.”) A determined sweep of the area where boad Nellie was supposed to be found nothing.
The search for the child ended on May, 12, 1932, when a truck driver, stopping to relieve himself in the woods about two miles from the Lindbergh home, found the decomposed body of an infant partially buried in a pile of leaves. The child’s sexual organs had been eaten away, but there was evidence of a skull fracture, as though the child had been dropped from a ladder. Although the Lindbergh family physician could not make a positive identification, Lindbergh, after a 90 second inspection where he counted the corpse’s teeth, identified the body as that of his son. The kidnapping had now officially become a murder.
The search for the criminal continued for two years. Then a German-born carpenter named Bruno Richard Hauptmann , with high cheekbones and a pointy face, but fair and blue-eyed, was caught passing one of the bills from the ransom money. Hauptmann was arrested and charged with the kidnapping.
In what has since been termed the Trial of the Century, Hauptmann was convicted, and sentenced to the electric chair, where he died proclaiming his complete innocence.
The fact that $18,000 of the ransom money was found in Hauptmann’s garage acted strongly against him. Hauptmann claimed that he found the money in a package left with him by his business partner, Isador Fisch, before Fisch left on a trip to Germany. Fisch died there, of tuberculosis. While cleaning a leaking closet, Hauptmann rediscovered the box, and discovered that it was full of waterlogged bills. He claimed that he took these to his garage and began to dry them, hiding each bundle as it dried. Fisch, he said, owed him $7,000, so he felt entitled to keep and use that portion of the money in the box. Police and reporters labeled this “the Fisch story.”
Many legal experts and researchers believed Hauptmann, but could not save him from the electric chair. There were too many holes in the case, too many unanswered questions. But in the 60 years since then, four major theories have emerged about what really happened in Hopewell New Jersey that day in 1931.
The first is that Hauptmann was guilty. A variation of that was that he was guilty, but had not acted alone.
The last two theories are more startling. In 1993, two books came out claiming that there never had been a kidnapping; that Lindbergh and his family were actually covering up a killing.
The premise that the kidnap was a coverup appears to answer many of the questions that the arrest and execution of Hauptmann raised. Much of the evidence against Hauptmann was unsatisfactory; much of it was plainly manufactured. And much of Lindbergh’s conduct during the trial is, in hindsight, very peculiar. A quick review of the basic questions answered and left open, will demonstrate this.
1. He had $15,000 of the ransom money, and explained it away with the “Fisch story.” Since Fisch was conveniently dead, there didn’t appear to be any way to confirm this.
However: $30,000 of the ransom money remains undiscovered to this day. And almost $3,000 in gold certificates were turned into the bank when the county went off the gold standard by one JJ Faulkner. Faulkner was the known pseudonym of a convicted master forger, Jacob Novitsky (a man with a pointed face, dark complexion and dark, almost oriental eyes) who bragged to his cellmates of his involvement in the extortion of the ransom. Just before Hauptmann’s execution, Faulkner wrote to New Jersey’s Governor Hoffman claiming that they had arrested the wrong man.
2. Police found, at the site of the crime, a 3/4″ chisel. When they examined the toolbox of Hauptmann, a carpenter, they claimed that he had no 3/4″ chisel, but that this would be standard equipment for any competent worker. Forty years later, crime reporter Anthony Scaduto checked the archives of the New York police, and found not only the chisel found at the scene of the crime, but two more, wrapped in a brown bag labeled “Found in Hauptmann’s garage.”
3. Two witnesses came forward to say that they had seen Hauptmann in the Hopewell area the day of the crime. A foreman from the Majestic Corp., for which Hauptmann claimed he was employed on that day, brought forth a time card purporting to show that he had not been at work. If Hauptmann was working, he would not have had time to get to Hopewell within the correct time framework to commit the crime.
- One of the witnesses who placed Hauptmann at the scene was legally blind. In the prosecutor’s office, he identified a vase of flowers as a woman’s hat. Yet he claimed to be able to recognize the face of a man going by in a car. The second was a known pathological liar who denied categorically that he had seen anything unusual until the offer of a reward was announced.
- Police had these witnesses pick Hauptmann from a line-up. The line-up consisted of the blond, slight Hauptmann, a burly and very Irish detective, and a policeman still in uniform. Hauptmann was the only one who even resembled the description of “cemetery John” given by Jafsie.
- On the time card which allegedly showed that Hauptmann had not worked that day, all other workers who were absent were marked with a line of zeros. Hauptmann’s line was marked with blots, suggesting that something beneath had been blotted out.
4. Dr. John F. Condon identified Hauptmann in court as the man with whom he negotiated the ransom.
Until his appearance in the courtroom, Condon refused to identify him; at one point, on record, he said that it was definitely not “cemetery John.”
5. In court, the prosecution produced a board from Hauptmann’s closet which had scribbled on it Jafsie’s phone number. Hauptmann couldn’t recall writing it there, but conceded that since it was in his closet, maybe he did, because he had been interested in following the case.
A reporter for the New York Daily News later bragged to fellow reporters that he had written the number there himself, on a day when there was no fresh news in the case and his editors were on his back for front page material.
For those who doubt this, consider two things. Hauptmann had no phone. If he was using a pay phone to contact Jafsie, he probably would use something more portable than a closet board to record the number on. Also, to see the number, one had to remove both shelves in the closet and stand in the back using a flashlight. Hardly convenient for quick and unobtrusive reference.
6. Police claimed to have found a missing board in Hauptmann’s attic which matched the wood in the kidnap ladder. This “missing” board was discovered after several previous searches. And when the board in question was matched against the piece it was allegedly cut away from, it proved to be thicker than the board still in the attic floor. This caused New Jersey’s governor, Harold Hoffman, to make an open accusation that the evidence had been falsified.
7. The piece of evidence that apparently carried most weight with the jury was Lindbergh’s identification of Hauptmann’s voice as the same one he heard in the cemetery . This was a voice that Lindbergh heard, only once, two years earlier, from a distance of several hundred feet, shouting only 5-6 syllables — either “hey, Doc! Over hear” or “hey Doctor, over here.” Most experts expressed great doubt about the validity of this identification,
but the jury was impressed.
Another point in Hauptmann’s favor was the ladder itself. It was very crude, causing most people who knew woodworking to believe that no carpenter had ever made it.
Consider, too. William Randolph Hearst, who instructed his reporters to cover the trial in a manner that would light a flame of indignation in people everywhere, then paid for Hauptmann’s defense lawyer, Edward J. Reilly. Reilly was suffering from syphilis which caused his institutionalization several months later, he routinely had several martinis at lunch during trial, and spent less than 40 minutes in consultation with his client. He was paid up front, regardless of the outcome of the trial.
There is clear evidence that more than one person was involved in the collection of the ransom. In the files of the Bronx police dept., Anthony Scaduto found an FBI document giving Lindbergh’s description of a dark, swarthy man with a rolling gait who acted as lookout for cemetery John.
This was never brought out at trial. Kidnap notes always referred to plural collectors, which may or may not have been a rhetorical device to mislead investigators. However, when Lindbergh called Morris Rosner in to help the investigation, Rosner showed copies of the original note to many members of the underworld. Contemporary handwriting experts appear to concur that the first ransom note was written by a different person than those that followed. (There were people willing to testify to that effect during Hauptmann’s trial, but they were not permitted
to testify, since that would have ruined the “lone killer” scenario.)
Jafsie relates that, during one phone conversation with the Scandinavian (both Condon and the cabdriver who delivered the ransom-collector’s note to Condon originally stated that the man was Scandinavian, not German) he heard another voice in the background shouting “Statto cito” [shut up, in Italian.]
Given the peculiar construction of the kidnap ladder, it would have been impossible for a single person to descend the ladder with the child. First, it would not hold more than 160 pounds without breaking, according to police tests. The child would add an extra 30 pounds. Second, the rungs were so awkwardly spaced that it would take all but an extremely tall person two hands to descend.
If Hauptmann (or Fisch) acted alone, where is the rest of the ransom money? And how did Jacob Novitsky, alias JJ Faulkner, get at least $3000 of that money?
The latest theories claim that there was no kidnapping at all; that the kidnap story was devised as a way to cover-up the guilt of a member of the Lindbergh family. In this theory, the ransom collection was separate from the death of the child; it was an attempt by underworld figures to cash in on the Lindbergh’s when they were in a vulnerable position.
Many researchers have questioned Lindbergh’s behavior throughout the investigation. Burdened by their belief in the original premise — that there was a kidnapper at large who must be treated carefully so that he wouldn’t harm the child– they explained this behavior as both fear of criminal reprisal and an attempt to protect his wife. Scaduto seemed to question this protective instinct, despite his apparent acceptance of a kidnapping theory. Lindbergh was not the tender protecting type. He was given to cruel practical jokes, and was essentially a rather cold person. The cover-up theory, however, explains Lindbergh’s behavior, and a few other questions unanswered by the arrest and conviction of Hauptmann.
- Why would a kidnapper choose to steal the child during hours when household members were still awake and obviously moving around the house?
- How did the kidnapper get down the ladder carrying a 30 pound child? At the time of their original investigation, police insisted that the criminals must have exited through the house, and initially suspected a member of the household.
- Why were there NO fingerprints at all in the child’s room? Anne Lindbergh and Betty Gow both admitted to searching the room when they first discovered that the child was missing, but when police arrived on the scene, their fingerprints were missing, too..
- Why did the two women not see the ransom note during their search of the room, so that Lindbergh was able to spot it when he reentered? And why was it left on the windowsill, when the criminal was already burdened with the child, instead of in the crib, which would have been the logical place to put it? And, on discovering that his child was missing, how could any loving father have ordered that the note be left untouched, and leave it so for two full hours until a fingerprint expert arrived to open and read the note?
- Why did the family dog, Whagoosh, prone to barking at the slightest disturbance, not bark on the night of the crime? And why, when the entire staff and Anne Lindbergh testified that the dog always barked at disturbances and at strangers approaching the house, did Lindbergh deny this?
- Why did Lindbergh refuse the offer of help from the FBI, and consistently refuse to allow police to carry out routine investigative procedures, then call in members of the underworld to help the investigation?
- Why, after Lindbergh observed Hauptmann shouting “Hey, Doctor” did he wait 10 days before deciding that Hauptmann’s was the voice he had heard in the cemetery?
- Why did Lindbergh refuse to allow police to question his wife or household staff following his report that the child had been stolen?
- How, if he had no flashlight, did Lindbergh manage to lead the police straight to the marks left by the ladder in the ground beneath the nursery window?
- How would an outside criminal know that the Lindberghs were at the Hopewell house that Tuesday, when they had never before stayed longer than Saturday through Monday?
- How did the alleged kidnappers know exactly which window were the child’s, and of those, which one was warped so that it wouldn’t latch? This fact could not be determined by routine surveillance.
These questions made many people suspicious, even at the time of the investigation. If Lindbergh had not been the superhero of his times, they would not have been brushed aside so easily; today it is almost certain that he or a family member would have led the list of suspects. But, in 1931, Lindbergh symbolized all that Americans most claimed to value, so any thought of possible conspiracy was dismissed as unthinkable.
However, there are two theories that appear to answer the above questions.
The first, presented in Noel Behn’s “Lindbergh: The Crime”, is that the child was murdered by Anne’s sister, Elizabeth Morrow. Charles Lindbergh originally courted Elizabeth, and the press reported rumors of an engagement. However, Elizabeth flew to the aid of an ailing brother, and when Lindbergh paid a return visit to the Morrow home, only Anne was there. They began to court, and married. Elizabeth had a mild heart attack following this news, and there is some evidence of a nervous breakdown.
After the birth of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., several disturbing incidents led his parents to give strict orders that the child was never to be left alone with Elizabeth. Household servants all filed affidavits that Elizabeth Morrow killed the family dog, and once threw young Charlie out along with the household garbage.
According to Behn’s theory, the staff DID leave Elizabeth alone with Charlie. And, to avoid further disgrace, further hounding of the family by the press, the family spent two days dreaming up a way to cover up the crime. The kidnap story was the result; the fact that Morris Rossner’s display of the kidnap note sparked an extortion scheme played right into the plans, since it appeared to confirm that there really was a kidnap gang out there.
Elizabeth Morrow was institutionalized soon after the crime. Gossip about her possible involvement persisted, at least in low key whispers at least through the 50s. However, to accept this theory, one must also accept that not only Lindbergh but the entire Morrow family, and the staffs of both households were involved in the cover-up, and that they all lied on the witness stand, knowingly sending an innocent man to his death.
The second theory, on its face, is even more incredible: Lindbergh himself killed the child in the course of a practical
joke. Lindbergh was known for cruel practical jokes. He often filled bunkmates beds with lizards and other reptiles; on one occasion he put a snake in the bed of a man who was terrified of them. Asked if the snake had been venomous, Lindbergh replied “Yes, but not fatally.” He also filled a friend’s canteen with kerosene and watched him drink it; the man was hospitalized for severe internal burns. And, only two weeks prior to the reported kidnapping, Lindbergh hid the child in a closet then ran to his wife’s room, claiming the child had been stolen. He let the joke
go on for 20 terrifying minutes before confessing.
In “Crime of the Century”, Ahlgren and Monier theorize that Lindbergh tried that joke one too many times. In their scenario, Lindbergh called home to say he would be late, but actually arrived at the usual time. He climbed his makeshift ladder to his son’s room, planning to spirit the child out and arrive at the front door with him in hand, claiming something like “Look who I met in New York.” Unfortunately, the ladder broke, Lindbergh slipped, and the child’s head was smashed against the side of the house. Lindbergh then hid the body, went home, failed to check on his young son even though the child had been sick, and spent some time in his study alone before Betty Gow reported the child’s disappearance. Ahlgren and Monier speculate that Lindbergh wrote the original ransom note during this time. Most experts agree that the wording of the note was typical of an English speaking person trying to sound Germanic, rather than of a real German.
To accept this theory, as amazing as it may be, is somewhat easier than to believe the charge against Elizabeth Morrow. The great American hero was above suspicion. Police would never think to check his alibi, to see why he arrived home an hour later than usual that night. Nor did they hesitate to follow his orders throughout the investigation, although they, not Lindbergh, were the trained investigators.
An analysis of Lindbergh’s character makes this sort of practical joke a strong possibility; that he could cover it up so
successfully can be attributed both to the awe in which he was held, and the successful diversion of the ransom note. Much of Lindbergh’s more peculiar behavior can be attributed to understandable moments of panic.
In the late 1930s, when Lindbergh openly associated with Nazis, and made many public statements about the desirability of a Master Race here in America, there were some fitful rumors that Lindbergh had killed his own child because it was genetically defective — retarded. As war and memory faded, these whispers died down. Baby boomers, if they knew much about the case at all, tended to hear it from the perspective of Lindbergh, the vulnerable hero; his later politics forgotten.
There is no proof that Lindbergh in fact killed his own child; however, the theory answers questions left open by Hauptmann’s arrest and execution. And in this theory, only one person had to keep a dreadful secret and perjure himself. If true, however, Lindbergh is guilty not only of the death of his son, but of the cold and deliberate murder of Bruno Richard Hauptmann.
Written by Carol Wallace: Carol Wallace is an expert on the subject, having written her master’s thesis on the Lindbergh kidnapping as well as being widely read in the history of that era. Wallace wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Fatty Arbuckle scandal of 1921. She teaches Mass Media Law, with a special interest in notorious trials and publicity. Regarding the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, she says, “I love this topic, and am glad to discuss it anywhere.”