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This Date in Criminal Justice History: April 2, 1932

 

On April 2, 1932, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh paid a $50,000 ransom for the return of his child, Charles Lindbergh, Jr. A month earlier, on March 1, 1932, the 20-month-old toddler went missing from his crib shortly after bedtime. A ransom note was discovered near the boy’s second-story window, and a homemade ladder was found on the premises. After the Lindberghs paid the $50,000 ransom, the baby’s body was discovered in the woods near the Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey. Two and a half years later, on October 8, 1934, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a carpenter who lived in the Bronx, was indicted for murder in the death of the boy.

Last summer I made it a priority to read all of the books in my personal library about the kidnapping and murder of the son of the famed aviator. As it turned out, I had six books on my shelves, written between 1937 and 1999.

I suspect that like many people who have read a little bit about the Lindbergh baby case or have seen one or more of the TV documentaries about it have formed an opinion on one side or another. The two sides are these: Bruno Hauptmann was absolutely and positively guilty and got what he deserved when he was convicted and executed or Bruno Hauptmann was an innocent immigrant who was unfairly convicted.

However, I approached this reading project from an agnostic point of view; I didn’t have a strong opinion on one side or the other, although I was fully aware that I had never spent any time learning about the evidence or the facts in what has been called “The Crime of the Century.”

So, I started out my journey to learn more about the case with a somewhat open mind. The first book I tackled was the 1937 book “The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case” written by Sidney B. Whipple. Whipple provides a long introduction, summarizing the case, but the major portion of the nearly 600-page book is a trial transcript. That trial started on January 2, 1935 and concluded on February 13, 1935 when the jury returned with a guilty verdict against Hauptmann. For me, this was probably the best book I could have started with; it was fair minded and the trial testimony was given verbatim, without commentary.

But after finishing this first book, I thought there were gaps in the testimony, and wondered why certain questions weren’t asked of witnesses or why other witnesses were not called. Consequently, I had many questions which I hoped other books would answer.

I went from the Whipple book to read George Waller’s “Kidnap: The Story of the Lindbergh Case,” published in 1961. Waller was a journalist and he brought a style of writing to the case which made the facts and details come alive. It is a rather straightforward account, but it provides considerable details about the appeals following the jury’s verdict and the involvement in the appeal process by the governor of New Jersey, who had doubts about Hauptmann’s guilt.

Then I went on to Noel Behn’s 1994 book entitled “Lindbergh: The Crime.” Behn is a novelist and reinvestigated the case, adding some compelling evidence not written about in the previous books, and adds a point of view that suggests that maybe the crime was carried out by a family member – specifically, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s mentally unbalanced sister. Going in a slightly different direction were Gregory Ahlgren and Stephen Monier in “Crime of the Century: The Lindbergh Kidnapping Hoax.” Published in 1993, the authors, one a cop and the other a criminal defense attorney, lay out a compelling case for the kidnapping and murder being an inside job. They make the case that there was no kidnapping and no murder; that Charles Lindbergh himself, in a feeble prank that went wrong, was responsible for the death of his own son.

I finished up my own investigation by reading two books by Jim Fisher, an ex-FBI agent and criminal justice instructor. He has devoted a good bit of his life to looking into this case, and he has tried in his books (“The Lindbergh Case,” 1987, and “the Ghosts of Hopewell: Setting the Record Straight in the Lindbergh Case,” 1999) to do what the subtitle to the second of these two books indicates: to present the facts in such a way that the record is straight – and the reader can decide for himself.

After finishing all six books, I had to make up my mind; what did I think about the case? Was Bruno Hauptmann guilty? Was his conviction and execution in 1936 a gross miscarriage of justice?

Several things seemed certain to me:

  1. The trial was lengthy and included many witnesses on both sides, including Charles A. Lindbergh and both Bruno Hauptmann and his wife, Anna.
  2. Bruno Hauptmann knew more about the case than he ever revealed to anyone – including his wife. Many people, including defense attorneys, psychiatrists, and the governor of New Jersey, pleaded with him to tell all he knew, but he maintained a stoic guardedness right through his death in the electric chair.
  3. It seems unlikely that Hauptmann could have carried out the kidnapping by himself. Yet no one else was ever arrested or indicted, or, indeed, strongly suspected of being an accomplice.
  4. Hauptmann ended up with the ransom money while the ladder used in the kidnapping was traced to him.
  5. Anna Hauptmann continued to attempt to clear his name until she died, always believing her husband was innocent.

This is one of those crimes that we see from time to time in criminal justice where it is never determined with absolute, convincing certainty who is guilty. And after decades of investigation and revisiting of the case, there is no likelihood any new evidence will ever turn up. So, the bottom line is that we will never know for certain if Hauptmann was guilty – entirely or as part of a group — or whether he was just an innocent opportunist who took advantage of a situation to make money and then was too proud to ever admit the truth.

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