Most know aviator Charles Lindbergh famously flew his single engine plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, for 33 hours from Long Island to Paris in 1927, becoming the first to cross the Atlantic solo. Blond, handsome, and only 25 years old, he became an international superstar receiving numerous awards and accolades (think today of movie-star crossed with sports-star crossed with war hero type of fame).
What most do not know is that 5 years later ‘Lucky Lindy’ would be at the center of The Crime of the Century. In March 1932, two year old Charles Lindbergh Jr. was suffering from a winter cold. Charles Sr., his wife Anne and son were at home in Hopewell, NJ. Little Charlie’s nurse put him to bed around 7:30 pm. At 10, she returned to check on him and made a horrifying discovery – Charlie Jr. was gone! Lindbergh rushed upstairs, flung opened the nursery door, and found the crib empty. He noticed an open window with an envelope on the sill. A kidnapper had used a homemade ladder to climb to 2nd floor and left muddy footprints in the room. Lindbergh dashed downstairs, grabbed his hunting rifle, and went out searching.
The envelope contained a badly written ransom note that said:
Dear Sir, Have $50,000 ready … After 2-4 days will inform you where to deliver the Money. We warn you for making anything public or for notify the Police, the child is in gut care.
By 10:30, the radio was announcing the news to the world. Every US newspaper gave the story headlines the next day. Soon, false sightings of the Lindbergh baby were coming from all corners of the country. None were real.
Col. Norman Schwarzkopf of the NJ State Police was in charge, but ceded responsibility for the investigation to the famous Lindbergh. Headquarters for the investigation were established in the family’s home. Lindbergh’s inexperience however produced some major goofs – footprints near the house were trampled and evidence was mishandled by too many people. Then, a new letter showed up, this time demanding $70,000!
Other blunders and oddities would follow …
A week later, John Condon, a retired teacher from the Bronx, called the Lindberghs claiming he’d made contact with the kidnappers! Condon had written a letter to the Bronx News offering to act as intermediary and a man claiming to be the kidnapper contacted him. Condon was allowed by a desperate Lindbergh to make contact with the kidnapper.
In April, the ransom money was delivered by Condon to a graveyard, while Lindbergh himself waited in a nearby car. The kidnapper gave Condon a note, supposedly revealing the baby’s safe location. It led them to the coast in search of a boat called Nelly. No boat nor baby were ever found. They’d been double-crossed. In May, 72 days after the kidnapping, the decomposed body of a baby boy was found in the woods less than a mile from the Lindbergh house. The child had been dead from a fractured skull, apparently dropped from the ladder the night of the kidnapping.
The kidnapping case was now a murder investigation.
Serial numbers from the ransom money first surfaced in NY. Over the next two years more and more would pop up. Finally, in September 1934, a marked bill turned up at a gas station in NY. The attendant wrote down the license plate of the customer who gave him a $10 bill for 98 cents of gas. It was tracked to a German immigrant carpenter by the name of Bruno Hauptmann. When his Bronx home was searched, detectives found $14,000 of the Lindbergh ransom stuffed in an oil can. Despite his pleas of innocence, Hauptmann was arrested and indicted for murder 2 years after the crime.
The Crime of the Century became the Trial of the Century.
60,000 people besieged the tiny town of Flemington, NJ. Hauptmann was defended by “Big Ed” Reilly, a flamboyant attorney who’d seen better days. Lindbergh himself testified he recognized Hauptmann’s voice from the night he & Condon delivered the ransom money in the graveyard. Hauptmann took the stand and strongly denied any involvement, claiming a deceased friend, who distrusted banks, had given him the money to hold. He said he’d been beaten by the police and forced to alter his handwriting to match the ransom note.
The prosecution’s case was not airtight. Besides the money, the main evidence was testimony from handwriting experts and the prosecution’s claim of a connection between Hauptmann, a carpenter, and the wood used in the kidnapping ladder.
Following 11 hours deliberation, the jury found Hauptmann guilty of first degree murder.
The evidence and public demand for blood were enough to convict. Appeals were made all the way to the Supreme Court, but none were successful. The NJ Governor himself voiced doubts about the verdict. Questions were raised ranging from witness tampering, to evidence planting, to who his co-conspirators might be? Nevertheless, Hauptmann was sentenced to death and executed in 1936 in the electric chair. Conspiracy theories abound to this day, claiming poor Hauptmann was framed and the kidnapping was in fact ‘an inside job’ within the household.
In the aftermath of the infamous crime, kidnapping was made a federal offense via the ‘Lindbergh Law.’ Lindbergh and his wife moved away from Hopewell and went on to have 5 more children. He died from lymphatic cancer in 1974 at age 72.
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