On March 1, 1932, the 20-month-old son of famed aviator Colonel Charles Augustus Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh was kidnapped from his nursery in the Lindbergh’s home near Hopewell, New Jersey. The kidnapping generated worldwide interest, and both the New Jersey State Police and the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) launched massive investigations. Four years later, a 36-year-old German immigrant, Richard Bruno Hauptmann, would be executed for this crime – but he was innocent.
Richard Bruno Hauptmann neither kidnapped nor murdered Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. in fact, he was falsely accused, wrongfully convicted, and murdered by the State of New Jersey. Charles Lindbergh was not just an American hero; he had become an instant worldwide celebrity after he crossed the Atlantic alone in his single engine plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, and landed in Paris, France on May 21, 1927. His wife Anne Morrow, a pilot herself, was a college-educated woman of privileged social standing and from one of the wealthiest families in America, as illustrated in the biography Lindbergh – Flight’s Enigmatic Hero.
In the late evening hours of March 1, 1932, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. was abducted from his second-story bedroom at the Lindbergh’s 390 acre estate in East Amville, New Jersey. The local Hopewell police were called within 20 minutes of the discovery of the missing child; upon their arrival, they examined the ransom note that had been left on the window sill of the nursery, as well as the crude, handmade ladder that was used to gain access to the toddler’s room. The New Jersey State Police arrived on the scene within the hour and took charge of the investigation.
The news of the kidnapping spread quickly and generated an immediate media frenzy; an onslaught of reporters and photographers rushed the Lindbergh estate that very night, and potentially important forensic outdoor evidence was destroyed. Over the course of the next few weeks, Charles Lindbergh took charge of the investigation, and one month later, the ransom of $50,000 was paid through an intermediary, Dr. John Condon, to a mysterious man in Woodland Cemetery in the Bronx. However, the kidnapper or kidnappers failed to return the child.
On May 12, 1932, the body of a badly decomposed baby, buried in a shallow grave, was found a few miles from the Lindbergh estate; the medical examiner concluded that Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. had died from a massive head trauma and a skull fracture. Two years later, the FBI arrested Richard Bruno Hauptmann, a German immigrant and trained carpenter, who was consequently tried and convicted during his trial in Flemington, New Jersey on February 13, 1935, and executed by electrocution on April 2, 1936 (Hardesty 122-26).
The crime of the century, as it was commonly referred to, occurred on a Tuesday, and as such provides proof of Hauptmann’s innocence. Kidnapping is clearly not a crime of opportunity; it requires careful planning and preparation – a hiding place for the victim has to be on hand, and a plan needs to be in place to contact the relatives with the ransom demands.
On March 1, 1932, the day of the kidnapping, the Lindbergh’s estate was still under construction, and the family had only spent weekends there; not once had they stayed longer, as is documented in the book The Ghosts of Hopewell by Jim Fisher, a fierce proponent of Hauptmann’s guilt and rightful conviction (3). As a result, in order to locate and gain access to the second-story bedroom, Hauptmann needed to know the family’s routine and therefore would have scheduled the crime to occur on a weekend, when the Lindbergh’s were known to be there.
Richard Bruno Hauptmann was convicted solely on circumstantial evidence, the origins of which were questionable and possibly manufactured, according to Douglas Linder’s An Account of the Trial of Richard Hauptmann. When Charles Lindbergh insisted on using intermediaries versus the police department to handle the negotiation with the kidnappers, subsequent information and evidence obtained was based on civilian accounts, and not that of trained law enforcement personnel (Linder).
In addition during the investigation a battle of egos over territory, and jurisdiction ensued between the New Jersey State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Given the lack of federal jurisdiction, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, assisted the investigation initially only in an auxiliary capacity, but was instructed by President Herbert Hoover to assume control of the investigation on May 13, 1932.
This provided an unprecedented opportunity for the ambitious director of the FBI to expand the responsibilities of his agency, showcase its necessity, and aim to prove invaluable in solving the case, as outlined in the PBS television episode, “Bibliography: J. Edgar Hoover. ” Hoover in an ad hoc manner, established a forensic laboratory and immediately began to examine the two key pieces of evidence: the ladder and the ransom notes. To egitimize the involvement of a federal agency in a state case, Congress passed the law that classifies kidnapping for ransom a federal offense – the so-called Lindbergh Law – on June 22, 1932 (“Bibliography”). The high profile of the case created enormous public pressure for the authorities to bring the kidnapper or kidnappers to justice, and during a time of strong anti-German sentiment in the United States, Richard Bruno Hauptmann, a German native, proved to be the perfect patsy.
Hauptmann was a trained carpenter who had studied the trade in Germany; moreover, he was a qualified craftsman who clearly did not build such a crude and substandard ladder that would break under the additional weight of the baby. As argued previously, a kidnapping is a crime that requires preparation and foresight, and a potential criminal who takes the time to outline how the denominations of the ransom money should be divided up, certainly would plan equally as diligently to build a sturdy ladder – a critical element for the successful execution of this crime.
During the trial, the prosecution argued that Hauptmann had climbed up to the second story attic in his home and removed a board to complete the construction of the ladder; in response, Anthony Scaduto, an author and journalist, eloquently raises the question as to why one would undertake such an effort if plenty of lumber was available in Hauptmann’s garage (96). Furthermore, building a well constructed ladder was not only a question of skill, but in this case, a ladder that could support the weight of both the kidnapper and the victim was simply self-preservation.
The most damning piece of evidence presented at trial was the handwritten ransom notes; however, Hauptmann was without a doubt not the author. According to the online case files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the kidnapper had left behind the following ransom note in the nursery, demanding $50,000 for the safe return of the child: Image via FBI Transcribed the note reads as follows: Dear Sir! have 50,000 $ redy 25 000 $ in 0$ bills 1,5000 $ 10$ bills and 10000 $ in 5$ bills. After 2 – 4 days we will inform you where to deliver the Mony. Be warned you from making anyding public or for notify the Police the chld is in gute care. Indication for all leters are singnature and 3 hold In total, 13 ransom notes had been received by Lindbergh himself or his intermediaries, and all had been examined repeatedly by the FBI’s forensic laboratory (“The Lindbergh Kidnapping”).
In his book Scapegoat: The Lonesome Death of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, Anthony Scaduto even goes as far as arguing that the ransom notes had been altered by authorities to appear to have been written by the accused, and that the copies of Hauptmann’s forced handwriting samples, presented at trial, were misspelled words that had been dictated as such by the police (77). However, a simple content analysis of the initial ransom note raises serious suspicion as to whether it was indeed written by a German native.
Two important points should be noted: first, numbers in German are written as 10. 000 and decimal numbers as 0,5. Had this note in fact been written by a German speaker, unfamiliar with the nuances of the English language, as the overall tone of the ransom note would suggest, he surely would have written the numbers in the fashion he was most accustomed to. Second, the note contained multiple grammar and vocabulary mistakes and could very well have been composed by an uneducated English speaker or someone who pretended to be one.
Had Hauptmann not been fluent in English, which is clearly not apparent in the transcribed police interviews or during his trial testimony, it still would have been hard to believe that he would have spelled the word “indication” perfectly, yet could not distinguish between the English “good” and the German word “gut”. One might object to this analysis and argue that the ladder as well as the ransom notes were carefully examined by the New Jersey State Police as well as the FBI, and both agencies arrived at the same conclusion: Hauptmann built the ladder and wrote the ransom notes.
Furthermore, Hauptmann was convicted in a trial by a jury of his peers who made their decision based on the evidence presented by both the defense and the prosecution. Nevertheless, forensic science in 1932 was in the early stages of development, and no clear rules, as they exist today, were in place on how to obtain writing samples. Hauptmann had been asked to copy the ransom notes to the best of his ability and had been forced to produce samples of his writing for hours to the point of physical exhaustion, as documented in the Discovery Channel television episode, “How Handwriting Analysis Works”.
Hauptmann’s samples would not be admissible as evidence in a trial today because of the way they were obtained by authorities (Layton). In addition, Noel Behn, in his book Lindbergh: The Crime, calls the wood grain comparison of the ladder to the missing board in Hauptmann’s attic preposterous; in order to make the pieces match an artist had to insert a drawing between the two pieces to construct a match, as documented in the evidence photographs of the New Jersey State Police (407).
Finally, the jury rendered their decision only based on the evidence presented at trial. The magnitude of the worldwide attention and the case itself created enormous pressure for authorities to bring this case to a successful close, and in the end the wrong man was convicted; Richard Bruno Hauptmann never confessed, and in his final written plea, “Why did you kill me? , posthumously published in Liberty magazine, he expresses his complete astonishment in regard to his conviction and death sentence. His writing is neither accusatory nor derogatory, but it shows a man in deep desperation and utter disbelief in view of the final days of his life (Hauptmann). Now that the evidence establishes Hauptmann’s innocence, will the true identity of the kidnapper or kidnappers ever be known, or will the Lindbergh kidnapping continue to be an enduring mystery of history?