Young people today won’t remember this tragic case that occurred in 1932. It was called “The Crime of the Century“, partly because it involved infanticide and because the father of the child, Charles Lindbergh was a famous American Air Mail jet pilot. The case made national news and for the first time in criminal history, botanical evidence was used to solve a criminal case.
East Amwell – New Jersey – 1932. Charles (Chas) Lindbergh Jr. was 20 months old, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed adorable boy. He was the first child of Charles Augustus and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Lindbergh was a bit of a strange duck. He was a U.S. Air Mail pilot who emerged from obscurity to instantaneous world fame as the result of his Orteig Prize-winning solo nonstop flight on May 20–21, 1927, made from the Roosevelt Field in Garden City on New York’s Long Island to Le Bourget Field in Paris, France. Although he was affluent, he insisted that Anne track all her household expenditures, including even 15 cents spent for rubber bands, in account books. Not being the most romantic husband or father, Lindbergh said his “experience in breeding animals on our farm had taught me the importance of good heredity.” So important was good breeding to this man that he developed an affinity with the Nazi Party during WWII, and their idealism of the Aryan Race.
It was not until almost three decades after Lindbergh’s death in 1974, and mercifully, 2-1/2 years after his widow’s passing, that the public learned that Lindbergh had three secret families in Europe which included seven out-of-wedlock children born by three different mothers.Ten days before he died Lindbergh wrote letters from his New York hospital bed to each of his three European mistresses, imploring them to maintain the “utmost secrecy” about their relationships after his death. The three women all managed to keep their affairs secret even from their children. They believed their father was a man named “Careu Kent” who saw them only for a few days once or twice per year.
At 8:00 pm on March 1, 1932, the nurse of the family, Betty Gow, put Chas to bed in his crib. She wrapped the baby in a blanket and fastened it with two large pins to prevent him from moving during sleep. Around 9:30 pm, Lindbergh heard a noise that made him think that the slats from the full orange crate in the kitchen had broken off and fallen. However, at 10:00 pm, Gow returned to the baby’s bedroom to discover that he was not in his crib. She asked Anne Lindbergh who had just come out of her bath, if the baby was with her.
Not finding the infant with his mother, the nurse came downstairs to talk with Lindbergh, who was in the library just below the baby’s room in the southeast corner of the house. He went to the child’s room on the second floor of the house to discover that the baby was gone. As he searched the room, he found a ransom note in a white envelope on the window sill above the radiator. Lindbergh grabbed his gun and went around the house looking for intruders. In 20 minutes, the local police were on the way to the home, along with the media and the family’s lawyer. Later that night, one tire print was discovered in the mud caused by the rainy weather conditions earlier that day. Shortly after the police began searching near the perimeter of the house, they discovered three pieces of a ladder in a nearby bush that appeared intelligently designed but crudely constructed. Lindbergh used his influence to control the direction of the investigation.
During the search at the kidnapping scene, traces of mud were found on the floor of the nursery. Footprints, impossible to measure, were found under the nursery window. Two sections of the ladder had been used in reaching the window, one of the two sections was split or broken where it joined the other, indicating that the ladder had broken during the ascent or descent. After midnight, a fingerprint expert arrived at the home to examine the note left on the window sill and the ladder. The ladder had 400 partial fingerprints and some footprints left behind. However, most were of no value to the investigation due to the surge of media and police that were present within the first 30 to 60 minutes after the first call for help. During the fingerprint discovery process, not a single adult fingerprint was found in the room, including in areas the key witnesses admitted to touching, such as the probable entry window. Fingerprints of the baby were found on the lower areas of the room. The ransom note that was found by Lindbergh was opened and read by the police after they arrived. The brief, handwritten letter was riddled with spelling mistakes and as is typical of ransom notes, grammatical irregularities:
Have 50.000$ redy 25 000$ in
20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and
10000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days
we will inform you were to deliver
We warn you for making
anyding public or for notify the Police
The child is in gut care.
Indication for all letters are
and 3 hohls.
The morning after the kidnapping, U.S. President Herbert Hoover was notified of the crime. Though the case did not seem to have any grounds for federal involvement Hoover declared that he would “move Heaven and Earth” to recover the missing child. Accordingly the FBI became involved in the investigation, even though abduction was a state matter.
While a 10-week nationwide search for the child was being undertaken ransom negotiations were also conducted simultaneously with a self-identified kidnapper by a volunteer intermediary, Dr. John F. Condon (“Jafsie”).These communications resulted in the demand of a payment on April 2 of $100,000 in cash, part of which was made in soon-to-be withdrawn and thus more easily traceable, in exchange for information about the child’s whereabouts that proved to be false. Eventually, after an exchange of 12 ransom notes, the abductor was convinced to reduce the ransom demand to $50,000.00. A meeting between “Jafsie” and a representative of the group that claimed to be the kidnappers was eventually scheduled late one evening at Woodlawn Cemetery. The man sounded foreign but stayed in the shadows during the conversation, and Jafsie was thus unable to get a close look at his face.
The man said his name was John, and he related his story: he was a “Scandinavian” sailor, part of a gang of three men and two women. The Lindbergh child was unharmed and being held on a boat, but the kidnappers were still not ready to return him without a payment of the ransom. When Jafsie expressed doubt that “John” actually had the baby, he promised some proof: the kidnapper would soon return the baby’s sleeping suit. The stranger asked, “… would I ‘burn’ (be executed), if the package (baby) were dead?” When questioned further, he assured Jafsie that the baby was alive.
Ultimately the child’s remains, highly decomposed, were found by chance by William Allen, the assistant of a passing truck driver six weeks later on May 12 in roadside woodlands near Mount Rose, New Jersey, not far from the Lindbergh’s house. The head was crushed, there was a hole in the skull and some of the body members were missing. The body was positively identified and cremated at Trenton, New Jersey, on May 13, 1932. The Coroner’s examination showed that the child had been dead for about two months and that death was caused by a blow on the head.
Investigation – Suspects
On June 10, 1932, Violet Sharpe, a waitress in the home of Mrs. Lindbergh’s mother, Mrs. Dwight Morrow, who had been under investigation by the authorities, committed suicide by swallowing poison when she was about to be requestioned. However, her movements on the night of March 1, 1932, had been carefully checked and it was soon definitely ascertained that she had no connection with the abduction. There were attempted frauds which required extensive investigations before they could be completely eliminated from consideration in connection with the Lindbergh case. There are always whackos who come out of the woodwork seeking their 15 minutes of fame in such cases.
Arrest and Conviction
Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a 34-year-old German immigrant carpenter, was arrested near his home in the Bronx, New York, on September 19, 1934. Hauptmann was identified by the license plate number of his automobile, which a gas station attendant had written on the bill after receiving it from him in payment for services. A stash containing $13,760 of the ransom money was subsequently found hidden in his garage. Charged with kidnapping, extortion, and first-degree murder, Hauptmann went on trial in a circus-like atmosphere in Flemington, New Jersey, on January 2, 1935. The key evidence in the case involved the use of botany: the type of wood Hauptman had used to construct the ladder was traced to the attic of his home. He had removed pieces of a stairwell leading to the attic to construct the ladder. It was the first ever criminal case that was solved with the use of botany evidence. Forensic experts believed the Lindbergh baby hadn’t been deliberately murdered but rather Hauptman had accidentally dropped the child as he cradled him under one arm and descended the ladder from the child’s room to the ground outside the Lindberg home.
Six weeks after his arrest, Hauptmann was convicted on all counts when, following 11 hours of deliberation, the jury delivered its verdict late on the night of February 13, after which Judge Thomas Trenchard immediately sentenced Hauptmann to death. Hauptmann was adamant that he was innocent. In fact when the Governor offered to have Hauptmann’s sentence commuted to life in prison if he admitted his guilt, Hauptmann refused and accepted the death sentence. On March 30, 1936, the Pardon Court of the State of New Jersey denied Hauptmann’s petition for clemency, and on April 3, 1936, at 8:47 p.m., Bruno Richard Hauptmann was electrocuted.
An intensely private man when it came to his family life, (and with good reason), Charles Lindbergh became exasperated by the unrelenting press and public attention focused on them in the wake of the kidnapping and Hauptmann trial. Particularly concerned for the physical safety of their then three-year-old second son, Jon, by late 1935, the Lindberghs came to the decision to go into voluntary exile in Europe. The family dealt with the abduction and murder of their first child and first son as best as they could and somehow managed to carry on with their lives in the aftermath of the Crime of the Century.