In 1932, famed pilot Charles Lindbergh’s 18-month old son was abducted and subsequently killed. After an exhaustive investigation and trial, Bruno Hauptmann was found guilty and executed for the crime. But despite everything, he maintained his innocence until the end. Did the police and courts get it wrong? If so, who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby?
The Missing Lindbergh Baby?
On March 1, 1932, Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow were preparing to spend the night at their newly-finished home near Hopewell, New Jersey. Around 8:00 pm, Anne and her nursemaid Betty Gow put Charles Jr. to bed. Two hours later, Gow went to check on the Lindbergh baby and discovered that he was missing.
Lindbergh proceeded to search the room and discovered an envelope. The oddly-misspelled note inside left little doubt as to what had happened:
Have 50.000$ redy 25.000$ in 20$ bills 15.000$ in 10$ bills and 10.000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days we will inform you were to deliver the mony. We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police The child is in gut care. Indication for all letters are singnature and three holes.
Two intersecting blue circles were at the bottom of the note. The overlapping area was colored red and a hole had been punched in its middle. Two additional holes were punched on the left and right sides of the design. It quickly became clear to all involved that the purpose of this “singnature” was to allow the Lindbergh’s to recognize communications from the kidnappers.
After the police arrived, they searched the area and found a muddy footprint as well as part of a makeshift ladder. A fingerprint expert was able to gather plenty of prints from the rungs. Unfortunately, many of them had been tainted by the growing crowd of observers.
Who Kidnapped the Lindbergh Baby?
Lindbergh thought the kidnapping had been conducted by mobsters and decided to take matters into his own hands. He got in contact with numerous crooked figures who promised to act as intermediaries between him and the kidnappers. Former FBI agent Gaston Means claimed he knew where to find the Lindbergh baby and managed to convince socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, who owned the Hope Diamond at the time, to provide him with $100,000 in ransom money. He promptly absconded with the money (he was later caught and convicted of Grand Larceny). Even jailed gangster Al Capone tossed his hat in the ring, offering his assistance in finding the Lindbergh baby in exchange for his freedom (an offer that was quickly denied).
Eventually, Lindbergh sought help from Mickey Rosner, who was reputed to have underworld contacts. However, unbeknownst to him, Rosner was secretly working with the New York Daily News. This backfired horribly when Rosner got his hands on a second ransom letter for the Lindbergh baby. He sent it to the Daily News where it was leaked to the public. From that point on, it became difficult to determine if communications were from the kidnappers or hoaxers.
A Tragic End to the Lindbergh Baby?
Soon after, Lindbergh came into contact with a retired school teacher named Dr. John Condon. Condon had seemingly been in contact with the kidnappers and offered to help. Condon met with a kidnapper named “John” who claimed that the Lindbergh baby was healthy and being held on a boat. As proof, “John” provided the baby’s sleeping suit, which Lindbergh identified.
On April 2, Condon met again with “John” and gave him $50,000 in a wooden box. The carefully-selected ransom money consisted of gold certificates, which were increasingly rare due to President Roosevelt’s new currency regulations. Also, the police had recorded the serial numbers of each bill. Condon made the drop while Lindbergh watched from a distance and in return, received a note telling him where to find the Lindbergh baby. Unfortunately, the note gave false instructions.
On May 12, 1932, Charles Jr.’s body was discovered in a tree grove just a few miles from the Lindbergh’s home. The child had been killed by a blow to the head.
Did Bruno Hauptmann Kidnap and Murder the Lindbergh Baby?
With no other alternative, the police focused their efforts on tracking the ransom money. A year later, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6102 which, in effect, forced American citizens to turn in “all gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates” to the Federal Reserve.
On September 18, 1934 a gas station attendant received a $10 gold certificate as payment. Since Roosevelt’s Executive Order made such certificates illegal to possess, the attendant wrote down the customer’s license plate number. After the bank identified the certificate as one from the ransom drop, the police tracked down the license to a German immigrant named Bruno Hauptmann.
Upon Hauptmann’s arrest, police discovered a $20 certificate on his person. A subsequent search of his home led to the recovery of $13,760 of the ransom money. The police also found a notebook containing a sketch of a ladder similar to the one found outside the Lindbergh home, a closet wall upon which Hauptmann had written down Condon’s telephone number and address, and a piece of wood that matched the wood used in the construction of the ladder.
And the evidence didn’t end there. Eight separate handwriting experts declared that Hauptmann’s handwriting fit that of the initial ransom note. And the letter itself, with misspellings like “gut” instead of “good” indicated that it had been written by a native German speaker. In addition, Hauptmann had fled Germany in order to escape punishment for a crime that involved entering a second-floor bedroom window via ladder. Finally, Condon and Lindbergh claimed that Hauptmann’s voice matched the one they’d heard at the ransom drop.
A jury voted to convict Hauptmann. And a short while later, on April 3, 1936, he was electrocuted.
But did Bruno Hauptmann really do it?
The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby caused a national uproar. Journalists reported every new discovery. Citizens flocked the crime scene and surrounding area. Thousands of letters poured into the Lindbergh estate. With intense pressure to close the case, is is possible that the police got the wrong man?
The evidence against Hauptmann was damning. And yet, to the end he proclaimed his innocence. Even when New Jersey’s governor offered to commute his sentence in return for a confession, Hauptmann refused to change his story. He claimed that the money had been left to him by a friend named Isidor Fisch, who’d died back in 1934.
During the 1970s, historians began to question the official version of events. They pointed out that handwriting analysis is highly subjective. Also, Hauptmann’s fingerprints weren’t on the ladder, a fact that the police covered up. In addition, the crime scenes were heavily contaminated, Condon’s and Lindbergh’s voice identification was highly questionable, and Hauptmann’s defense attorneys did a rather poor job.
Still, modern technology indicates that the ladder did match the wood found in Hauptmann’s attic. And modern forensic experts have stated that the handwriting found on the ransom notes matches that of Hauptmann.
But if Hauptmann did commit the crime, how did he know the Lindbergh’s would be spending that Tuesday at their house rather than with Anne’s parents, as was their normal custom? And how did he know where to find the baby?
The possibility of an “inside job” was considered almost from the beginning. The police suspected a servant named Violet Sharp. Violet later committed suicide after several rounds of questioning. Since her alibi checked out, it’s generally assumed that police pressure tactics, rather than guilt, caused her to kill herself.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
Today, most historians believe that Hauptmann kidnapped and murdered the Lindbergh baby, possibly with help from an unidentified insider. One intriguing theory is that this mysterious insider was none other than Charles Lindbergh himself. It is well-known that he deliberately impeded the investigation and in many respects, took it over completely. He was also apparently a practical joker of some cruelty as recorded by Gregory Ahlgren and Stephen Monier in their book, Crime of the Century: The Lindbergh Kidnapping Hoax.
“Just two months earlier [Lindbergh] had hidden the baby in a closet and then dramatically announced that the child had been kidnapped.The whole household had been thrown into an uproar while a panic stricken Anne feared the worst. Lindbergh had allowed the ruse to continue for some 20 minutes before roaring heartily and admitting it was all a hoax.”
Did Lindbergh accidentally kill his own child while attempting an elaborate “practical joke?” Did he then stage a kidnapping to cover it up while using his influence to guide the investigation? It seems possible, if pretty unlikely. Regardless, let’s hope scholars continue to revisit this case and dig up facts. Because while Hauptmann was most likely guilty in some respect, it seems a near certainty that he didn’t work alone. And that means one thing…
Someone else got away with murder.