60 Years Later, Doubt Clings to Lindbergh Baby Kidnaping Case : Crime: The trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann gripped America in the ‘30s. His widow still insists that he was framed.
The passage of 60 years has muted but not silenced the controversy over the kidnaping of 20-month-old Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. on March 1, 1932.
Was Bruno Richard Hauptmann the kidnaper, and did he act alone?
A note, with many misspellings, left on the windowsill of the nursery in the New Jersey mountainside home of the baby’s father, Charles A. Lindbergh, and his mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, demanded $50,000 for the child’s return. The ransom was paid. The state said it caught Hauptmann with the marked bills. Hauptmann’s defense was that the money had been left with him for safekeeping by a friend who had since died. The ransom note was part of the evidence that led to Hauptmann’s conviction.
The state contended that the baby died in a fall when a crude ladder used in the kidnaping broke under the combined weight of Hauptmann and the baby.
Hauptmann, a 36-year-old German-born carpenter, was arrested Sept. 19, 1934, in the Bronx, N.Y., after he used a $10 bill from the ransom to pay for gas at a service station and police found $14,600 in his garage. He died in the electric chair in the New Jersey state prison in Trenton on April 3, 1936.
Hauptmann’s 93-year-old widow, Anna, one of the last surviving principals in the case, is trying again to clear his name. At a news conference a few months ago in Flemington, N.J., where the trial took place, she said: “My husband was never, never near the Lindbergh home. They killed an innocent man.”
Her lawyer, Robert R. Bryan of San Francisco, who has represented her for years, said: “The trial of the century was probably the greatest fraud in the history of this country.”
Hauptmann testified that her husband called for her the night of March 1 at the Bronx bakery where she worked. She said they “went home together about half past 9, quarter to 10" and stayed there.
On cross-examination, she was asked if she had not told a New York City police detective at the time Hauptmann was arrested “that you had no recollection of what happened March 1, 1932 . . . that you did not know whether your husband was with you or not?”
There was some sparring between the prosecutor and the witness, but no direct answer.
In the recent news conference, Hauptmann asked that New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio declare her husband unfairly convicted. Florio’s director of communications, Jon Shure, said later that Bryan had “submitted some documents, and they are being reviewed in the attorney general’s office.”
The controversy, seemingly endless, persists because the case against Hauptmann was based largely on circumstantial evidence.
Books have been written decrying and upholding the verdict. One of the most recent, “The Lindbergh Case,” written in 1987 by James Fisher, a former FBI agent and a professor of criminal justice at Edinboro State College in Pennsylvania, said: “The evidence was overwhelming. Very few cases are proven that well, particularly cases where you don’t have a confession and where you don’t even have an eyewitness.”
An earlier book, “Scapegoat,” by Anthony Scaduto, a former New York Post reporter, contended that “every piece of physical evidence introduced against the accused Lindbergh kidnaper at his trial was either manufactured by the police or distorted by so-called expert witnesses.”
Appeals have been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court several times. Hauptmann’s widow has contended through her attorney that her husband was the victim of a conspiracy to conceal evidence. She has sought monetary damages.
A few years ago, a San Francisco Court of Historical Review and Appeals, an unofficial body that examines controversial trials, recommended that the case be reopened. New Jersey authorities said they supported the verdict and saw no reason to do so.
About 10 years ago, then-Gov. Brendan Byrne ordered the 90,000-page Lindbergh files opened, saying there was “no need to preserve secrecy at this late date.” Byrne, a former judge, said: “The jury’s decision was a sound one and justice was done.”
Lindbergh, as a 25-year-old mail pilot, became the most famous figure of his time almost overnight.
A small-town boy from the Midwest, he had flown his single-engine plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, from San Diego to St. Louis to New York. Six days later--on May 20, 1927--"The Lone Eagle,” as he became known, was aloft again over the Atlantic. He had a compass, five quarts of water and five sandwiches, but no radio (too heavy). He left behind famous competitors for a $25,000 prize for the first nonstop flight from America to Paris. Among them was Richard E. Byrd, the polar explorer. Six pilots died trying.
Lindbergh landed at LeBourget Airport, some 3,600 miles and 33 1/2 hours later, and introduced himself to a cheering crowd of thousands.
Later that year, Dwight W. Morrow, ambassador to Mexico, invited Lindbergh to be his guest. At the embassy Lindbergh met the Morrows’ daughter, Anne, whom he married in 1929.
The couple, who had lived in an uptown New York hotel suite since their honeymoon, decided to build a house. They chose a site in the Sourland Mountains near Hopewell, N.J., 60 miles from New York.
It was in their new home that tragedy struck. The stone house was livable but not yet finished and the Lindberghs usually spent only weekends there. Most other days they were at the Morrow family estate in Englewood, N.J.
The Lindbergh boy had a slight cold. It was raw and windy, so Anne decided it would be best to stay home that Tuesday, March 1. Lindbergh returned from New York.
Hauptmann’s defense made much of the fact that the Lindberghs had decided only that night to stay in Hopewell. How could a kidnaper have known? Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf (father of the Army general), superintendent of the state police, and his staff questioned the servants in both the Lindbergh and Morrow households to determine if the crime could have been an inside job. After one of the servants committed suicide, police said it indicated “guilty knowledge of the crime.” Others said she was “frightened to death.”
Lindbergh, reading in a downstairs room, testified at Hauptmann’s trial in January, 1935, in the Flemington Court House that he heard a strange noise, which he said sounded “like the slats of an orange crate falling off a chair.”
Nurse Betty Gow went to the second-floor nursery about 10 p.m. and found the baby missing. She checked with the parents. Neither had him. Lindbergh ran to the nursery, saw the empty crib and said: “Anne, they have stolen our baby!”
The note on the windowsill read:
“Have 50000$ ready 25000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills after 2-4 days we will inform you where to deliver the mony we warn you for making anyding public or for notify the police the child is in gut care.” The note said the “singature” for future letters would be two interlocking circles with three square holes.
Early on, there were many bizarre developments, fed by speculation that underworld figures had taken the baby. Among them:
* Al Capone, under an 11-year sentence for income tax evasion, offered a $10,000 reward for the baby’s return. He told Arthur Brisbane, a Hearst newspaper columnist, that he would restore the child to the Lindberghs in return for his release from prison. Lindbergh and authorities turned him down.
* The Lindberghs announced that they had authorized two minor mob figures, Salvatore Spitale and Irving Bitz, to act as go-betweens in dealing with the kidnapers.
* In Washington, Gaston B. Means, a private detective with a shady past, tried to interest wealthy socialites in the case. One of them was Evalyn Walsh McLean, owner of the 44 1/2-carat Hope Diamond. She gave Means $104,000 ($100,000 ransom and $4,000 for expenses) on his promise that he could return the baby alive.
Meanwhile, Dr. John F. Condon, a 72-year-old educator in the Bronx, was upset that the Lindberghs had chosen mobsters as go-betweens. He wrote the Bronx Home News, offering $1,000 in addition to the $50,000 ransom. He asked the kidnapers to get in touch with him and promised never to reveal their names. His letter was published March 8.
Surprisingly, he received a reply, saying, “handl inclosed letter personally to Mr. Lindbergh. It will explain everything.” It went on to say if the press and police were “notifyed everything are cansell.” And a final instruction: “after you get the money from Mr. Lindbergh put these words in The New York American: “Mony is redy.”
Condon took the letter to Lindbergh at Hopewell. Lindbergh conferred with his friend and adviser, Henry C. Breckinridge. They were convinced that the letter writer knew something because the signature seemed the same. The interlocking symbols, never printed in the newspapers, were on the letter. Condon got the go-ahead, and on March 11, this advertisement appeared in the New York American: “I accept. Money is ready. Jafsie.” The name “Jafsie,” from Condon’s initials J.F.C., was used in the belief that only the kidnaper would recognize it.
There were further exchanges, and Condon received in the mail as evidence the baby’s sleeping suit.
On the night of April 2, Condon and Lindbergh went to a Bronx cemetery, as instructed, and Condon handed $50,000 to a man who called out, from behind a hedge: “Hey, Doctor--over here!”
Lindbergh, who waited in a car nearby, was asked at Hauptmann’s trial: “Have you heard that voice since?” He said he had, and added: “It was the voice of Bruno Richard Hauptmann.”
Condon was handed this note: “the boy is on the Boad Nelly . . . You will find the Boad between Horseneck Bay and Gay Head near Elizabeth Island.”
Lindbergh searched the waters off Cape Cod, the Virginia capes, Norfolk and South Jersey. He was returning from Norfolk on May 12 when he was notified that his son’s body had been found in a shallow grave a few miles from his home. Although Lindbergh and Betty Gow identified the remains in a Trenton morgue, and Edward J. Reilly, chief defense counsel, said “there was never any claim but that it was the Lindbergh child,” there have since been some challenges based on the last measurements of the child and the size of the body.
Several men now in middle age have claimed to be Charles A. Lindbergh Jr.
The trail of ransom money led to Hauptmann’s arrest on Sept. 19, 1934. A few days earlier he had paid Walter Lyle, a gas station attendant in the Bronx, with a $10 gold certificate. Lyle wrote the car’s license number on the bill.
The gold bills were “hot” because President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 3, 1933, had ordered that all holders of gold-backed notes exchange them for silver certificates. The government distributed 250,000 circulars giving the serial numbers of the gold notes. As each ransom bill turned up, state police marked the location on a wall map with a pin. Most were in the Bronx.
After Hauptmann’s arrest, police found $14,600 of the ransom money in his garage. Hauptmann said he had found the money in a shoe box left with him by Isodor Fisch, with whom he had a business partnership, when Fisch left for Germany. Fisch had since died. Hauptmann said the money had been in a closet and untouched until he hit it with a broom. He said gold certificates fell out of the box, and he hid them in the garage.
Frank J. Wilson, special agent in charge of the Intelligence Unit of the Internal Revenue Service, testified that between $18,000 and $19,000 of the ransom money was recovered. The state has said that no more of it turned up after Hauptmann’s arrest.
Seven handwriting experts testified that Hauptmann wrote the ransom notes. Their testimony, the ransom money in Hauptmann’s possession and the ladder were among the main pieces of circumstantial evidence.
The ladder used to enter the Lindbergh nursery was crude. Hauptmann denied making it, saying, “I am a carpenter.” Atty. Gen. David T. Wilentz, the chief prosecutor, said the noise Lindbergh heard that night was the ladder breaking under the weight of Hauptmann carrying the child. A physician testified that the baby died of a fractured skull.
A state witness, Arthur Koehler of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., testified that a ladder rail had come from a floor board in Hauptmann’s attic. He said he laid the board on a joist in the attic and found that the nail holes in the floor board matched those in the joist.
In his charge to the jury, Supreme Court Justice Thomas W. Trenchard, noted the circumstantial evidence. He said: “The crime of murder is not one which is always committed in the presence of witnesses, and if not so committed, it must be established by circumstantial evidence or not at all.”
Hauptmann was convicted and sentenced immediately to die in the electric chair the week of Jan. 17, 1936.
But there were more bizarre events:
* Gov. Harold G. Hoffman granted Hauptmann a reprieve for 30 days after paying him a secret visit in the death house. Hoffman said in a statement: “I share with hundreds of thousands of our people the doubt as to the value of the evidence that placed him in the Lindbergh nursery. I do doubt that this crime could have been committed by one man.”
* Evalyn Walsh McLean came back into the picture. She had lost faith in Gaston Means’ ability to find the child and had asked for her $100,000 back. The money was not returned and Means was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, where he died.
* McLean was uncertain about Hauptmann’s conviction. She hired Samuel S. Leibowitz, a famous criminal lawyer, to investigate. He visited Hauptmann three times in his cell and said he told Hauptmann he was certain the Court of Pardons would commute his sentence to life imprisonment if he “came clean.” Leibowitz got nowhere. He told McLean “there was no question Hauptmann was guilty. I said the only way he could be saved from the chair was to name his accomplice or accomplices. I said I was convinced that he did not act alone.”
In the meantime, the Supreme Court denied a last-minute request from Lloyd Fisher, who had replaced Reilly as chief defense counsel, to apply for a writ of habeas corpus. The New Jersey Court of Pardons denied clemency.
There were 55 witnesses in the execution chamber when Hauptmann, accompanied by two clergymen, came in at 8:41 p.m. Robert H. Elliott, the gray-haired executioner, spun a wheel three times. Six doctors applied stethoscopes. Then Dr. Howard Weisler, the prison physician, said: “This man is dead.” It was 8:47 1/2 p.m.