The Lindbergh kidnapping
In what was called the crime of the century, the Lindbergh kidnapping was the abduction and murder of the twenty month-old son of world famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh Sr., on March 1, 1932. In addition to fame, the Lindbergh’s were known as an affluent family during the Great Depression. While their social status and ability to pay a ransom made them more susceptible to be a kidnapping target, the very young age of their child increased the inherent risky outcome of such an act altogether (Douglas et al., 1992).
Lindbergh Jr., was snatched from his nursery by someone climbing up to the second floor nursery window using a ladder that was later found near the house. The kidnapper(s) left behind a ransom note that was followed by twelve more, requesting $70,000 dollars. The New Jersey State Police, assumed charge of the investigation, but Lindbergh Sr. wanted his friends to communicate with the kidnappers.
Eventually, a ransom of $50,000 in gold certificates was handed over to the kidnapper by an intermediate, Dr. John Condon. Dr. Condon would later identify the stranger as "sounding foreign" (Fisher 1999).
Seventy-three days after he was kidnapped, the body of the Lindbergh child was, by accident, found in Hopewell, New Jersey, four and one half miles southeast from where he was abducted. The body of the child had a hole in his head, allowing the investigators to conclude that a massive blow to the head had been the cause of death, shortly after his kidnapping. During the following three years, numerous gold certificates from the ransom money turned up in circulation. The investigators’ attempts to trace the bills to the perpetrator(s) of this crime was leading them nowhere except for providing a consistent physical description of a man just as Condon had described. More than three years later, a gold certificate from the ransom money was discovered, that had a license plate number written on it. The license plate belonged to a vehicle owned by Bruno Hauptmann, a German immigrant with a criminal record. Hauptmann was arrested the next day and charged with the murder.
In February 1935, after a sensational, six-week trial, Hauptmann was found guilty of kidnapping and murdering the twenty-month-old son of Charles Lindbergh, Sr. Although circumstantial, the evidence against Hauptmann included over $14,000 dollars in ransom money found in his garage, a hand-made ladder used in the kidnapping - found to match wood and carpentry equipment located in his home, and expert testimony depicting handwriting similarities to that found on the ransom notes, left few to doubt his guilt. Hauptmann was also positively identified by Condon as the man to whom he had delivered the ransom money. The testimonial evidence, offered by the prosecution, identified Hauptmann as the person who had spent some of the Lindbergh gold certificates; as having been seen in the area of the Lindbergh home on the day of the kidnapping; and that he had been absent from work on the day of the ransom payment. Hauptmann chose to die maintaining his innocence. Since he never confessed or implicated others in this murder-kidnap, many theories and pundits, motivated by ulterior motives as well, sprung up, weaving far-fetched conspiracies and putting in doubt the evidence against Hauptmann and ultimately the value of his adjudication and execution.
The last 73 years have also produced dozens of books, publications and writings on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, ranging from thorough, factual, accurate, and evidence based arguments and narrations to works that borderline on tabloid and fiction style. Among the most recent is Lloyd C. Gardner’s book titled: “The Case That Never Dies” (2004). By presenting a vast body of research in his book, Gardner tries to give the impression that he is just facilitating the reader with data so he/she can reach their own conclusions. At the same time, Gardner discusses many of the conspiracy theories regarding this case. He does not discard any of these red herring analyses, but allows an ongoing sense of innuendos.
Gardner, instead of presenting the actual forensic evidence objectively, continuously dwells on discrepancies in witnesses’ statements, or on the chain of custody of certain pieces of evidence (the ladder), not an unusual occurrence in many criminal investigations. Through his arguments, Gardner posits that the evidence was fabricated, police fumbled the investigation, Hauptmann had inadequate legal representation, and ultimately was wrongly convicted and executed. At times, he either draws no conclusions where there need be, or contradicts his own findings. Gardner ends his book with a plea against capital punishment, irrelevant to the issue of whether Hauptmann did the crime or not, but relevant to his ulterior motives’ issue.
It is puzzling that any serious person could study the Lindbergh case objectively and not conclude that the evidence against Bruno Richard Hauptmann was, and is too devastating to warrant even a single book doubting Hauptmann’s authorship in this murderous crime. In reviewing the vast literature on the Lindbergh case, one realizes that among all the evidence linking Hauptmann to the kidnap and murder of Lindbergh Jr., three pieces of physical evidence stand out and unequivocally link Hauptmann to the crime - the ladder, the ransom money, and the ransom notes. We will be discussing how Gardner presents these important pieces of evidence and the conclusions he draws in claiming that Hauptmann’s case never dies. Gardner argues that the police investigation and the evidence used against Hauptmann put in doubt the validity of his guilt and the sentence rendered.
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While examining the ladder-evidence, Gardner, makes the argument that the ladder-construction was barely functional and poorly built. On this issue he writes:
“…would a person who knew anything about carpentry build a ladder so close to the margins? A person planning to steal the most famous child in the United States, and who had devised a foolproof signature, had neglected to ensure his most important accessory for the crime - how likely was that?” (Gardner 2004:114).
But as Fisher (2000) points out, using few pieces that were narrow and light were an ingenious way to build a functional ladder that was also easy for transportation. On the other hand, if he (Hauptmann) held himself to be a good carpenter, and if he tried throughout to hide his tracks, would he truly build a ladder that would bear the marks of a true carpenter and thus in the event of capture go against him? Besides, most likely that would have been a one-time-use ladder anyway. Gardner, in trying to give credence to the theory that more than one person was involved in the kidnapping, calls on the statements made by Squire Johnson, New Jersey’s assistant director of construction and architecture, who conducted the first examination of the ladder:
“Johnson believed two people had made the ladder, one of them left handed. The saw cuts and splintering on the rungs of the upper two sections convinced him that was the case” (Gardner 2004:116).
Gardner does not discuss another more probable scenario of one person (the kidnapper) having built the ladder, but using either hand when sawing (due to injury, blister, splinter, better use of space and movement, etc.).
Gardner’s challenge of the ladder-evidence continues with attacks towards Detective Lewis Bornmann’s report on the search and subsequent find of the 27th board in Hauptmann’s attic. This board was identified as the source for rail 16 of the ladder (Gardner 2004:223). In his report depicting the search of Hauptmann’s attic, on September 26, 1934, Bornmann wrote:
“Nothing of value was found with the exception of several small pieces of wood and shavings and several cut nails that may possibly have a bearing on the case (Bornmann 1934).
Bornmann goes on to say that these items were seized and later given to Arthur Koehler, wood technologist of the U. S Forest Products Laboratory, in an effort to compare them with the wood and cut nails holes in the ladder used in the Lindbergh case.
Gardner first questions the time at which the reports were written and submitted thus alluding that the timing of Bornmann’s discovery was suspect:
“If nothing of value was found after a “thorough search,” something prompted Bornmann to return to the attic-perhaps several times, and perhaps alone-and to submit additional reports covering the same search the same day.” (Gardner 2004:223)
Somehow, Gardner manages to answer his own questions, before he even raises them, and then he still tries to make a red herring out of it altogether. Regarding the issue of Bornmann’s backdated reports, for example, he writes:” …a not uncommon practice in the midst of an intensive investigation.” (Gardner 2004:223)
Gardner then raises the issue as to why Bornmann had to pull the board from the joists with his bare hands “…even though fourteen face nails secured it…and especially with two carpenters standing by” (Gardner 2004:224) He goes on to say that even during the trial Bornmann “proved reticent about admitting he had gone into the attic looking for wood” and that “he would protest” (according to Gardner), when asked why he brought carpenters with him, by stating that the search was about money, not boards. Gardner closes the paragraph with one of his red herring statements: “Yet the search ended abruptly after only one board out of twenty-seven had been removed” (Gardner 2004:224).
On September 20, 1934, the law enforcement investigators had found $13,760 of the ransom money in Hauptmann’s garage. Considering the fact that the total amount of the ransom paid to “Cemetery John” was $50,000, it was more than reasonable for the police to search for the rest of the money. After a search of the house and the garage did not yield any results, the most reasonable place to look next would be underneath floorboards, inside walls and structures. Who could gain better access to these areas than carpenters? That’s what Bornmann did. He had the carpenters follow him to the attic, but after noticing that an eight foot section of one of the yellow pine boards was missing, sawdust still visible around the joist, and several cut nails near it (Fisher 1989:328-329) “Bornmann thought about Koehler’s description of rail 16” (Fisher 1989:228). At this point, considering the fact that a match between the attic board and rail 16 would link Hauptmann to the ladder, it would be more than reasonable for Bornmann to suspend his search for the remainder of money, at least for that day.
Gardner “returns” to the issue of the attic’s half--missing twenty-seventh board and Bornmann by dedicating four full-pages of fiction style writing in an attempt, not at reenactment but rather infusing more suspicion at the nexus between the attic board, rail 16, and Bornmann. While writing about the March 26, 1935, meeting between New Jersey Governor Harold Hoffman’s team and Attorney General David Wilentz’s in Hauptmann’s attic (Gardner 2004:388-391) Gardner describes in detail Hoffman’s demonstrations disputing the integrity of some of the ladder evidence. First, he disputes the correctness of the measurements of “Arthur Koehler’s original floor plan of the attic”. Next, he questions how Bornmann could have ripped-up a board from a tongue-and-groove flooring with his bare hands. Finally, he argues that Hoffman’s failed attempts to push the original nails flush into the holes of ladder-rail 16 proved Hauptmann was being framed by the police. Albeit, as Gardner admits in his book that the nail holes were the full depth of the nails, but were clogged with some sort of sawdust.
The prosecution, linked Hauptmann to the kidnap ladder through four different elements: rail 16 came from a floor plank in Hauptmann’s attic, the ladder displayed distinct tool marks possessed by Hauptmann, the wood used in building the ladder mainly came from a store where Hauptman bought his wood, and on one of his notebooks police found a sketch depicting part of the ladder and a dowel pin (Fisher 1984:125). As with the attic argument, Gardner tries to raise doubts on the validity of the work and experiments conducted by Koehler, the prosecution wood specialist. While recalling the cross-examination of Koehler by Defense Attorney Frederick Pope, Gardner speculates on “the pendency of this investigation” argument, reasoning that if Pope had insisted in this line of questioning Koehler would have been forced to admit how many planes he had tested, and how many pieces of wood that did not benefit the prosecution’s case had been rejected or discarded (Gardner 2004:314). Again, Gardner tries to ignore the totality of the evidence present, by raising a red herring issue, despite evidence to the contrary. While commenting on the ladder evidence, Dr. Harold Dearden, British author and criminal psychologist, writes: “It was unanswerable. There was nothing in it to be denied or explained…And it damned him” (Dearden 1951:53).
While searching Hauptmann’s apartment, police found sketches of a homemade ladder and windows inside one of his notebooks. The sketch depicted part of the top section of a ladder that was very much like the one used in the kidnapping (Fisher 1984:195). When asked about it in September 1934, Hauptmann said that it probably was done by a visiting child. While on the witness stand, when cross-examined by Wilentz, Hauptmann denied that the drawings belonged to him (Fisher 1984:328). On this issue Gardner chooses to “rest”.
In challenging the results of the research conducted by Koehler to trace the components of the ladder, Gardner tries to make a point out of the fact that Koehler was contradictory in his statements regarding the three-quarter-inch wood chisel used on the ladder (Gardner 2004:133-134). Gardner writes that initially Koehler said the chisel was so sharp that it left no scratches, therefore negating a finding as to the width of the chisel used. But at a latter time, according to Gardner, Koehler states that he was able to locate at least one mark of a three-quarter-inch wood chisel on the ladder. Gardner also speculates that Koehler was always changing his opinions and conclusions as from which lumberyard the wood originated (Gardner 2004:141).
The vast array of research, documents and reports of the time portrays a different picture. Since the beginning, February, 1933, when Koehler was summoned in New Jersey to examine the ladder, he backed his research on scientific methods, and meticulously documented each step (Fisher 1984). Koehler, early in the investigation determined that rails 12 and 13 were North Carolina Pine; rails 14, 15, and 17 were Douglass fir. To locate the suppliers Koehler sent letters to 1,598 lumber mills in the South, where North Carolina pine was dressed for shipment to lumberyards across the nation. Koehler described in these letters the marks on the rails left by a planer that had a small defect which left a distinguishable mark on the wood (Koehler 1934). Even though less than ten percent of the lumber mills responded, after months of investigative work, on November 16, 1933, the National Lumber Company, Bronx, New York on the corner of Gun Hill Road and few blocks from Woodland Cemetery was found to have North Carolina Pine matching the planer marks. (Fisher 1984:176) Woodland Cemetery is where the ransom money exchanged hands and National Lumber Company is where Hauptmann worked part time, as he himself admitted, until early 1932 (Fisher 1984:192). On December 11, 1933 Koehler wrote to Captain J. J. Lamb about rail 16, commenting that it probably came from a piece of tongued and grooved board taken from the interior of an old building, because there were no signs of having been exposed to weather and it had some cut nail holes. (Gardner 2004:139) It would be more than nine months later that Bornmann will find, in Hauptmann’s attic, the sawed-off attic board matching rail 16.
The ransom money represents the fruits of the crime and a good portion of it, $14,000, was found in Hauptmann’s possession. On April 2, 1932, Dr. Condon paid the kidnapper (Cemetery John) a fifty thousand dollar ransom at St. Raymond’s Cemetery, in the Bronx, New York. Most of the money was in gold notes and all the serial numbers and denominations were recorded. Condon describes Cemetery John as a white male, about five feet ten, weighing 160 pounds, shoulders slightly stooped, with a triangular face, high cheekbones, almond shaped eyes, large ears, and a straight nose. He also had straight and thick eyebrows and a Scandinavian accent (Fisher 1984:84). Six days latter, on April 8, a twenty dollar gold certificate was located in the Bronx. For months to come different ransom bills turned up around New York City, but it was not until November 19, 1933, when a cashier at a Greenwich Village movie house, Cecile Barr, reported of having received a five dollar ransom bill, from a white male fitting the description of Cemetery John.
Gardner, in his quest to prove that Hauptmann received an unfair trial, and was convicted on insufficient evidence, puts in doubt the validity of Barr’s eyewitness testimony, by writing that the “description fit Hauptmann, except no mention was made of an accent” (Gardner 2004:294). Gardner bases his argument on the part of Barr’s statement where after giving a physical description of the bill-passer she said: “apparently American.” Fisher, addressing this issue posits that according to Barr’s testimony Hauptmann spoke only two words: “one forty” (Lindbergh Collection, Hauptmann trial transcript, p.3336), so it is very possible that no accent would be detected (Fisher 2000:136).
It would be only ten months later, September 15, 1934, when the police got the break they wanted. Someone fitting the description of Cemetery John, hands to a gas station attendant a ten dollar gold note. The attendant writes the customer’s license number, on the margin of the suspicious gold note. After police are alerted about the suspicious gold note, they trace the license plate to Bruno Richard Hauptmann and on September 19, arrested him.
Hauptmann denied to having kidnapped the Lindbergh baby and possessing any of the ransom money. After a search of the house the police found in Hauptmann’s garage $13,760 in ransom bills. Only after the find, did Hauptmann come up with the story that the money was given to him by a business associate, Isidor Fisch, for safekeeping on December 2, 1933. According to Hauptmann, he did not know about the money until August 1934, because, initially Fisch had handed him a box tied with a shoe string and did not tell him what was inside. After he found the money, knowing that Fisch had died of tuberculosis, in Germany, on March 29, 1934 (Fisher 1984L:204) and because the latter owed him $7000, Hauptmann, supposedly started spending the money. In follow-up searches, police found $800 in ransom bills and a handgun stuffed inside holes drilled in a two by four in Hauptmann’s garage (Fisher 1984:229). Regarding the allegation that it was Fisch who had given Hauptmann the ransom money, it is hard to explain that he was so poor that in the spring of 1933, Fisch was sleeping in park benches in New York City (Fisher 2000:136). Joseph A. Genau, an FBI accountant, after conducting a series of investigations, in 1934, found out that in Fisch’s bank account there were only three to four deposits, the largest being $750. While Hauptmann’s bank and brokerage accounts, between the time of the ransom payment and his arrest, reflected transactions in the amount of $26,016 (Fisher: 2000:136). Throughout the initial investigation, after his arrest and during the trial, Hauptmann maintained that he had money of his own, thanks to business deals with Fisch and investing in the stock market.(Gardner 2004:164). Even though by his own admission, Hauptman prior to 1932 did not have much success in investing and during April 1932 to September 19, 1934 did not earn any wages (Fisher 1984:328). During the police investigation it was revealed that on April 1, 1932, Hauptmann had no cash assets, but starting in May, 1932, while still without a job, he bought a $526 radio, $126 pair of German field glasses, $56 rifle, $706 plane ticket for his wife’s trip to Germany; on top of giving her $1000 dollars in spending cash (Fisher 1984:218, 2000:146).
Hauptmann’s feat of loosing hundreds of dollars in the stock market, loaning thousands to his wife and Fisch, spending hundreds on trips, entertainment, mortgages and rent, and still having money in the bank (Fisher 200:150); all this while he is unemployed, would make even the most naïve amongst us, somewhat incredulous. Of course unless we were told that Hauptmann was found to have in his possession ransom money from a recent kidnapping…that somehow he did not know he had…!
The ransom notes along with the kidnap ladder were the two most important pieces of evidence that the prosecution had to prove, were constructed and utilized by Hauptmann in the commission of the crime. In doing so the prosecution summoned eight nationally known-handwriting experts to examine the ransom notes. All eight experts testified that Hauptmann was the person that wrote all the ransom notes (Fisher 2000:119). Gardner, while writing about the ransom notes makes the argument that the defense’s handwriting experts could not compete with the state’s high-powered team, because they were not allowed to view the evidence until after the trial had started, because the defense did not have enough money to get the right experts, and because the defense experts could not work in privacy, “the troopers and stenographers hovered close by.” (Gardner 2004:338). What Gardner fails to mention is that Edward J. Reilly, Hauptmann’s defense attorney, had asked seven document examiners to look at the ransom notes; three of them concluded that Hauptmann was the writer, three said that the ransom notes had been altered post-arrest, and the seventh stated that Hauptmann was not the writer (Fisher 2000:120).
What Gardner does not fail to mention is the instance when, according to FBI liaison agent Thomas Sisk, one of the prosecution’s experts and the son of the famous Albert S. Osborn, Albert D. Osborn, one early morning, hours after they had viewed the ransom notes, called the New Jersey State Police Headquarters and told Colonel Norman Schwarzkopf that “there were some striking similarities…found a lot of dissimilarities…and he is convinced [Hauptmann] did not write the ransom notes” (Gardner 2004:162; Hunterdon County Democrat, February 5, 1981.) Whether Osborn Sr. had any say in his son change of opinion was never known. What is known is that seven expert always maintained that Hauptmann was the note writer (Fisher 2000:121).
Due to the amount of the ransom notes, the handwriting experts had plenty of questioned writing. By obtaining copies of Hauptmann’s auto registration, driver’s license and personal notebooks seized during the searches of the house, experts also had sufficient conceded writing samples. When it came to request writing samples, Osborn Sr. developed a methodical routine of dictating words and paragraphs to Hauptmann (New York Times, January 12, 1935; Fisher 2000:119). The prosecution witnesses were able to prove that that Hauptmann was also the person who sent the package, containing the baby’s sleeping suit to John F. Condon (Fisher 1984:304).
Gardner, while writing about a psychiatric examination conducted by Dr. James H. Huddleson, in October, 1934, on Hauptman at the request of one of his attorneys, James Fawcett states:
“Hauptmann told them early on that in childhood he often added an e to words at the end. Even today, he said, “if I don’t think on it, I do it.” (Gardner 2004:194).
Commenting on the same issue Fisher (2000) writes that Dr. Huddleson at that time handed Hauptmann’s defense a report depicting “a childhood defect and related writing tic” that provides proof, that Hauptmann was the ransom-notes writer (Fisher 2000:158). Fisher posits that due to this condition, known as agraphia, Hauptmann would unconsciously, at times add an e onto words he otherwise knew how to spell (Fisher 2000:159). The author of the Lindbergh ransom notes, envelopes, and the writing on the package containing the baby’s suit, placed an inappropriate e, twenty six times at the end of nine different words. Considering this evidence the only person could have only been, Bruno Hauptmann.
After reviewing Gardner’s book on the Lindbergh-baby kidnapping case, it is apparent that Gardner’s contentions on the improprieties of the police investigation and the evidence against Hauptmann are groundless. Reaching this conclusion is effortless when an unbiased person, objectively considers some of the indisputable facts of this case, the homemade ladder found near the scene of the crime thought to be used in the kidnapping was actually made by Hauptmann; part of the ransom money was found in Hauptmann’s possession; and the ransom notes were undeniably written by Hauptmann. Further more, even before he was apprehended, all the eyewitness accounts depicted someone who bore an uncanny resemblance to Hauptmann.
The Lindbergh case was closed that February, 1935, when a jury found Hauptmann guilty of kidnapping and murdering the twenty-month-old son of Charles Lindbergh, Sr.
Bornmann, L., 1934, Searching of Bruno Hauptmann’s Home and Garage.
September 25 and September 26, Reports File, NJSP
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Violent Crimes. Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Company. San Francisco, CA
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Lindbergh Case. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press
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Jr. Boston: Little Brown
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Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London
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Lindbergh Collection, Hauptmann trial transcript, p.3336
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
A very good essay. Reference could also be made to hoaxes during the investigation (e.g. Gatson Means). 4 Stars.