On this date in 1936, a German immigrant went to New Jersey’s electric chair for kidnapping and murdering the infant son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.
The kidnapping of the Lindbergh boy in 1932 had touched off an outpouring of public compassion matched only by the clumsiness of the investigation. The circus that formed around a father desperate to retrieve his boy — and prone to rash decision-making thereto — pulled in underworld figures, military intelligence officers (including the founder of the CIA’s forerunner and the father of Gulf War General Norman Schwartzkopf), a meddlesome schoolteacher, and queer characters like “Cemetery John,” who somehow managed two meetings with Lindbergh’s intermediaries, making off with a box full of ransom cash without anyone so much as tailing him, much less having to fork over the hostage.
The boy, in fact, was dead, and would be discovered weeks later, a few miles from the Lindbergh house, in such a state of decomposition as to suggest that, by accident or intention, he had suffered a fatal head injury almost at the moment of his abduction.
Two years’ fruitless investigation ensued, with leads that frustratingly faded away and at least two suspects who committed suicide. The police job had been a hash from the start, between amateurish cock-ups like failing to measure footprints found on the scene and security breaches in the chaotic weeks following the kidnapping. Most damagingly, a newspaper laid hands on an early ransom note and printed it, making it impossible subsequently to positively discern the kidnapper’s real notes from hoaxes.
But John Law had done one thing right: paid the ransom in soon-to-be-obsolete gold certificate. As they’d hoped, someone was finally caught spending this distinctive currency: Bruno Hauptmann.
Hauptmann actually went by “Richard”, but with its unerring sense of the Zeitgeist, the press played up his menacing alien moniker. After two and a half years, the public was ready to hate someone, and an illegal immigrant with a criminal record* from the late war’s great enemy was pretty much made to order.
Trial of the Century
The one thing Hauptmann didn’t do was confess — and that necessitated the “Trial of the Century,” or in Mencken’s coinage, “the greatest story since the Resurrection.”
It was O.J. before 24-hour cable. Journalists packed the small-town courtroom of Flemington, N.J.; for six weeks early in 1935, an aggressive prosecutor vied with a flamboyant (but cripplingly dissolute) defense attorney hired for the penurious defendant by the Hearst newspaper empire in exchange for inside information.
This newsreel footage of the trial consists mostly of Hauptmann’s own testimony, and even at seventy-plus years’ distance it crackles with drama — and with the persecutorial atmosphere that sealed Hauptmann’s fate, guilty or not. (The defendant often sounds uncertain and evasive in these clips — it cannot have helped his standing with the jury, but it is worth recalling that English was not his native language.)
The case was circumstantial, the most powerful circumstance, of course, being Hauptmann’s possession of ransom money — thousands of dollars worth, as it turned out, stashed in his garage. Hauptmann said a friend had left it when returning to Germany; the alibi didn’t convince many, but Hauptmann stuck to it to the end, even refusing to accept a commutation in exchange for a confession. This audio of a convicted Hauptmann still maintaining his innocence comes from the New Jersey Star-Ledger blog.[audio:Bruno_Hauptmann.mp3]
Much other evidence against him — shaky eyewitness testimony, doubtful courtroom forensics — seems less damning, especially from the perspective of time. Unexplored problems — why would a professional carpenter build such a shoddy ladder? How could he have known the (rare) night the Lindberghs would actually be home? — gesture emptily towards other suspects never pursued, though they are very far from authoritatively exonerating Hauptmann. Ultimately, it’s a case with many unclear data points, whose importance and configuration invite dispute. (Here‘s a site dedicated to Hauptmann’s innocence, including this article (.pdf) outlining the main arguments his partisans make.)
Even the verdict’s defenders, and there are many, concede that portions at trial were exaggerated or outright perjured in an atmosphere hardly conducive to dispassionate review. Whether that makes Hauptmann “guilty but framed” or plausibly innocent (of the kidnapping, if not of opportunistic extortion) has been the subject of far more rumination than this blog can hope to assay.
A few of the many books about the Lindbergh case
* In Germany; Hauptmann’s record was clean stateside — apart, that is, from Charles Lindbergh, Jr.