1582: John Payne, snitched out 1979: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan

1936: Bruno Richard Hauptmann, The Most Hated Man in the World

April 3rd, 2008 Headsman

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.

Snatched

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.)

History’s Verdict

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 clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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

An enigmatic criminal tied to an enigmatic icon in a painfully public four-year drama that transfixed the nation and still inspires debate: that “Trial of the Century” marquee holds up pretty well.

* In Germany; Hauptmann’s record was clean stateside — apart, that is, from Charles Lindbergh, Jr.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Infamous,Murder,New Jersey,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Wrongful Executions

13 thoughts on “1936: Bruno Richard Hauptmann, The Most Hated Man in the World”

  1. myloridarlin says:

    As a child, maybe 12, I asked my grandfather about the Lindbergh kidnapping, thinking how sad it was. He told me that Hauptman was railroaded in a big way and told me why he thought so. I never doubted that he was correct,

    I now advocate for the wrongfully convicted and that was the first time I became aware that justice in the United States is not just.

  2. Jim McBride says:

    if you make a study of everything that was going on back at the the Lindbergh house during this time you will find the reason for Hauptmann as the scape goat.

    There was a long history of abuse against family members by Lindy and the dead child had suffered from his fathers temper a few times in the past which is why the family nanny/maid was never called to testify.

    there was in all likelihood never a kidnapping and Richard Hauptmann was used so there was resolve to this case other than the father which was unthinkable.

    They could not tarnish the reputation of a hero.

    better to throw an immigrant to the wolves.

  3. vivian says:

    You neglect to mention he quit his job the day the ransom was paid, went on a spending spree of tens of thousands of dollars, started dabbling in the stock market, and sent his wife to Germany to see if the statute of limitations had run out on his charge of second story burglary.
    He did the crime.

  4. apatride says:

    richard hauptmann was innocent and will be for ever , the poor foreign man was living in the promessed land of the pilgrim fathers( what a lie) a country of justice ?? fuck you americans , he was wrongly accuesed by the savage americans. oh god dont bless america.

  5. morgan miller says:

    bruno richard hauptmann was innocent Prudence, get a clue. i’ve been researching the kidnapping and if bruno did kidnap and kill the lindbergh baby he would have made a better ladder then the one they found that had broken, BRUNO WAS A CARPENTER, he would of known to make a stronger ladder, and besides he was an illegal immagrant, he wouldnt do something to get like that.. because he would get introuble for that too, you probably never knew that charles lindbergh stood behind hitler and watched as innocent jews were killed,so if you think its horrible for the child think of all the people who lindbergh himself watched die.. he wasnt much better than the kidnapper. plus bruno was german why would lindbergh kill off a german when he could a jew?

  6. Pat Patterson says:

    Hi there. In mid 1960 I met a man in Richmond, Va (a professional gambler) who befriended me while I was doing some electrical work at his gambling parlor. While drinking coffee at a White Tower at 3rd and Grace Sts. He related a story to me about his unknowing and unintentional participation in the Lindburgh kidnapping. His role was to deliver a ladder to a certain address, which he did, and spent many years in prison for doing so. I can’t imagine anyone making up such a damning story if it were not true. I haven’t been able to find any info on the man who is now deceased. His name was Bobby Robinson or Robertson. Any clues to the fact or fiction? I can’t imagine this man as a criminal. He was extremely nice and a gentleman where women were concerned, tipping his hat etc. Just wanting to know. Thanks

  7. Prudence says:

    This man definitely got what he deserved. Little children have futures ahead of them, and Lindbergh’s son most likely dreamed of being an aviator like his father when he grew up, yet Haputmann never gave him the chance. People like that are sick and should NOT be allowed to live more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


Calendar

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recent Comments

  • Sherill Schouweiler: Totally agree with you. 45 min of this POS wasnt nearly enough time. This man is unfortunately...
  • jehanbosch/ Johan Louis de Jong: The Kingdom of Naples was an odd affair. Not in law but in pratice jointly ruled by...
  • STEPHEN SULLIVAN: SORELLA, I AM HERE WITH YOU AGAIN AS I HOPE TO ALWAYS BE. AMEN.
  • CoreyR: For one, Bart’s back :)
  • Petar: Yeah, they were trying to freed Cuba from Spain rule… so it can be switched under american rule.