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Lindbergh Kidnapping
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Lindbergh Kidnapping

Place: Hopewell, New Jersey
Date: March 1, 1932 (kidnapping); January 2–February 14, 1935 (trial)
Type: Kidnapping and murder
Description: The child of aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, was kidnapped and murdered. The subsequent trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann became a media spectacle.
Casualties: 2 deaths: murder of Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., and execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann
Impact: President Hoover signed legislation on June 22, 1932, making kidnapping a federal crime.
Dubbed the "Crime of the Century," the kidnapping of 20-month-old Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., in 1932 and Bruno Richard Hauptmann's subsequent trial three years later was one of several sensational criminal events of the 1920s and 1930s. The uproar over the Lindbergh tragedy rivaled other famous cases of the era, such as Sacco and Vanzetti (1921), the Leopold and Loeb murder case (1924—also called the "Crime of the Century"), the Scopes "monkey" trial (1925), the Massie affair (1931), and the Scottsboro case (1931–37).

Around 10 P.M. on March 1, 1932, nanny Betty Gow found the Lindberghs' infant son missing from his second-story room in the couple's Hopewell, New Jersey, mansion. After quickly searching the house, the baby's father, Charles Lindbergh, found a ransom note demanding $50,000. He also found muddy footprints outside the nursery's open window. He immediately called state and local police. Reporters intercepted police message traffic and within hours the news was broadcast over the nation's radio networks. Lindbergh was a national celebrity, the famed "Lone Eagle," whose daring transatlantic flight in 1927 had riveted the world's attention. His clean good looks and modesty led the media to lionize him as the All-American Hero. The media attention—which Lindbergh detested—only increased after he married Anne Morrow in 1929, and the pair was dubbed "The First Couple of the Air." Rumors of the kidnapping immediately became front-page news.

Together with police, Lindbergh continued the search. Outside, at some distance from the second-story window, they found a homemade extension ladder broken where the sections joined. Both the ladder and the handwritten ransom note would prove to be crucial evidence. By next morning, hundreds of police agents had descended on the normally tranquil country town. They scoured the surrounding area and searched the house and grounds for additional evidence. As the ladder suggested the kidnapper(s) knew beforehand where the baby would be, the baby's nanny and other household servants were closely questioned. Local citizens volunteered their help, and informants told police they had seen a car with New York license plates near the estate the previous evening. Bulletins were quickly sent out across New Jersey and to neighboring jurisdictions including New York City and Philadelphia. Throughout the day, sightseers and reporters arrived at the Lindbergh home, forcing police to establish control points to prevent crowds from inundating the estate.

The next four weeks witnessed the most massive and publicized manhunt in American history. Thousands of law enforcement officers in a half-dozen states searched for the child, established checkpoints to inspect automobiles, interrogated criminals associated with abduction rackets, and pursued hundreds of leads. Houses were searched in Newark and New York City. Hourly radio updates kept the nation informed on the searchers' progress. Congress discussed the kidnapping, and President Herbert Hoover authorized the use of federal enforcement assets to help locate the child. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover offered New Jersey State Police superintendent H. Norman Schwarzkopf (father of the Persian Gulf War commander) technical assistance. FBI handwriting experts would later play an important role in establishing the kidnapper's guilt.

While the attention paid to the case was due to Lindbergh's fame and the media portrayal of Charles and Anne as the perfect couple, the case also focused attention on the growing problem of extortion abductions. The week before the child's disappearance, officials had appeared before a congressional committee urging passage of a federal kidnapping statute. Over the two previous years, an estimated 2,000 people had been abducted and forced to pay ransom. Lindbergh's fame as an aviator also worked against him. The massive dragnet made contacting the kidnapper(s) difficult. The crime's celebrity status attracted publicity hounds and hucksters seeking to profit from the couple's plight. Police authorities also deferred to Lindbergh, allowing him to conduct his own investigation and attempt negotiations. On March 9, eight days after the kidnapping, John Condon, a retired principal from the Bronx, told the Lindberghs he had established contact with a person purporting to represent the kidnappers by placing an ad in the Bronx Home News. The couple agreed to let him negotiate. A series of meetings ensued with a man who spoke with a German accent and whom Condon—who went by the code name "Jafsie"—referred to simply as "John." On April 2, Condon handed over the $50,000 ransom, which Lindbergh had raised by selling stocks he owned, as Lindbergh waited in a car nearby. "John" handed Condon a note telling him the baby was safe aboard the Nelly, a boat located somewhere near Martha's Vineyard. Lindbergh and the police (accompanied by "John") immediately searched for the vessel, but it was never found.

A month later, on May 12, 1932, a trucker's helper on the road between Hopewell and Princeton, New Jersey, found the baby's remains in the woods only a few miles from the Lindberghs' home. The child's skull was fractured and the corpse's decay indicated death occurred on the night of the kidnapping, perhaps in falling off the ladder. The Lindberghs took the news stoically, and police now turned to solving the murder. Fortunately, Treasury agents working with Lindbergh had recorded the serial numbers of the bills used to pay the ransom. The FBI, working with New York City and New Jersey State police, focused their attention on tracking the ransom money. More than two years passed, but in September 1934, their efforts finally paid off. Investigators traced a marked gold certificate to a German-born carpenter named Bruno Richard Hauptmann. They arrested him near his Bronx residence on September 19. On searching the garage adjoining his four-room flat, they found $13,750 in marked bills stashed in the walls and under the floor. Inside the flat they discovered Condon's telephone number written on the inside of a closet door frame. While Hauptmann denied involvement in the kidnapping, he was identified by a cab driver as the person who had handed him a note for Condon. Condon also tentatively identified Hauptmann in a police line-up. The arrest strengthened investigators' suspicions the kidnapping had been a solo affair.

Hauptmann's murder trial—dubbed the "Trial of the Century" by writer Damon Runyon—began on January 3, 1935, in Flemington, New Jersey. It was a media circus beyond precedent, as 60,000 people, including movie stars, society figures, reporters, and writers, descended on the west New Jersey town. Souvenir peddlers sold miniature replicas of the kidnapping ladder. Newsreels of the trial played across the nation, and radio stations carried the proceedings in full. Journalist H. L. Mencken called it "the greatest story since the Resurrection." Novelist Edna Ferber stated of the spectacle, "It made you want to resign as a member of the human race." As Hauptmann never confessed to the crime and there were no eyewitnesses, the prosecution's case depended on circumstantial evidence. The critical pieces included the analysis of Hauptmann's handwriting and the ransom notes, also the analysis of a U.S. Forest Service scientist that the wood from the ladder matched boards found in Hauptmann's attic. Together with the ransom money found on the premises, Condon's testimony, and Hauptmann's lack of an alibi, the evidence proved sufficient. On February 13, the jury found Hauptmann guilty and sentenced him to die.

Doubts surfaced regarding the evidence and Hauptmann's guilt immediately following the trial. Because he feared the political rivalry of David Wilentz, the state's attorney who had prosecuted the case, New Jersey's governor played on the popular misgivings regarding Hauptmann's guilt and granted him a stay of execution. Nonetheless, the petitions to commute Hauptmann's death sentence were denied, and he went to electric chair on April 3, 1936, still maintaining his innocence. To this day, some people hold that Hauptmann was the victim of anti-German prejudice. Various theories on who committed the crime—including that there was no kidnapping at all, or that "the mob" did it, or that Anne Lindbergh's sister Elizabeth committed the deed out of jealousy—have been spun over the years. Hauptmann's widow sued the state of New Jersey twice in the 1980s charging her husband's wrongful death, and the trial is re-created annually in the courthouse where it was originally held. On a more substantial note, the case spurred passage of legislation making kidnapping a federal crime. It also marked a new stage in the sensationalization of crime by the nation's media.

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