Today in 1932, Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s 20-month old son, Charles Lindbergh III, was kidnapped from the family’s home in Hopewell, New Jersey. The ensuing months became a strange tale of con men, mob figures, ransom notes, and other details more numerous than can be covered in one short podcast. Because of this event, a German immigrant would go to the electric chair, kidnapping would become a federal crime in the United States, and a nation would become enthralled in an event so heavily reported that writer H.L. Mencken dubbed it “the biggest story since the resurrection.”
The Lindbergh baby, as the couple’s son came to be known, went missing on the evening of March 1st when the family’s nanny found the child missing at 10pm. Charles Lindbergh immediately searched the house and the surrounding grounds, which led to the discovery of a ladder on the ground below the nursery’s second floor window. He also discovered a letter on the windowsill, but did not open it in the hopes that it might contain fingerprints of the kidnapper.
The local police soon arrived and were followed by the New Jersey State Police. It was at this early hour that the investigation began to break down. None of the property was marked off, meaning that policemen and reporters were soon walking in areas that potentially contained clues of the child’s disappearance. No fingerprint evidence was found on the ransom envelope; when it was opened, a poorly written note demanded $50,000 and said that instructions for delivery would be sent in 4-5 days. The note also demanded that the police not become involved.
Lindbergh’s concern for his son’s safety lead him to make many rash decisions and follow many leads without telling the police or, later, the FBI. His advisors initially told him that the Mafia had been involved in the kidnapping, so he contacted two speakeasy owners who were reputed to have mob ties. They turned out to also be working for a New York newspaper, who bought a copy of the ransom note from them. The distinct markings on the note were soon common knowledge, meaning that anyone now had the ability to pose as the kidnapper.
The Lindberghs eventually came to trust a man named John Condon, who became the go-between for the family and the kidnappers. On April 1, Condon received a letter claiming that the kidnappers were ready to receive their payment, but that the ransom was now $70,000 since the police were involved. The ransom was delivered to a cemetary by Condon and Lindbergh, who were given a note claiming that the child was being held aboard a boat named The Nelly in Martha’s Vineyard. No such boat existed. The Lindberghs had been fooled.
Six weeks later, the body of a toddler was found in the woods about five miles from the Lindbergh home. It was immediately identified by the Lindbergh and the child’s nanny as, indeed, being that of Charles Lindbergh III. However, the body was badly decomposed and even the child’s physician later said that there was no way he could have identified the child beyond a certainty.
With their child supposedly dead, the Lindbergh’s only hope was to catch his killer. They hoped to do this by use of the ransom money, which was composed of marked bills and gold certificates. Their serial numbers had been sent around to any public place in the area where they might turn up. On September 18, 1934, an alert gas station attendant found one of the bills mixed in with others that a customer had used to buy gas. He wrote down the license plate number of the car and called the police. This soon led to the arrest of a German immigrant, Bruno Hauptmann.
A search of Hauptmann’s home turned up $15,000 of the ransom money. As with the Lindbergh home two years earlier, the house was not secured and reporters roamed the place freely. Hauptmann was arrested and charged with kidnapping and murder. The trial was held in Flemington, New Jersey, a small town that was soon overrun with reporters and the curious. Unable to afford an attorney, a British newspaper hired one for him---a man named Edward J. Reilly. People who knew him called him “Deathhouse Riley” because so many of his clients ended up on death row.
Between his incompetent defense team and public pressure, Hauptmann never stood a chance. Despite a lack of certain proof, Hauptmann was convicted of the crimes and was sentenced to death. His appeals process netted the same outcome, except for the fact that the Governor of New Jersey at that time actually intervened on the man’s behalf to no avail.
Bruno Hauptmann was executed on April 3, 1936. The Lindbergh family donated their New Jersey estate to charity and moved to Europe to escape the media spotlight. Soon after and probably because of the Lindbergh kidnapping, the United States soon made kidnapping a federal crime. It remains so to this day.