The Lindbergh Kidnapping Suspect No. 1 --The Man Who Got Away
This book is dedicated to Anna Schoeffler Hauptmann (1898-1994) who, in utter disbelief at the American justice system, lived through the prolonged nightmare of her husband’s sensationalized arrest in September 1934 as the most hated man in America, his murder trial four months later, and execution in April 1936. She spent the rest of her long life fighting to prove the truth of his alibi: that Bruno Richard Hauptmann could not have committed the kidnap/murder of the only son of America’s hero on the evening of March 1, 1932 in central New Jersey because her Richard was picking her up from work at a Bronx bakery when the crime occurred, as he always did then on Tuesday nights.
Despite all obstacles, nevertheless she persisted -- and convinced a growing number of people, including both crime reporter Anthony Scaduto and investigative journalist Ludovic Kennedy, of the righteousness of her cause. Without Anna Hauptmann’s dogged determination, the government documents her lawyers uncovered through the Freedom of information Act, the expert assistance they obtained, and the interviews of aged participants and sleuthing by Scaduto and Kennedy, much of the information relied on in this book would have been lost to history. Hats off as well to New Jersey Governor Harold Hoffman whose thwarted efforts to reinvestigate “the crime of the century” likely cost him his reelection but provided historians with a gold mine of clues.
One drizzly Thursday afternoon in mid-May 1932, a truck driver on his way along a back road in central New Jersey pulled over at a remote location so he could relieve himself in the woods. Moments later, as the middle-aged African American stood under a tree branch, he stepped on something and started to kick it away. When he looked down, it startled him to see the foot of a small child sticking out of some leaves. He noticed the head face down in a hollow under the tree. The back of its skull had only a small bit of decayed skin on it and tufts of dirty blond hair partly washed by the ongoing light rain.
The driver called to his white co-worker to get out of the truck and come see. The body was missing both hands, one forearm and a leg below the knee. Though its chest was covered in a T-shirt, its lower torso and limbs were largely skeletal. Its sex could not be determined. The driver speculated that the rest of the body had "either decomposed or had been eaten by animals." This could well be the missing Lindbergh baby, the subject of an intense nationwide manhunt for nearly two and-a-half months, found dead less than .five miles from home. The two men then sped off to track down the local constable .
* * *
I began researching the Lindbergh baby kidnap/murder case when I started writing my first legal history book after I retired as a judge. The case became one of the chapters in my 2012 book, The Sky's the Limit: People v. Newton, the REAL Trial of the 20th Century? which compared the political and social significance of headline trials from 1900 to 1999 to that of a landmark 1968 death penalty trial. I also included the Lindbergh trial as a chapter in a follow-up book in 2017, With Justice for Some: Politically Charged Criminal Trials of the Early Twentieth Century That Helped Shape Today's America, which put famous criminal trials from 1900 through the Depression years in a different perspective - as a cultural backdrop to the divisive xenophobic, racial and ethnic issues we face as a nation today.
The Lindbergh "crime of the century" was an easy choice to include in both books. Among more than a dozen famous cases from 1900 to the Depression that were on every expert's list as a candidate for "the" trial of the century, the Lindbergh case mesmerized the widest audience. Record numbers of people followed its every twist and turn on radio, in newspapers and magazines and gatherings outside the hundred-year-old courthouse in the small town of Flemington, New Jersey. Its extraordinary saturation of news outlets rivaled the ubiquitous coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial in the 1990s.
Law Professor Gerald Uelmen was a member of Simpson's Dream Team. In his book Lessons from the Trial: The People v. O. J. Simpson, Uelmen observed a key feature of all the spellbinding trials in our nation's history: "The most remarkable aspect of every 'trial of the century' . . . has been the insight it provides into the tenor of the times in which it occurred. It is as though each of these trials was responding to some public appetite or civic need of the era in which it took place."
The Lindbergh kidnap/ murder took place during the height of the Depression. The context included a sharp rise in xenophobia in a national political environment dominated by white supremacists and social Darwinists, who feared the degradation of their race by an influx of immigrants. All of these factors figured in how that case played out. But most importantly, the case involved the world's first flying hero - a real-life Nordic demi-god - eleven years before Superman first appeared in the comics.
When police investigate various suspects, they generally consider motive, opportunity and means as well as later conduct demonstrating consciousness of guilt. Yet in the Lindbergh kidnapping case, the police only applied those criteria selectively and left many people questioning why they switched from blaming a professional gang with inside help to pinning the kidnap/murder on an accused lone actor. After German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann was tried and executed, questions still lingered about Hauptmann's guilt or innocence, and what other persons might have been involved. Investigators also noted Lindbergh's odd behavior in the wake of the crime - conduct which either intentionally or negligently obstructed the police investigation.
Near the end of World War II, British military historian B. H. Liddell Hart invited his readers to open their minds to face facts that might be disquieting: "Nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils that result from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance."
One key suspect the police focused on the day after the abduction was originally labeled by the FBI "UNKNOWN PERSON NO. 1 (Man with Ladder Near Lindbergh Home)." For shorthand, let us call him "Suspect No. l" - a slim, unidentified man with what appeared to be "a thin face and long features." The man seemed American, not foreign, and wore a city dweller's stylish winter coat and fedora. He was seen at dusk with a sectional ladder in his car at the entrance to the Lindberghs' driveway. The police completely ignored one insider fitting that description who likely had both motive and opportunity. Instead, they bowed to prestige and political power and let control of the investigation be taken from them.
In this book, I take advantage of the distance in time to treat the boy's father as a potential suspect in his kidnap and murder; like all the others on the list, a fallible human being, not a demi-god. What impact did it have on the investigation to have the Governor of New Jersey assure Charles Lindbergh that he had full authority to direct the state police investigating a crime committed in his home?
Today, we have both the benefit of insights provided by previous scholars and sleuths, as well as a treasure trove of evidentiary puzzle pieces whose significance has been unrecognized until now. I invite you to join me in focusing on a key question police never pursued back in the spring of 1932 - was international hero Charles Lindbergh himself Suspect No. 1, the man who got away? Judge for yourself.
SCOTTISH nanny Betty Gow headed upstairs to the nursery on March 1, 1932, just before 10 p.m. to wake her twenty-month-old charge from his two-hour nap. Her routine at that hour started with taking him to the potty. Then Betty Gow would get him a snack and put him back in his crib for the night with his favorite stuffed animal. Sometimes his mother joined the nanny in this last trip of the day to the nursery. That Tuesday, when both of them had prepared the boy at 7 p.m. for his evening nap, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. But at 10 p.m. life in the Lindbergh household would erupt in chaos and never again be the same.
The twenty-eight-year-old nanny had been working for a year caring for the first-born son of American superstar Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The little boy was the namesake of his famous father. Everyone in America, and most places around the world, knew Lindbergh's story by then - Minnesota farm boy turned fearless pilot. Heavily discounted as an amateur underdog in the death-defying race to complete the first nonstop intercontinental flight over the Atlantic, he outperformed the seasoned experts and accomplished the dangerous crossing before anyone else. His feat in late May 1927 heralded the dawn of a new era. After his solo transatlantic flight, Lindbergh was the object of idol worship of unprecedented dimensions, including frequent newsreel coverage of his flying exploits and his handsome likeness seen everywhere in America on envelopes. The image of his plane, "The Spirit of St. Louis," adorned air mail stamps.
Anything about Lindbergh was guaranteed to attract millions of readers, moviegoers and radio fans. When contemplating marriage in the fall of 1927, Lindbergh focused on the main lesson he had learned as a farmer. Being in his estimation one of the healthiest, most robust of studs, he wanted to pair himself with a woman capable of producing a dozen superior children. Yet, from the day in late December of 1927 that Lindbergh met Ambassador Dwight Morrow's two oldest daughters, the one he found by far the most alluring was Elisabeth. Her health would not have been up to his plan even had she welcomed his courtship. With Elisabeth in Europe in September 1928, and Anne totally enamored with him, Lindbergh wooed Anne instead.
When the couple married in 1929, press gathered outside Anne's father's mansion. The couple were clearly America's royalty, and Anne's first pregnancy became a national fixation. She spent most of the last two months in seclusion at her parents' estate. Her father was then ending his third year as Ambassador to Mexico. One of the prime movers and shakers in the Republican Party, in 1930 Dwight Morrow would be chosen to serve in a vacant Senate seat. As they awaited the baby's birth, publishers eager for a scoop were willing to pay $2000 (over $29,000 today) to any reliable source of information about the childbirth.
The baby was born on Anne's 24th birthday, June 22, 1930. The Lindberghs had already decided on a male heir's name: Charles Augustus, Jr. Counting on his superior genes, the father had the highest expectations for Little Charlie. Lindbergh jealously guarded their son's privacy but keeping the press at arm's length proved difficult. As soon as word got out the telegraph wires went crazy. Congratulatory messages deluged the Morrows' Englewood home, including some from heads of state. The note from Surgeon General Hugh Cumming expressed a sentiment many millions of people around the globe undoubtedly shared - a wish that the Lindberghs' son "may have as useful a life as his father."
Visitors thronged their front gate. More presents piled up in the mansion than they could possibly use. When the press received no pictures of the newborn, rumors circulated that the boy was horribly deformed from prenatal exposure to noxious fumes. To reassure the public, Lindbergh took a few photos of his curly-haired son and distributed them to the press. That only made them impatient for more. Very few would be shared after Charlie's first birthday.
The Lindberghs soon began searching for a remote location for the home they planned to build for themselves. After spending the first year of their marriage largely living out of suitcases, Anne told her family that she would be happy to be far from humanity where her husband could get back to his farming roots to relax. After conducting an aerial tour of central New Jersey, Lindbergh chose hilly acreage outside the small town of Hopewell in the densely wooded area of Mercer and Hunterdon counties that locals called "The Sourlands."
Though not far from Princeton University and trains to Manhattan, there were only three other houses within a mile of the nearly 400- acre tract. The area was "sparsely inhabited, difficult of access, thickly wooded and clogged with underbrush and ... practically without orga nized police protection." The terrain was "almost inaccessible without a native guide." The town of Hopewell, more than three miles away, had just nine hundred permanent residents.
That fateful Tuesday night of March 1, 1932, Lindbergh was scheduled to be one of two widely advertised guests of honor at a gala in the Waldorf Astoria celebrating the hundredth anniversary of New York University. The planners panicked when he turned out to be a no show. Instead, he arrived at his New Jersey farmhouse late for dinner after having been gone since Monday morning. Anne was waiting for him at her desk in the living room, apparently unaware of the conflict in his schedule which Lindbergh would attribute to a calendaring error.
At about 8:30 p.m. the couple were served a hearty meal in the adjacent dining room by Phoebe "Elsie" Whateley and her husband Aloysius "Olly" Whateley, the only two other members of the Lindberghs' household staff besides nanny Betty Gow. At around 9 p.m. the Lindberghs headed briefly to the living room and then upstairs to the master bedroom. Neither then checked on their son in the nursery connected to their bedroom by the master bath.
Just before 10 p.m. Betty ended her visit with Elsie in the Whateleys' apartment over the garage and returned to the nursery. The lights in the nursery were off as Betty had left them just before 8 p.m. When she neared the crib, she was surprised not to hear the toddler breathing. She felt around the crib in the dark and found no child under the blanket, which was still pinned to the sheets as she had left it two hours earlier.
Betty immediately checked with Anne to see if she had Little Charlie with her, but Anne said, "No, maybe the Colonel has him." Colonel was the honorary title awarded to Charles Lindbergh by the government after his historic flight. Anne ran into the nursery and saw the crib was empty. By then Lindbergh was downstairs again in his study. Anne called down to her husband and chided him for taking the toddler when he knew Charlie had a cold.
Betty descended to the study to implore Lindbergh to confess if he was pulling another one of his famous practical jokes. When she reached Lindbergh, he was reading at his desk next to one of two study windows that faced east. The absence of drapes put the lighted room in sharp contrast to the deep black night. In response to Betty's anxious question, Lindbergh exclaimed: "The baby? Isn't he in his crib?" He bounded so precipitously up the stairs, he now had her quite scared. Lindbergh took a quick look in the nursery and rushed through the master bath to his bedroom. There Anne confronted him again, "Do you have the baby, Charles?" Anne vividly recalled him turning away. Biographer Susan Hertog would later report, "The silence confirmed her worst fears."
Lindbergh immediately grabbed his rifle from his bedroom closet. On his way out, he turned to his wife and said, "Anne, they have stolen our baby." Kidnapping of wealthy people's children for ransom was an all-too-common occurrence during the Depression. He then asked his wife to fetch Olly Whateley while Betty ran to tell Elsie that Charlie was gone. Elsie bounded up the other set of stairs by the kitchen to see what happened and found Anne in the nursery, still in her dressing gown, looking dazed. Elsie accompanied Anne back to her bedroom to change. Anne then opened a bedroom window and stuck her head out. She thought she heard a baby's cry, but decided it was probably the howling wind.
Elsie and Anne then joined Betty in the nursery with its light on to check under furniture and in every cabinet, closet and drawer where the toddler could possibly hide - to no avail. Nothing seemed amiss. As Anne knew, on Sunday afternoon the little boy had been left for a time to play by himself in the nursery. When he seemed too quiet, family friend Aida Breckinridge had gone upstairs to check on him and found Charlie had gotten out of the nursery into the bathroom at the end of the hall. She caught him in the act of pulling toilet paper from its roll and tossing it into the bowl. He squealed and raced back to his room.
Betty Gow said it was about quarter after ten when the two men rejoined the women and reported back no sign of the child: "We all searched all around the house, the closets and drawers in the cellar and attic and everywhere. ... When we couldn't find the baby in the house the Colonel told Whateley to call the police." The alarm went out on the wire immediately:
COLONEL LINDBERGH'S BABY WAS KIDNAPPED FROM LINDBERGH'S HOME IN HOPEWELL, NJ SOMETIME BETWEEN 7:30 PM AND 10:00 PM THIS DATE. BABY IS 19 MONTHS OLD AND A BOY IS DRESSED IN SLEEPING SUIT REQUEST THAT ALL CARS BE INVESTIGATED BY POLICE PATROL. AUTHORITY STATE POLICE TRENTON NJ.