Most kidnapping tales follow pretty much the same plot:
- Someone gets kidnapped
- A ransom is demanded
- If the ransom is paid, the person gets recovered. If not...
However, the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping was not your average tale. Due to the high profile of the victims, the unusual circumstances surrounding the crime, the poor detective work and a bizarre hoax some weeks before, the kidnapping has passed into the realm of American myths alongside Elvis and UFO sightings.
Background and the Crime
Charles A Lindbergh was born in Detroit, Michigan, USA, on 4 February, 1902, the son of a Swedish emigrant and US Congressman. He trained as a pilot with the United States Army Air Service and in 1925 started flying with the US Air Mail. On 20 May, 1927 Lindbergh became a world hero as the first aviator to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in a solo flight. He became the most recognised man the world over. Only five years later his life would become a public tragedy when his 20-month-old son Charles Jr disappeared from his crib.
Some weeks before the crime, Lindbergh staged his own kidnapping of his son, a cruel joke he played on his wife, Anne Lindbergh. This set the tone for some of the hoax theories surrounding the subsequent true kidnapping.
On a rainy Thursday night, 1 March, 1932, an unknown person placed a home-made ladder against the nursery wall of the Lindbergh's residence in Hopewell, New Jersey and took Charles Jr from his bed. The child's absence was discovered and reported to his parents at approximately 10pm by the child's nurse, Betty Gow. A ransom note was found on the windowsill and traces of mud were found on the floor. During and since the trials, much has been made of the fact that the nursemaid had not heard or seen anything that night, nor had the household's highly-excitable dog barked.
The Ransom Demand
Although the first ransom note, full of spelling errors, warned the family not to go to the police, they were duly called in to investigate and the newspapers soon splashed the sensational news over their front pages.
Another chilling, poorly-written, missive, the second of 13 ransom notes, warned the family again:
Dear Sir. We have warned you note to make anything public also notify the police now you have to take consequences - means we will have to hold the baby until everything is quite. We can note make any appointments just now. We know very well what it means to us. It is really necessary to make a world affair out of this, or to get your baby back as soon as possible to settle those affair in a quick way will be better for both - don't be afraid about the baby - keeping care of us day and night. We also will feed him according to the diet.
We are interested to send him back in gut health. And ransom was made aus for $50000 but now we have to take another person to it and probably have to keep the baby for a longer time as we expected. So the amount will be $70000 $20000 in $50 bills $25000 in $20 bill $15000 in $10 bills and $10000 in $5 bills Don't mark any bills or take them from one serial number. We will form you latter were to deliver the money. But we will note do so until the Police is out of the case and the papers are quite. The kidnapping we prepared in years so we are prepared for everything.
Ransom Paid, Body Discovered
The Lindbergh's paid a ransom of $50,000 in gold certificates. Despite this, a truck driver discovered the decomposed body of a child several months later about two miles from the family home. It was determined a blow to the head was the cause of death. The body was identified as the Lindbergh's son through a birth defect affecting one of the child's feet. Lindbergh ordered the body cremated, without a full autopsy. He later scattered the ashes of his son from his aeroplane.
The Capture and Trial
Following a two-year manhunt, illegal immigrant and convicted criminal, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a 35-year-old German carpenter who had been in America for approximately 11 years, was arrested. A $20 gold ransom certificate was found on his person and over $13,000 of the Lindbergh ransom money was discovered hidden in his garage.
The ensuring trial lasted only five weeks. Commentary of the time focused on the trial as a witchhunt, with the unfortunate Hauptmann convicted on flimsy evidence amid a lot of bias surrounding his German origins. Lindbergh himself told the court he had heard Hauptmann say several words at his house, although at the time the airman was elsewhere. Though Hauptmann denied all involvement, he was convicted and executed for the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.
Was it a Hoax?
The high profile of the victims ensured controversy surrounding this case has never died down. Several propositions have emerged to support the conspiracy theory that the kidnapping was a hoax:
People Claiming to be the Lindbergh Baby
Ever since the trial, people have come forward to stake a claim on the Lindbergh fortune. Three of the claimants Harold Olson, Charles A Lindbergh III, and Geneva Cato Fields, have the strongest cases. Their claims are based on physical appearance backed up by 'recovered memories' and the testimony of supporters.
In particular, Charles A Lindbergh III, his legal name since 1985, refuted history's reports of his death. He asserts he wasn't carried through his nursery window and down the ladder. He thinks the Lindbergh's nursemaid, Betty Gow, was a party to the kidnapping and that she carried the 20-month-old child down the main staircase and handed him over to 'a man with a moustache and a woman'. His 'recovered memory' emerged during hypnosis, and he subsequently passed polygraph tests. He also points to surgery done on his foot, indicating a defect which led to the identification of the Lindbergh baby's body all those years ago.
Poor Evidence Gathering
People who witnessed the trials have asserted the evidence gathered against Hauptmann was sketchy at best, and that bureaucrats and police alike were under political pressure to make a conviction. Fingerprints lifted from the child's toys were misplaced and then 'found' later on. Police trampled footprints that might have provided important evidence at the house. Many say sloppy evidence gathering during the case will mean the world will never know whether an innocent man was put to death. Because the alleged body of the Lindbergh baby was cremated, DNA testing, which was not available at the time, cannot help modern-day investigations.
At the time the baby went missing Lindbergh, through his aviation feats, was the most famous person in the world. Those who witnessed the trials have said the jury was held in his thrall as he gave evidence that he had heard Hauptmann's voice at the house, even though he was elsewhere at the time. Reportedly, cross examination was also rudimentary. Other serious allegations were made about Lindbergh following his death - that he was a Nazi sympathiser and anti-Semitic. His family have never commented on these allegations.
Lindbergh's Own Staged Kidnapping
The fact that Lindbergh had already played a trick on his wife during the weeks preceding the debacle has led some conspiracy theorists to imagine Lindbergh himself doing the same thing again. They believe the baby died, perhaps as a result of an accident or mistreatment, and the family made the second kidnapping story up so covering their actions.
We will never know.