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The Lindbergh Child Kidnapping Case

Who says that globalisation is a thing of today?
When Baby Charlie Lindbergh jr was kidnapped on the 1st March 1932, all the western world knew it. The abduction and murder of the firstborn child of one of America’s most beloved heroes dominated headlines for months on both sides of the Atlantic and continued to interest people for a few years more.

Like many others, Agatha Christie followed the facts closely. The story made such an impression on her that it became the core of one of her most famous novels: Murder on the Orient Express.

The Lindbergh’s Kidnapping Case Unfolds

Hopewell House

Charles Lindbergh, the first man to cross the Atlantic solo in a plane in 1927, was at the time one of the most famous men in the world. He had married Anne Morrow in 1930 and soon after they had a child, Charles jr.

Looking for some respite from the limelight, the couple had built a 23-room rural mansion in the secluded country location of Hopewell. In 1932 the mansion was still being built, but the family had already established a routine of spending the weekends there and go back to Anne’s parent’s mention in Englewood during the week.

But at the end of February 1932, Charlie caught a cold, so the parents thought it wise not to have him travel back to the city. For the first time, the Lindberghs remained at Hopewell even during the week.

On the evening of 1st March, Charlie’s nurse, Betty Gow, found him missing from his crib at 10pm, several hours after having put him to bed. The house was searched and a ransom note of $ 50,000 (more or less half a million today) was found on the nursery windowsill.

A fevered search started. The Lindberghs’s domestic staff was grilled, but nothing useful emerged. The police found traces of mud in the nursery, footprints and two sections of a ladder – it must have broken while being used to reach the window – outside the house, but no bloodstains or fingerprints.
The case offered so few clues that the police and the family tried any way to find information. The underworld was involved (Al Capone famously offered information in exchange for his freedom from Alcatraz), money rewards were offered, investigators were hired. Nothing happened.
Charles Lindbergh, a powerful man and a strong leader, was immediately very involved in the investigation. Even too much, someone thought (the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police certainly was of this opinion), to the point to try and keep the police out of the entire affair. Besides, he had come in touch with a mysterious man called ‘John’ and for weeks communicated with him via newspaper small ads.

Finally, a retired teacher, 72-year-old Dr John F. Condon, was accepted as a go-between to deliver the ransom. When on 2nd April he met “John” in a cemetery, the Lindberghs were waiting in a car nearby. But the boy wasn’t given over. Dr Condon only received a note claiming Baby Charlie could be found on a boat named Nellie near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. A search failed to find the boat or the boy.

On 12th May, a truck driver found the remains of a child partly buried on the side of a road four miles from Hopewell. The child’s head had been crushed. He had been dead for at least two months. Although very little remained of him after decomposition and the action of wild animals, Charles Lindbergh identified his child.

The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case Is solved

It was after these events that the Congress passed a law that made kidnapping a federal offence, so that future cases may be investigated by the FBI. A hunt for the killer was launch. The Hopewell house staff were once again grilled since many clues seemed to indicate an inside job.

A British servant, Violet Sharpe, appeared nervous during her three boots of questioning. This directed suspicions on her, and the pressure was so strong she ended up taking her life with poison later that year. But further investigations eventually cleared her completely, and the police were blamed for heavy-handedness.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The ransom had been paid to ‘John’ in gold certificates. To make tracing the ownership of these certificates easier, in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that all gold certificates must return to the US Treasury.

In September 1934, an attendant in a New York petrol station, suspecting that a customer was paying him with a forged gold certificate, took down the customer’s registration number. The vehicle was traced back to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a 35-year-old German carpenter from the Bronx. More gold certificates were found in his possession, and his description matched that on ‘John’.

He was arrested and put on trial in New Jersey in January 1935, although he always protested himself to be innocence. But the clues in possession of the police and the fact that Lindbergh recognised his voice as that of ‘John’ on that fatal day of the handing over of the ransom convinced the jury of his guilt.

He died on the electric chair on 3rd April 1936

Or is it?

So was the case closed? It was, for American justice. Not so for the many scholars and historians that have studied the case in the intervening eighty years. Although the case was never reopened, many doubts have been risen about Hauptmann’s guilt.

Bruno Hauptmann

Beyond the ransom money, the case against Hauptmann was thin.
Anna, his wife, did alibi him and forever, until the day she died aged 95 in 1994, she swore her husband picked her up at work as he always did on Tuesdays. Several other witnesses and his work records placed him in New York that day, hours away from Hopewell.
If his description matched that of ‘John’, his profile did not. ‘John’ was described in 1932 during the kidnapping time as an antisocial dissatisfied with his life. Hauptman was happily married, had a son and was perfectly integrated into his German community. True, the ransom money was found in his house, but he claimed it was given to him by a fellow countryman, who was indeed then discovered to be involved in a money-laundering business.
But Hauptmann was an illegal immigrant whose wife didn’t know his first name was Bruno until he was arrested. And there was the fact that Lindbergh, the child’s father and a beloved public figure, recognised him as his child’s kidnapper.

But if not Hauptmann, then who?

Over the years, different theories have taken shape. One of the many placed the gilt on gangs. At that time, gangs routinely kidnapped family members of the rich to then ask for a ransom. The two sections of the ladder found outside the Hopewell home suggested the ladder broke, the kidnapper fell with the child, and the child died that same night.

But other, more sinister theories arose that at the time were never even taken into account.

Lindbergh, father and son

Charles A. Lindbergh

Born in 1902 in Detroit, but raised on a farm in Minnesota, Charles Augustus Lindbergh was the first man to cross the Atlantic solo on a plain. In 1927, as an advertisement stunt, a hotel owner offered a prize to whoever crossed the Atlantic solo, on a plane, without stops. Although many had tried, nothing but failure had ensued.

On the 20th May 1927, 25-year-old Lindbergh, U.S. Air Mail pilot, flew away from Long Island in his single-engine purpose-built Ryan monoplane Spirit of St. Louis. He landed in Paris 33,50 hours later, winning the prize and skyrocketing from virtual obscurity to international world fame.

People adored him. He was young and daring, ambitious and strong-willed… but his personality was a lot darker than people were willing to acknowledge. His character’s flaws were twisted into admirable traits by those who knew him and wrote about him. The cruel behaviour he directed to those he disliked or dominated was often excused as ‘practical jokes’. One of these ‘jokes’ occurred a few days before Baby Charlie was kidnapped: his father locked him into a wardrobe and let the house stuff search for hours before revealing where the kid was hidden.

His well-known obsession for order, routine and privacy would eventually inform his entire life, but, misogynistic as he was, he had numerous illicit love affairs and fathered at least five kids out of wedlock from three different women when he lived in Germany.

His sympathy for the Nazi regime was never proven, though he had words of appreciation for the Nazi organisation and efficiency when he travelled to Germany in the 1930s. Still, in that period he indeed adhered to the growing Scandinavian-German notion about the racial superiority of the Northern Europeans compared to the Southern Europeans and the Asians.

His personality and his beliefs, together with his unparallel popularity, created in him very high self-esteem.

Charles Lindbergh lands in Paris
The Lindbergh Child Kidnapping Case was the core inspiration of #AgathaChristie #MurderontheOrientExpress Share on X

But what about Baby Charlie?
I’m afraid he was far from being the perfect son of a hero.
When Anne was seven-months pregnant with him, she flew with Charles for two weeks in an open cockpit at high altitude. Upon returning, she was hospitalised for four days. When he was born, Charlie was immediately put on a special diet. He appears to have been afflicted with a rickets-like condition that affected the development of strong bones. He required mega doses of vitamin D and daily exposure to sunlamp. He also had hammertoes on his left foot. His head was larger than normal and he had unfused skull bones.
Although everyone tried to hush this down, rumours that something was seriously wrong with the world’s most famous pilot’s child would never subside.

Did Lindbergh kill his own child?

Back in the 1930s, Lindbergh’s popularity was so large, and he was such a beloved hero that nobody ever took into account any sinister possibility concerning him. But in the intervening years, events of that night and the unfolding of the inquiry started to be examined and read in a very different way.

Why that night?

Although the house in Hopewell was not completely built, the Lindberghs had already established a habit of spending the weekends there. They would return to Anne’s parent’s mansion on Mondays and spend the rest of the week there.

When Charlie caught a cold, Lindbergh himself decided not to go back to the city on Monday for the first time ever. Only he, Anne and their house staff knew this. The last-minute decision to stay was unprecedented, and a complete break forms the Lindberghs’ established patterns.

Lindbergh was engaged for a public speech at the New York University, that day. He always loved to speak in public, but that night, he decided to renounce and go back to Hopewell, after telephoning home and instructing not to disturb Charlie in his room until at least 10pm.
Dutifully, Betty the nurse checked on Charlie after 10pm, and she found the crib empty. In the beginning, neither she or Anne worried, because they thought of one of Charles’s notorious ‘pranks’. But when he arrived, Lindbergh answered their questions with, “They have stolen our baby!” and that’s where the kidnapping case was born.

The many questions about ‘them’ – who they were? How did they know which room was Charlie’s? How did they act without anybody hearing any noise – were never fully answered.

Lindbergh took control of the investigation immediately

From the very beginning, Charles Lindbergh took control of the investigation relying more on his solicitor than the police, to the point that, later, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police accused them of disrupting the investigation and even considered charging them with conspiracy.

Lindbergh directed the investigation away from the house from the start. Assuming the New York mafia had taken his son, he contacted gangster Mickey Rossner and gave him a copy of the ransom note to have it circulate in the underworld and see whether any clue could be discovered. It only led to thirteen more ransom notes be delivered at the Lindberghs’.

He refused the help of the FBI, even threatening to shoot anyone who didn’t follow his biding.

Lindbergh was instrumental to the closure of the case

When the body of the baby was found, the coroner hesitated to identify it, since the poor remains were in such bad condition that a certain identification was very hard to do. But Lindbergh stated that was undoubtedly his child… and had the body immediately cremated.

At the Hauptmann trial, despite the several witnesses placing Hauptmann far away from Hopewell that night, Lindbergh identified his voice – which he had heard just once, from over seventy yards away, three years earlier. It was good enough for the jury.

The Armstrong Kidnapping Case

When Agatha Christie wrote her Murder on the Orient Express, the Lindbergh kidnapping case was still opened. Hauptmann had not been found yet, so all possibilities were still fair game.

Many of the circumstances of the Armstrong case in the novel are easily recognisable as matching those of the Lindbergh case. It was – and it still is – a very mysterious case, which would have made for a good mystery novel itself. Christie moved the story in a very different direction… a very interesting, thought-provoking one, making Murder on the Orient Express one of the more unconventional mystery novels ever written.

WAITING FOR THE TRAIN - A series of blog dedicated to Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

The Lindbergh Child Kidnapping Case: The case which inspired Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express
  1. Agatha Christie and the Golden Age of Mystery Novels
  2. The Lindbergh Child Kidnapping Case

RESOURCES

Mirror – The celebrity kidnap that inspired Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express
FBI Famous Cases and Criminals – Charles Lindbergh
Listverse – 10 Little-Known Facts About Lindbergh Kidnapping
Crime Traveller – Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping: Did Charles Lindbergh Kill His Son?
Rutdgers Today – Was the Lindbergh Kidnapping an Inside Job?
History Stories – The Capture of the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapper, 80 Years Ago
NJ – Did Lindbergh Help Plan Son’s Kidnapping?


4 Comments

  • Birgit
    Posted October 31, 2017 at 04:56

    I love the detail you have written here about this case of which I was always intrigued by. My dad was in his 20s at that time and he always said Hauptmann was innocent and that the public was quick to convict because Hauptmann was German. My dad always wondered if Lindbergh had some hand in it but he just talked out loud not knowing any details. I had no idea that Lindbergh was cruel like this placing his child in a closet. I almost wonder if this man could not abide a son of his being in poor health so he did away with him because his image would be harmed in his eyes. He ac5ually sounds narcissistic. I love the movie done in the 70s with Albert Finney as Poirot. I’m looking forward to the new film and hope it will be as good as the original.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted October 31, 2017 at 08:23

      How interesting to hear a first-hand opinion of the facts.
      Reading them today, it’s impossible not to have any doubts. While I researched this, I found people who still defend Lindbergh today. And it’s true, we’ll probably never know what happened, but personally I find many details of that night and the following inquist quite unsettling.

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted October 31, 2017 at 22:31

    This was one of those pivotal cases that really helped to define that era, Sarah. So I’m glad you’ve discussed it in so much detail here. We may never know the exact truth about it, but it’s become iconic, I think. I couldn’t even imagine what the parents must have gone through…

  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted November 2, 2017 at 21:41

    Mother being an adolescent and teen during these years, often spoke of it and found it all so tragic and sad. I suppose there is no way to ever know for a certainty what the truth really is. Great article!

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