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The Case that Will not Close

The Lindbergh Case

by Jim Fisher
Rutgers University Press, 480 pp., $22.95

The trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann in 1935 for the kidnap-murder of Lindbergh’s infant son remains one of the four great American cases of the century, although unlike the other three—those of Sacco and Vanzetti, Alger Hiss, and the Rosenbergs—without political overtones. In all four cases defenders have accused the prosecution of manipulating the evidence, altering or making substitutions of trial exhibits in order to secure a conviction. Such charges are in many instances a last resort for defense lawyers struggling against the weight of contrary evidence, sometimes indeed the only possible defense. In the cases of Sacco and Vanzetti, Hiss, and the Rosenbergs, unless there had been switched bullets, substituted typewriters, forged documents—as claimed by their partisans—Sacco, Hiss, and the Rosenbergs were guilty.

Bruno Hauptmann even before his trial was assumed to be guilty. The tabloids said he was. For the public the guilty verdict was immensely satisfying: justice, and at the same time vengeance. Not until forty-one years after the trial did the first scholastic challenge to the verdict appear with Anthony Scaduto’s Scape-goat. Scaduto argued that Hauptmann was framed by authorities determined to stop at nothing to convict him. The aim of his book is to “set the record straight after some forty years of distortion when those majestic pillars of the law who had once been men…were transformed into mindless avengers for a mindless society.”1

In all the great American cases, revisionism if it comes at all tends to come a generation later. Twenty-one years after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, G. Louis Joughin could still write that “prosecutors, judges and the hostile public majority have not found a single literary defender of their position.”2 Another thirteen years would elapse before such a literary defender emerged in the person of a Boston lawyer, Robert Montgomery, with his trenchant if acerbic Murder and the Myth.3

It took twenty-eight years following Hiss’s 1950 conviction for perjury before Allen Weinstein’s encompassing book on the Hiss case appeared.4 Weinstein writes that he had started out to prove Hiss’s innocence but, as his work progressed, contrary facts overwhelmed him until at last he had to conclude that Hiss was guilty. Much the same thing happened to me in regard to the Sacco-Vanzetti case, at least with regard to Sacco’s guilt.5 Similarly, Ronald Radosh said he started with a belief in the Rosenbergs’ innocence as an article of faith, “always thinking that in the future new evidence might emerge to prove the complicity of the government in a frame-up.” His book, published thirty years after their deaths, is a reversal, a demonstration of their guilt.6

Scaduto’s challenge was carried on five years later by the English author, journalist, and BBC commentator Ludovic Kennedy. In 1981 while on a BBC assignment in New York he happened to see Hauptmann’s widow Anna on the Today show as she passionately defended her husband’s innocence. Her simple sincerity so impressed him that he began a study of the case that would occupy him for the next four years. First he created the television documentary Who Killed the Lindbergh Baby?7 Then after three more years he completed The Airman and the Carpenter,8 with the purpose, he said, of once and for all demolishing the “long-held but demonstrably absurd fiction” that Hauptmann had anything to do with the Lindbergh kidnapping.

Kennedy’s prose tends to be overripe but his credentials are impressive. In England he wrote three books about what he held to be miscarriages of justice. As a result Timothy Evans, hanged for murder, received the queen’s posthumous pardon; Patrick Meehan was freed after serving seven years of a sentence for a murder he did not commit, and subsequently was given $50,000 in compensation; David Cooper and Michael McMahon, also serving life terms for murder, were immediately released after the publication of Kennedy’s book exonerating them.

Among the viewers of Who Killed the Lindbergh Baby? was Jim Fisher, a former FBI agent, later an associate professor of criminal justice at Pennsylvania’s Edinboro University. Until then, with only a casual knowledge of the Lindbergh kidnapping, he had taken Hauptmann’s guilt for granted, chiefly because a noted handwriting expert had testified at the trial that Hauptmann had written the fourteen ransom notes submitted by the prosecution as evidence. Kennedy’s documentary stirred Fisher’s latent interest, set him off on a search that became for him a compulsion, and that four years later resulted in The Lindbergh Case, his revision of the revisionists. He became convinced that the police, in gathering evidence against Hauptmann, conducted an honest and thorough investigation under difficult conditions, that the investigators and the prosecution did not fabricate any evidence, and that Hauptmann received a fair trial. He has gone through thousands of police records, letters, memoirs, logs, and affidavits in the recently opened New Jersey State Police archives, and he has examined hundreds of documents no other researcher has ever studied. His book is the first, he writes, to be based on primary source materials. He concludes:

No one saw Bruno Richard Hauptmann snatch the baby from his crib, and no one, save the killer, witnessed the child’s death. Since Hauptmann didn’t confess, it will never be known exactly how and when the baby died. But in my opinion, based upon my understanding of Hauptmann’s criminal record and personality as well as other evidence I have encountered, he murdered the baby in cold blood for the money.

This, twenty-six years earlier, was the more muted conclusion of George Waller in his extended, almost day-by-day account of events from the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping to Hauptmann’s execution. Waller had concerned himself with the case for a quarter of a century, and when his Kidnap9 finally appeared it seemed the definitive history.

The crime itself for all its grimness was a plain kidnapping that would have stirred up, little more than local interest but for the Lindbergh legend. On the early evening of Tuesday, March 1, 1932, Anne Lindbergh, with the help of the nursemaid Betty Gow, had put her twenty-month-old Charles to bed in the nursery of the Lindbergh’s newly finished house in the remote Sourland Hills region of New Jersey. Still in the process of getting settled, the Lindberghs lived there only on weekends, spending the rest of the week at the Morrow estate of Anne’s mother. But because the baby had a cold, they had stayed on into this week.

Betty Gow waited alone until the baby fell asleep. Then about eight o’clock she fastened the shutters of two of the windows before leaving. The shutter of the third window was too warped to fasten. A half hour later Lindbergh returned from New York. He noticed nothing out of the way. After dinner he sat talking with his wife in the living room. Suddenly outside he heard a sound of breaking wood. It was a windy night; he thought a tree branch might have splintered. He paid no attention. Leaving his wife he went to the library just under the nursery, the uncurtained windows giving a clear view of the night. Any outside movement would have drawn his attention at once.

At ten Betty Gow stepped into the nursery to take the baby on a final trip to the bathroom. The crib was empty. She called out in alarm. Hurrying in, Lindbergh and his wife were horrified at the sight. “Anne,” he said slowly, “they have stolen our baby!”

On the windowsill of the third window was a white envelope. Lindbergh kept from touching it until the police arrived. It contained a ransom note, obviously written by someone whose first language was German, for some of the letters were fraktur and “gute” was used for “good.” The note demanded “50000$ ready” and promised to set up a rendezvous “after 2-4 days.” It concluded: “Indication for all letters are singnature and three holds.” The “singnature” was of two intersecting circles, the oval intersection colored red, and three holes in the paper.

Below the warped window the police found marks in the earth where a ladder had rested, and eighty feet from the house they came across a crudely built three-piece extension ladder. The ladder was badly split at the top rung of the lower extension. Obviously that had caused the breaking sound Lindbergh had heard. To the police it seemed there must have been two or more kidnappers. No one man, they thought, could have climbed up the flimsy ladder alone, then backed his way down carrying a thirty-pound infant. Equally suspicious was the timing. Only someone who knew the region, knew the layout of the house, knew the Lindberghs’ habits and the unadvertised fact that Tuesday was the first week night the Lindberghs had yet spent in the house, only such a person or persons could have carried out the kidnapping. The police speculated that one of the Lindbergh or Morrow servants might have tipped off the kidnappers.

Five days later Lindbergh received a second kidnap note with the same “singnature,” warning him away from the police and saying that he would be informed later about delivering the ransom money. The baby was in “gut health.” At this point, in a welter of police activities, an elderly Bronx eccentric, Dr. John F. Condon, a retired elementary schoolteacher with a doctor of pedagogy degree from New York University, intruded into the case to make himself, under the code name of “Jafsie,” one of its more lurid figures. He had long been in the habit of writing hortatory letters to the Bronx Home News, using purple ink of his own manufacture and signing them J.U. Stice, P.A. Triot, L.O. Nehand. He now sent an open letter to the Home News offering himself as an intermediary in the Lindbergh kidnapping. With the news of the kidnapping spread in headlines across the country, it seemed a footling gesture. Yet for all its fatuity it brought Jafsie into almost immediate contact with the kidnapper. Within two days he received a letter accepting him as a go-between and enclosing a note to Lindbergh advising that “affter we have the mony in hand we will tell you where to find your boy.” Underneath was the double-circle “singnature.”

With Lindbergh’s authorization Jafsie kept contact, finally arranging to meet a kidnap agent after dark at the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery. The man who emerged from among the tombstones and whom Jafsie was to call John said he belonged to a gang of four men and two women holding the boy somewhere on a boat. He and Jafsie discussed the baby’s return for about an hour. As a sign of good faith John promised to mail him the baby’s sleeping garment, but said that at their next and final meeting Jafsie must come alone and bring the money.

At that second meeting, this time at St. Raymond’s Cemetery, Jafsie took Lindbergh but had him wait in the car while he walked some two hundred yards along the cemetery wall. At first nothing. Then a voice called out, “Hey, Doc!” a voice Lindbergh could hear. John then appeared, and Jafsie handed him a wooden box containing $50,000 in five-, ten-, and twenty-dollar bills. In exchange John gave him a sealed note, warning him not to open it for six hours. A mile down the road Lindbergh and Condon did open it in spite of the warning. It read: “The boy is on Boad Nelly. It is a small boad 28 feet long. Two persons are on the boad. They are innosent. you will find the Boad between Horseneck Beach and gay Head near Elizabeth Island.”

  1. 1

    Scapegoat: The Lonesome Death of Bruno Richard Hauptmann (Putnam, 1976), p.x.

  2. 2

    G. Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan, The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti (Harcourt, Brace, 1948), p. 511.

  3. 3

    Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth (Devin-Adair, 1961).

  4. 4

    Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (Knopf, 1978).

  5. 5

    Tragedy in Dedham: The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case (McGraw-Hill, 1962).

  6. 6

    Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983), p. x.

  7. 7

    Kennedy’s documentary was shown on the BBC and, in the US, on PBS, in 1982.

  8. 8

    Viking, 1985.

  9. 9

    Kidnap: The Story of the Lindbergh Case (Dial, 1961).

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