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The Case that Will not Close

Though in the next days Lindbergh swept up and down the coast by plane neither he nor his cruising friends found any sign of a Boad Nelly. Nor was there any further word from John. Seven weeks later the baby’s rotted body was found in the underbrush about two miles from the Lindbergh house.

On the night the ransom money was passed, Lindbergh had insisted that the police stay clear of the area and not attempt to intervene. Yet, unknown to Lindbergh and Jafsie and contrary to the orders of New York’s police commissioner, a police captain, Richard Oliver, had trailed them to the cemetery, prepared to seize the kidnapper and force him to lead them to the gang’s hide-out. From a hidden nook Oliver observed Jafsie’s meeting with John. If Oliver had acted then, that would have ended any future debate. But at the last minute he hesitated, fearing that such hasty action might doom the baby. So he did nothing.

Two and a half years passed with no trace of the kidnapper. But a few days after the ransom payment one of its twenty-dollar bills surfaced in an upper Manhattan bank. Most of the ransom bills were gold certificates. According to new currency regulations, it would be illegal to hold over a hundred dollars of such certificates after May 1. On that date a man who signed himself J.J. Faulkner exchanged $2,980 in gold certificates at a New York bank. In the rush of transfers it was not noted at the time that this was the ransom money. Both name and address were false. That was the only large ransom transaction. Here and there individual ransom bills cropped up, mostly on the periphery of the Bronx and with increasing frequency in 1934. In September of that year a filling station attendant in upper Manhattan was handed a ten-dollar gold certificate. Suspecting it might be counterfeit, the attendant wrote down the auto’s license number on the edge of the bill. The bill turned out to be ransom money, the auto’s owner a carpenter, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who lived a few miles from the two Bronx cemeteries.

As Hauptmann left his house and drove off on the following morning, the police were waiting for him. They questioned him with some ferocity, and later he was apparently given a third-degree beating. In his wallet they found a twenty-dollar gold certificate with a ransom serial number. The bill had been folded down the middle, then doubled back twice so that when unfolded it showed an eight-square crease. Most of the notes passed in the Bronx had been so folded. Hauptmann explained that, fearing inflation, he had collected gold notes here and there, then decided to get rid of them. This was the last one. He knew nothing about any ransom money. When shown the filling station bill and another ransom certificate used to buy a pair of women’s shoes, he admitted to making both purchases but said he had no idea where the bills had originated. He owned no other money but some gold coins.

A search of the Hauptmann house yielded nothing, but in ransacking the garage the police at length uncovered several bundles of gold notes, all of them ransom money, a total of $13,760. Before confronting Hauptmann, a police inspector asked him if he had any hidden currency. Hauptmann said he did not. The inspector then showed him the bundles, expecting that Hauptmann might perhaps break down. Instead, without losing his composure, he explained that the money belonged to his friend and fur-trading partner Isidor Fisch. Just before Christmas Fisch had gone back to Germany to visit his parents. Before sailing he had left some of his possessions with Hauptmann, among them a shoebox done up with string. Hauptmann had placed the box on a top shelf of the kitchen closet. Two weeks ago a heavy rain had leaked through the ceiling and wetted the box. On taking it out Hauptmann discovered that it contained packages of gold notes, but he knew no more about it than that. He had lied because he was afraid of being prosecuted for possessing illegal notes. Since Fisch had owed him money, he felt he had the right to pay himself back. And that is what he had done. Fisch had died in the spring.

For the police it was a fish story. Long before these last two weeks, Lindbergh money had been circulating in Manhattan and the Bronx. Most of the bills had the eight-square creases of the one found on Hauptmann. As early as the past November the cashier of Loew’s Sheridan Square Theater in Greenwich Village was handed a wadded five-dollar bill with similar creases. It was a ransom bill and the man who passed it merely took his change without going into the theater. Later the cashier would identify Hauptmann as the man. Hauptmann claimed that on that day his wife had given him a birthday party. On the day of the kidnapping he had been working at the Majestic Hotel in Manhattan. He had also been working on Saturday, April 2, when Jafsie passed the ransom money to John, and he had spent the evening with his friend Hans Kloppenburg. Either on that day or the following Monday he had quit his job and had not worked since. Yet, in spite of that, he had continued to live well in those Depression days, paying $360 for a radio, $56 for a hunting rifle, $109 on a canoe, $126 for binoculars, $250 for hunting trips to New Jersey and a drive to Florida, $706 for his wife Anna’s trip to Europe. He had, he said, made money on the stock market. It sounded like another fish story.

Hauptmann was indicted for kidnap-murder and sent to New Jersey for trial. That trial, beginning on January 2, 1935, was of international as well as national concern, for Lindbergh by his solitary flight across the Atlantic had become a Western folk hero. More than seven hundred reporters and journalists gathered for the trial in the rural county seat of Flemington. Every large American newspaper sent on several reporters, and most smaller papers at least one. The Hearst organization sent fifty. Press representatives arrived from a dozen countries, correspondents from Paris-Soir, London’s Daily Mail, Express, Telegraph, Times. Forty telegraph and cable lines ran from the courthouse attic—where dispatchers were wedged elbow to elbow—to Paris, London, Berlin, Rome, Buenos Aires, Sydney. Rival papers competed for writers like Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell, Arthur Brisbane, Alexander Woollcott, Fannie Hurst, the super-sob-sister Adela Rogers St. John. The New York Times engaged Edna Ferber and Kathleen Norris as special correspondents and imported Ford Madox Ford. In their wake came the intrusive celebrities: Believe-It-Or-Not Ripley, Ginger Rogers, Jack Dempsey, Moss Hart, Elsa Maxwell, Jack Dempsey, Moss Hart, Elsa Maxwell, Jack Benny, Lowell Thomas, Clifton Webb, Margaret Bourke-White, Mrs. Ogden Mills with her Rolls-Royce and her Pekingese. The roads to Flemington were clogged with sightseers and would-be sightseers, the known and the unknown, the curious and the morbid, some from as far away as Chicago, sixty thousand on a single day.

The six-week trial became a death’s head carnival, Flemington’s main street clogged with milling sightseers, some holding up their children to catch glimpses of the celebrities as they passed. A lunchroom offered Jafsie chops, Lindbergh steak, Hauptmann beans, Gow goulash, with jury pie for dessert. In the courthouse corridors hawkers peddled miniature kidnap ladders as lapel pins, and a copy boy sold “certified locks of Baby Lindbergh’s hair” at five dollars a lock. Whenever the jury was taken across the street for a meal there were shouts of “Burn the Dutchman!” “Send him to the chair!” Inside the atmosphere of the court was as raffish as the outside. New Jersey’s attorney general had taken over the role of prosecutor—for the glory of it—a man of slikumed hair and double-breasted suits who modeled himself on George Raft and Jimmy Walker and who liked to shake a minatory finger within inches of Hauptmann’s nose while shouting invectives.

The chief defense lawyer, bibulous and eloquent and known as the Bull of Brooklyn, used to fortify himself with three or four orange blossom cocktails before each session. At the trial’s end but before the jury had brought in its verdict, ten thousand people gathered in front of the courthouse chanting “Kill Hauptmann! Kill Hauptmann! Kill Hauptmann!” and a man was cheered as he threw a rock through the fanlight of the courthouse’s portico. Newsmen after sending in their copy gathered evenings in a converted poolroom they called Nelly’s Tap, after a stray dog that had adopted them, and sang ribald variations of the old beer-hall schnitzelbank song:

Ist das nicht ein ransom note?
Ja, das ist ein ransom note.
Ist das nicht ein Nelly Boad?
Ja, das ist ein Nelly Boad,

etc., with new stanzas added every evening.

For two months,” Norman Levy wrote in the American Mercury, “the world went mad and the center of the universe shifted to the sleepy town of Flemington. All sense of proportion and much decency was lost.” Edna Ferber said she felt like resigning from the human race and cabling Hitler, “Well, Butch, you win.” Mencken, a morose spectator, called the trial the biggest story since the Resurrection.

Basically Hauptmann was convicted on three primary pieces of evidence: the ransom money in his house that he had been spending; the handwriting of the kidnap notes; the origin of the wood in the kidnap ladder. That was what the last surviving juror told Ludovic Kennedy in 1982. Hauptmann’s explanation of the money might or might not have been corroborated by Fisch. But Fisch was dead. Eight handwriting experts testified for the prosecution that the kidnap notes had been written by Hauptmann. A wood-identification expert from the United States government explained at great length that one of the ladder rails had been taken from a section of floorboard in Hauptmann’s attic.

During the trial Hauptmann kept his composure, always insisting on his innocence. After eleven hours of deliberation the jury found him guilty, the penalty death. There was little debate in the jury room about his guilt, but five jurors had favored life imprisonment and it took ten hours, while the mob howled outside, to bring them round.

Almost any sensational criminal trial produces its crop of confessions, some by swindlers, some by psychotics. The Lindbergh case was no exception. Most egregious was that of Gaston Means, arch-confidence man of the Harding era, who managed to swindle Evelyn Walsh McLean out of $100,000 by promising to put her in touch with a gang holding the Lindbergh baby, a gang existing solely in his imagination. Of more seeming substance was the confession of a fifty-year-old disbarred lawyer from Trenton, Paul Wendel, that he was the kidnapper. An embezzler, a perjurer, estranged from his family, he had spent equal time in jail and in mental hospitals. Shortly after Hauptmann’s conviction Wendel signed a twenty-three-page confession for Burlington County’s chief detective, Ellis Parker. But on being arrested, Wendel repudiated his confession completely, claiming it had been obtained by force. A grand jury declined to indict him.

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