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The Case that Will not Close

Forty years later Wendel’s confession was to provide the impetus for Scaduto’s book. In 1973 Scaduto had received a letter from one Murray Bleefeld offering to give him the true story of the Lindbergh case. Hauptmann, he wrote, was innocent and Bleefeld wanted to write a book about it. Subsequently Scaduto had a number of talks with him, though what Bleefeld told him did not vary greatly from Wendel’s original confession. According to Bleefeld, Ellis Parker had known Wendel and later came to suspect him of being involved in the kidnapping. He engaged Bleefeld and three others—including his own son—to kidnap Wendel, secrete him in a house in Brooklyn, and try to induce him to talk.

After a few days Wendel broke down. He now admitted he had been the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby. He had watched the Lindbergh house for months through binoculars. He had built the ladder from wood left over from a repaired church. He had carried out the kidnapping alone. After he had climbed into the nursery and found the baby asleep, he had rubbed its lips with paregoric, then placed the sleeping child in a laundry bag, walked down the hall stairs and out the door. He had then taken the baby to Trenton, where his wife and daughter had looked after it. A week later the baby had died from a fall and he had left the body where it was later found. He had written the ransom notes. He knew German. He had taken the money from Jafsie in the cemetery. That money he had given to Isidor Fisch, a former client of his with underworld connections who knew how to dispose of “hot money.” But when Fisch realized he had been given ransom money he kept it, telling Wendel—in Bleefeld’s words—“Get lost!” Before sailing for Germany Fisch put the money in a box and left it with his friend Hauptmann. Hauptmann was just “a poor dope” who knew nothing about any ransom.

Bleefeld, of course, hoped to cash in on his story. Yet but for him Scaduto would not have been impelled to write Scapegoat, which he dedicated to Hauptmann’s memory. Both he and Ludovic Kennedy had formed their conclusions in advance and worked backward. For them Hauptmann had to be innocent. Facts that suggested otherwise could and must be explained away. The ladder? A fake concocted by the New Jersey state police. The prosecution’s handwriting experts? Mistaken. Kennedy in an appendix to The Airman and the Carpenter cites extracts from the report of a British handwriting expert, Gunter Haas, who examined the ransom notes in 1983 and stated that in his opinion “the ransom letters were not written by Hauptmann.” Scaduto accuses the police of rigging the evidence and concocting a completely fraudulent case against Hauptmann because of the public demand for his conviction. This is also Kennedy’s thesis, although he dismisses Wendel’s confession in three paragraphs.

If Hauptmann is eliminated, Kennedy asks, who then was the real murderer? He admits that he does not know. All he is prepared to say is that the great mass of evidence against Hauptmann was engineered. “Belief in Hauptmann’s guilt or innocence,” he writes, “depends entirely on one’s view of why he hid the money in his garage. Everything else flows from that.”

Kennedy’s belief was fixed from the start. Jim Fisher started with no fixed beliefs but rather with the intent of finding out what happened. “I began my research without prejudice,” he writes. “My conclusions, and the conclusions to which the narrative leads, are the logical ends of an investigation untarnished by preconceived notions.” This gives him the advantage of being able to explore as well as to explain. I find his explanations on the three primary points more logical than those of the Hauptmann advocates. The defense’s sole handwriting expert testified that Hauptmann had not written the ransom notes. Before the trial, according to Fisher, Hauptmann’s interim lawyer had tried to engage two additional experts, a Newark documents examiner and a handwriting expert of the United States Treasury Department. But both these men on examining the notes declared that Hauptmann had indeed written them. Scaduto indicates that the ransom bill found in Hauptmann’s wallet on his arrest had not been folded. Fisher quotes the official Lindbergh archivist as saying “emphatically” in 1982 that the bill was folded just like the one passed in the Greenwich Village theater.

Fisher’s straightforward account cuts through the accusation of Scaduto and Kennedy that the ladder evidence was rigged. After Hauptmann’s arrest state police and detectives had searched his house for further ransom money. New Jersey State Detective Lewis Bornmann while going through the unfinished attic happened to notice that an end floor-board had a third of its length cut away, exposing the joists underneath. One of the kidnap ladder’s rails had been made from a used piece of board with four nail holes at the top, and on his second visit to the attic it suddenly occurred to Bornmann that the missing floorboard segment might have been used in the ladder. When he returned he brought the rail with him. With him also was the wood-identification expert who would later testify at the trial. Bornmann, on laying down the rail in the gap where the board had been cut away, discovered that the four nail holes corresponded exactly with four nail holes in the joist underneath. After examining the two board segments, the expert said—and would say again in court—that, in spite of a few inches having been sawed off the rail’s base, it and the adjoining segment had once been a single board.

For Scaduto and Kennedy the rail offered as evidence is a malicious deception. As they see it, Bornmann himself secretly sawed off the board length, threw it away, and then used the rail holes as guides to hammer holes into the joist. Yet subsequently Bornmann had a long and honorable career as a detective. In 1962 he defended his role in the Lindbergh case in a PBS documentary. A year later a tape recording was made of his interview with the Lindbergh archivist. For Fisher both statements have the ring of outraged honesty.

If I had only one book to read on the Lindbergh case I should, faute de mieux, choose Fisher’s. It is balanced, impartial, and contains much material not to be found elsewhere. But in trying to avoid what he calls “a dry academic analysis of the case,” he has used “narrative techniques and dialogue.” In other words, though based on documentary fact, the dialogue of The Lindbergh Case is fiction. Inevitably this casts a shadow on the book’s authenticity.

There is no complete book on the case, there are no complete facts. No matter what one reads, what position one takes, the enigma remains. Was Hauptmann guilty? The defense lawyer in his summing up accused some of the Lindbergh and Morrow servants of having collaborated in the kidnapping, with Isidor Fisch as the real Bronx agent. He pointed out that Violet Sharpe, who worked as a maid for the Morrows, had taken poison after being questioned by the police. “Colonel Lindbergh,” he concluded in a somewhat confused metaphor, “was stabbed in the back by the disloyalty of those working for him.” The explanation was one the Lindberghs refused to consider.

To judge by the evidence of the kidnap money, the ladder rail, the handwriting on the ransom notes, Hauptmann and Hauptmann alone was guilty. Of the crucial handwriting evidence, Fisher writes:

All together, at least twenty-one questioned-documents experts have concluded that Hauptmann was the ransom-note writer. In addition to the eight prosecution witnesses and the four rebuttal witnesses, Arthur P. Meyers, Samuel C. Malone, and Charles Appel of the FBI concluded this. At least six modern handwriting experts agree.

And yet.

Hauptmann himself was unwavering, at times eloquent, in insisting on his innocence. New Jersey’s Governor Hoffman—who had had his own doubts—offered him life imprisonment if he would confess. Even if he had made a false confession to save his life, it might have given him the chance later to produce new evidence proving him innocent. At least he would be alive. He refused. The New York Evening Journal offered him $75,000 to be left to his widow if he confessed. He said he had nothing to confess. Jafsie, the sole person who had seen and talked with Cemetery John, could not identify him as Hauptmann after Hauptmann’s arrest, although in court he later made a flamboyant identification. Jafsie had said that when the kidnapper first telephoned him he could hear other voices and finally someone saying sharply in Italian statti—citto—“Shut up!” Could Hauptmann then have been acting alone? Other questions still intrude. How could a Bronx carpenter three hours’ drive away know the layout of the remote Lindbergh house, the location of the nursery, the routine of the family? How could he know that the Lindberghs were staying there on that particular Tuesday, contrary to their usual custom? How could he have known about the unfastened shutter?

One of Hauptmann’s last statements, published after his death, has the ring of truth:

And so I sit, ten feet removed from the electric chair, and unless something can be done to aid me, unless something can be done to make someone tell the truth, or unless someone does tell it, I shall at eight o’clock Friday evening…raise myself from my cot for the last time…. I shall walk as any man walks, striding along one foot ahead of the other. I shall breathe the air my guards are breathing. I shall hear things that are being said, with ears that are the ears of other men. I shall say with a voice that is the same as voices of other men that a tragedy is being enacted, that a life is being wantonly taken, that I am innocent of the crime of which I have been convicted, as innocent as anyone in the world; and then, if the decision of the court is carried out, I shall be strapped into the chair, and in a few fleeting seconds this body that is mortal will no longer be living and breathing but just a mass of clay.10

Although Hauptmann’s widow is still alive, Fisher did not attempt to talk with her. Through the decades she has kept an unwavering belief in her husband’s innocence. At eighty-eight she told an interviewer that she is waiting for the truth to come out so that she can die in peace. In 1981 she sued the State of New Jersey for $100 million, claiming that her husband had been “Wrongfully, Corruptly and Unjustly executed.” Though the courts dismissed her suit, in November 1986 she returned to ask the state legislature to clear his name. The attorney general said that the verdict and Hauptmann’s guilt would remain unchanged. But he added: “This is a case that will probably never go away.” Just before his death Hauptmann said the same thing to Governor Hoffman.

Letters

The Lindbergh Case: An Exchange February 18, 1988

  1. 10

    Scapegoat, pp. 127–128. Although translated and no doubt edited, the eloquence remains.

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