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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.”

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.

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. 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).

  10. 10

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

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