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The Lindbergh Case: An Exchange

In response to:

The Case that Will not Close from the November 5, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of The Lindbergh Case by Jim Fisher [NYR, November 5, 1987], Mr. Francis Russell challenges the assertions of Mr. Anthony Scaduto and myself that the ladder evidence against Hauptmann was rigged. It was rigged. The holes which the police claimed to have found in Rail 16 after Hauptmann’s arrest and which they said matched identical holes in the joists of the Hauptmann attic, were not there at the time of the kidnapping. In the course of his investigations into the case Governor Hoffman of New Jersey found a photograph of the ladder taken the day after the crime. “Rail 16 can be easily identified,” he wrote, “but neither in the original nor in a copy magnified ten times can the alleged nail holes be found.”

Apart from this, may I appeal to Mr. Russell’s common sense? If, as he thinks, Hauptmann was guilty and built the ladder from the lumber which, as a professional carpenter, he always kept in stock in his garage, why should he make an exception for Rail 16? The only way then to reach the attic was to remove the linen from the linen cupboard, climb up the cleats, push open the trap door (no easy task when carrying saw, hammer and chisel) and hoist himself into the attic. There, Mr. Russell would have us believe, he solemnly began chopping up part of his landlord’s flooring. What on earth would have been the point of that?

Mr. Russell also gives weight to the evidence of the state’s handwriting experts. It is hardly surprising. In the Greenwich Street Police Station after his arrest Hauptmann was asked to copy out the ransom notes with their unique mis-spellings (note for not, ouer for our, mony for money, etc.) and, according to FBI agent Turrou, to make his writing look as much like the writing of the ransom notes as possible. Eighteen months later at Hauptmann’s trial, these copies were tendered as state’s evidence. Q.E.D.

Ludovic Kennedy

Wiltshire, England

Francis Russell replies:

The board removed from Hauptmann’s attic exposed four crossbeams, each with a nail hole in it. I do not see how it would have been possible to drive four nails through Rail 16 and have each fit exactly into the crossbeam nail hole beneath. Furthermore, although the police did not bring this out, the nail holes of both rail and crossbeam were made by the same type of square-edged nails used in the rest of the flooring.

Whatever Governor Hoffman may have written earlier about the absence of nail holes in Rail 16, he felt otherwise when a few days before Hauptmann’s execution he met with the prosecuting attorney general, a wood expert, and three others in Hauptmann’s attic to witness the fitting of Rail 16 into the empty board space. He said nothing then about having seen any photograph of Rail 16 minus nail holes. (What happened to that photograph?) After a lengthy discussion Hoffman, according to Fisher, “was forced to concede that Rail 16 had come from Hauptmann’s attic. He was very tired, he said, and a little disappointed.”1

As for handwriting experts, Hauptmann’s notebooks and private letters were examined as well as what he had written for the police. At least twenty-one experts during the trial and after—the last in 1977—have concluded that Hauptmann was the ransom-note writer. Among them were experts from the FBI.

The minutiae of such cases as Hauptmann’s can be argued indefinitely. I am sure that Mr. Kennedy will continue to believe that Rail 16 was rigged, the handwriting experts in error, however much the evidence against him.

To the Editors:

As Francis Russell certainly must know, official documents in the possession of a government agency that is dedicated to preserving the established wisdom, and the statements of employees of that agency, are hardly the path to truth. Yet Russell failed to take the most elemental critical precaution in his review of Jim Fisher’s book, The Lindbergh Case [NYR, November 5]. To cite a glaring instance, Russell accepts the word of a New Jersey State Police officer interviewed by Fisher fifty years after the event, who stated “emphatically” that a ransom bill Bruno Hauptmann was carrying when he was arrested “was folded just like the one passed in the Greenwich Village theater” by the man police were certain was the kidnapper and killer of Lindbergh’s child.

Compounding his lack of critical judgment, Russell writes that in my 1976 book, Scapegoat, I merely “indicate” that the ransom bill found on Hauptmann was not folded. In fact, I made it clear that the ranking New York City police officer involved in Hauptmann’s arrest said in his official report that the bill was found in Hauptmann’s wallet, unfolded. I also document in Scapegoat that New York police laboratory reports show that most of the ransom bills passed before late August, 1934, when Hauptmann claimed he found about $15,000 in ransom money, had been tightly folded, as if kept in a vest or watch pocket, but all the bills Hauptmann was known to have passed in the three weeks before his arrest in September had never been folded. Further, I wrote that those lab reports state that microscopic examination of the bills passed before Hauptmann began spending ransom money had adhering to them “gold dust or brass particles” suspended in oil, lipstick, and mascara. The money Hauptmann passed did not have those substances on them.

Those reports and others about the ransom money that were suppressed by police and prosecutor strongly confirm Hauptmann’s alibi: he found the money in personal possessions that a friend had left with him for safekeeping. Standing alone, the reports are significant. Added to dozens of similarly suppressed reports on every aspect of the case against Hauptmann, they damn the prosecution and the arguments of Fisher and Russell. Those investigative documents make unassailable the conclusions I drew, and that Ludovic Kennedy also drew in his The Airman and the Carpenter, that Hauptmann was innocent.

Since I don’t have the space that Russell was given for his essay, New York Review readers will have to find copies of Scapegoat (out of print) and The Airman and the Carpenter (still available, Viking) to decide the issue themselves. They will find that after studying documents in the files of the FBI, New York police, and the Bronx district attorney’s office, Kennedy and I independently concluded:

  • All the witnesses who testified against Hauptmann lied; their original descriptions of the man they had seen at various stages of the Lindbergh crime did not match Hauptmann, and they tailored their testimony to help convict the man. A brief example: One man, Amandus Hochmuth, who lived near Lindbergh’s home, originally told police he had seen no one around the property the day of the kidnapping, nothing suspicious. At the trial he swore he saw Hauptmann driving a car near Lindbergh’s home, with a ladder in it. After Hauptmann’s conviction it was revealed that at the time of the kidnapping Hochmuth was receiving welfare assistance from New York City because he had cataracts and was “partly blind.”

  • All the physical evidence used against Hauptmann—including the kidnap ladder and the handwriting in the ransom letters—was either manufactured by police or distorted in the testimony of expert witnesses. Ladder and handwriting are too complex to discuss in this response to Russell’s review, but one instance of distortion by an expert witness can be cited in a couple of sentences. The prosecution “proved” through the testimony of a Treasury Department accountant that Hauptmann’s motive for the crime was that he had gone broke speculating in the stock market between 1929 and the kidnapping in March, 1932, and it “proved” through this same witness that except for the $15,000 found in his garage Hauptmann had spent almost every penny of the ransom money, most of it in further stock speculation. But an FBI accountant who, along with other FBI agents had not been permitted to testify because they had all said they would “tell the truth,” found that Hauptmann’s stock losses from 1929 to March, 1932, were merely $363.65, and that in all of his speculating over five years up to his arrest he had lost only $5,000—and he had had $10,000 in savings to play with and had continued to earn money in that period.

  • Much other evidence that would have aided Hauptmann was suppressed, including findings that his fingerprints did not match those on the ransom letters; that the main handwriting experts had originally declared he had not written the ransom letters; that the handwriting of the man believed to have been the pseudonymous J.J. Faulkner who exchanged $2,700 in ransom money for “clean” currency was said by two handwriting experts to match the writings in the ransom letters; that police had evidence that positively supported Hauptmann’s alibi for his whereabouts on the day of the kidnapping; and on and on.

Serious charges. But fully documented in my book and in Kennedy’s.

Fisher’s book, which is in complete agreement with the New Jersey State Police, who are defendants in a suit brought by Mrs. Hauptmann for damages in the wrongful execution of her husband, concludes that Hauptmann was guilty. But there is a curious defect in Fisher’s book, a defect that goes far beyond his reliance on the word of a Jersey trooper as to whether a ransom bill was folded.

Fisher, an associate professor of criminal justice and a former FBI man, did not study the many thousands of documents in FBI files that are available to researchers; he did not examine the files in the Bronx district attorney’s office.

In those files he would have found evidence that Hauptmann was innocent. In those files he would have found dozens of reports by FBI agents expressing their skepticism of the evidence being brought against Hauptmann. In those files he would have found documents that make it clear the entire case against Hauptmann was manufactured by police, their expert witnesses, and their eyewitnesses.

But Fisher relied for his book solely on the files of the one agency with the most to hide in this case.

To paraphrase Senator Sam Irvin, commenting on Richard Nixon’s Watergate stonewalling: If someone is aware of the existence of evidence that has a strong bearing on an issue, and does not produce that evidence, he must have something to hide.

Anthony Scaduto

New York City

Francis Russell replies:

Unlike Anthony Scaduto I do not lay claim to any certainty as to Richard Hauptmann’s guilt or innocence. For me the enigma remains, leaving me as an irritant to those who have attained certainty. In such emotionally weighted cases the partisans tend to get bogged down in details. I agree with Mr. Scaduto that some of the Lindbergh trial witnesses’ testimony was forced, a common if unfortunate concomitant of our adversary system. But the tangible evidence inclines against Hauptmann: the ransom money found in his garage after his arrest; the rail of the kidnap ladder made from a board taken from the floor of his attic; the kidnap notes that eight experts at the trial examined and declared Hauptmann had written. Of the three handwriting experts hired by the defense, two withdrew after comparing the notes with samples of Hauptmann’s writing.

As I wrote in my review of the Fisher book, Mr. Scaduto started off with his conclusions intact, having been persuaded of Hauptmann’s innocence by a dubious underworld figure, Murray Bleefeld, who had once helped kidnap the disbarred Trenton lawyer Paul Wendel, and got him to confess to the Lindbergh kidnapping. Wendel, a former mental patient, later repudiated his confession, one that Bleefeld revived a generation later for Scaduto, hoping to make money out of it. Wendel’s story was that he had climbed the ladder to enter the Lindbergh nursery, had gone to the crib and rubbed paregoric on the baby’s lips to keep it sleeping, had put the baby in a sack, walked down the front stairs and out the door. He had driven back to Trenton, where he and his family cared for the baby for several weeks until it accidentally fell out of bed and died of a skull fracture. He had then carried the body to within a few miles of the Lindbergh house and left it in the underbrush near the road.

Like the Madeiros confession in the Sacco-Vanzetti case, Wendel’s doesn’t fit the facts. A baby having its lips rubbed with paregoric would have cried out, to say nothing of its cries after being placed in a sack. And why would Wendel after going out the front door have set the squalling sack down to go around to the rear of the house and remove the ladder, only to discard it seventy feet away? Or bring the baby’s body back so close to the Lindbergh house? Absurd, of course.

A year before Hauptmann’s arrest a handwriting analyst, Albert Hamilton, wrote to the Bronx district attorney that he had compared the handwriting characteristics of the person who wrote the Lindbergh ransom notes with specimens taken from a man named Manning Strawl. He concluded:

The person who wrote the request writings and then signed the name “Manning Strawl” to the same was the person who wrote all the “kidnap” letters and envelopes.

This finding cannot be modified by any other standard.

On unearthing this letter, Scaduto was exultant, writing in his book:

Now I know how Schliemann must have felt when he discovered the ruins of Troy, or Sutter when he came up with gold in the Sacramento hills, I thought. The cloud that had hung over me since I realized I could never satisfactorily establish Wendel’s guilt lifted; this brief document made a mockery of…all the handwriting experts whose services had been purchased by the State of New Jersey. Albert Hamilton…was no doubt a recognized handwriting expert. And in August 1933, long before anyone suspected the existence of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, this expert had examined some suspect’s handwriting and opined that that man had written the ransom letters.2

Mr. Scaduto was unsuccessful in “digging up” any information about Manning Strawl. If he had spent equal time in digging up information about Hamilton, he would have discovered some discouraging facts. For Dr. Albert Hamilton, a druggist of Auburn, New York, with a self-awarded doctor’s degree, was a charlatan who advertised himself as an expert in “chemistry, microscopy, handwriting, ink analysis, typewriting, photography, fingerprints, toxicology, gun shot wounds, guns and cartridges, bullet identification, gunpowder, nitroglycerin, dynamite, high explosives, blood and other stains, causes of death, embalming and anatomy.” The county district attorney considered that any Hamilton testimony “should not be accepted in any court of record, and should receive no credence at the hands of a judge or jury.”

Debate can be endless, and I do not propose to argue with Mr. Scaduto over incidental points. His main contention is that Hauptmann was convicted as a result of a gross frame-up by the New Jersey State Police through the manipulation or substitution of evidence. This is an assertion. Proof positive is lacking. The fact is that such a sustained fraud is almost impossible to carry through without telltale mischances. Something unexpected turns up, someone talks, carefully arranged so-called facts don’t fit. Even the GPU, with all the facilities at its disposal, was unable to stage its fake trials without ludicrous contradictions in its carefully rigged evidence—meetings of conspirators in hotels that had been demolished some years earlier, etc. When Mr. Scaduto relies on statements of a Wendel via a Bleefeld, or substantiates his thesis with a Dr. Hamilton, he is on very slippery ground indeed. One can hardly consider his conclusions “unassailable.”

  1. 1

    The Lindbergh Case, p. 412.

  2. 2

    Anthony Scaduto, Scapegoat: The Lonesome Death of Bruno Richard Hauptmann (Putnam, 1976), p. 277.

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