On March 1, 1932, Bruno Richard Hauptmann kidnapped Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of America’s foremost hero, from his bedroom in East Amwell, New Jersey. The perpetrator left a ransom note for the family. Investigators found the 20-month-old’s body not far from the family home. The investigation lasted two years before they traced the ransom money to Hauptmann. In short order, the suspect was arrested, tried, and executed. The Lindbergh kidnapping has been dubbed “the Crime of the Century” because of the victim and subsequent media coverage. Some have questioned Hauptmann’s guilt, however, the evidence supports the final adjudication.
In May 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York to Paris. People marveled at Lindbergh’s accomplishment the same way another generation watched in awe as Apollo 11 reached the moon. The effort transformed the aviator into America’s greatest hero. Very few have experienced such fame and adulation. Lindbergh’s effort occurred at the height of the Roaring Twenties. Two years later, the country plunged into the Great Depression. Some desperate individuals turned to crime to survive. While Lindbergh represented the twenties, bank robber John Dillinger came to represent the thirties. While some robbed banks, others earned a living kidnapping affluent citizens or their children.
On March 1, 1932, the Lindbergh family put their baby to bed at 8 p.m. Around 9:30 p.m., the elder Lindbergh heard a crashing sound. The father believed a slat in the kitchen had fallen, but did not investigate. The family nurse discovered Lindbergh Jr. missing at 10 p.m. An intruder left a ransom note demanding $50,000. Lindbergh armed himself and searched for the kidnapper while his wife called the police. They arrived shortly before 10:30 p.m. The authorities searched the surrounding area, collected fingerprints, and examined the note.
The news media reported on the crime almost immediately. Meanwhile, several high profile investigators, including the father of Gulf War General H. Norman Schwarzkopf took over the inquiry. Lindbergh and the cadre believed organized crime kidnapped the boy. However, experts believed the note was written by a native German speaker as opposed to someone born in America or Sicily. In the end, the mafia did not commit the heinous act. In fact, Al Capone offered his support to find the kidnapper. At the other end of the social spectrum, President Herbert Hoover offered the expansive power of the federal government to find the 20-month-old. He placed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), Coast Guard, and Immigration on notice. At the state level, New Jersey offered a $25,000 reward. Shortly thereafter, additional ransom notes arrived upping the demand to $70,000.
The family paid the ransom with investigators recording many of the serial numbers to trace. The bills passed to the kidnapper through an intermediary. About a month later, a truck driver pulled over to the side of the road about 4 miles from the Lindbergh home to relieve himself. He discovered a toddler’s body, the police arrived, and the coroner ruled the boy died of a skull fracture. Following the positive identification, Lindbergh cremated his baby.
For the next two years, the New York Police Department tracked down many bills from the case. The ransom letters originated from the Bronx and many of the bills appeared along a subway route connecting the borough with Manhattan. On top of this, the route included a German neighborhood. The ransom included gold certificates that the government demanded be cashed by May 1, 1933. The certificate included a vehicle’s license plate number written in the margin. Investigators quickly traced the car to Bruno Hauptmann.
Hauptmann was a German immigrant with a criminal record and over $14,000 in ransom money in his garage. On top of this, the ladder at the crime scene was clearly constructed of beams from Hauptmann’s attic. The police also found a notebook with a sketch of the ladder and the intermediary’s name, phone number, and address written on a wall in the house. In short order, New York indicted Hauptmann for extortion and New Jersey indicted him for murder. The trial began on January 2, 1935 and lasted six weeks. The overwhelming evidence convicted Hauptmann. On April 3, 1936, he was executed for first degree murder.
Throughout the trial, Hauptmann proclaimed his innocence. Despite overwhelming evidence, some believed Hauptmann was indeed innocent and railroaded in the media frenzy. However, all the evidence pointed to Hauptmann, there were no other serious suspects, and modern forensic techniques support the original verdict. Hauptmann wrote the notes, he possessed the cash, the ladder was made of the same wood as his attic, he drew sketches of the ladder, and German was his native language. Although it took several years, law enforcement captured the right man.