This case had inspired Agatha Christie when she wrote her novel, Murder on the Orient Express. Unfortunately Hercule Poirot is not here to help solve it. I’ve reached back almost 100 years ago to discuss this mystery case. There was a man arrested, tried, convicted, and ultimately executed for the crime of kidnapping Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. But was he really guilty of the crime he was executed for?
Here are the facts of the case:
- On March 1, 1932, at approximately 10 p.m. Betty Gow, the nurse in the Lindberg home discovered that 20 month old Charles Augustus Jr, was not with his mother, nor his father. She alerted Charles Sr, who went into his son’s room and found a ransom note in an envelope on the windowsill. The note contained bad handwriting, and poor grammar.
- After reading the note, Charles left the home, gun in hand with the butler, Olly Whateley and they found impressions under the window to the baby’s room. Also discovered were pieces of a cleverly designed wooden ladder and a baby blanket.
- Olly phoned the Hopewell, NJ, police department and Charles contacted his attorney and friend, Henry Breckinridge.
The investigation into the kidnapping was tainted from the beginning. While police were arriving, well meaning people arrived at the Lindbergh estate damaging footprint evidence if there was any.
The three lead investigators on the case were Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, Henry Skillman Breckinridge, and William J. Donovan. The investigators along with Charles, speculated that the kidnapping was perpetrated by organized crime figures. They also believed that the person who wrote the ransom letter was a natural German speaker. Charles used his fame to control the investigation.
The day after the kidnapping, Charles Lindbergh and the investigators were informed that they had the support of the Washington DC police force, the US Immigration service, the US Coast Guard, the US Customs service, and the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) to locate “Little Lindy” and whomever stole him from his bedroom.
There was an outrageous reward offered totally $75,000 (approx. $1.172 million today). This amount of money would convince anyone to turn in their mother, due to the Great Depression the United States was in.
On March 6, another ransom letter was received. The ransom had been raised to $70,000. And a third letter was received advising that the Lindberghs would use John Condon as an intermediary to the kidnappers, and they requested notification in a newspaper that the note had been received. These letters came from Brooklyn, NY. Further instructions specified the box the money should come in, and warned the family to not contact police.
Following the demands of the kidnappers, John Condon, placed an ad and later met with the representative of the kidnapper. They met late at night at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The representative stayed in the shadows, and John was not able to get a good look at him. The representative relayed the following story:
He said his name was John , and we was a “Scandinavian” sailor, part of a gang of three men and two women. The baby was being held on a boat, unharmed, but would be returned only for ransom. When Condon expressed doubt that “John” actually had the baby, John promised some proof, they would soon return the baby’s sleeping suit. The stranger asked Condon, “… would I ‘burn’ if the package were dead?” When questioned further, he assured Condon that the baby was alive.
On March 16, John Condon received a toddler’s sleeping suit by mail. After the sleeping suit was identified, he placed a new ad in the paper. On April 1, John Condon received letter saying it was time for the ransom to be delivered.
The ransom was packaged in a wooden box that was custom-made in the hope that it could later be identified. The ransom money included a number of gold certificates; since gold certificates were about to be withdrawn from circulation, it was hoped greater attention would be drawn to anyone spending them. The bills were not marked but their serial numbers were recorded.
John Condon again met with the representative and told him they were only able to raise $50,000, which was accepted and a note was handed to him stating the baby was in the care of two innocent women.
On May 12, Charles A Lindbergh Jr, was discovered less than five miles from his parents home. His head had been badly fractured, and hastily buried. There was decomposition but he was identified by the shirt he was wearing that his nurse, Betty Gow, had made. She also identified him by the overlapping toes on his foot. Charles Lindbergh demanded cremation for his son. Eventually the ashes would be spread over the Atlantic Ocean.
The investigators were at a standstill with the investigation and now decided to track the ransom. There had been a pamphlet printed with the serial numbers of all the bills that were included in the ransom over 250,000 were sent out to businesses, mostly in the New York area, but some bills turned up as far away as Minneapolis. By Presidential Order all gold certificates were to be exchanged for other bills by May 1, 1933. A few days before the deadline, a man entered the bank in New York exchanging almost $3000 in gold certificates. The bills were from the ransom that was paid for Charles Lindbergh Jr.
The man who exchanged the bills gave his name as J.J. Faulkner, and resided at 537 West 149th Street. When investigators arrived, nobody by that name lived there.
Almost three years would pass before more bills were discovered. Investigators noticed a pattern that the bills were being spent along the Lexington Avenue Subway line, which connected the Bronx with the East side of Manhattan. It also ran through a German neighborhood called Yorkville.
In September 1934, a bank teller alerted authorities when a customer had used a gold certificate from the ransom. A New York license plate number (4U-13-41-N.Y) penciled in the bill’s margin was traced to a nearby gas station. The station manager had written down the license number because his customer was acting “suspicious” and was “possibly a counterfeiter”. The license plate belonged to a sedan owned by Richard Hauptmann of 1279 East 222nd Street in the Bronx, an immigrant with a criminal record in Germany. When Hauptmann was arrested, he was carrying a single 20-dollar gold certificate and over $14,000 of the ransom money was found in his garage.
Hauptmann was arrested, interrogated, and beaten at least once throughout the following day and night. Hauptmann stated that the money and other items had been left with him by his friend and former business partner Isidor Fisch. Fisch had died on March 29, 1934, shortly after returning to Germany. He kept the money because he claimed that it was owed to him from a business deal. Hauptmann consistently denied any connection to the crime or knowledge that the money in his house was from the ransom.
When the police searched Hauptmann’s home, they found a considerable amount of additional evidence that linked him to the crime. One item was a notebook that contained a sketch of the construction of a ladder similar to that which was found at the Lindbergh home in March 1932. John Condon’s telephone number, along with his address, were discovered written on a closet wall in the house. A key piece of evidence, a section of wood, was discovered in the attic of the home. After being examined by an expert, it was determined to be an exact match to the wood used in the construction of the ladder found at the scene of the crime.
Hauptmann was indicted in the Bronx on September 24, 1934, for extorting the $50,000 ransom from Charles Lindbergh. Two weeks later, on October 8, Hauptmann was indicted in New Jersey for the murder of Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. Two days later, he was surrendered to New Jersey authorities to face charges directly related to the kidnapping and murder of the child.
During the trial handwriting experts, eight of them, pointed out similarities between Richard Hauptmann’s handwriting and that of the writing on the ransom notes. Regarding John Condon’s address and phone number, Richard is quoted,
I must have read it in the paper about the story. I was a little bit interested and keep a little bit record of it, and maybe I was just on the closet, and was reading the paper and put it down the address … I can’t give you any explanation about the telephone number.
The prosecution pointed out, that Richard Hauptmann had been living comfortably without have a job. Witnesses claim he was in the area of the Lindbergh estate on the day of the kidnapping, and quit his job two days after the ransom was paid. He hadn’t worked since.
In his defense Richard said he had received the box from his friend Isidor Fisch, who had now passed away in Germany. He didn’t know what was in the box, and when he realized it contained money he chose to keep it as it was owed to him.
In closing arguments the defense stated that the evidence against Richard was circumstantial. No reliable witnesses could place him at the scene of the crime, nor were his fingerprints in the nursery, on the ladder, nor on the ransom notes.
Richard was convicted and sentenced to death immediately. After the appeals were exhausted, he was executed in New Jersey on April 3, 1936.
After his death, some reporters and independent investigators came up with numerous questions about the way in which the investigation had been run and the fairness of the trial, including witness tampering and planted evidence.
It feels too convenient. If Richard Hauptmann was guilty then he deserves what he got. However if he was this great mastermind to kidnap Charles Lindbergh Jr, from his family home, you would think he would be smart enough to not spend the ransom until more interest in the case died down. Also with the address and phone number of John Condon in his home, it makes me think it was planted, and if he was a criminal genius he would have had better answers as to why these things were in his possession.
I don’t know. Nobody knows. I would love to hear any of your ideas and thoughts on this one.
Stay curious my friends!