Ransom Kidnapping in America by Patterson Smith
by Judge W Dennis Duggan, JFC
Was Bruno Richard Hauptmann guilty of kidnapping and
killing Charles A. Lindbergh's son?
Viewpoint: Yes,Hauptmann received a fair trial and was guilty of the kidnapping
and murder of the Lindbergh baby. Viewpoint:
No, Hauptmann was convicted on the basis of fabricated evidence and without
proper defense counsel; the trial was a mockery of justice in an atmosphere
of public outrage.
Viewpoint: Yes,Hauptmann received a fair trial and was guilty of the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby.
Viewpoint: No, Hauptmann was convicted on the basis of fabricated evidence and without proper defense counsel; the trial was a mockery of justice in an atmosphere of public outrage.
article was submitted to the LKH website by researcher Sue Campbell)
Viewpoint: Yes, Hauptmann received a fair trial and was guilty of the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby.
The kidnapping of the baby son of Charles A. Lindbergh and the following search were the subject of an enormous media blitz from March to May 1932. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies devoted considerable resources to try to locate the baby. When his body was discovered, the police effort became a search for his killers.
The police had many experts study the ransom notes to try to identify the writer. From the misspelled words and strange sentence structure they posited that the writer was not a native English speaker, but was probably German or Scandinavian by birth. Handwriting experts also saw that some of the letters were written in a fashion that confirmed a foreign style of penmanship. A psychiatrist studied the notes and offered several conjectures--that the writer had spent some time in prison, had one or more children of his own, was mechanically inclined, and was about forty years old. Many other pieces of information, each of which had been too small to have led to the apprehension of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, fit nicely into place once the arrest was made.
Hauptmann was arrested in September 1934 when he bought gas with a $10 gold certificate. The gas-station attendant wrote Hauptmann's license number on the bill, which turned out to be part of the ransom money. The New York police held Hauptmann for several days, interrogated him, and finally sought to charge him with extortion. The kidnapping had occurred in New Jersey. There was no evidence to suggest that anything connected with the kidnapping, other than the payment of the ransom money to "John," had happened in New York. While Hauptmann was still in custody, a New Jersey grand jury indicted him for the murder of the baby. He was extradited to New Jersey and the trial was set to start on 2 January 1935.
The evidence presented at the trial was all circumstantial, although the cumulative effect against Hauptmann was overwhelming. He had no alibi for his whereabouts on the night of the kidnapping; eyewitnesses testified that they had seen him near the Lindbergh estate on that date. Wood used in building the ladder matched floorboards in Hauptmann's house. Handwriting experts identified Hauptmann as the writer of the ransom notes. Three eyewitnesses, one of whom was Lindbergh, testified that Hauptmann was the ransom negotiator. Hauptmann's explanation of how he came into possession of $15,000 in ransom money was implausible. Hauptmann protested his innocence, but to no avail.
The leading lawyer for the prosecution was David Wilentz, the Attorney General of New Jersey. He was not a trial lawyer by training--in fact, he had never before tried a case in court--but he could not resist the attraction of the public attention. Defense counsel was Edward J. Reilly, a famous trial attorney from Brooklyn. His fee was paid by a New York newspaper in exchange for the exclusive rights to any story Hauptmann or his wife might tell.
One of the first witnesses called was Lindbergh. The prosecutor asked him to describe what happened the evening that he went with John Condon to deliver the ransom to suspected kidnappers in New York. Lindbergh testified that he was sitting in his car, and Condon was standing outside, when someone at least fifty feet away called to Condon. "Have you heard that same voice since that time?" asked the prosecutor. "Yes, it was Hauptmann's voice," Lindbergh replied. Reilly cross-examined Lindbergh about the household servants, as well as about a variety of other possible ways the baby could have been removed from the house. His implication was that perhaps the kidnapping had been an inside job. Reilly did not challenge Lindbergh's testimony about recognizing Hauptmann's voice.
A second eyewitness was a cabdriver who said a man hailed his cab on a Bronx street and asked him to deliver a ransom note to Condon's house. He identified that person as Hauptmann. A third eyewitness, with respect to the ransom exchange, was Condon.
Hauptmann's alibi was that he was working as a carpenter on a building project on 1 March 1932. When he was first questioned by the police, he could not remember exactly when he had started the job. The project timekeeper testified that, according to company records, Hauptmann was not at work on 1 March, nor was he at work on the day of the ransom payment. Two neighbors of Lindbergh's testified that they had seen a man driving near the Lindbergh estate around the day of the kidnapping and now recognized this man as Hauptmann.
The homemade ladder used in the kidnapping was a crucial piece of evidence. Hauptmann was a carpenter by trade, and the prosecution suggested that he was capable of building a three-piece extendable ladder. Part of the intensive investigation since 1932 had been to try to connect the ladder to the kidnapper. A U.S. forestry-products expert had identified the type of wood the ladder was made of as being a certain variety of pine grown in the Southeast. He noticed some anomalies in the way the wood had been finished, wrote to over one thousand sawmills to find the one that was the likely processor, and got a list of its customers. One such customer was a lumberyard less than a mile from Hauptmann's home.
One of the boards had some nail holes in it, which suggested that it had been used before becoming part of the ladder. The police found that the floorboards in the unfinished attic of Hauptmann's house were of similar wood. There was one floorboard missing, and the nail holes in the ladder rail matched those in the floor joists in the attic.
The handwriting and the text of the ransom notes were strong evidence against Hauptmann. From the spelling errors and strained syntax the police had already determined that the writer was not a native speaker of English. When it was learned that Hauptmann had been born and raised in Germany, the experts who had earlier worked on the profile felt they had proven their point. Hauptmann had been required to give writing samples so that a comparison could be made with the ransom notes. In fact, he had been required to copy the text of those notes several times, for ease of comparison. The state hired eight handwriting experts who analyzed these samples and other documents, items that Hauptmann had written before he was arrested. The experts were unanimous in their opinion that Hauptmann was the writer of the ransom notes.
Hauptmann's possession of the ransom money was another important part of the prosecution's case. The police had been watching for the ransom money from the beginning. A few bills had shown up occasionally, but in January 1934 the rate of appearance of these bills seemed to increase, and the location centered in a small area of Manhattan and the Bronx. When a bank teller in the Bronx called the police to report one such note, they quickly found the gas station that had deposited the bill and the attendant who had recorded Hauptmann's license plate number on the bill.
The police searched Hauptmann's house and garage, and soon found $14,000 in ransom money hidden in the garage. Hauptmann, after offering several obviously false and easily disproved explanations, described a pattern of business transactions with a partner, a man named Fisch. The transactions included stock-market investments and trading in furs. Hauptmann could produce no records reflecting these dealings.
He said that Fisch had gone abroad in 1933 and had left with him for safekeeping a small wrapped package. Hauptmann's story was that when he learned that Fisch died while abroad, he opened the package. Since Fisch had owed him money from their earlier dealings, Hauptmann felt entitled to spend the money. Several witnesses testified that they knew that Hauptmann and Fisch had been engaged in some business dealings, but no one knew of any debts between the partners and no one could corroborate anything about a package.
The judge instructed the jury on the law and it retired to deliberate. Eleven hours later, they came back with a verdict of guilty, with a death penalty recommendation. The New Jersey Supreme Court heard Hauptmann's appeal, but decided unanimously against him.
Governor Harold G. Hoffman offered Hauptmann one remaining possible escape from the electric chair. He promised to commute the sentence to life imprisonment if Hauptmann confessed and identified his accomplices. Hauptmann maintained his claim of innocence to the end and died in the electric chair on 3 April 1936.
-- Eli C. Bortman, Winchester, Massachusetts
Viewpoint: No, Hauptmann was convicted on the basis of fabricated evidence and without proper defense counsel; the trial was a mockery of justice in an atmosphere of public outrage.
The pressure on the law enforcement agencies to solve the Lindbergh baby murder case was enormous. The son of an authentic American hero, Charles A. Lindbergh, was kidnapped from his crib, and the world watched and waited as ransom notes led nowhere. For two and a half months the suspense continued. Finally, the baby's body was found, only a few miles from his home. With all of the emotional investment made by the police, it is easy to understand why, once they had apprehended Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was in possession of a large part of the ransom money, they would make every effort to secure a conviction.
The trial in January 1935 was held in a circus atmosphere. The courthouse in the small New Jersey town of Flemington became the focus of the world's attention. Seven hundred reporters and hundreds of communications technicians crowded every bit of space, as they prepared to publish and broadcast whatever they could about the most important trial in years.
Arguments that Hauptmann was made a scapegoat fall into three main categories: evidence that might have exonerated him was either ignored or suppressed; evidence that was used to convict him was distorted or even fabricated; and the lawyer who headed the defense team did not represent him well.
Critics of the prosecution point out that the original investigation ignored or ruled out many likely leads. The possibility that the kidnapping was an inside job, perpetrated by the household staff, was explored, but not to the point that one could dismiss it. The police questioned the staff, but quickly removed most of them from suspicion. Some focus fell on one of the maids, when the police learned of her romantic connection with a petty thief. The authorities questioned her intensely about this relationship. After a lengthy interrogation she admitted that she had been with him the night before the kidnapping. Where this confession might have led is unknown, because she committed suicide before the police could resume their interrogation, and they did not follow up on the possible involvement of the boyfriend.
The possibility that the kidnapping was done by an outsider simply seems unrealistic. Had an outsider cased the house in advance, he might have learned which room was the baby's, but he also would have discovered the Lindberghs' routine. Their usual practice was to be at their new house only on weekends and to stay at the Morrows' Englewood estate during the week. The Lindberghs decided Monday morning to stay one more night and only the household staff would have known of this change. How could an outsider have known the baby was in the house on that particular night? It hardly seems reasonable that Hauptmann would travel all the way from the Bronx to the Lindbergh home on the chance that the baby might be there.
The ransom note left in the baby's room had a set of interlocking circles printed on it--the author of the note said that this marking would demonstrate the authenticity of later messages. Lindbergh, in his effort to get assistance from the underworld as well as from the police, allowed a New York bootlegger to make a copy of the note. This copy was circulated among his associates and obviously got wide distribution in short order. For example, on 9 March, only a week after the kidnapping, The New York Journal told the New Jersey State Police that it had a copy of the ransom note. It is quite possible that later notes might not have been from the kidnappers at all, but could have been simply a part of a fraudulent scheme by others solely to get the ransom money.
The state hired eight handwriting experts to examine the ransom notes and to compare it with samples of Hauptmann's writing. When the police first took Hauptmann into custody they asked him to provide them with a writing sample. The police made him copy the exact words of each of the ransom notes, including the misspellings and the unusual construction, and made him repeat these exercises when they did not like the appearance of his samples. Hauptmann was required to write, nonstop, for over four hours, producing specimens for the experts to examine.
The homemade ladder was the most curious piece of evidence used to convict Hauptmann. The ladder was crudely built and did not reflect the quality of workmanship that a carpenter as skilled as Hauptmann would demonstrate. The rungs were set eighteen inches apart, instead of the standard twelve inches. The testimony of Lewis Bornmann, a member of the New Jersey State Police who had been among the first to respond to the kidnapping, that he was able to match one of the ladder rails with the floorboards in Hauptmann's attic was likely an absolute lie.
The police thoroughly searched Hauptmann's house, including the attic, on several occasions immediately after he was arrested. In fact, five groups of policemen and detectives, a total of thirty-seven men, made nine visits in the first six days after Hauptmann was arrested. No one noticed--or at least no one recorded in the records of these searches--that a floorboard was missing. In a report that bears the date 26 September (the seventh day after the arrest), Bornmann noted that he visited the house and searched the attic. His report states that he noticed that one floorboard was missing, and that he also saw a similarity between the ladder rail and the existing floorboards. He testified at the trial that he retrieved the ladder rail from the laboratory, returned to the house, and put the rail into place. He testified that he dropped nails into the holes, and that the holes in the rail matched those in the joists.
Critics of the trial have pointed out several curious factors. First, the ladder rail, when put into the place of the missing floorboard, was several inches too short--on each end--to meet the other floorboards. Also, floorboards in the attic were one by six inches, while the ladder rail had been planed down to one by four inches. This fact suggests that if the board had originally been a floorboard, and was removed to be used in the ladder, the builder would have sawed a few inches off each end. Second, the board showed no signs of having been pried from the joists. Third, the attic was accessible only through a trap door in the ceiling of a closet. It is hardly logical for a carpenter, who has a supply of wood available in his garage, to be in such need of this particular board that he would climb through a trap door, pry up a floorboard, and maneuver it back out through the trap door, saw a few inches off each end, and then plane it from six to four inches wide.
Another piece of evidence that was critical to the prosecution, but which seems questionable, are the payroll records from the project Hauptmann was working on around the time of the kidnapping. The particular timesheet essential to the case had a list of names down the left-hand margin, and entries running across the page showing the days worked during the first two weeks of March 1932. Entries next to Hauptmann's name were clearly changed--a checkmark indicating that someone had recorded him as working on those days was overwritten with a zero, meaning that he was absent.
Another essential element of the prosecution's case was proof that Hauptmann had been near the Lindbergh home. Immediately after the kidnapping the police had asked every nearby resident whether he had seen anything suspicious or unusual in the area and found no one who could help them. Only after Hauptmann had been arrested did two of Lindbergh's neighbors come forward. One was an eighty-seven-year-old gentleman named Hochmuth, who occasionally visited his daughter, who lived on the lane leading from the main road to the Lindbergh home. Although he was quite nearsighted, and there was nothing to corroborate that he had actually been visiting his daughter at the time, Hochmuth testified that while he was sitting on the porch of his daughter's house in the afternoon of 1 March 1932 that he saw a green car stop on that lane. He claimed that the driver he saw was Hauptmann.
The second witness who placed Hauptmann on the scene was a man named Whited, a poor woodcutter who lived about a mile from the Lindbergh home. Whited was one of the many neighbors questioned immediately after the kidnapping, and he provided a written statement to the police which stated that he had not seen any strangers nor anyone acting in a suspicious manner. After Hauptmann was arrested, however, Whited told police that he had seen Hauptmann twice, running through the woods near the Lindbergh estate. Although Whited had a reputation in Hopewell as being a congenital liar, and was promised expense money and a share of the reward in exchange for his participation, his testimony was unchallenged.
When Hauptmann was first arrested, he hired James Fawcett, a local Brooklyn lawyer, to represent him. Fawcett was not a criminal lawyer. He was competent to deal with the New York extortion charge, but a major murder trial was beyond his ability. At the same time, Hauptmann was not able to afford the sort of legal help he would need. The New York Evening Journal offered to hire Edward Reilly, a well-known criminal attorney, and pay his fee in exchange for the exclusive rights to any story from Hauptmann or his wife. The New York Evening Journal, flagship of the Hearst newspaper empire, was one of the most sensational anti-Hauptmann publications. On several occasions between the arrest and the beginning of the trial the newspaper published absolutely false information incriminating Hauptmann. The cynicism of an anti-Hauptmann publisher hiring Hauptmann's defense counsel seems not to have been noticed by the accused nor the competing press.
Reilly was only fifty-two years old, but he was clearly past his prime. He had been a successful defense attorney in many celebrated cases and was noted for his theatrical style of argument and his sharp cross-examination of prosecution witnesses. Too many years of heavy drinking and hard living, however, had taken their toll. He was an alcoholic and was hospitalized with tertiary syphilis a year after the trial. His commitment to the case was questionable. Reilly had marched in a New York parade honoring Lindbergh and kept a photograph of the flier on his desk. He believed, from the pretrial newspaper reports, that Hauptmann was guilty. Reilly spent less than an hour meeting with Hauptmann between the time he was hired and the beginning of the trial.
During the trial Lindbergh testified that he was sitting in his car on the night of 2 April 1932, at the gates to a New York cemetery, while John Condon was giving ransom money to a mysterious man named "John." He claimed that he watched Condon walk toward the cemetery, and that a man at a distance of one hundred yards from where Lindbergh was sitting had yelled "Hey, Doctor." Lindbergh's testimony was that the words were uttered in a foreign accent, and that he recognized that voice as Hauptmann's. Reilly did not challenge Lindbergh's ability to recognize a voice and a foreign accent at a distance of one hundred yards on the basis of only two words. Reilly's cross-examination of Lindbergh did, however, address the possibility that the household staff might have been involved in the kidnapping.
Payroll records at the project Hauptmann was working on at the time of the kidnapping would have provided a good alibi, had they not been altered. The prosecutor asked the recordkeeper a series of questions about how the records were kept, entries were made, and so on. He asked whether the records showed Hauptmann as having worked or not on the two relevant days--those of the kidnapping and the ransom payment. In both cases, the keeper said, Hauptmann was not working, according to the records. Reilly, on cross-examination, asked a few questions about whether the original entries had been changed, to which the keeper answered that perhaps they had been. He offered no explanation, however, about when or by whom these changes were made. Reilly, instead of destroying the credibility of this key prosecution witness, with respect to alterations of Hauptmann's alibi evidence, let the remarks pass unchallenged.
The trial was conducted in a circus atmosphere. Such publicity before the trial, and during it, affected the entire process. The prevailing view, before the trial, that Hauptmann was guilty was so strong that the misdeeds of the prosecution and the weak performance of the defense counsel went unnoticed. Perhaps the most ironic observation was that of Eleanor Roosevelt, who commented about the sensationalism and asked: "What might happen to an innocent person in a similar situation?"
-- Eli C. Bortman, Winchester, Massachusetts
Source Citation: "Lindbergh Kidnapping." History in Dispute, Vol. 3: American Social and Political Movements, 1900-1945. Edited by Robert J. Allison. St. James Press, 2000. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/HistRC/
Document Number: BT2306200090