The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby would shock the nation and bring heartbreak to the Lindbergh family. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne lived in a house in Hopewell, New Jersey. Around 9:00 pm on 1 March 1932, the kidnapper or kidnappers climbed a ladder into the second-story nursery and abducted the child. A ransom note of $50,000 was left behind. The child was found missing an hour by the nanny, Betty Gow. The local police were notified and turned the case over to the New Jersey State Police. The search found the ransom note, muddy footprints in the nursery, and a ladder a distance away from the home. Footprints from the ladder led into the woods at the edge of the property.
Two other ransom notes would be received raising the demand to $70,000. Attempts to contact the kidnappers failed. Ultimately a retired New York City teacher named John Condon placed advertising in a Bronx newspaper offering to act as intermediary. He got a note from the kidnappers that he would be acceptable. Condon used newspaper columns under the name of Jafsie to send messages. The kidnappers responded with leaving secret written messages at locations in New York City. Additionally, the kidnappers sent the child’s sleeping suit as proof of identity. On 2 April 1932, a meet was set up to deliver the ransom with Lindbergh nearby. Condon talked with someone called John. He accepted $50,000 (the original amount) and said they would find the baby on a boat named Nelly Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. A search for the boat turned up nothing. The money paid were gold certificates whose serial numbers were recorded by the Treasury Department.
Sadly, on 12 May 1932 the body of child was found less than 5 miles from the Lindbergh home. The child was positively identified as the missing child Charles Lindbergh, Jr. An autopsy determined the baby had been killed by a blow to the head either during or just after the kidnapping. The Lindbergh’s were deeply saddened and decided to leave the area, and the house was given to a charity. Investigators checked everyone connected to Lindbergh and John Condon. Nothing was found. Outrage over the kidnapping convinced President Roosevelt to order the U.S. Bureau of Investigation (renamed later to Federal Bureau of Investigation) to investigate. Congress passed the Federal Kidnapping Act (known as the Lindbergh Law) on 12 June 1932. The law makes kidnapping a crime across state lines and that the person(s) convicted of it would face the death penalty.
A year later a service station attendant in New York City recorded the license plate of a man who had paid with a $10 gold certificate. The gold certificate was registered as one that was used to pay the kidnappers a year before. It was traced to a Bronx residence who matched the description of John who Condon had met with. On 10 Sept 1934, Bruno Hauptmann was arrested and a $20 gold certificate from the ransom payment was found on him. More gold certificates would be found, and his penmanship was similar to what the kidnapper(s) used. Hauptmann claimed he was holding the money for Isidore Fisch, who had returned to Germany and had died. Hauptmann was indicted for murder on 8 Oct 1934. He went on trial in January 1935. This “trial of the century” was mostly circumstantial rather than direct evidence. Condon’s telephone number though was found on a closet door frame and Lindbergh recognized his voice as the one heard the night of the ransom payment. Hauptmann took the stand in his defense claiming he was innocent. He claimed he was beaten by the police and forced to give handwriting samples. He was found guilty on 13 February 1935. His legal appeals, including to the U.S. Supreme Court were rejected. He was executed on 3 April; 1936.
There have been many books over the years that dispute the fingerprints, the police methods and the investigation claiming he was at best innocent or worse framed for the crime. Some have argued that Lindbergh himself was responsible though the outcome of the dead infant was unplanned. Others have sifted through all the evidence and found the evidence compelling enough to warrant the conviction. The strongest support of that is he fit the description that Condon gave, and Lindbergh recognized his voice.
Spoiler Alert Warning!
A more fantastic idea comes the alternative history novel The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth. In this book, Lindbergh becomes president in 1940 instead of Franklin Roosevelt. As president, he signs peace accords with both Nazi Germany and Japan keeping the U.S. out of the war during his time in office. He also enacts policies against the Jews and other things that start moving America more towards a fascist state. After his presidency ends (he flies off and disappears never to be seen again), it is revealed that the Germans had organized the kidnapping and brought his child to Germany. They used this as leverage to compel Lindbergh to enact policies in line with the Nazi’s. At the same time, it was spread that Jew’s were responsible for the kidnapping encouraging antisemitism in America.
However, Lindbergh was not as keen in doing what they wanted (about the Jews in particular) and resisted. His vice president though was in tune with implementing the more radical policies they favored. It is not clear what really happened to Lindbergh. Was his plane brought down by engine failure, did he deliberately crash his plane, or did the Nazi’s have something to do with it? His disappearance allowed the vice president to take control and operate more like an authoritarian leader the Nazi’s would approve of lending credence to this theory. It fell apart thanks to Lindbergh’s wife taking to the radio and asking for it to stop. It does and ultimately Roosevelt would be president in the next election ending the Nazi plot.
- Lindbergh Kidnapping (FBI.gov)
- Kidnapped Lindbergh Baby Found Dead (History.com)
- Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped (History.com)