On March 1, 1932, a baby was found missing from its crib. Charles Augustus Linbergh Jr. had disappeared from the second floor nursery of the wealthy Lindbergh family mansion. A three-section ladder was found outside. The wooden shutter to the Lindbergh baby’s room was unlocked. Baby Charles had clearly been kidnapped. What unfolded was a murder tragedy that gripped Americans for decades afterwards.
The following day Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the child’s mother, made an emotional plea to the kidnappers. The baby had a cold and had been placed on a special diet. She begged those who had abducted Charles to follow the treatment plan. It emerged that a ransom note had been pinned to the window sill demanding $50,000. The baby’s parents made it known they would pay the ransom in full. Anything to get Charles Junior back safely.
The celebrated father of baby Lindbergh
The kidnapped baby’s father was Colonel Charles Augustus Lindbergh – a celebrity aviator who in 1927 made the first solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris. This achievement ushered in the era of global commercial flights allowing millions of people to travel vast distances for business or pleasure. In the same year, he was proclaimed Time magazine’s very first Man of the Year.
Anne Lindbergh, his wife, was an aviator in her own right. The first woman to receive a glider pilot license.
Then five years later, the Lindberghs’ life was torn apart by the kidnapping of their son. There was huge public sympathy for the Lindberghs and the unbearable agony at not knowing the whereabouts of baby Charles.
How could such a thing happen to a national hero like Colonel Lindbergh?
The police investigation gets underway – with gangster help!
Police set up a temporary police station on the Lindbergh estate and began interviewing hundreds of people including the servants. A boyfriend of the family nurse who discovered the empty crib, sailor Henry Johnson, was briefly detained after a child’s milk bottle was discovered in his car, but later released.
The nation was now enthralled by the case, right up to President Herbert Hoover. The state governor marshalled all resources to find little Charles while churches across America prayed for his safe return. Meanwhile, the Lindberghs very publicly took on the service of two New York mobsters, Salvatore “Salvy” Spitale and Irving Bitz, to negotiate directly with the kidnappers.
From his jail cell, Al Capone offered to help – provided he was released of course! Some commentators wondered out loud if Capone’s associates had taken the baby to engineer the notorious gangster’s early release from prison.
Suspects were identified then dropped and almost inevitably suspicion fell on the Lindberghs themselves as no hot leads emerged. But that was soon discounted. Notes found on two carrier pigeons, one of them dead, seemed to be messages between the abductors. “All lines unsafe. Kid in yacht. Making no port.”
The mafia and police proved to be equally incapable of finding baby Charles with sightings becoming increasingly exotic. Major Benjamin Mendez, a Colombian pilot friend of Colonel Lindbergh, claimed the 20-month-year old boy was being held on an island off the coast of his native country. Mendez flew to the remote location and found nothing.
Fraudsters and misfits ingratiate themselves into the Lindbergh baby case
Colonel Lindbergh took to flying round the country personally investigating every lead. At one point, he got an intermediary to hand over the ransom of $50,000 to an undisclosed party called “John” but no baby appeared. Banks across the United States were put on alert and given the serial numbers for the notes.
As often happens in a high publicity criminal case, random individuals feel compelled to get very directly involved. The ransom negotiations with “John” were conducted by a 72-year-old retired teacher from the Bronx, Dr. John Francis Condon – known as “Jafsie” from his initials: J, F, and C.
The Lindberghs attached themselves to Jafsie – even though some thought he might have had a hand in the kidnapping. At a cemetery in Yonkers, New York, Jafsie handed over the $50,000 ransom to John while Lindbergh senior waited nearby. This was against the advice of Spitale and Bitz who now disassociated themselves from the Lindbergh baby investigation. Maybe the mobsters had a point – as the money disappeared and no baby turned up, dead or alive.
Another intermediary who claimed to have made contact with the kidnappers was a 44-year-old Norfolk, Virginia boat builder, John Hughes Curtis. An increasingly despairing Lindbergh found Curtis very convincing. But in May, 1932, Curtis wrote a detailed confession admitting he had fabricated contact with the baby’s abductors.
The cruellest deception was by Gaston Means, a private detective implicated a decade previously in the biggest White House scandal before Watergate, the 1921 to 1923 Teapot Dome Scandal that engulfed the administration of President Warren Harding, possibly one of the sleaziest people to have ever led the United States. Means had also been put on trial for murder back in 1917 but his lawyer’s soaring rhetoric swung the jury to acquit him.
On May 5, 1932, Means convinced the wealthy heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, famous for owning the massive Hope Diamond, to part with $100,000 of her fortune. Means claimed he could get baby Charles back and had established a credible line of contact to the kidnap gang. This was a tissue of lies. Means was sentenced to 15 years in prison over this heartless fraud and died a year later behind bars.
Lindbergh baby: Murder and the Murderer
On May 12, 1932, a truck pulled up on on the roadside in rural New Jersey and both drivers got out to relieve themselves in the bushes. Orville Wilson was driving while William “Bill” Allen was his assistant. The two men prepared to urinate. Then, Allen couldn’t believe his eyes as he found himself staring down at the already decomposing body of baby Charles Lindbergh.
Colonel Lindbergh proved rather reticent to hand over a reward to Allen, nor even to shake his hand in gratitude. The reason for this bizarre behaviour? Allen was an African-American. And Lindbergh was an unapologetic racist.
With baby Charles now a murder victim, the hunt was on for the murderer. On September 15, 1934, German-born Richard Hauptmann pulled into a gas station and paid with a ten dollar “gold certificate”. These were banknotes issued between 1865 and 1933, coloured gold and tied directly to the precious metal. The eagle-eyed gas station clerk realised the serial number on the note matched those handed over by the Lindberghs for the ransom demand. Hauptmann was promptly arrested.
He was found guilty despite conflicting evidence from Jafsie and others suggesting he may not have been the recipient of the ransom money. On April 3, 1936, Hauptmann was executed in the electric chair at Trenton State Prison in New Jersey. Right up until 1985, Hauptmann’s widow mounted legal challenges against the guilty verdict as new information emerged, including a stash of court documents relating to the case found in a garage.
The newly emerging Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), led by the charismatic J. Edgar Hoover, let it be known for years that had they been in charge from the moment of the Lindbergh baby’s abduction – and not the state police – things would have worked out better. Evidence would not have been contaminated and the word of various misfits not taken so seriously.
Colonel Lindbergh trashes his own reputation
The Lindbergh baby murder tragedy of 1932 should have guaranteed lifelong sympathy for the family. But the ceaseless media circus that endured even after their baby was discovered dead, led Charles and Anne to leave the United States. They went to live in Europe just as the continent was falling to the forces of fascism. Hitler taking over in Germany; Mussolini in Italy; Franco in Spain; and Salazar in Portugal.
The Linberghs’ attitude towards Hitler’s Nazis began to raise eyebrows back in the United States. They were treated as honoured guests by the Third Reich when visiting Berlin. Colonel Lindbergh praised the Nazis as a bulwark against Communist Russia – a view that was not as rare as one might hope. In 1938, the leading Nazi political leader Hermann Göring awarded Lindbergh the Service Cross of the German Eagle.
The Lindberghs then set about finding a property to buy in Berlin but only stopped when the Nazis launched the horrific Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews in the city, smashing up their businesses. As World War Two loomed, the Lindberghs returned from Europe to the United States joining the America First movement – a group advocating neutrality in the face of Hitler.
In a series of articles and statements, Lindbergh talked about the need to protect the “white race” and disparaged Jewish, black, and Asian people. I won’t repeat his racist diatribes here but they can be found online should you wish to read them. President Franklin Roosevelt wearied of Lindbergh’s rants as American troops were fighting and dying in Europe – and compared him to a Confederate during the American Civil War.
Lindbergh’s reputation never fully recovered.
An Agatha Christie postscript
In 1934, the English best-selling detective novelist Agatha Christie penned the blockbuster Murder on the Orient Express. In the story, there is a reference to a fictionalised murder of a baby, Daisy Armstrong. This subplot involves a killed female child whose mother then dies while pregnant with another baby and the father committing suicide. The Lindbergh was an undeniable influence on the author.