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This week in history: Hauptmann executed for Lindbergh baby's murder

Published: Wednesday, April 3 2013 5:33 p.m. MDT

Bronx carpenter Bruno Richard Hauptmann, accused of the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant child, poses for mugshots at police headquarters in New York, in this Sept. 21, 1934, file photo. (Associated Press) Bronx carpenter Bruno Richard Hauptmann, accused of the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant child, poses for mugshots at police headquarters in New York, in this Sept. 21, 1934, file photo. (Associated Press)

On April 3, 1936, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was executed by electric chair in the New Jersey State Prison for the kidnapping and murder of 20-month-old toddler Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr.

After his historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh became the most famous man in America. Lindbergh met Anne Morrow, the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, later that year. The two were wed in May 1929, and their first child, Charles Jr., was born on June 22, 1930, Anne's 24th birthday.

Lindbergh's fame came at a high cost. Immediately after his 1927 flight he had become the world's first media superstar. Constantly hounded by reporters and photographers who fed the nation's insatiable need to know what the “Lone Eagle” was up to, Lindbergh sought a secluded life for himself and his family. Lindbergh and Anne, herself a noted aviatrix, flew together around the world on goodwill missions and scientific expeditions, though generally this was often just an excuse to be alone together.

Horror struck the Lindberghs on March 1, 1931, when that evening the baby's nurse, Betty Grow, entered the baby's room to shut the window to the cold night air. Not hearing the usual loud breaths from the baby, she peered into the crib only to find that it was empty. She quickly told the Lindberghs that she couldn't find the baby, hoping that one of them had taken him.

The couple went to the bedroom and located a white envelope near the widow sill, though decided not to touch it until the police arrived. The home was soon flooded with New Jersey state troopers, who found three broken sections of a ladder in the woods not far from the house. The police dusted the envelope for fingerprints, but nothing usable remained. Lindbergh finally read the note:

“Have 50.000 $ redy 25 000$ in 20 $ bills 1.5000 $ in 10$ bills and 10000 $ in 5 $ bills. After 2-4 days we will inform you were to deliver the Mony. We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police the child is in gut care.”

The note was written in an almost childlike scrawl and seemed to imply the kidnapper was of Germanic origin. The case was soon taken over by West Point graduate and chief of the New Jersey State Police H. Norman Schwarzkopf, (the father of the famous Gulf War general). Several leads were pursued, including tracing the wood used to construct the ladder. Several people came forward insisting they had information about the case, only to be dismissed as frauds.

Through an intermediary named John F. Condon (something of a glory seeker who went by the phonetic spelling of his initials, Jafsie), Lindbergh paid the $50,000 ransom and was told that he could then pick up his child. After the money was paid, no more was heard from the kidnappers, and Lindbergh knew he had been duped. The money had been paid in U.S. gold certificates, however, which newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered to be recalled. The money would soon become very conspicuous to anyone who spent it, making it easy to track. On May 12, a truck driver discovered the body of Charles Jr. in the woods about five miles from the Lindbergh home.

In his biography of Charles Lindbergh, A. Scott Berg wrote about what the troopers found when arrived on the scene: “The officers had a badly decomposed child's body before them, face down in the dirt. The size of the body, the shape of the skull, the still golden, curly hair all suggested the Lindbergh baby. … They carefully turned over what appeared to be an incomplete corpse. Not only had the figure blackened severely, but its left leg was missing from the knee down as was the right arm below the elbow and the left hand. The body parts had been eaten by animals. … But the eyes, the nose, and the dimpled chin left little doubt as to the corpse's identity.”

The baby's skull had been broken, and the most likely explanation is that the baby was dropped during the kidnapping accidentally, though no one could rule out pre-meditated murder.

In September 1934, a gold certificate, by this time technically illegal for use by private citizens under Roosevelt's New Deal program, was used at a New York gas station and ultimately traced to a 35-year-old German immigrant named Bruno Richard Hauptmann. In a search of his apartment, police found circumstantial evidence suggesting Hauptmann had a hand in the crime, including a sketch of a ladder similar to the one used during the kidnapping.

Hauptmann's trial began in January 1935, and the suspected murderer maintained his innocence. In his book, “Lindbergh vs. Roosevelt: The Rivalry that Divided America,” historian James P. Duffy wrote: “Hundreds of reporters, radio commentators, photographers, and columnists descended on the courthouse in Flemington, New Jersey, for what many dubbed, with justification, 'the trial of the century.' All the big names in the news industry were there, including Walter Winchell. … After a six week trial, Hauptmann was convicted and sentenced to death.”

After the trial, Lindbergh and his wife decided to move to Europe where it would be easier for them to be out of the public spotlight. Lindbergh began a plethora of scientific studies and, working with doctors, created the first practical perfusion pump, which eventually allowed doctors to perform open heart surgeries.

Back in the states, however, Hauptmann continued to insist he was innocent of murdering the Lindbergh baby, and many people, such as first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and prominent lawyer Clarence Darrow, believed him. One newspaper offered $100,000 for his wife if he confessed to the crime, and the New Jersey governor stated that he would commute the death sentence if he confessed. Hauptmann refused.

Berg described the execution: “At 8:44 p.m. on Friday, April 3, 1936, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was strapped in a chair in the brightly lit execution chamber at the state prison in Trenton and received three electrical shocks of 2,000 volts. At 8:47 the prison physician pronounced him dead. 'Hauptmann … remains silent to the end,' read the The New York Times headline the following morning, though, in fact, the executed man left behind a statement he wanted published after his death. It repeated his 'innocence of the crime for which I was convicted.'

Hauptmann's guilt would be questioned for years after his trial, with many specialists writing books proclaiming his innocence or verifying his guilt. Many believe that he didn't act alone, and that one or more accomplices did indeed get away with murder.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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