Charles August Lindbergh, Jr., “the Lindbergh baby” was a toddler of 20 months when he was abducted on March 1, 1932. The golden-curled first-born son of the famous aviator Charles A. Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow, daughter of U.S. Ambassador Dwight W. Morrow, had been taken from his crib in the second-floor bedroom of Highfields, the secluded home in the woods near Hopewell that the Lindberghs had just built for themselves as a retreat from worldly fame.
After 10 anguishing weeks of negotiations that drew the Lindberghs into the shady world of gangsters and go-betweens, secret meetings with a mysterious man in a cemetery, and communications printed in a daily newspaper, their child’s body was found half buried in a ditch a few miles from their home. In that heyday of tabloid journalism, crime syndicates, police corruption, poverty, and desperation, Al Capone offered $10,000 for information leading to the child’s recovery; and a photographer broke into the Trenton morgue to snap a picture of the Lindbergh baby’s badly decomposed corpse (copies sold for $5 apiece).
Some two years and four months later, a German-born carpenter from the Bronx was arrested. Today’s Gawker.com has nothing on the media frenzy that erupted during the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann in the Hunterdon County Courthouse in Flemington.
Hundreds of reporters and celebrity journalists flocked to “The Trial of the Century.” Influential syndicated columnist and radio broadcaster Walter Winchell declared Hauptmann guilty from the get go. H.L. Mencken called it “the greatest story since the resurrection.” By the time Hauptmann was found guilty and sent to the electric chair in 1936, the Lindberghs had been besieged by public hysteria with demands for money and more kidnapping threats against their second child.
“Press, Justice, Celebrity,” a panel discussion organized by Morven Museum & Garden, where a Lindbergh exhibition opened last November, will reopen the case this Saturday, April 9, at 2 p.m., in the very courthouse where the trial took place during the fall of 1934 and winter of 1935.
Panelists Landon Jones, Patty Rhule, Edward Tenner, and William O’Shaughnessy will bring their multifaceted expertise to a discussion of Lindbergh’s celebrity status, the press coverage of the trial, and the question of justice. Jones is an award-winning journalist and former editor of People Magazine; Rhule is director of exhibit development at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.; O’Shaughnessy is a trial lawyer with some 50 years of experience; and Tenner is an independent historian of technology and culture who received a Guggenheim award in 1991. His books include “Tech Speak,” “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences,” and “Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity.”
In addition to moderating the discussion, Jones will shed light on how Lindbergh’s superstar status played into the investigation and trial. A former editor of Princeton Alumni Weekly, Jones also steered Money magazine to award-winning success. His many magazine articles have included covers for Time and the Atlantic Monthly, and his books include “William Clark and the Shaping of the West” and “Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation.” (The latter, incidentally, gave us the phrase “baby boomer.”) In 2015 the Princeton resident received the Henry Luce Award for Lifetime Achievement from Time Inc.
“Lindbergh was probably the world’s first modern celebrity, coming to fame just as new media technologies were coming into their own — radio and reproducible photos in newspapers,” says Jones. “Everyone could see images of this handsome, modest, brave young man. The publicity surrounding the Lindbergh trial was as hysterical as could be imagined. And there were no agreed-upon norms governing the behavior of reporters and photographers. So it was out of control. It created a mob psychology that almost guaranteed that Hauptmann would not receive what we think of as a fair trial.”
Rhule, one of the founding editors of USA Today and a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, is well placed to comment on the role of a free press. “Shining a light on the criminal justice system, where decisions are made that affect many lives, is never a bad thing,” she says. “That being said, journalists have a responsibility to report a story accurately, to question assumptions, and to question the official version of events. That didn’t always happen on the Lindbergh case. Many feel that the intense media interest in the case put pressure on law enforcement to find and convict the perpetrator of the crime quickly.”
The Lindbergh case is part of an ongoing exhibit at the Newseum, which champions freedom and First Amendment rights. “Inside Today’s FBI” examines the intense media interest in the kidnapping and the frenzied coverage of the trial, as well as the sometimes confrontational relationship between news media and law enforcement. “J. Edgar Hoover, who was then director of the Bureau of Investigation (now the FBI) understood the role the press could play in enlisting public support for his team of lawmen,” says Rhule. “The Lindbergh case offered him an opportunity to gain a major spotlight for the bureau, even though most of the investigation was handled by the New Jersey State Police.”
According to Rhule, the unauthorized use of newsreel cameras in the Flemington courtroom led to several states banning courtroom cameras after the trial. A modern equivalent might be the television coverage of the O.J. Simpson case. The decision to allow cameras inside that court was controversial with some claiming that cameras helped inform people about the criminal justice system and others saying that they encouraged lawyers and even the judge in this instance to play to the cameras, to the detriment of justice. More than 100 million people tuned in for the verdict, when Simpson was acquitted. “Both cases were media circuses, with lots of sensationalized news coverage, and in both cases, news coverage blurred the lines between the so-called mainstream press and tabloid journalism,” says Rhule.
Tenner is also well acquainted with the Lindbergh case and has visited the former Lindbergh home and the State Police Archives. A former science editor at Princeton University Press, he will focus on the scientific evidence. His interest in the case was sparked when then-Governor Brendan Byrne opened the state police files on the trial to the public in the early 1980s. The 1985 book, “The Airman and the Carpenter,” by veteran British journalist Ludovic Kennedy, persuaded him of the weaknesses of much of the state’s evidence — Kennedy argues that Hauptmann was framed. Having worked with experts in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of science manuscripts, Tenner is drawn to the question of Hauptmann’s innocence.
Expert witness testimony for the prosecution, for example, concerning the ladder used to gain entry to the child’s bedroom and handwriting samples from the kidnapper, raises more questions than answers. “If the defense had the resources for more and better expert witnesses of its own, much of the prosecution testimony might be in doubt,” says Tenner, pointing out that the prosecution had an almost unlimited budget with $30,000 for handwriting experts alone (almost $500,000 in today’s value). “But it’s also possible that more sophisticated techniques could work against the defense, especially discovery of language unique to Hauptmann as opposed to other German born men of his approximate age, of whom there were many thousands in New York City alone in 1932. For example, the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, betrayed himself in his manifesto with the unusual word order ‘eat your cake and have it, too.’”
O’Shaughnessy, the trial lawyer, is relatively new to the case, but he has been intrigued by what he has discovered since being asked to take part in the April 9 panel discussion and in another at the annual regional meeting of the NJ Chapter of the American College of Trial Lawyers in June. He will be taking a hard look at the fairness (or lack thereof) of the prosecution and defense and will contrast the protections a defendant in a criminal case had then to those of today.
Today a criminal defendant in a New Jersey trial has an absolute right to ask for and to see all grand jury testimony. Not so in 1932. As a consequence Hauptmann’s lawyers never saw Lindbergh’s grand jury testimony, in which the aviator is much more tentative about being able to identify the voice of the kidnapper than he would later be at the trial, in which he unequivocally identified Hauptmann from the memory of hearing just a few words spoken by the alleged kidnapper, “Cemetery John,” more than two years earlier.
This was the testimony that many trial observers said had sealed Hauptmann’s conviction. But, as Tenner points out, there was little research at that time showing just how unreliable aural memory (and indeed eyewitness testimony) can be.
“Some eyewitnesses also changed their original testimony under pressure from the prosecution or in the hope of sharing reward money,” says Tenner. “The summation introduced a new thesis of premeditated murder rather than the original scenario of an accidental fall during the abduction, and invoked the anti-German hysteria of the First World War with its picture of Hauptmann as a heartless alien machine-gunner. His attorneys should have objected, but they didn’t.”
Who knows what the outcome might have been had eyewitnesses, wood and handwriting experts, and even Lindbergh himself been challenged more vigorously by the defense. The panelists will surely speculate. As Tenner notes, one of the document specialists, Albert D. Osborn, later identified as genuine Clifford Irving’s forgery of Howard Hughes’ diaries. And in Germany a skilled forger of the Hitler diaries fooled other experts until betrayed by his use of postwar paper. “There’s a lot more skepticism about all forensic evidence following recent scandals,” Tenner says, and a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 corroborating that skepticism.
Also prejudicial to Hauptmann, because it confused Lindbergh’s status as a witness, was the fact that the aviator sat with the prosecution throughout the trial. Not only that, by one account, he was seen to be carrying a pistol in a holster under his coat. “No one other than a member of security would be permitted to carry a gun into a courthouse today,” says O’Shaughnessy, who is special counsel to the Newark-based firm McCarter English LLP.
Loose Ends, Bothersome Details
From his readings on the case so far, O’Shaughnessy has discovered loose ends and bothersome details that lead him to believe that Hauptmann did not get a square deal. One example is the testimony of an 85-year-old local man who claimed to have seen Hauptmann, with a ladder in his car, in the area of the Lindbergh home on the day of the kidnapping. It was later disclosed that the witness, who was 87 at the time of trial, was recorded as legally blind in 1932, the year of the kidnapping. O’Shaughnessy also finds the tone of the judge’s directions troubling, in particular his disdainful skepticism regarding Hauptmann’s claim that the ransom money was left in his care by a friend who had returned to Germany and then died.
Although O’Shaughnessy is inclined to conclude that the case against Hauptmann was not proved beyond a reasonable doubt, he thinks it likely that Hauptmann was guilty of extortion.
Tenner finds some expert testimony compelling, especially the analysis of the ladder showing marks from a plane belonging to Hauptmann. “In itself that might mean nothing more than, for example, Hauptmann helping out someone with a few pieces of wood. But there’s also a sketch of part of the ladder’s construction in his notebook,” says Tenner. “It’s the ladder plus possession of the ransom money that makes the strongest material case for his deep involvement, even though neither necessarily place him at the scene of either the kidnapping or delivery of the ransom money.”
He is convinced that Hauptmann did not tell all he knew and treated the truth elastically. This makes Hauptmann something of a puzzle. Tenner calls him “The Enigmatic Everyman” who could have done more to defend himself. The German carpenter had tried three times to reach America by stowing away on board ships crossing the Atlantic and many today see him in a more sympathetic light. As Tenner puts it, “he had the ability to elicit what would later be called ‘the kindness of strangers.’”
Tenner, who promises to bring some provocative ideas to the April 9 discussion (saving them for the occasion rather than sharing them here), believes that “the failure of either side to provide a convincing model of Hauptmann’s thinking is why there has never been a major feature film about this case and helps explain why Steven Spielberg has still not exercised his multimillion dollar option on [A. Scott] Berg’s biography of Lindbergh.”
That Hauptmann never confessed is one reason O’Shaughnessy suggests for the ongoing interest in the Lindbergh case. Rhule agrees: “The fact that Hauptmann maintained his innocence to his death, despite the offer by a newspaper of $90,000 to confess to the crime, feeds the fascination. The case has the magical alchemy of celebrity, tragedy, and an unsolved mystery that makes it endlessly fascinating, even 80 years after Hauptmann was executed.”
According to Jones, “There are enough loose ends in the case to be irresistible to mystery lovers and conspiracy theorists. That and the horror of the crime itself — every parent’s nightmare — and the almost mythic stature Lindbergh had and still has — further abetted by the subsequent chapters in his life — the controversial American First movement before World War II, and most recently the revelations of his secret families in Europe.”
Still, protestations of innocence aren’t unique in capital cases. What Tenner finds unique to this case is Hauptmann’s wife’s steadfast campaign to challenge the verdict and the support of leading clerics, journalists, and academics ever since. One New York minister was willing to lose his pulpit and be defrocked for coming to Hauptmann’s defense. Trenton’s leading Lutheran pastor also took Hauptmann’s side. “Recently the mayor of Hauptmann’s home town has suggested he might have been a tragic victim,” says Tenner, adding that this contrasts with German authorities at the time of the trial.
“The real challenge isn’t about wood grain or spelling errors, it’s about Hauptmann,” says Tenner. In contrast to criminology professor and former FBI agent Jim Fisher, Tenner finds it hard to dismiss Hauptmann as a “low-grade sociopath.” He finds Hauptmann “not only a loving husband and father but an engaging and popular member of his community who spent ‘musical evenings’ playing the mandolin with his friends. His autobiographical testament to his mother is a model of Christian stoicism. His offers to take a lie detector test or submit to truth serum were refused. It is this ‘enigmatic everyman,’ rather than the heroic aviator that has drawn so many into the labyrinth that is the Lindbergh kidnapping case.”
Press, Justice, Celebrity: A Panel Discussion on the Lindbergh Kidnapping, Hunterdon County Courthouse, 71 Main Street, Flemington. Saturday, April 9, 2 p.m. $25 ($20 for Friends of Morven). 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.
The Morven Exhibition
‘Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Couple of an Age” at Morven Museum & Garden tells the Lindbergh story anew from the flight of the Spirit of St. Louis to the infamous kidnapping and the subsequent “Trial of the Century.” It yields a portrait of the Lindberghs’ 45-year marriage — raising five more children and supporting each other as writers — Anne’s development into a bestselling author, and Charles going on to make remarkable contributions to medical research, rocketry, anthropology, and conservation.
It includes Lindbergh’s fascination with the Third Reich, his run-ins with President Franklin D. Roosevelt over the aviator’s isolationist stance during the run up to the Second World War, and touches on the 2003 revelation of Lindbergh’s secret life in Germany and the three families he kept there. The exhibition opened last November and runs through October 23.
Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., $5 to $6. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.
“Forensic Insights: A Reexamination of the Work of Arthur Koehler” (and his examination of the ladder used in the kidnapping), Morven. Monday, April 11, noon, $12.
“Making the Canonical Contemporary: Behind the Scenes of an Exhibition,” a discussion with Isometric Studio designers, Morven. Monday, April 18, noon, $12.
Tea with Reeve Lindbergh, Charles and Anne’s daughter, Present Day Club, 72 Stockton Street, Princeton. Friday, May 20, 4 p.m.
Children’s Story Time with Reeve Lindbergh, Morven. Saturday, May 21, 10 a.m.
Lucky Lindy and the Songs of the 1920s, Morven, Lecture by Michael Lasser. Friday, June 10, 4 p.m.
Freelance writer Linda Arntzenius focuses on historical topics and is the author of Images of America: Institute for Advanced Study (Arcadia Publishing, 2011).