Surely the Lindbergh baby kidnapping (U.S. 1, April 6) is to greater Princeton what the John F. Kennedy assassination is to Dallas. Both were sensational local crimes that became seared into the national consciousness. Both have spawned decades of debate about the innocence (or only partial guilt) of their accused perpetrators, Bruno Richard Hauptmann and Lee Harvey Oswald.
And both, I think, show how difficult it is — psychologically and culturally — to accept that little men can bring down great men, that losers acting alone can actually change the course of history.
When I grew up in the 1950s in Montgomery Township, right next to Hopewell, scene of the Lindbergh crime, the common wisdom was that “the evidence against Hauptmann was only circumstantial.” In the same way, I’m sure youngsters growing up in Dallas after 1963 heard a common wisdom that “Oswald couldn’t have shot accurately from that high window in the Dallas Book Depository at a speeding car, he must have had help from other gunmen firing from the nearby grassy knoll.”
I’ve never visited the book depository, now preserved as an historic site. But U.S. 1 editor Richard K. Rein has. And he was forcefully struck by how relatively close to street level that window really is. President Kennedy, in his slow moving motorcade, would have been easy to hit for a Marine Corps-trained marksman like Oswald (U.S. 1, November 19, 2003).
I have studied the Lindbergh case for many years and written about it for various publications. And I have been forcefully struck by how strong the case really is against Hauptmann. That the evidence against Hauptmann may be circumstantial is about as “circumstantial” as the Theory of Evolution is “only a theory.”
The definitive study of the crime, The Lindbergh Case by Jim Fisher (Rutgers University Press) lays this out powerfully. To summarize: All of the ransom notes (including, most damningly, the one left in the baby’s crib on the night of March 1, 1932) are clearly in Hauptmann’s handwriting (numerous leading handwriting experts consulted before the trial told this clearly to the defense); Hauptmann was found in possession of most of the ransom money; the ladder used to gain access to the Lindbergh home was made in part with wood from his garage; a design sketch of the ladder was in one of Hauptmann’s notebooks; and on and on.
If your child was kidnapped and a suspect found with this much evidence associated with him, yet he was set free because it was deemed “only circumstantial,” how would you react?
The comprehensive exhibit “Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Couple of an Age” (at the Morven museum in Princeton through October 23) gives a thorough and balanced presentation of the crime and its aftermath. And it unblinkingly reveals crucial facts which, while not admissible as evidence at Hauptmann’s trial, can help history judge him: namely, that Hauptmann became involved in petty crime in his native Germany, including a second story burglary in which he used a ladder. If Hauptmann was a poor innocent, railroaded to the electric chair (as many Lindbergh crime buffs insist), how are we to take this inconvenient fact?
Author Jim Fisher goes further in his book. He documents that Hauptmann was a pathological liar; therefore the common argument that he staunchly maintained his innocence right up to his electrocution is meaningless. (Example: While Hauptmann was in jail awaiting trial, a soup spoon went missing from his dinner tray. A search of the cell revealed that the spoon was being made into a knife and a hook. Confronted with these objects, Hauptmann calmly and unblinkingly replied, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”)
Similarly, Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists typically don’t tell the public (or their journalistic interlocutors) that Oswald attempted to assassinate Major General Edwin Anderson Walker on April 10, 1963, using the same rifle used to kill Kennedy, while the general sat in the dining room of his Dallas home. (Oswald boldly confessed the attempt to his wife Marina.) If the CIA — or the FBI or the Mafia or the Communist Cubans or Lyndon Johnson or a combination of these — were using Oswald to eliminate JFK, what of the inconvenient fact that their alleged minion was shooting at General Anderson as well?
It’s an irrelevant argument that Hauptmann didn’t get a fair trial because of the “media circus” at the Hunterdon county seat of Flemington. There was also a media circus in Los Angeles during O.J. Simpson’s criminal trial, perhaps even greater given modern television coverage. The juries were sequestered in both cases. Hauptmann was found guilty but Simpson was acquitted.
As Fisher documents, initial public opinion was overwhelming that Hauptmann was guilty. So how did the myth of his innocence arise?
Unquestionably, a major factor was Anna Hauptmann’s heartrending and repeated efforts, to the end of her days, to have her husband posthumously pardoned. By contrast, Marina Oswald was never in denial about her husband’s crimes.
(Here, I make a concession: Although Oswald certainly planned to assassinate JFK, it’s likely Hauptmann only intended to collect the ransom and the Lindbergh child was killed accidently when Hauptman slipped down the ladder while exiting the house. So, to the U.S. 1 cover story’s question, “Guilty as Charged?” strictly speaking the answer is “No.” The defense should have admitted guilt but challenged the first-degree murder charge. However, that would have been impossible with a client who staunchly insisted on his innocence.)
The better historical comparison with the Lindbergh case comes in changing attitudes about General George Armstrong Custer, the U.S. cavalry officer who led his command to be wiped out by a determined and numerically superior force of Native American warriors in the battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Custer’s arrogant foolishness was soundly condemned at the time. But his widow Elizabeth Bacon Custer, through popular books and lectures, launched a successful rehabilitation of her husband. Custer was subsequently honored as a heroic American martyr, his fatal blunder lionized as “Custer’s Last Stand.”
Over time, reevaluations of the evidence — free from emotional pleadings, the intellectual seduction of revisionist theorizing, and the “common wisdoms” that solidify over the years — have put Custer into his truthful place in history. Perhaps one day the same will be true of Oswald and Hauptmann.