When veteran British journalist Ludovic Kennedy visited the jail cell where Hauptmann was held before and during his trial for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby, he commented: “No one who visits Cell No. 1 in Flemington Jail and contemplates the thought of living in it for months at a time can do so without a sense of shock and even disbelief.”
On a recent visit to the Hunterdon County Courthouse, I found the six-and-a-half foot by five-foot cell and courtroom little changed since the trial. From the time of his arraignment in mid-October, 1934, Hauptmann was held in Cell No. 1 with three guards sitting outside in a narrow corridor. After his sentencing he was transferred to death row in the state penitentiary in Trenton.
To get to the jail from the courtroom, I pass through one of the two doors behind the judge’s bench, leaving behind the formidably imposing light-filled court with its polished wood benches and portrait-lined walls into a utilitarian passage where exposed stone and iron bars speak of a harsher reality. “This passageway was much worse before the renovation,” says Hunterdon County architect Frank Bell, as he leads me through the heavily fortified door to the jailhouse that was state-of-the-art when constructed in 1925 under a new prison reform act.
This is one of the oldest surviving county courthouses in the state. The original 1793 building burned down and was rebuilt in 1828, of local stone with stuccoed columns and capitals in the Greek Revival style. Frederick Douglass lectured here in the 1880s. Since the time of the trial the building has been restored: the exterior in 1999 at a cost of $1.1 million and the interior beginning in 2004 at a cost of $4.5 million. New Jersey Historic Trust grants totaling $1.5 million were used.
Bell oversaw both. He has been involved in restoration projects in the area since 1999 and working full time for the county since 2000.
Bell fills me in on the building’s history. It isn’t long before the Lindbergh trial comes up. “The building suffered a terrible 1950s redo that had changed the original light fixtures, lowered the ceiling and covered it with sheet rock, and installed burgundy curtains. We had to reproduce some of the benches and replace the tinwork ceiling and other original details. We relied on photographs from the Lindbergh trial for many of the details you see here today.”
The courtroom seats 200 visitors on the main floor and on the dizzying balcony above, under the tin ceiling that has been carefully restored by Bell and his team. “When we opened up the walls, we discovered old newspapers and law books that had been used as insulation,” he says, showing me a box of dusty items, including several checks signed by a long-ago sheriff and copies of the Hunterdon Democrat newspaper.
Trial-era images show a packed courtroom with people sitting on window sills and folding chairs, and leaning against the walls. The courthouse is just a 10-minute walk along Main Street from the railway station that in those days served New York City. Among the celebrities who stopped were Damon Runyon, Ford Madox Ford, Edna Ferber, Ginger Rogers, Lynn Fontaine, Jack Dempsey, Moss Hart, Jack Benny, and photographer Margaret Bourke-White.
While it is still a legal courtroom and used by municipal and others organizations for occasional meetings and ceremonies, including mock trials by the Junior Bar Association, legal proceedings are no longer held here. It has been replaced by a much larger building with 21st-century safety features at nearby 65 Park Avenue.
Currently there are no tours of the building, but that is expected to change with the completion of new galleries being installed on the building’s first floor, says the executive director of the Hunterdon County Cultural and Heritage Commission, Carrie Fellows. The galleries will provide space for local history and art organizations; perhaps even a Lindbergh exhibition following the current Morven show (for which fellow commissioner Jim Davidson has loaned several Lindbergh-related items).
“Occasionally we get curious visitors asking about Lindbergh and we’d love to offer formal tours,” says Fellows, but as yet, there isn’t enough staff for that. Sheriff Fred Brown has been known to share his extensive knowledge of the Lindbergh trial with visitors, but by appointment only.
Across the street from the historic courthouse stands the Union Hotel, where curious trial visitors, journalists, and members of the jury were accommodated. The privately owned building is in a sorry state, however, and is the subject of a controversial attempt to replace it with modern retail space. A group of interested residents is hoping to save the building or at least its historic facade. (See the “Save the Union Hotel” page on Facebook and the letter starting on page 2 of this issue.) The hotel is just one of numerous historic buildings in Flemington where blue plaques record accomplished residents and businesses of the past, put there by Fellows and the Hunterdon County Cultural and Heritage Commission.