Famed 1930s New York City reporter and short story writer Damon Runyon called it “The Crime of the Century,” but with ongoing books — including one just released this month (read on) and ongoing speculation — the 1932 kidnapping of the son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh seems poised to become the crime that filled a century.
For anyone who has lived in this region, where the events took place, it seems that we are constantly reminded of how the kidnapping of the 20 month old Charlie from his Hopewell Township home launched a two year investigation that involved a strange ransom note, a meeting in a graveyard, and a highly visible courtroom drama that sent German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann to the electric chair at Trenton State Prison.
The focus of numerous speculation about guilt and motivation, the case has also been the subject of shelves of books, screen dramatizations (one in which actor Anthony Hopkins plays Hauptmann), and stage plays, including a courtroom drama re-enacted in the Hunterdon Court House where the original trial took place.
Then there’s the periodic reappearance of someone who claims to be the Lindbergh baby himself — or more fittingly themselves. As a 20-year-old article in the Hunterdon County Democrat notes, “Over the decades, dozens of people have said they offer the strongest proof of Mr. Hauptmann’s innocence: themselves.”
The article notes that Lindbergh’s young daughter “has counted five ‘fairly active’ men in the U.S. and knows of several others in Europe who claim to be the Lindbergh baby.” It notes that “the height of wannabe fever was 1985: an Air Force lieutenant colonel, a woman from Lodi, Calif., and a DuBois, Pa., man all claimed to be the Lindbergh baby, and a woman from Shawnee Mission, Kansas, said her former husband was the child.”
The article also reports on Geneva E. Cato Fields of Trenton who was self-publishing the memoir, “I Located Myself, The Lindbergh Baby Alive.” The website Lindbergh Baby Resurfaces Again has more on this intriguing local subject and says that when the retired kitchen worker “first learned her identity from a former boyfriend in the CIA. She filled in the gaps with library research and self-published an account of her life, which she sold from the trunk of her daughter’s car. The Lindbergh baby was born deformed, ‘with dual, perfectly normal male and female reproductive organs,’ Field said in an interview. ‘They removed the male and left me a perfect female. They also made me black and sent me away.’”
For some reason the Lindbergh kidnapping really is, as the title of one books aptly claims, “The Case That Never Dies.” And two books printed this year continue to keep the story on life support.
This past June marked the release of “Cemetery John: The Undiscovered Mastermind Behind the Lindbergh Kidnapping.” The latest in the “what really happened” category, the book by Robert Zorn is “offering a fresh take on the cold case, plausibly arguing in ‘Cemetery John’ that, despite the execution of the odious Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the real mastermind of the crime escaped unpunished,” writes Edward Kosner for the Wall Street Journal.
Zorn’s argument is that in 1931 his father was part of the German immigrant population in the Bronx and met the ambitious John Knoll through a mutual friend. That meeting was at Palisades Amusement Park in northern New Jersey, close to where the Lindberghs lived prior to moving to central New Jersey. From a variety of encounters — including a discussion about the kidnapping with a man called “Bruno” — with his new associate, the elder Zorn began to suspect that the aviation-obsessed Knoll was involved with the infamous case and the shadowy figure who accepted the ransom money in the cemetery.
Reviews posted on author Zorn’s book website support Kosner’s comment about the argument being plausible. John Douglas, famous FBI criminal profiler and a model for the FBI agent in “The Silence of the Lambs,” writes, “Zorn’s research is both meticulous and compelling. Had it been available during the original investigation and had I been advising the police, I would have said that John Knoll is the guy you want to put on the front burner.”
And Governor Brendan Byrne says, “Based on strong and compelling evidence, ‘Cemetery John’ identifies the two German immigrant brothers who teamed with Bruno Hauptmann to kidnap the Lindbergh baby. Long before I signed the executive order releasing 250,000 files on the case to the public, I’d always believed that Hauptmann was guilty, but that he worked with accomplices. ‘Cemetery John’ validates that conclusion.”
Now another book on the kidnapping has just been released. Although this one doesn’t put any new light on the old topic, it does bring to light images of those days of old when the case was new.
“New Jersey’s Lindbergh Kidnapping and Trial” is the latest entry in the Images of America series created by Arcadia Publishing Company, the popular editions of hometowns and famous events.
With each Arcadia title featuring more vintage images than fresh text, the book is more compiled than written, and here two individuals well versed in the subject take up the task, Jim Davidson and Mark Falzini.
Davidson is a Flemington native who learned about the Lindbergh case from his parents who attended “an execution party” in Trenton when Hauptmann was electrocuted, causing the infamous dimming of the lights when the switch was pulled, says Arcadia materials. A trained historian (Muhlenberg College and Lehigh University) and history teacher at Hunterdon Central High School, he serves as an historian for East Amwell and lives across the street from the Lindbergh estate.
Falzini’s study of history at the College of New Jersey and library science at Rutgers University led him to the position of archivist at the New Jersey State Police Museum. Under his charge are all documents related to the case and trial evidence mentioned by Byrne. The Ewing-based museum also has the electric chair that killed Hauptmann on display.
With the Lindbergh information literally at his finger tips, Falzini has advised writers and consulted with museums regarding the case. He has also appeared on a variety of television programs, including documentaries made for PBS, the History Channel, CBS, and even Japan Public Television.
The 128-page book is divided neatly into seven sections, not including the helpful introduction and epilogue (which answers any question about what had happened to the principal actors in this true life drama).
The first chapter, “The Hero,” highlights Lindbergh as popular icon and features photos of the aviator in front of his plane, “The Spirit of St. Louis.” There are also pictures of memorabilia celebrating his historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
The “Crime” chapter is where the real story starts and includes images of young Charlie, the ladder leading to his bedroom, and the ransom note with awkward handwriting and markings that would appear again on other notes from the kidnappers.
“The Search” provides pictures of key individuals and important locations near the Lindbergh house. It also includes photos of the Bronx cemetery where Cemetery John met with an eccentric professor who had inserted himself in the case and became the intermediary between the police and criminal. That relationship is also featured in the chapter “The Investigation,” along with photos of the intermediary (according to Kosner “a retired Bronx educator and notorious blowhard” named Dr. John F. Condon) and the police composite sketch of Cemetery John.
The last section of the book focuses on the case’s prosecution, defense, and verdict; it includes scores of images that one immediately associates with the Lindbergh trial: an audience packed courtroom, a grim looking defendant and his wife, intrusive celebrities, bold headlines, and, of course, the electric chair.
In the final lines of the book’s epilogue Davidson and Falzini write, “Today in the New Jersey State Police Museum’s archive, the public has free access to over a quarter of a million documents, photographs, and videos pertaining to the case the never dies.”
With such a treasure trove of materials and ongoing interest, the case does promise to live a very long life, far longer than those who lived the real life tragedy.
Local audiences can join in the conversation when Davidson and Falzini make their free area appearances as follows:
Saturday, November 24, 7 p.m., Barnes and Noble Bookstore, Marketfair, 3535 Route 1, Princeton; and Saturday, December 8, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., New Jersey State Police Museum, 1020 River Road, Ewing. Visit www.arcadiapublishing.com/lindbergh.