6 Things You May Not Know About the Lindbergh Kidnapping
Authorities closed the case more than 80 years ago, but as Don Wildman learns, there’s much more to the “crime of the century” than meets the eye. Don revisits the scene of the crime in a special episode of Mysteries at the Museum.
In 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh made headlines around the world by becoming the first aviator to make a nonstop flight across the Atlantic. Five years later, he was the subject of a nightmarish new story: On the evening of March 1st, 1932, his 20-month old son, Charlie, was stolen from his crib. 72 days later, a badly-decomposed body authorities identified as Charlie’s was discovered in the woods less than four miles away.
For a special episode of Mysteries at the Museum, Don will revisit the scene of the crime for an intimate look at what we think we know about what happened that night. Before he does, consider these angles of the case and its aftermath.
The “Tuesday Night” Problem
The night of Charlie’s disappearance was the first Tuesday that Lindbergh, his wife, Anne, and their son had ever spent at Highfields, their estate in Hopewell, New Jersey. The property was still under construction, and the Lindberghs limited themselves to weekend visits. At 10:30 that morning, Anne made the decision to stay another night, as Charlie had caught a cold. That spontaneous extended stay continues to puzzle historians: If the family themselves hadn’t known they would be at Highfields that night, how did the kidnapper know?
Some Believe Charlie’s Abduction Was an Inside Job
Rutgers professor emeritus Lloyd Gardner offers a theory that Charlie had health problems, based on physicians’ accounts and his daily need for a megadose of Vitamin D2 — and that his father, who had a well-known fascination with Social Darwinism and eugenics, might have wanted his less-than-perfect child out of the spotlight. Gardner reasons that Lindbergh might have arranged for a “kidnapping” to create public cover for placing Charlie in a medical institution, and that the child’s death was the result of a plan gone horribly awry.
The Case Inspired Federal Legislation
On June 17th, 1932 — three and a half months after Charlie’s kidnapping — the 72nd Congress passed the Federal Kidnapping Act, or the “Lindbergh Law,” which made the transportation of abductees across state lines a federal crime that was punishable, in especially heinous cases, by death. President Hoover signed the bill into law on June 22, which would have been Charlie’s second birthday.
Changes in U.S. Currency Helped Break the Case
When Lindbergh decided to pay the $50,000 demanded in a ransom note left on the window sill in Charlie’s nursery, the FBI made sure the payment was trackable: The serial number of every bill was recorded, and most of those bills were gold notes (which were about to become obsolete, as FDR was moving the country off the gold standard.) When the manager of a Manhattan service station was handed one of those gold notes on September 15, 1934, he took down the license plate number of the motorist who paid him with it — and the next morning, police tracked the plate back to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who had $14,600 in Lindbergh ransom bills hidden in the frame of his garage.
The Prosecution’s Case Rested on Rail 16
The sole link between Hauptmann and the scene of the kidnapping was a single piece of the crude handmade ladder investigators found near the Lindbergh estate and fit in marks beneath Charlie’s window. A forensic wood expert testified at the trial that the ladder was made from wood in Hauptmann’s attic, where police had found a floorboard sawn in half.
The Governor of New Jersey Distrusted the Evidence
Shortly before his execution, Hauptmann gained an unlikely ally: New Jersey Governor Harold G. Hoffman, who visited Hauptmann in prison, declared that he couldn’t possibly have acted alone, and granted him a 30-day reprieve. He ordered the case re-opened, as the prosecution’s key piece of evidence — holes in the ladder that matched nail holes in Hauptmann’s attic beams — weren’t visible in an early photo of the ladder. Nevertheless, the defense lost its appeal, Hoffman was unable to grant a second reprieve, and Hauptmann was executed on April 3, 1936. The Lindbergh case was closed, but questions about the case remain.
Lindbergh Kidnapping: Mysteries at the Museum premieres Thursday, May 31, 2018 at 9|8c on Travel Channel.