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Lindbergh's Baby Kidnapped

By Shelly Schwartz, Contributing History Writer

A picture of little Charlie Lindbergh just a few months before he was kidnapped and killed.

Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr, son of the American aviator, on his first birthday. A few months later he was kidnapped from his home and murdered.

(Photo by BIPS/Getty Images)
On the evening of March 1, 1932, famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife put their 20-month-old baby, Charles (“Charlie”) Augustus Lindbergh Jr., to bed in his upstairs nursery. However, when Charlie’s nurse went to check on him at 10 pm, he was gone; someone had kidnapped him. News of the kidnapping shocked the world.

While the Lindbergh’s were dealing with ransom notes that promised the safe return of their son, a truck driver stumbled upon the decomposing remains of little Charlie on May 12, 1932, in a shallow grave less than five miles from where he had been taken. Now looking for a murderer, the police, FBI, and other government agencies stepped up their manhunt. After two years, they caught Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was convicted of first-degree murder and executed.

Charles Lindbergh, American Hero

Young, good looking, and shy, Charles Lindbergh made Americans proud when he was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in May 1927. His accomplishment, as well as his demeanor, endeared him to the public and he soon became one of the most popular people in the world.

The dashing and popular young aviator didn’t stay single long. On a tour of Latin America in December 1927, Lindbergh met heiress Anne Morrow in Mexico, where her father was the U.S. ambassador. During their courtship, Lindbergh taught Morrow to fly and she eventually became Lindbergh’s co-pilot, helping him survey transatlantic air routes. The young couple married on May 27, 1929; Morrow was 23 and Lindbergh was 27.

Their first child, Charles (“Charlie”) Augustus Lindbergh Jr., was born on June 22, 1930. His birth was publicized around the globe; the press called him “the Eaglet,” a nickname stemming from Lindbergh’s own moniker, “the Lone Eagle.”

The Lindbergh’s New House

The famous couple, now with a famous son, tried to escape the limelight by building a 20-room house in a secluded spot in the Sourland Mountains of central New Jersey, near the town of Hopewell. While the estate was being built, the Lindbergh’s stayed with Morrow’s family in Englewood, New Jersey, but when the house was nearing completion, they’d often stay the weekends at their new home.

Thus, it was an anomaly that the Lindbergh’s were still at their new home on Tuesday, March 1, 1932. Little Charlie had come down with a cold and so the Lindberghs had decided to stay rather than travel back to Englewood. Staying with the Lindberghs that night were a housekeeping couple and the baby’s nurse, Betty Gow.

Events of the Kidnapping

Little Charlie still had a cold when he went to bed that night on March 1, 1932 in his nursery on the second floor. Around 8 pm, his nurse went to check on him and all seemed well. Then around 10 pm, nurse Gow checked in on him again and he was gone. She rushed to tell the Lindberghs. After making a quick search of the house and not finding little Charlie, Lindbergh called the police. There were muddy footprints on the floor and the window to the nursery was wide open. Fearing the worst, Lindbergh grabbed his rifle and went out into the woods to look for his son.

The police arrived and thoroughly searched the grounds. They found a homemade ladder believed to have been used to kidnap Charlie due to scrape marks on the outside of the house near the second-floor window.

Also found was a ransom note on the nursery’s windowsill demanding $50,000 in return for the baby. The note warned Lindbergh there would be trouble if he involved the police. The note had misspellings and the dollar sign was placed after the ransom amount. Some of the misspellings, such as “the child is in gute care,” led the police to suspect a recent immigrant was involved in the kidnapping.

The Liaison

On March 9, 1932, a 72-year-old retired teacher from the Bronx named Dr. John Condon called the Lindberghs and claimed that he had written a letter to the Bronx Home News offering to act as an intermediary between Lindbergh and the kidnapper(s). According to Condon, the day after his letter was published, the kidnapper contacted him. Desperate to get his son back, Lindbergh allowed Condon to be his liaison and kept the police at bay.

On April 2, 1932, Dr. Condon delivered the ransom money of gold certificates (serial numbers recorded by the police) to a man at St. Raymond's Cemetery, while Lindbergh waited in a nearby car. The man (known as Cemetery John) did not give the baby to Condon, but instead gave Condon a note revealing the baby's location – on a boat called the Nelly, "between Horseneck beach and Gay Head near Elizabeth Island." However, after a thorough search of the area, no boat was found, nor the baby.

On May 12, 1932, a truck driver found the baby’s decomposed body in the woods a few miles from the Lindbergh estate. It was believed that the child had been dead since the night of the kidnapping; the baby’s skull was fractured. Police speculated that the kidnapper might have dropped the baby when he came down the ladder from the second floor.

Kidnapper Captured

For two years, the police and the FBI watched for serial numbers from the ransom money, providing the list of numbers to banks and stores. In September 1934, one of the gold certificates showed up at a gas station in New York. The gas attendant became suspicious since gold certificates had gone out of circulation the year before and the man purchasing gas had spent a $10 gold certificate to buy only 98 cents of gas.

Worried that the gold certificate might be counterfeit, the gas attendant wrote down the license plate number of the car on the gold certificate and gave it to the police. When the police tracked down the car, they found that it belonged to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, an illegal German immigrant carpenter.

Police ran a check on Hauptmann and found that Hauptmann had a criminal record in his hometown of Kamenz, Germany, where he had used a ladder to climb into the second-story window of a home to steal money and watches. Police searched Hauptmann’s home in the Bronx and found $14,000 of the Lindbergh ransom money hidden in his garage.

Evidence

Hauptmann was arrested on September 19, 1934, and tried for murder beginning on January 2, 1935. Evidence included the homemade ladder, which matched boards missing from Hauptmann’s attic floorboards; a writing sample that reportedly matched the writing on the ransom note; and a witness that claimed to have seen Hauptmann on the Lindbergh estate the day before the crime.

Additionally, other witnesses claimed that Hauptmann gave them the ransomed bills at various businesses; Condon claimed to recognize Hauptmann as Cemetery John; and Lindbergh claimed to recognize Hauptmann’s German accent from the graveyard.

Hauptmann took the stand, but his denials did not convince the court. On February 13, 1935, the jury convicted Hauptmann of first-degree murder. He was put to death by electric chair on April 3, 1936, for the murder of Charles A. Lindbergh Jr.

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