The news this week has been full of statistics about the increase in killings in cities around the country. The numbers are frightening, but for most of us they are just numbers. Except for the suffering families of the deceased, the identity of the perpetrators is not a subject of great interest; “gang members” or “street thugs” are blamed, we wonder if budget cuts to police departments are the cause, and we go on to another topic. When the rich and famous are involved, however, the investigation becomes national news. Sometimes, even after a criminal has been caught, tried, convicted and executed, the speculation goes on. Such is the case with the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son; curiosity about this case has survived for more than 80 years.
The Lindbergh case has a particular resonance in Flemington, New Jersey, where my book store is located; it is the county seat of Hunterdon County, where the crime took place, and thus where the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted of the crime, was held. But this crime drew international attention; Charles Lindbergh was a hero whose fame spread far beyond New Jersey or even the United States. In 1927 he was the first person to fly solo, non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean, from New York to Paris, in a single engine airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, and used his new found celebrity to promote commercial aviation and Air Mail service. It is hard to imagine in today’s world of innumerable “celebrities,” whose every hiccup is bandied on CNN, what distinction Lindbergh held and how the violation of his family touched millions of people.
Lindbergh married Anne Morrow in 1929 and their first child, Charles Augustus Junior, was born in 1930. Tired of the constant importuning of the media of the day, they decided to build a home in the country where they could raise their family in peace. They had barely moved into the house, set on 700 acres, when on March 1, 1932, Charles Junior was stolen from his crib. Police were called, and a homemade ladder was found not far from the house. Imprints from that ladder were found beneath the window of the baby’s room, and a ransom note was located in the room, demanding $50,000. The note contained a symbol that was used in later communications from the kidnapper(s) as well as several misspellings that became significant in the investigation. Lindbergh involved himself in the case, often acting on his own to pursue leads. The ransom was paid in a cemetery in the Bronx in April, but the child was not returned. Ten weeks after the kidnapping, a workman stumbled upon the decomposing body of a child in the woods about two miles from the Lindbergh home; it was positively identified as the missing Charles Jr.
Two and a half years of investigation had little success; the ransom money was turning up, but could never be traced to the spender. Finally a suspicious gas station attendant wrote down the license number of a car driven by someone who had given him a $10 gold certificate in payment; the information led to the arrest of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, an unemployed German immigrant carpenter who lived in the area of the Bronx where most of the bills had been passed. Evidence linking the ladder used in the kidnapping to Hauptmann, as well as about $14,000 of the ransom money, was found in Hauptmann’s home.
The trial took place in Flemington during January and February of 1935, lasting six weeks. H. L. Mencken called the kidnapping and trial “the biggest story since the Resurrection.” The town was overflowing with reporters from all over the world; never before or since has this small town been the center of such attention. It was truly the “Trial of the Century,” although others have over-used that label since. Hauptmann was convicted, and, although he proclaimed his innocence to the end, he was electrocuted in April 1936. As a result of this crime, Congress passed the Federal Kidnapping Act, otherwise known as “The Lindbergh Law,” making it a federal crime to transport kidnap victims across state lines.
The Lindbergh connection has been bringing visitors to Flemington ever since the trial. For twenty years, ending in 2010, the trial was re-enacted for several weeks in October, in the same courtroom where it took place. The director and producer, Harry Kazman, discontinued the production because of fatigue, not because of lack of interest; the performances were always sold out. They even included newsboys, dressed in period garb, selling reproductions of the Hunterdon County Democrat from that time on the street in front of the courthouse. We have a new, modern courthouse for the county, but the old one, built in 1828, has been restored to its 1930’s glory, with particular attention to the largest, most famous courtroom. The Union Hotel, temporary residence of Walter Winchell, Damon Runyon, Lowell Thomas, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Edna Ferber, among others, is, sadly, closed, but plans are underway for its revitalization. Interest in the case seems to be flagging. I don’t get as many customers seeking books about the kidnapping as I once did, and many of the books are out of print. Fewer people ask about the Lindbergh house, a few miles away (given by Charles Lindbergh to the state of New Jersey in 1933, to be used “to help boys,” and now a rehabilitation facility for male juvenile offenders). Fortunately, a book with new evidence about the crime has just been published, and is stirring discussion again about what really happened.
Over the years, there have been the usual theories, speculations, and scams which surround high profile events. No fewer than 15 men have come forward at various times claiming to be the missing child, although few doubt that the body found was Charles Jr. Anna Hauptmann, Bruno’s widow, sued the state of New Jersey twice before her death claiming that her husband’s trial was fixed, and once appeared in Flemington during a trial reenactment to plead her case to the public. A 1976 book by Anthony Scaduto, Scapegoat, supported her case, saying the evidence was fabricated. There was a theory put forward that Al Capone masterminded the kidnapping as an extortion attempt to be released from prison. Various speculations have been advanced involving some of the less savory political figures in New Jersey who may have had reasons to arrange the crime. Lindbergh detractors, who point to his possible Nazi sympathies before World War II, claim he killed the child because it was less than perfect.
Jim Fisher, a former FBI agent and professor of criminal law and forensic science, who spent years researching the case, and wrote two books about it, The Lindbergh Case and The Ghosts of Hopewell, is convinced that Hauptmann was guilty and acted alone. Many others who are convinced of Hauptmann’s guilt believe that there were accomplices who were never discovered. Robert Zorn, author of Cemetery John: The Undiscovered Mastermind of the Lindbergh Kidnapping (Overlook Press, 2012) claims his father knew the other conspirators as a teenager, while they were plotting the crime.
Eugene Zorn, Robert’s father, was 15 in 1931 when a neighbor in the South Bronx, a German immigrant named John Knoll, offered to take him to Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. There they were joined by John’s brother, Walter, and another German-speaking man named Bruno. He overheard them talking about Englewood (the town in northern New Jersey where the Lindbergh’s were then living with Anne’s family while their house was being built.) Eugene did not think much about all this until 1963, when he came across a magazine article about the Lindbergh kidnapping. He wrote to Charles Lindbergh in 1972, and the letter was hand delivered by a mutual friend, but Lindbergh didn’t want to open old wounds, according to the friend. Eugene and Robert continued to research the case, and Robert carried on alone after his father’s death. His claim to have identified the two accomplices in the crime as John and Walter Knoll is convincing.
“Cemetery John” was the nickname given at the time to the man who met Charles Lindbergh’s emissary, John Condon, in a Bronx cemetery and who ultimately collected the ransom. A police sketch based on Condon’s description of the man does not resemble Hauptmann but does resemble a photo of John Knoll which Zorn unearthed in 2010. Condon described “Cemetery John” as having a fleshy lump on his left thumb, and this lump is apparent in another photo of Knoll. After the ransom was paid, John Knoll, an uneducated deli clerk had money to begin collecting stamps, giving some valuable ones to his neighbor Eugene Zorn. In 1934 he traveled to Europe with his wife, not returning until after Hauptmann’s conviction.
Robert Zorn has done meticulous research and makes a compelling case that Hauptmann could not have committed the crime alone. Three perpetrators would fit the need to have someone to hold the ladder, someone to wait at the top of it to receive the child, and someone to enter the room, pass the child out the window, leave the ransom note, and wipe the area clean of fingerprints (no prints of family or servants were found). His belief that John and Walter Knoll were the accomplices is supported by handwriting analysis, behavioral profiling, photographs, and new forensic evidence. Many of the unanswered questions about this case are resolved in this book.
Zorn’s evidence will be featured in a NOVA documentary on the Lindbergh case to be aired early next year. The book and the documentary will undoubtedly begin a new round of questioning, criticism, and theories about the kidnapping and investigation. It can only be good for Flemington, where it all happened.