Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

My Baby is Missing!

The Lindbergh Kidnapping

Charles A. Lindbergh & plane
Charles A. Lindbergh & plane

On May 22, 1927, aviator Charles Lindbergh, 25, flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean non-stop and landed in Paris, thereby inspiring a cult of worship that was truly unique in American history. Mobbed by thousands of admirers wherever he went, Lindbergh was a quiet, unassuming individual who shunned the spotlight and quickly tired of his notoriety. German born, rich and handsome, the young pilot and his wife grew wary of the public and wanted to retreat into private life. The family built a mansion in the woods of central New Jersey near a town called Hopewell. They lived there in peace on nearly 400 acres of beautiful, unspoiled land. Until the night of March 1, 1932 when their lives changed forever.

Charles Lindbergh Jr.
Charles Lindbergh Jr.

Sometime during that frigid evening, Charles Jr., their twenty-month-old baby, was stolen from his crib. The baby's caretaker discovered the crime at approximately 10 p.m. when she went to feed the baby and found him missing. Immediately, the police were called in and an intensive search for the kidnapper began on the sprawling Lindbergh estate. The New Jersey State Police, led by Colonel Norman Schwarzkopf, father of the Gulf War general, scoured the countryside for clues. The kidnapper contacted the family and intensive negotiations began for payment of a $50,000 ransom. Within hours, several hundred reporters descended upon the Lindbergh compound fighting each other tooth and nail for any scrap of new information.

A representative of the family later met with the suspect and paid the money. Investigators recorded the serial number of each bill prior to the meeting. But the Lindbergh baby was not turned over. He was found dead on May 12, 1932, not four miles away from his home. The corpse was in an advanced state of decomposition which indicated he had been killed some time before. The skull had been severely fractured and the left leg was missing below the knee. The coroner believed the baby had been killed soon after the kidnapping on March 1 but the postmortem provided very little hard information for investigators. The case became an international sensation and massive media coverage continued on a scale that was unprecedented. The story dominated the nation's headlines in a way that was usually reserved for news only of the most catastrophic kind, such as an earthquake or a presidential assassination. The killer was vilified in the press in a fashion that would have surely inspired a lynching if he was captured at that time. He was called, "a devil," "sub-human," "evil beyond words," and one editorial cried "hanging is too good for him!"

For the next two and a half years, detectives continued to interview friends, acquaintances, workers and others who came into contact with the Lindberghs. They conducted dozens of searches on the family estate and made several arrests for a series of cruel hoaxes that were committed against the Lindbergh family. Criminal entrepreneurs managed to extort thousands of dollars from Charles Lindbergh who became obsessed with the capture of the killer.

Bruno Richard Hauptmann
Bruno Richard Hauptmann

It was not until September 1934, when an astute gas station attendant received a 10-dollar bill, that investigators finally hit pay dirt. When the attendant compared the bill to a police bulletin, which listed the serial numbers of the ransom money, it was a match. The man wrote down the license plate of the vehicle and gave it to police. The car was registered to a Bruno Richard Hauptmann, 35, an illegal German immigrant who lived in the Bronx. Police immediately arrested Hauptmann and found more ransom money in his wallet. A search was later conducted of his home where nearly $15,000 of the ransom money was found hidden in the walls of his garage. The wooden rafters of the garage matched the wood rungs on a ladder found outside Lindbergh's window on the night of the kidnapping. After one of the most tumultuous criminal trials in American history, held at Flemington , New Jersey, in January 1935, Hauptmann was convicted of kidnapping and murder. He was executed at New Jersey State Prison on January 13, 1936.

As a result of the sensational Lindbergh case, new laws were passed making kidnapping a federal crime. But it did not lessen the impact of the crime upon the American consciousness. "It is impossible to escape the awful symbolism of the crime at the Lindbergh home," wrote the New York Times on March 3, 1932, "The ravishment of that home by crime becomes a challenge, a personal affront to every decent man and woman, and a disgrace to the nation in which such a thing could occur." Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. was the most famous baby in the United States and perhaps the world, at that time. If he could be kidnapped, then what chance at safety would the children of ordinary parents be? It was a question that was on the mind of everyone during an era of kidnappings that had no parallel in American history.

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