Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

My Baby is Missing!

The Profile Changes

After the murder of the Lindbergh baby in 1932, and a new series of laws that allowed the death penalty for kidnapping, there was little tolerance for the criminal in American society. "The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby has thrown the country into a paroxysm of horror and rage," wrote The Washington Post in an editorial, "it is a crime that outrages humanity!" The public had suffered under the yoke of a rising crime wave for over a decade, which included overwhelming media coverage on the dangers of child abduction. Newspaper editorials ridiculed so-called "reformers" that prescribed sympathy for misunderstood criminals who grew up in Depression-ravaged America. Parents across the nation had seen too many crimes like the Lindbergh and the Parker cases, which ended in tragedy. They were in no mood for leniency.

In 1933, Brooke Hart, a 20-year-old college student and athlete, was kidnapped in San Jose , California. His father was a wealthy storeowner and one of the city's most well known businessmen. His abductors demanded $40,000 ransom for his return. But before the arrangements could be made, the suspects killed Hart and dumped his body into the San Francisco bay. The public, fueled by a belligerent and animated press, was enraged.

Thurmond & Holmes, lynching
Thurmond & Holmes,

Two men were later arrested and placed in the city jail. On the night of November 26, 1933, a large mob forced their way into the jail and beat the sheriff and his deputies unconscious. The two suspects were dragged kicking and screaming out of their cells. While 6,000 San Jose citizens watched in approval, the men were tortured and promptly hanged in a nearby park. Thousands more joined in when the news of the lynching swept over the city like wildfire. The nation was horrified. But California Governor James Rolph Jr. expressed strong support for the mob. "They'll learn they can't kidnap in this state," he told the press, "If any one is arrested for the good job, I'll pardon them."

The Hart case had a sobering effect on the kidnapping fervor. Not only did a criminal have to worry about the police chasing him, but if he was caught by ordinary citizens, there was a good chance he would suffer mob justice. San Jose was not the only city where vigilantes took over for the court system. Similar events occurred quickly in Tennessee and in Maryland, where thousands of people rioted against the National Guard in a protest of several arrests for a previous lynching. Slowly, the kidnapping for ransom era dissipated. Isolated cases of abductions still occurred, but the classical scenario in which children were abducted from wealthy parents and held for money, all but disappeared. By the 1950s, the motivations for child kidnappings changed dramatically.

William Heirens behind bars
William Heirens behind

Although it was more of a myth than reality, a "new" type of criminal emerged: the sexual psychopath. Of course, this type of offender had always existed throughout history. In the late 1940s, William Heirens, 17, kidnapped a six-year old girl in Chicago. He sexually assaulted the victim, cut her up and dumped the parts into city sewers. Heirens later claimed an alter ego actually committed the crime. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. But in the 1950s, a series of sexually motivated murders which received a tremendous amount of media attention convinced the public that a new criminal had been born. Suddenly, sex offenses seemed to be happening everywhere. During the post-war period American culture experienced a profound psychological and sociological transformation.

Hollywood films also reflected that change. While the 1930s had been filled with films like Little Caesar (1931), Public Enemy (1931 and San Quentin (1937), the 1950s produced very little in the way of traditional gangster cinema. Instead, films that portrayed the darker side of criminality, called film noir, became popular. Twisted sex, betrayal and alienation are just some of the themes addressed in the new kind of realism offered by the film noir genre. Film historian John Belton writes in American Cinema/American Culture, "The destabilization of sexual relationships found in film noir is symptomatic of a larger social disorder." Film noir gave birth to a different kind of realism in filmmaking and opened the door to more explicit sexual themes, including child-adult sex. Baby Doll (1956), especially, was widely condemned for its titillating portrayal of a seductive teenager. Later, in films like Lolita (1962), starring teenager Sue Lyons and Pretty Baby (1978), which featured thirteen year old Brooke Shields, Hollywood continued its exploration into the child-adult sex theme, much to the dismay of critics and a confused public.

Pretty Baby & Lolita movies
Pretty Baby & Lolita movies

But, as always, reality was a lot more frightening than any fiction. During the 1980s, national crime rates went through the roof, fueled by a crack cocaine epidemic that was unrivaled in its potential for destructive power. Stranger abductions also increased to sometimes over 200 per year. There was a growing awareness of the child abduction phenomenon in America. Victims began to appear on television talk shows. They gave interviews and wrote books. Parental abduction, which was largely ignored by law enforcement for many years, achieved recognition as a social problem. More laws were passed, necessitated by the growing technology of the Internet. Computers and the World Wide Web granted child molesters unprecedented access to children. Pedophilia, once a taboo subject for discussion, was brought into the forefront of public concern and America finally woke up to the dangers of child predators in our midst.

All these changes, and many more, were attributed, at least in part, to two child abduction cases whose savagery paralyzed the nation and terrorized parents everywhere.

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