Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Profession of Executioner: Robert G. Elliott

Bruno Richard Hauptmann

No one expected, at the moment of their execution, either the idealistic Sacco or the philosophical Vanzetti to confess to the crime for which they were convicted. And, there was no doubt as to the guilt of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, although Snyder mumbled protestations of innocence as she was being strapped in the chair.

But Bruno Richard Hauptmann was a different story. The expectation was that he would confess at the last moment, and thus be spared execution. It didnt happen. On the contrary, right up to minutes before he was led from his cell to the place of execution, he had expected a reprieve. The result was, as Elliott describes him, a bewildered, almost insensible figure. If he had had anything to say, any accomplice to implicate, he was too shocked and confused to say it.

As in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder case was a prolonged affair, beginning with the kidnapping on March 1, 1932, and ending with the execution of Hauptmann on April 3, 1936. More than two years after the abduction and murder of the child, Hauptmann was finally caught, passing one of the ransom bills. He was convicted in a sensational, publicity-fraught trial six months later, and finally met his fate more than a year after that.

Bruno Richard Hauptmann
Bruno Richard Hauptmann

Because of numerous appeals and investigations by the governor of New Jersey, Elliott was scheduled to act as executioner three times, over four months. Little wonder that Hauptmann felt that he would eventually be spared. So stirred by this case and the delays of the execution, the newspapers, radio, and newsreels couldnt get enough about Hauptmann. Elliott was offered $10,000 somehow to signal to one newspaper that Hauptmann was dead, so that the paper could scoop its competitors by five or six minutes. Elliott, always a man of rectitude, naturally declined.

New Jersey State Prison
New Jersey State Prison

Even more so than the other two famous cases, Elliott was deluged with threats and was hounded by reporters. He resorted to various subterfuges to evade reporters in his trips to the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, having his daughter drive his car while he caught a taxi parked at the back door, changing his license plates, evading the crowd of newsreel cameramen, radio announcers, and reporters gathered at the prison gate. A large crowd had gathered outside the prison, with state and local police keeping order. This was a crowd of the curious, rather than the immense crowd of supporters and protestors that had been outside the Massachusetts State Prison when Sacco and Vanzetti were executed.

Just as the trial itself had drawn crowds and media attention, the execution of Hauptmann was a circus. For the first time in his career, Elliott was searched before being permitted to enter the execution room. The New Jersey authorities did not want a repeat of the famous death photograph of Ruth Snyder.

Elliotts description of the last moments of Hauptmann is vivid, and conjures up a scene that is gripping.

His head, which had been shaved, titled slightly to one side. His face was yellow; his features were drawn. He glanced neither to the right nor to the left. He walked past the chair, and would have collided with a physician had not a guard stopped him. The guard turned him around, and maneuvered him to the chair. He gripped its broad arms with his hands, staring straight ahead as he was strapped in. His lips did not move, and he gave no indication that he wished to speak. I placed the head electrode on him, and helped to adjust the mask. At precisely 8:44 oclock, I was given the signal. The current streaked through the condemned man.

So ended the story of the man convicted of the Crime of the Century.

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