Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lindbergh Kidnapping

Hoaxes

During the period of March 2 to May 12, when the baby's body was found, while Lindbergh, Breckinridge, and Condon were in contact with whoever had written the original ransom note found in the nursery, the three separate hoaxes were going on.

Hoax One: The Small-Time Mob

The first hoax perpetrated on Col. and Mrs. Lindbergh was the general assumption that only organized crime could be responsible for such a slick kidnapping. The late 1920s and the early 1930s had become an era of gangland kidnappings. Because of this, a small-time bootlegger by the name of Mickey Rosner offered his services to hunt for the baby, claiming that his connections would result in the return of the child within a week. Lindbergh and Breckinridge, over the objections of Schwarzkopf and Keaton, accepted Rosner's offer. He asked for, and received, $2,500 for expenses and delegated two of his associates, also small-time hoodlums, Salvatore Spitale and Irving Bitz, to serve as his field contacts with various units of the Mob. Over several months, Rosner was able to claim that success was just around the corner. Reinforcing Rosner's claim that negotiating with the Mob was the way to retrieve the baby, Al Capone, recently imprisoned for tax invasion, maintained that he could find the gang that kidnapped the Eaglet, if he were free for two weeks. Although Lindbergh said that he never intended to ask for Capone's release, he contacted the IRS agent who had built the case to put Capone away, Elmer Irey, head of the IRS Law Enforcement Division. Irey convinced Lindbergh that it was unlikely that any member of any mob could be trusted. Even though Capone's offer was rejected, Rosner maintained his status in the Lindbergh household until it appeared that contact had been made with the real kidnappers.

Hoax Two: Gaston B. Means

The third day after the kidnapping, March 4, Gaston Bullock Means, a former FBI agent, fired by J. Edgar Hoover in 1924, and a swindler who had served time, contacted several influential people in New York and Washington, reporting that the kidnappers had asked him to participate in the crime, but that he had refused. Thus, he had special insights into the kidnappers, and could locate the baby and negotiate for his release. One of the people he contacted was Evalyn Walsh McLean, the former wife of the publisher of the Washington Post.

Mrs. McLean, genuinely moved by the possibility of helping the Lindberghs, summoned Means. He told her that the head of the kidnapping gang, "The Fox," wanted one hundred thousand dollars, and that he wanted a Catholic priest to whom he could return the child after receiving the ransom. Mrs. McLean agreed to put up the money, and enlisted the Rev. J. Francis Hurley, who agreed to help.

After more than a month of diversions to a number of places, including South Carolina and Texas, along with the investment of the one hundred thousand dollars of ransom money and an additional $3,500 in expenses, Mrs. McLean became suspicious, demanded the return of her money. According to Means, he had given the ransom to a member of the kidnapping gang, and could not return it.

On June 13, 1932, Means was found guilty of larceny on two counts, and two days later given a fifteen-year prison sentence. A year later, Means' accomplice, a disbarred lawyer and car thief, was found and tried for conspiracy along with Means for the additional $35,000 they had tried to swindle out of Mrs. McLean. They were each given two years, with Means' penalty tacked on to the fifteen years he was already serving.

Hoax Three: John Hughes Curtis

Curtis was a respected boat builder in Norfolk, Virginia. He approached the local Episcopal priest, the Reverend H. Dobson-Peacock, who had known the Morrow family when Dwight Morrow had been ambassador to Mexico. Curtis said that he had made contact with the leader of the kidnappers, and described the members of the gang. He also could maintain contact with the gang through a woman named Hilda. From April 18 to May 12, Curtis' strange story was made credible by his support from Rev. Dobson-Peacock and Admiral Guy Hamilton Burrage, the man who had brought Lindbergh back from France in triumph in 1927. Curtis led Lindbergh on a wild-goose chase along the mid-Atlantic coast, claiming that he was in constant contact with the kidnappers, and that he had actually held the child in his arms.

Once the child's body was found, Curtis' hoax became clear. Under pressure, he confessed on May 17 that it had all been a hoax, and stated that for the past seven or eight months, due to financial pressures, he "had been insane." He apologized abjectly, and was eventually given a fine and a one-year suspended sentence for giving false information and hindering an investigation.

 

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