Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lindbergh Kidnapping

Investigation

Because Lindbergh and Breckinridge had restrained Schwarzkopf and the other investigative agencies during the attempt to retrieve the child, little had been accomplished in over two months. With the discovery of the child's body on May 12, a mere four miles from the Lindbergh estate, the restraints were gone. The problem was that there was very little to go on.

The physical evidence available, at the time that William Allen stumbled into the woods to relieve himself and found the body, consisted of a chisel, the ladder, and a number of notes from the kidnappers. No useful footprints, no fingerprints.

The Autopsy

The autopsy of Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. was to be carried out by the county physician, Dr. Charles H. Mitchell, but he had severe arthritis and the actual dissections were made by the county coroner, a funeral home director, Walter Swayze. The baby's pediatrician, Dr. Philip Van Ingen, was shocked. An old physician, Mitchell, using the hands of a non-medically trained mortician, Swayze, was about to carry out the autopsy on the most famous murder victim of the century. Despite his misgivings, Van Ingen stayed to observe. It was not until 1977 that Swayze revealed that he did the actual procedures.

The corpse was in a repelling, advanced state of decay. The brain did not contain a bullet, although there was a small hole at the base of the skull, made after death. They presumed that it was made by Insp. Walsh at the discovery site, when he poked the soft skull with a stick. Dr. Mitchell, following Swazye's gingerly examination of the skull and found four fracture lines and a decomposed blood clot. He concluded that the cause of death was a blow to the head. The baby could have been murdered in his room, since a baby's fractured skull does not bleed, or he might have been dropped while the kidnapper was carrying him down the ladder.

The fontanelle, the soft spot on top of the baby's head that stays open until the child is about a year old, was found to be one inch in diameter. The Eaglet was twenty months old.

Basically, the autopsy provided no clues, except sufficient information in the remains of the baby's clothes, the number of teeth, and his uniquely crossed little toes. There was no question that the corpse had been in the woods for several months, making the time of death very probably around the time of the kidnapping. No photographs of the skull, the blood clot, or the small round hole were made. Other than some measurements and a one-page report, typed by Swayze, there was nothing else for Schwarzkopf and his investigators to use.

Confusion over the baby's length advertised in the widely distributed posters as 29 inches, but measured by Dr.Mitchell as 33 inches was one issue that gave credence to the idea that the baby was not Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. Revisionists seize on this discrepancy. Those that are convinced that it was the Eaglet point out that "2 feet, 9 inches" a misdescription on the wanted poster is 33 inches. If it is argued that the child was younger than the Lindbergh baby because of the fontanelle discrepancy, then an explanation must be given for one-year-old child who is an unusually tall 33 inches.

The ladder

Eventually, the ladder became a crucial item of evidence. Schwarzkopf enlisted the aid of wood experts, the most enterprising of whom was Arthur Koehler, of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. He had written Lindbergh and volunteered his services. From slivers sent to him, he was able to determine that the ladder was constructed from pine from North Carolina, Douglas fir from the West, birch, and Ponderosa pine. Remarkably, Koehler was able to trace some of the ladder lumber from a mill in South Carolina to a lumber dealer in the Bronx.

The ladder was both crudely and professionally constructed. Some of the joints and connections showed the work of a carpenter, while the pieces of wood that made up the ladder seemed to have been gathered from a variety of sources.

Suspects

Inspector Walsh, on loan to the New Jersey State Police from the Jersey City Police Department, agreed with Lieutenant Keaton, and clung to the idea that the kidnapping must have been an inside job. The peculiar circumstance of the kidnapper knowing both that the Lindberghs, contrary to their habit, were not returning to Englewood on Monday, and that the kidnappers knew precisely which room was the nursery, bothered Walsh.

Walsh was suspicious of Violet Sharpe, the twenty-eight-year-old maid at the Morrow estate. She knew of the change in the Lindberghs' plans. She was inconsistent in her accounting of her actions on the night of March 1, 1932, and clearly anxious and defensive. She was unable to identify the man she had gone to a roadhouse with the night of the kidnapping and she could not give the names of the other couple who accompanied them.

Violet Sharpe
Violet Sharpe

By June, Violet Sharpe had become so hysterical that Walsh and Schwarzkopf were sure they were on to something. They phoned that they would return to the Morrow estate for further questioning of Violet. Declaring that she couldn't stand it, she went upstairs and took cyanide, contained in a silver-polishing compound, and was dead within minutes.

Eventually, the man that Violet had been with, as well as the other couple, came forth to corroborate her story. She had been telling the truth, but could not admit to a "loose" behavior that might cost her her position at the Morrow estate. She was engaged to the butler, and this arrangement could have been jeopardized if it had been made known that she had been picked up and taken to a roadhouse for drinks. Schwarzkopf was roundly criticized for driving an innocent citizen to her death.

Walsh turned to the man who he considered to be the most suspicious: John F. Condon, "Jafsie," the do-gooder. Several days after Violet Sharpe's suicide, Condon was brought in for questioning. Despite hours of questioning, Condon gave as good as he got, and was released. During July and August, Schwarzkopf and his men tapped Condon's telephone, opened his mail, dug holes in his yard, and stripped the wallpaper of his study walls. During the next year and a half, undaunted by the suspicions hovering over him, Condon, reviewed thousands of mug shots, looking for "Cemetery John." A year after the kidnapping, in order to show his support, Lindbergh invited Condon and his daughter to dinner at the Morrow estate.

Shortly after that, Schwarzkopf and his men decided that Condon was eccentric, but not involved. The lone dissenter was Walsh, who then returned to his regular duties with the Jersey City Police Department.

 

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