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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Two Sides to Every Story: The Lindbergh Kidnapping

Most people know who Charles Lindbergh was – he was the first person to have a successful non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, in 1927. From this brave act an American hero was born. Aficionados of Lindbergh may also be familiar with the kidnapping of Lindbergh’s young son on the evening of March 1, 1932. The child was found dead two months later. The main suspect was Bruno Richard Hauptmann. He was eventually tried, convicted and executed for the murder of the Lindbergh baby. There has always been something that has bothered me about this case (and many others as well) and I wanted to present the two sides – Murderer vs. Scapegoat for this issue of Two Sides.

Photo Credit: Flemington Police Department photographic records

There are many pieces of evidence that point to Hauptmann being the kidnapper/murderer that the investigators were looking for. He matched the description of the man who was seen passing gold certificates which were included in the ransom money that was paid; he was also found to have a gold certificate on him when arrested. A large sum of ransom money was found in the garage of his house as well. A study of his handwriting seemed to be very similar to the handwriting on the ransom notes. He was also an immigrant with a prison record for robbery. They were also able to match tool marks from Hauptmann’s tools to that on the ladder left at the Lindbergh home – Hauptmann was also a carpenter. Lindbergh took the stand himself during the trial and identified Hauptmann’s voice as a voice he had heard during the delivery of the ransom money. All of these things led the jury to find Hauptmann guilty of First Degree Murder and he was sentenced to death by electrocution.

Hauptmann Center
Photo credit: Boston Public Library via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

While there seems to be much evidence to support the conviction of Hauptmann there are also a few things that suggest there may have been ulterior motives in convicting this man. There were blunders during the investigative phase. Charles Lindbergh was principally in charge of the investigation – which was a little strange as he didn’t have any investigative experience. This led to some destroyed evidence, such as footprints, and a chain of custody which was unreliable. During the trial there were issues too. Hauptman insisted all along that he was innocent and that he had been holding the “ransom” money for a friend, Isidore Fisch, who had left it in his possession when he went back to Germany, and subsequently died. Hauptmann took the stand in his own defense and testified that he had been beaten by the police and forced to modify his handwriting to match the samples. Throughout his trial and for the next 60 years following his death, Hauptmann’s wife, Anna, constantly protested his innocence in the crime. Hauptmann’s defense attorney, Edward J Reilly, was also a very ineffectual attorney – he was frequently drunk and listless in the courtroom, and failed to follow up on crucial arguments that favored the defendant. There was also the possibility to planted evidence in terms of the wood used to construct the ladder used in the kidnapping coming from the Hauptmann residence – this piece of evidence was disputed over its admissibility in court. There was even an issue over the identification of the baby’s body as that of the Lindbergh child – the autopsy has been described as “haphazard” and there was a discrepancy over identifying marks on the body. Lindbergh had identified his son by looking at his teeth – when he was certainly no expert.

Many high profile cases are re-investigated decades/centuries after they happened and we are sometimes able to change our view on an event based on evidence that can now be examined that there was no technology for in the past. Today, would all of these errors, prejudices, and questionable evidence alter the verdict of a jury? I personally question whether he was guilty or not – but even more so, in my opinion his trial was unfair. Have you developed an opinion either way on this case? What is the most damning evidence against him or the piece of evidence that makes you question the verdict against him?

Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. I don't have an opinion one way or the other. I only heard about the case a little while ago. However thought I would mention a podcast that I heard a while ago on Stuff You Missed in History Class on this case which you might find it interesting to listen to.

  2. I haven't read enough about the specifics of the case to form a firm conclusion. There was a program on the case years ago that questioned the way the case was handled.
    I can't imagine allowing the father of the child to lead the investigation, especially when he does not have the background or expertise. The poor legal representation and questionable evidence give doubts to the proceedings. Whether he was guilty or not, it just has the feel that he was railroaded.

  3. Marg - I am definitely going to have to go check out that site/podcast! I have not heard of it before.

    LibraryPat - that is what bothers me about this case too - whether he was guilty or not he didn't get a fair trial.


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