Around nine o'clock on the night of March 1, 1932, someone placed a homemade ladder against the house of Charles and Anne Lindbergh and climbed to the second story and entered the nursery through a window. The abduction of 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh, Jr. took place at the Lindbergh estate in the Sourland Hills not far from Hopewell, New Jersey. At the scene, the police found the three-piece wooden ladder, a chisel, and a handwritten ransom note demanding $50,000. The note, left in the nursery, contained misspelled words ("gute" for good) and a symbol comprised of two intersecting circles and three holes.
A month after the abduction, following involved negotiations with the kidnapper, John F. Condon, the Lindbergh intermediary, paid $50,000 in ransom to a shadowy figure in a Bronx, New York cemetery. The ransom package was made up of numerous gold notes of large denomination.
On May 12, 1932, ten weeks after the kidnapping, baby Lindbergh's partially decomposed remains were found in a shallow grave off a back road two miles from the Lindbergh mansion.
The investigation, led by the New Jersey State Police (NJSP), was painstaking and dogged but plagued by thousands of false suspects and wild-goose chases. Had H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the founder and head of the NJSP, been given a free hand at the onset of the crime, the kidnapper would have been arrested in the cemetery when he showed up for the ransom money. Colonel Lindbergh, fearing for the life of his first born son, had held the police at bay until the ransom was paid. After the child was found dead, Colonel Schwarzkopf took control of the investigation but the trail had grown cold.
During the next two and a half years the NJSP, aided by the FBI and the New York City Police, searched in vain for the kidnapper. The focus of the investigation had gradually shifted to New York City because the kidnapper was spending the ransom bills in the Bronx and Manhattan. In September, 1934, a Manhattan gas station attendant penciled a customer's license plate number on the $10 gold note ransom bill used to pay for the gasoline. The car, a 1930 Dodge, belonged to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a carpenter from the Bronx who was in the country illegally and had an extensive crime record in his home country of Germany. Hauptmann was in possession of a $20 ransom bill at the time of his arrest.
Following Hauptmann's incarceration, the police found $14,000 of Colonel Lindbergh's ransom money hidden in the suspect's garage. Further investigation revealed that Hauptmann had quit working as a carpenter the very day the ransom was paid in the Bronx cemetery and during the next two years, in the midst of the Great Depression, has spent $36,000, losing much of it in the stock market. This amount, added to the cash found in Hauptmann's garage, matched the ransom given to the kidnapper in April, 1932.
On January 1, 1935, Hauptmann was tried for murder at the Hunterdon County Court House in Flemington, New Jersey. The sensational trial lasted six weeks and produced headlines all over the world. Eight handwriting experts testified that Hauptmann had written the fourteen ransom notes from the kidnapper. A federal wood expert proved that the kidnap ladder had been fashioned with the defendant's carpenter tools and that one of the boards in the ladder, Rail 16, had once been a floor plank in the attic to Hauptmann's home. Having connected Hauptmann to the ransom notes, the ransom money, and the kidnap ladder, the government rested its case.
In his defense, Hauptmann tried to account for himself on the dates in question and explained the money in his garage by claiming that a business associate, now dead, had left the cash in his care. Hauptmann's lead attorney tried to convince the jury that the kidnapping was an inside job, implicating the Lindbergh servants, John Condon, and others. The defense attorney failed miserably, putting on the stand a motley assortment of crackpots, criminals and liars. Hauptmann took the stand and made an unsympathetic witness who got caught in several lies. Unable to produce qualified experts to counter the prosecution's hand writing and kidnap ladder witnesses, the Hauptmann defense degenerated into tragic burlesque then collapsed.
On February 13, 1935, the jury found Bruno Richard Hauptmann guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to death in the electric chair. Following series of appeals, reprieves, and a false confession from a disbarred attorney who had himself been abducted and forced to confess, Hauptmann was executed at the state prison in Trenton, New Jersey on April 3, 1936. Only a handful of people stood outside the death house that night, and when told of Hauptmann's execution, quickly dispersed.
Beginning in the mid 1970's the "crime of the century" became the target of revisionists who offered up a variety of unorthodox theories of the crime, including the notion that the Lindbergh baby had not been murdered. Hauptmann's widow Anna added fuel to the controversy by filing a series of wrongful death lawsuits against the state of New Jersey and others. Although she lost these cases, many still believe that her husband, an innocent man, had been railroaded to his death.
To date the Lindbergh case has been the subject of fifteen books, one feature movie, and several television documentaries. To many, not withstanding the O.J. Simpson case, it remains the crime of the century.
Those interested in the Lindbergh case can visit the New Jersey State Police Museum and Learning Center at the state police headquarters in West Trenton, New Jersey. All of the key evidence in on display along with thousands of documents pertaining to the investigation and trial.