It was, to quote a famous phrase, a dark and stormy night in the Sourland Mountains of New Jersey on March 1, 1932. It had rained heavily in the afternoon. By evening the rain had ceased, but there was a cold and blustery east wind. In the newly-built Lindbergh house, still uncurtained, there were five people in addition to the baby: Charles and Anne Lindbergh; Ollie and Elsie Whately, the English butler and maid; and Betty Gow, the child's nursemaid. There was also a young fox terrier named Whagoosh; a notoriously noisy dog, whose name meant "fox" in the Chippewa language.
Much of what happened that evening is open to doubt, but what follows--for what it is worth--is the officially accepted version.
Anne and Betty Gow began preparing the baby for bed at about 6.15. Young Charlie was recovering from his cold, but they rubbed his chest with Vicks VaporRub and decided to make him a flannelette shirt to wear beneath his night clothes. This was quickly sewn up by Betty, an accomplished seamstress, from a piece of scrap material. Over this the baby wore a sleeveless woollen shirt, which was pinned to his nappies under a pair of rubber pants. And on top of it all, Charlie wore a grey sleeping suit--size 2, manufactured by the Dr. Denton company. His bedcovers were fastened to the mattress of his cot by two large safety pins, and on his hands he wore two shiny metal "thumb guards" to stop him sucking his thumbs. Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. was not going anywhere or doing anything; at least, under his own volition. One of the thumb guards, which were attached to the baby's wrists by lengths of half-inch tape, was later to pose one of the unexplained puzzles of the kidnapping. It was discovered, still bright and shining, at the entrance to the property some twenty-nine days after the crime. The thumb guard lay in full view in the middle of the road; somewhat flattened--possibly run over--but not trodden into the mud. And yet none of the hundreds of people who had passed that way over the previous four weeks had noticed it until Betty Gow and Elsie Whateley picked it up. It was, to say the least, curious. Had it lain there all that time? Or had the perpetrator, finding it in his possession, casually dropped it when making a later visit to Hopewell? If the latter were true, a totally different list of suspects would be opened up. But the lead was never explored.
The two women tried to close the shutters of the window in the east wall, which lay directly over the window of Lindbergh's study, but they were warped and refused to latch. There was a second window in the south wall, away from the wind, and they left this slightly open to let in some air. The whole putting-to-bed process took more than an hour, and it was 7.30 before Anne left the room and went into the living room to await her husband's return. He had telephoned earlier to say he would be a little late. (In fact, he should have been much later, because he was supposed to be speaking at a dinner given by New York University at the Waldorf-Astoria that night, but there had been a secretarial mix-up over his calendar and he forgot the appointment). Betty Gow stayed a few minutes longer, then she, too, put out the light and left the nursery. The baby was sleeping. If the accepted accounts of those in the house that night are correct, this was the last time that any of them saw him alive.
Charles Lindbergh arrived home at about 8.25, parked his car in the large garage which lay beneath the Whateley's quarters in the west wing, and entered the house through the connecting door into the kitchen. He joined his wife for dinner ten minutes later. A little after nine o'clock, while they were sitting by the fire in the ground-floor living room, Charles heard a sharp crack which he later described, rather oddly, as "like the top slats of an orange box falling off a chair." He thought the noise came from the kitchen. It has since been assumed that what Lindbergh said he heard was the kidnapper's ladder breaking outside the nursery window, but the kitchen was in the opposite direction. Anne apparently heard nothing. In any case, as we shall learn later, Lindbergh's hearing was not something to be relied upon.
The couple decided to have a bath before going to bed. Charles went first, using the upstairs bathroom which was directly adjacent to the child's nursery. It was then about 9.15. He dressed again and went downstairs to the library to read, sitting next to the uncurtained window which was directly beneath the south-east window in the nursery. Anne drew her own bath, then discovered she had left her tooth powder in the baby's bathroom. She went in without turning on the light, retrieved the powder and returned to the main bathroom. Then she rang for Elsie Whateley and requested a hot lemonade. It was almost 10 o'clock.
Betty Gow and the Whateleys, meanwhile, were in the servants' sitting room, which was on the ground floor (first floor in American parlance) at the western end of the house. Whagoosh the terrier, who had shown no sign of hearing the odd noise which Lindbergh said he heard earlier, was with them. Ten o'clock was the regular hour when the baby would be lifted and invited to use his pot, and Betty Gow went upstairs, passing through the kitchen, the pantry and the foyer en route, and apparently noting nothing amiss. She thought of getting Anne Lindbergh to join her, but Anne was still in the bath so she entered the nursery alone, first turning on the light in the adjacent bathroom.
Betty Gow, according to her own account, first went to close the south window, which had been left partly open when they put the child to bed. Then she turned on the electric heater before moving towards the cot. She could not hear the child breathing. "I thought that something had happened to him," she said later. "That perhaps the clothes were over his head. In the half light I saw that he wasn't there and felt all over the bed for him."
Panicking, the nursemaid ran down the corridor to the Lindberghs' bedroom and found Anne leaving the bathroom. "Do you have the baby, Mrs Lindbergh?" She asked. Anne Lindbergh was puzzled. "No," she said, and went to look in the child's room while Betty Gow raced downstairs to the library to see, if by any chance, Lindbergh had him. The answer, of course, was no.
Ever the man of action, Lindbergh ran upstairs to the main bedroom, opened the closet and loaded the rifle he kept there. Then he told his wife that the baby had been kidnapped. In the nursery he discovered the south-east corner window open a crack, the cold wind blowing through it, and on top of the radiator case that formed the sill was a white envelope. Assuming that it contained a ransom note and might bear fingerprints, he did not touch it. Instead, he took his rifle and ran out into the night, having first told Whateley, the butler, to telephone the sheriff at Hopewell.
Lacking a flashlight, Lindbergh could see nothing but the woods around the house. Whateley, having made the telephone call, brought the car round and shone the headlights on either side of the road. But it was clear that the kidnappers were long gone. Whateley was instructed to drive into Hopewell to buy a flashlight (though where he would find one at that hour was unclear) while Lindbergh returned to the house and telephoned the New Jersey State Police in Trenton and his lawyer, Colonel Henry Breckinridge, in New York.
The call to the State Police was made at 10.25 p.m. The delay of almost half an hour is interesting. It was answered by Lieutenant Daniel Dunn, who was surprised to hear the voice at the other end say: "This is Charles Lindbergh. My son has just been kidnapped." Startled, Dunn asked what time the child had been taken. "Some time between 7.30 and 10 o'clock," Lindbergh replied. "He's twenty months old and wearing a one-piece sleeping suit." Then he hung up. This had to be a hoax call, thought Lt. Dunn, but on the advice of a colleague he telephoned the Lindbergh house. The same voice answered him. "This is Lieutenant Dunn, sir," the policeman replied quickly. "Men are on their way."
The State Police reacted swiftly. At 10.46 a teletype alarm was sent out across the state, requesting that all cars be investigated by police patrols. By 11 o'clock, checkpoints had been established at the Holland Tunnel, the George Washington Bridge, and all ferry ports along the Hudson River. New Jersey streets had road blocks, and hospitals were alerted to report the admission of any children matching the Lindbergh baby's description. Police were notified in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Connecticut.
The first police to arrive on the scene at the Lindbergh house were Harry Wolfe and Charles Williamson of the Hopewell force, who turned up at 10.35, ten minutes after the alarm had been raised. They made a quick inspection of the nursery, where they found small particles of yellow clay on the carpet and on a leather suitcase beneath the south-east window. The window itself was closed; the left hand shutter also closed, and the right one open. Lindbergh, asserting an authority which he was never to relinquish, ordered them not to touch anything. The policemen then went outside and discovered holes in the mud on the right hand side of the study where a ladder had evidently been placed, and the ladder itself some 75 feet from the house. They left everything where it was and went back to the house.
The police were now beginning to gather in droves. There were State Troopers Wolf and Cain from Lambertville; State Troopers de Gaetano and Bornmann from the Training School at Wilburtha; State Trooper Kelly, the fingerprint expert from Morristown Barracks; Captain Lamb and Lieutenant Keaten; Major Schoeffel, deputy to Colonel Schwartzkopf, head of the New Jersey State Police, and, a little later, Col. Schwartzkopf himself. Wolf, who was one of the first to arrive, went out to look for footprints. And found some. "The kidnappers consisted apparently of a party of at least two or more persons," he reported. "Apparently two members of the party proceeded on foot to the east side of the Lindbergh residence and assembled a three-piece home-made extension ladder ... Two sets of fresh footprints led off in a south-east direction ... Kidnappers arrived in a car which was left parked some distance from the house, either in Lindbergh's private lane or in a rough road known as Featherbed Lane." Trooper de Gaetano reported: "We traced rubber boots or overshoe impressions from the ladder down an old road towards the chicken coop. The footprints went across the road and appeared to stop alongside impressions from an auto." There was one very clear print in the dirt beneath the nursery window, which measured 12-12 inches long by 4-4 inches wide. This discovery was never mentioned at the trial because, inconveniently, these measurements did not match the shoes of Bruno Richard Hauptmann. Nor, of course, did the existence of two sets of footprints conform to the prosecution theory that Hauptmann had acted alone. These were details best forgotten. More favourable for the ultimate prosecution was another find by the police: a Buck's chisel, about thirty years old, with a inch blade and a wooden handle, lying near ladder. That was all right, because Hauptmann was a carpenter.
At this time (things were to change as a direct result of the Lindbergh case) kidnapping was not a federal crime but was dealt with at the State level. This meant that the FBI, which had immense experience in the solving of complex crimes, had no authority in the case, though they could have been called in. Colonel Norman Schwartzkopf on the other hand, had no experience in this field whatever. Nevertheless, persuaded by Lindbergh, he was determined to keep the FBI out of it. And did.
Schwartzkopf--the father of "Stormin' Norman" of First Gulf War fame--was 37 years old at the time, a handsome man with a crew cut hairstyle and a waxed blond moustache. He was a veteran of the First World War and a graduate of West Point, who had once worked as a "floor walker" at Bamberger's department store in Newark. This meant that he was supposed to be watching out for shoplifters. He had never patrolled a beat or arrested a criminal in his life, but he was determined not to let this deter him. Besides, he worshipped the ground Lindbergh walked on, and was once quoted as saying that he would "break any oath for that man." In retrospect, he may have done just that. At all events, there was no doubt about who was in charge of the investigation from very outset: it was not Colonel Norman Schwartzkopf; it was Charles Lindbergh.
With the arrival of fingerprint expert Trooper Frank Kelly soon after midnight, the ransom note could at last be opened. "I put on a pair of gloves," said Kelly later, "picked the letter up by the edges, and brought it over to a small table in the centre of the room where I conducted a latent print examination of the outside surface of the envelope. Black powder was used in an effort to obtain any possible prints, but without results. I then opened the letter with a nail file and powdered the note and the inside of the envelope for possible prints, but none were obtained."
The ransom note was written in pencil in a clearly-disguised hand. It read:
Have 50.000 $ redy 25.000 $ in
20 $ bills 1.5000 $ in 10 $ bills and
1000 $ in 5 $ bills. After 204 days we will inform you were to deliver the Mony.
We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police the chld is in gute care.
Indication for all letters are
And 3 holds.
There was a symbol consisting of two interlocking circles, and within the interlock an oval. The circles were coloured blue, the oval red, and at the centre of each in a horizontal line were square holes. What did it mean? This symbol has remained an unsolved mystery in this case. Was it intended to identify the kidnapper to Lindbergh? If so, he never disclosed the fact. Was it the recognition symbol of some secret society? This raises a possibility; no more. For it is known that certain college fraternities, rather like the Masons, employed such symbols on their correspondence. One such was Beta Theta Pi, which had (but no longer has) a chapter at Amherst College. Dwight W. Morrow was a member of Beta Theta Pi at Amherst. More to the point, so was his son, Dwight Jr., in 1932. The archivist at Beta Theta Pi's headquarters confirmed to the author that the fraternity employed a secret recognition symbol at the time of the kidnapping, and still did so today. Asked to confirm or deny whether it matched the symbol found on the kidnap note, he declined. "That's a secret," he said.
Not only did Trooper Kelly fail to find any fingerprints on the ransom note, he failed to detect any prints whatever in the entire nursery. Nothing on the window sill, nothing on the cot, nothing on the various objects in the room. This was extraordinary. It might be reasonably supposed that the kidnapper would be wearing gloves, but the nursery was frequented by Betty Gow, Anne Lindbergh, the Whateleys. possibly Lindbergh himself, and certainly the child. And they were certainly not wearing gloves. How could it be possible that none of them, not one, had left a single fingerprint inside the nursery? Unless, of course, someone had wiped it clean with great thoroughness before the police arrived. And who could that be? Certainly not the kidnapper, who was working in the dark and under great stress. He would hardly have taken the time, with so many people in the house, to have risked discovery by spending ten minutes or more to wipe off every single surface in the room. Besides which, if he was wearing gloves, there would have been no need. The answer has to be that the room was wiped clean by Lindbergh himself, or by someone acting under his orders.
So why was it done? Did Lindbergh know the identity of the kidnapper perfectly well, or at least suspect it? Did he wish to prevent his or her identification in order to avoid scandal? And if that were so, who could that person possibly be? The most obvious candidate had to be a member of the prestigious and enormously wealthy Morrow family into which Lindbergh had married. It is hard to think of any stranger who would inspire Lindbergh into launching an instant cover-up operation. Perhaps he thought that this was no more than a malicious prank; that the child would be returned unharmed very soon by the person he suspected. Perhaps he reasoned that to blurt out his suspicions now would bring needless shame on the family of which he had recently become the male head. It may well be that in the ensuing days and weeks, when the child was not returned, Lindbergh regretted his actions. But by then it was too late. He would have had to face some very awkward questions, and possibly prosecution for obstruction of justice. The absence of fingerprints in that room remains one of the most mysterious, and most significant aspects of the whole case. Even odder, perhaps, is the fact that, as far as is known, Charles Lindbergh was never questioned about it.
Perhaps Trooper Kelly had merely been incompetent? This was the thought of a former Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, James F. Minturn, when he heard the news. Minturn contacted his friend Dr Erastus Mead Hudson, an amateur fingerprint specialist who had been experimenting for years with a silver nitrate process which had proved very successful. Hudson was invited down to Hopewell to use his method, and did succeed in revealing several of the child's fingerprints on his books and toys. But as far as adult prints were concerned, the room remained clean as a whistle. This was the more extraordinary because Betty Gow had rubbed the child's chest with a vapour rub when putting him to bed and her fingers would have been greasy when she closed the window. Yet there were no prints on the window frame.
Hudson then inspected the ladder, on which Kelly had also failed to reveal prints, and found between 30 and 40 examples which were other than those of the policemen known to have handled it. Ultimately, none of these proved to belong to Hauptmann. Hudson suggested that the prints should be sent to Washington for comparison with the FBI's huge fingerprint collection of known criminals, which was the most comprehensive in the country. Remarkably, Schwartzkopf refused to permit such a move. He also refused Hudson's offer to subject the ransom note to a special iodine-gas process he had invented.
Why should the New Jersey police chief turn down such an opportunity to clear up the case? Was he merely jealous of his turf, or was he, as so often in later stages of the investigation, acting under the instructions of Charles Lindbergh?
The ladder turned out to be an extraordinary construction, crudely made in three sections and composed, according to one police report, of "old, nondescript lumber which has been lying around for some time." One officer suggested that it might have been made from timber left over from the building of Lindbergh's house, but this possibility was never explored. Perhaps it should have been.
Fully extended the ladder was 20 feet long, tapering from a width of 14 inches at the bottom to 11 inches at the top, with each section being joined by dowel pins. The rungs, which were merely nailed across the side pieces, were 18 to 19 inches apart, as opposed to the standard 12 inches, which would have made it much more difficult to climb and descend--especially when carrying a 30 pound baby in a sack. When found, only the bottom two sections of the ladder were joined together, suggesting that only these had been used, and one of the lower rails was broken near the joint.
If the theory that the ladder was employed in the kidnapping is correct, the kidnapper must have had considerable athletic prowess. Placed as it was to the right of Lindbergh's study window--presumably to avoid being seen--the ladder would have been well to the side of the nursery window above, and, if only the bottom two sections were employed, some 30 inches below it. The kidnapper would have had to stand on the topmost rung, bridge the gap, balance on the narrow sill somehow as he manipulated the shutters and opened the window, and then climb through an opening which measured, at most, 30 1/2 by 26 inches. He would then have had to repeat the process in reverse, carrying a heavy and possibly struggling load, and contrive to close the window behind him. All of this in a howling gale--which, curiously, failed to dislodge the ransom note left propped upright on the interior window-sill. If, as was alleged at his trial, Hauptmann had managed to do all this single-handed (despite the evidence of dual foot marks) he must have had the nerve of a steeplejack, the agility of a circus performer, and the strength of a weight-lifter. Tests on a duplicate ladder constructed by the New Jersey Police showed that it would not bear a weight of more than 155 lbs. The actual ladder was so flimsy that this is probably a very generous estimate. Hauptmann weighed rather more.
It was the contention of the prosecution that the ladder broke as the kidnapper descended, causing him to fall and/or drop the baby, which caused the latter's death. There was no sign of such a fall on the muddy ground, however; at least, none that was mentioned in the official reports. There is a much more likely explanation of what happened.
As anyone who has ever tried to erect a long ladder will know, it is an unwieldy object, and the high wind would have added greatly to the difficulty of putting it against the wall. This may have been why only two sections were used. Having put it up, however, the kidnapper(s) must then have seen that getting through the window was a near-impossible task, and changed their plan. This would explain why the ladder was found some distance away (why bother to move it if the objective was to make a rapid getaway?). There was a much easier way to get in and snatch the baby: through the front door. This theory is supported by another oddity about the ladder: in spite of the mud which must have been adhering to the shoes of the kidnapper, there were no traces of mud on the rungs.
There was a staircase leading from the front foyer straight up to the child's nursery. It would have taken no more than a couple of minutes for the kidnapper to remove his boots, tiptoe up the stairs, pick up the sleeping baby and escape by the same route. Assuming that the sound heard by Lindbergh was the ladder breaking as it was being taken down, this would put the time of the kidnapping at around 9.15, when Lindbergh was running his bath. Perfect (if fortuitous) cover for any strange noises. Even if the kidnapper had not been in the house before--which he may have been, even if he were not a family member who had been there before, because the Whateleys were in the habit of giving impromptu guided tours while the Lindberghs were not present. Also, the plans had been widely published in several newspapers.