Handwriting Evidence from Lindbergh Case
Handwriting Evidence from Lindbergh Case
Date: September 21, 1934
Source: "Handwriting Evidence from Lindbergh Case." Corbis, 1934.
About the Photographer: This photograph is part of the stock collection at Corbis photo agency, headquartered in Seattle and provider of images for magazine, films, television, and advertisements. The photographer is not known.
On the night of March 1, 1932, the infant son of the American aviator Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh and his wife Anne was abducted from the second-floor nursery of his home in Hopewell, New Jersey. Lindbergh was considered an American hero, for in May 1927 he had become the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic. As a high-profile person, he and his family were vulnerable to kidnapping because the perpetrators felt large sums of ransom money could be extracted. Sure enough, a ransom note was soon found at the scene of the crime. That, and a homemade ladder leading up to the nursery, were the two prime clues in the case.
There were as many as twelve ransom notes, demanding different sums of money. One of these is depicted in the primary source below. On March 5, the kidnapper sent a note direct to the Lindberghs for the first time. Then, John F. Condon, a public school principal, offered a reward for the return of the child, publishing a letter to this effect in the Bronx Home News. The kidnapper responded the next day and the Lindberghs agreed to have Condon act as mediator.
On March 12, Condon met with the kidnapper and soon after turned over $50,000 in ransom money. He was told the child could be found on a boat near Martha's Vineyard Island, but it turned out that no such boat existed. The hunt continued and on May 12, the body of the child was found in woodland near the Lindbergh's home. Forensic evidence pointed to asphyxiation or blunt force injury as the cause of death.
HANDWRITING EVIDENCE FROM LINDBERGH CASE
See primary source image.
Analysis of the ransom notes had suggested a perpetrator of poor education and of German descent. A ladder found at the scene of the crime was another important piece of evidence, leading to the arrest of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant and carpenter. He was found with some of the ransom money in his possession, although he claimed he was taking care of it for a friend. On his arrest, samples of his handwriting were sent to the FBI laboratory in Washington, D.C. for comparison with the ransom notes. One such comparison is shown in the illustration above. Hauptmann's signature has been reconstructed from letters in one of the notes and compared with that appearing on his auto registration card. It was to prove a damning piece of evidence.
Hauptmann's trial for murder and kidnapping began in January 1935; he was convicted and sentenced to death. Two appeals and a stay of execution were turned down and Hauptmann was executed on April 3, 1936. However, his widow Anna continued to protest his innocence and campaigned to clear his name up until the mid-1980s. Some say that the ransom notes were a hoax but that was not the view of the FBI.
Handwriting analysis, of the sort that helped to convict Hauptmann, is an important tool in forensic science. The expert looks for various points of similarity and difference between two documents—in this case Hauptmann's writing and the ransom notes. The overall form is important—the size, shape, and slant of the different letters are vital features of this overview. Spacing between letters and words will also be noted. Content, too, gives vital clues. Also, are there wrong spellings, or mistakes in punctuation or grammar that can indicate level of education and ethnic origin?
The written ransom note might be a rich source of evidence, but it is not very common in the twenty-first century. Handwriting examiners spend more time looking at printed documents and photocopies which are, of course, revealing in their own way. The ransom note is not common because kidnapping itself has rather gone out of fashion—at the time of the Lindbergh case, it was accepted that huge ransom sums could be paid to resolve the matter. That is no longer the case, at least publicly, as has been seen from the spate of kidnappings in Iraq in recent years. But forgery and fraud still provide ample work for the handwriting forensic analyst.
Lyle, Douglas. Forensics for Dummies. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2004.
CharlesLindbergh.com. "Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. Kidnapping, March 1, 1932." 〈http://www.charleslindbergh.com/kidnap/index.asp〉 (accessed February 25, 2006).