Bruno Richard Hauptmann Trial: 1935

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Bruno Richard Hauptmann Trial: 1935

Defendant: Bruno Richard Hauptmann
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Edward J. Reilly
Chief Prosecutor David T. Wilentz
Judge: Thomas W. Trenchard
Place: Flemington, New Jersey
Dates of Trial: January 2-February 13, 1935
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by electrocution

SIGNIFICANCE: The use of scientific crime detection, a conviction entirely on circumstantial evidence, and the circus-like atmosphere created by spectators and the press made the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial a landmark in American history. Because of the prominence of the father of the murder victim, probably no case has ever attracted greater worldwide attention.

Influential editor and critic H.L. Mencken called Bruno Richard Hauptmann's trial "the biggest story since the Resurrection." The defendant was charged with murdering the 20-month-old son of Charles A. Lindbergh, the man who, in May 1927, had become the greatest hero of modern times by making the first solo trans-Atlantic flight, from New York to Paris. "Wild enthusiasm" understates the acclaim that had greeted Lindbergh wherever he went for five years. He belonged to America.

In 1929, Lindbergh had married Anne Morrow, daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Charles Jr. was born June 22, 1930. Hoping to escape from the crowds they drew everywhere they went, the young family moved into a new home in remote Hopewell, New Jersey. There, on the evening of March 1, 1932, the toddler was kidnapped from his nursery. His body was found May 12 in the woods, two miles from the Lindbergh home.

Discovered Through Ransom Money

More than two years later, in September 1934, a man named Bruno Hauptmann used a $10 gold certificate to buy gasoline. Because gold notes were rare (the United States had just gone off the gold standard), the station attendant jotted down Hauptmann's license number and took the $10 bill to a bank, where it was identified as part of the $50,000 ransom paid by Lindbergh. Hauptmann was arrested. The jury would face the accused carpenter, who lived with his wife and son (now almost the same age as the Lindbergh baby when he died) in the rented second floor of a house in the Bronx, a borough of New York City. Hauptmann, who had a record of petty crime in his native Germany, had voyaged to America twice in 1923 as a stowaway. Apprehended and sent back the first time, he was successful on his second try.

Discovered behind boards in Hauptmann's garage was $14,590 in bills from the ransom. A New York Times compilation of his assets totaled $49,671. Written on the trim inside his bedroom closet was the address and telephone number of Dr. John F. Condon, a 71-year-old retired Bronx schoolteacher who had turned up as a self-appointed go-between when Lindbergh, not yet aware that his son had been killed, was negotiating with the kidnapper for the delivery of the ransom. Within earshot of Lindbergh, Condon had met the presumed kidnapper in the dark to hand over the money. When Lindbergh would testify, that "is the voice I heard that night," in identifying Hauptmann as the man he had heard when the ransom for his kidnapped baby was handed over, America believed him implicitly.

The Circus Comes to Town

The trial shaped up as one of the great news stories of the century. To cope with the demands of the press, the largest telephone system ever yet put together for a single event was createdadequate to serve a city of 1 million. Thousands of sightseers, 700 reporters, and hundreds of radio and telephone technicians converged upon Flemington, New Jersey. Hucksters sold models of the ladder used by the kidnapper to get into the baby's nursery, locks of "the baby's hair," and photographs of the Lindberghs, supposedly autographed by them.

On Sundays, tourists trooped through the courtroom, posed for photos in the judge's chair, carved initials in his bench, and tried to steal the witness chair. On Sunday, January 6, the invading army of curiosity-seekers was estimated at 60,000. The next weekend, the local Rotary Club took charge of protecting the courthouse from virtual demolition by the souvenir hunters.

Everything Matches

Not only would the state of New Jersey prove that Hauptmann received the money, promised the cigar-smoking 38-year-old Attorney General David T. Wilentz, it would also prove that Hauptmann had kidnapped and murdered the baby and written the ransom notes. Wilentz presented 40 examples of Hauptmann's handwriting and 15 ransom notes that Lindbergh had received. Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, head of the New Jersey State Police (and father of the U.S. Army commanding general in the 1991 Persian Gulf war), testified that Hauptmann had willingly provided handwriting specimens and that the idiosyncratic or Germanic spellings that were found on he specimens and ransom notes were Hauptmann's own and not dictated by the police.

Next, eight different handwriting experts took the stand. Two had testified in more than 50 trials. Another had helped send Al Capone to prison. A third had been a key witness in a suit over the legitimacy of Rudolf Valentino's will. Using blowups, the experts pointed out similarities between words and letters in the ransom notes and in Hauptmann's writing specimens. By the end of their five days of testimony, Wilentz was rejoicing in a triumph of scientific investigation of evidence.

Even more damning than the handwriting evidence was the testimony on the ladder found alongside the Lindbergh driveway. Arthur Koehler, a wood technologist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told how he had examined the ladder microscopically to determine its North Carolina pine origin. Then he traced the distinctive marks of its machine planing through mills to conclude that it had been processed in South Carolina, sold to a Bronx lumber company, and purchased by Hauptmann in December 1931. But one ladder rail was unlike the others. It contained four nail holes that matched four holes in beams in Hauptmann's attic, and the saw-tooth marks across the rail's end grain perfectly matched marks where one attic floor board was shorter than others. When the ladder rail was positioned in the open space on the beams, nails dropped easily into place through the board and into the beams.

The Shoebox on the Shelf

At 52, Hauptmann's defense attorney, Edward J. Reilly, had tried hundreds of murder cases. A hard-drinking blusterer and one of New York's most successful trial lawyers, he had been hired to take the case by the New York Journal, a Hearst paper, which had made a deal with Mrs. Hauptmann: exclusive rights to her story if the Journal helped pay for the lawyer.

To explain how he came to have the ransom money, Hauptmann testified that he had invested in business with Isidor Fisch, who went home to Germany in December 1933, and died there of tuberculosis in March 1934. Fisch, said Hauptmann, left belongings with himincluding a shoebox that Hauptmann stored on the top shelf of a kitchen broom closet.

When rain leaked into the closet, Hauptmann found the forgotten shoebox, opened it, and discovered $40,000 in gold certificates. In his garage, he divided the damp money into piles, wrapped it, and hid it. Because Fisch had owed him $7,500, Hauptmann began spending some. He felt it was his.

Reilly called Mrs. Hauptmann to corroborate the Fisch story. Crossexamining her, Wilentz proved that, while she hung her apron every day on a hook higher than the top shelf and kept her grocery coupons in a tin box on that shelf, she could not remember ever seeing a shoebox there. Later, rebuttal witnesses testified that Fisch could not have been at the scene of the crime, and that he had had no money for treatments when he was dying in Germany.

Reilly had boasted that he would introduce eight handwriting experts. He came up with one, whose authority was undermined in cross-examination. Then Reilly brought in a witness who claimed to have seen Fisch in Manhattan on the night of the crime with a woman who carried a 2-year-old blond child, and that the woman was Violet Sharpe, a maid in the Morrow home who had committed suicide after intensive interrogation (all servants in the Morrow and Lindbergh households had been questioned closely). That witness proved to be a professional who had testified for pay in dozens of trials.

Another Reilly defense witness claimed to have seen Fisch coming out of the cemetery where the ransom was passed. Prosecutor Wilentz made the witness admit he had previously been convicted of a crime and that he was with a woman on the night in question. Still another witness, who testified that he saw Fisch with a shoebox, admitted under cross-examination that he had been in and out of mental institutions five times.

Reilly talked freely with reporters. Radio listeners heard him promise that his client would be a free man within days. In one broadcast, he urged anyone with information to get in touch. During a lunch break, as Reilly sipped his third cocktail from a coffee cup, a stranger approached him and said he had information. After questioning him, Reilly, clearly frustrated by his own failure to produce a credible witness, yelled, "You've never been convicted of a crime? You've never been in a lunatic asylum? I can't use you!"

Reilly's troubles continued: To contradict the ladder testimony, he produced a general contractor as an expert on wood. After Wilentz attacked the witness' expertise, the judge allowed him to testify only as a "practical lumberman." Another carpenter said that the ladder rail had not been cut from the attic board, then admitted on cross-examination that he had never compared the grains of the two boards.

When the trial ended, no reliable witness had placed Hauptmann at the scene of the crime; nor had his fingerprints been found on the ladder, nor anywhere in the nursery, nor on the ransom notes. But the circumstantial evidence overwhelmed whatever doubts the jurors may have had: He had the ransom money; scientific experts said he had made the ladderusing wood from his attic for one rail; and other experts said he had written the ransom notes.

Governor Gets into the Act

When the jury found Hauptmann guilty of murder in the first degree, the crowds in and outside the courtroom cheered vigorously. The sentence was death. Execution was set for the week of March 18. Over the next year, Hauptmann's attorneys (Anna Hauptmann had fired Reilly) gained postponements by filing appeals.

New Jersey's 40-year-old governor, Harold G. Hoffman, secretly visited Hauptmann in prison, declared that he was not convinced of Hauptmann's guilt, and that the crime could not have been committed alone. In mid-January 1936, when the state's Court of Pardons denied Hauptmann clemency, the governor granted him a 30-day reprieve. The Court of Pardons turned down a second petition for clemency. By law, the governor could not give a second reprieve. On April 3, 1936, at 8:44 p.m., Hauptmann was electrocuted.

For more than half a century, book after book has re-examined and critiqued the evidence and the testimony. More than one author has described the investigation of the kidnapping and murder as incompetent or has declared Hauptmann an innocent, framed man.

In 1982, 82-year-old Anna Hauptmann sued the State of New Jersey, various former police officials, the Hearst newspapers, and David T. Wilentz (himself by then 86) for $100 million in wrongful-death damages. She claimed that newly found documents proved misconduct by the prosecution and manufacture of evidence by government agents. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court refused her request that the federal judge considering her case be disqualified, and in 1984 the judge dismissed her claims.

In 1985, 23,000 pages of Hauptmann-case police documents were discovered in the garage of the late Governor Hoffman. Along with 30,000 pages of FBI files not used in the trial, said Anna Hauptmann, they proved "a smorgasbord of fraud" against her husband. Again, she appealed to the Supreme Court; it let stand without comment the rulings that had dismissed her suit. In 1990, New Jersey's new governor, Jim Florio, declined her appeal for a meeting to clear Hauptmann's name.

In October 1991, Mrs. Hauptmann, now 92, called a news conference in Flemington to plead for the case to be reopened. "From the day he was arrested, he was framed, always framed," she said. Among her allegations was that the rail of the ladder taken from the attic had been planted by the state police. The ransom money, she still insisted, was left behind by Isidor Fisch.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Davis, Kenneth S. The Hero: Charles A. Lindbergh and the American Dream. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1959.

Fisher, Jim. The Lindbergh Case. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Kennedy, Ludovic. The Airman and the Carpenter. New York: Viking, 1985.

King, Wayne. "Defiant Widow Seeks to Reopen Lindbergh Case." The New York Times (October 5, 1991): 24.

"Lindbergh Kidnapping's Final Victim." U.S. News & World Report, (November 4, 1985): 11.

Mosley, Leonard. Lindbergh: A Biography. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1976.

Rein, Richard K. "Anna Hauptmann Sues a State to Absolve Her Husband of 'The Crime of the Century.-" People lVeekly (September 6, 1982): 34-35.

Ross, Walter S. The Last Hero: Charles A. Lindbergh. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Scaduto, Anthony. Scapegoat: The Lonesome Death of Brnno Richard Hauptmann. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1976.

Wailer, George. Kidnap: The Story of the Lindbergh Case. New York: Dial Press, 1961.

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