Thursday, April 28, 2016

Last night, I watched Agatha Christie's Murder On the Orient Express on blu-ray. It's a terrific film, and I think Albert Finney got Poirot right in ways that no one else has come close to (not even David Suchet).

Christie's novel is based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.

In 1932, 30-year-old Charles Lindbergh was probably the most famous American there was. He'd crossed the Atlanic Ocean in the "Spirit of St. Louis" single-handed, and was generally worshipped as a hero by nearly everyone.

Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, lived at Hopewell House (later renamed Highfields), a small estate in a rural area of Hunterdon County in west-central New Jersey. Anne was the daughter of Dwight Morrow, a partner in J.P. Morgan & Associates and a U.S. Senator. The Lindberghs had married on May 27, 1929, at Next Day Hill, the Morrow estate in Englewood, New Jersey. Anne conceived six months later, and Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was born at the Lindbergh apartment in New York City on June 22, 1930.

Immediately, after "the Eaglet's" birth, the Lindberghs began to look for a secluded property where they could build a home. They wanted it within easy driving distance of Englewood and New York City, as well as Princeton University -- where Charles Sr. was working on aircraft design. In late summer 1930, they purchased 425 acres in the Sourland Mountains near Princeton. Noted architect Chester Aldrich of Delano & Aldrich (who had also designed Next Day Hill) designed a 2.5-story, mixed French/English Tudor Revival home for the couple. The 14 room, six-bath home was made of rubble stone and concrete, and covered in white stucco.

Construction on the house began in March 1931. The Lindberghs spent their first night in the partially-completed house on October 31, and construction was nearing completion in early 1932. Generally, the Lindberghs spent the week at Next Day Hill. They'd travel to Hopewell House on Saturday, and stay until Monday or Tuesday.

On Saturday, February 27, the Lindberghs traveled to Hopewell House. Charles, Anne, and the baby all had colds, so they decided to stay at Hopewell an extra two days rather than make the trip back to Englewood...

* * * * * * *

At 8:00 pm on Tuesday, March 1, 1932, nurse Betty Gow put 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh, Jr. to bed in his crib on the second floor of the Lindbergh home. Around 9:30 pm, Charles Lindbergh, sitting in the library below the nursery, heard a noise like orange crate slats breaking. He thought nothing of it, since a bulging orange crate was in the kitchen. At 10:00 pm, Gow went to the baby's bedroom to discover him missing.

Charles Lindbergh rushed to the nursery, and found a note in a white envelope on the window sill. Twenty minutes later, the local police, the New Jersey State Police, and a huge crush of newspaper and radio reporters were on site. A tire print was discovered in the mud outside the house. Shortly thereafter, the police discovered three pieces of a home-made extension ladder in a nearby bush. One of the sections had broken during the ascent or descent of the kidnapper. Alongside the ladder was a three-quarter inch carpenter's chisel. Traces of mud were found on the floor of the nursery. A single footprint was found under the nursery window. A fingerprint expert found 400 partial fingerprints (mostly on the ladder). However, since the police failed to control the crime scene, reporters had flooded the house -- touching most rooms, examining items, and even touching the ladder. Curiously, no adult fingerprints were found in the nursery, even though many adults admitted to having touched items in the room.

The ransom note demanded $50,000 (close to $900,000 in 2016 dollars). A secret mark (two interlocking blue circles, surrounding a red circle, with holes punched through it) was at the bottom of the note.

Lindbergh immediately took charge of the case. One would think that the police would have taken charge, but not this time. For one thing, the reputations of both the local and state police were very poor when it came to kidnappings. Kidnapping was a state, not a federal crime, and more often than not police involvement led to the death of the kidnap victim rather than their retrieval. Most people didn't call the police, and just paid the ransom. Moreover, policework was in its infancy. The local police in Hunterdon County mostly wrote traffic tickets, and had almost no training in even the most rudimentary detection techniques. (The Lindbergh fingerprint man, for example, had only recently been a road cop.) The state police weren't much better, and it was clear that all the police officers present were highly nervous. They were in the presence of a man nearly all of them idolized, and they were desperate not to fail him. They were also incredibly desperate to please him, and this meant agreeing to nearly everything Lindbergh insisted on -- even when this meant refusing to engage in even the most fundamentally important police procedures (such as securing the crime scene and maintaining confidentiality of information).

Lindbergh was supremely confident of his own judgment and intuition. It had served him incredibly well in the past five years, and guided him unerringly across the Atlantic Ocean. He was a loner, someone who did not feel the need to rely on others. And he believed heavily in the power of his own charisma, personality, and leadership. Given the exceedingly poor reputation of the police, state and local, he felt he was at least as qualified as leading the investigation into his son's kidnapping -- and probably better equipped. After all, he was the hero of the age. What police officer could say anything as much?

Lindbergh and the police initially believed the kidnapping had been perpetrated by organized crime. The letter, which was full of grammatical and spelling errors, also seemed to have been written by a German, they believed. The police contacted Mickey Rosner, a Mafia associate, who in turn talked to a wide range of mobsters. None of them admitted to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby, but many of them offered to help find the boy.

A reward of $75,000 ($1.3 million in 2016 dollars) was offered for any information leading to the recovery of the Lindbergh baby.

* * * * * * * *

On March 6, a second ransom letter arrived at the Lindbergh home via the mail. Postmarked in Brooklyn on March 4, the letter carried the correct secret marks and raised the ransom to $70,000. Further analysis revealed that the nursery ransom note and the second ransom note had once been part of the same piece of paper.

A third letter was received in the mail on March 9 by Col. Henry Breckenridge, the Lindbergh's lawyer. It too came from Brooklyn and contained the secret marks. This letter appointed Breckenridge an intermediary between the family and kidnappers, specified a certain size box for the ransom, and warned the Lindberghs not to involve the police.

Meanwhile, retired Bronx school teacher John F. Condon wrote a letter to the Bronx Home News newspaper offering his own $1,000 reward if the kidnapper(s) would turn the child over to a Catholic priest. It appeared in the paper on March 8. (Condon was a bit of an eccentric and publicity hound, and was well known in the Bronx has a "local personality".) On March 9, Condon received a letter from the kidnapper(s) authorizing Condon to be the intermediary with Lindberghs. The Condon letter also contained the secret marks. Lindbergh gave Condon the $70,000 ransom. Per the Condon note's instructions, Condon placed a classified ad in the New York American newspaper: "Money is Ready. Jafsie". ("Jafsie" was the pronunciatin of Condon's initials: J.F.C.)

On the afternoon of March 12, Condon received an anonymous telephone call warning him to be home that evening and to wait for a letter. About 8:30 p.m., taxicab driver Joseph Perrone delivered a new note, given to him by a stranger. This message told Condon to go to a vacant hot-dog stand about 100 feet from a Jerome Avenue subway station, where he'd find further instructions. Condon found the hot-dog stand note, which told him to go to Woodlawn Cemetery near 233rd Street and Jerome Avenue. Condon waited at the locked front gate for the kidnapper. After about 15 minutes, stranger appeared inside the cemetery, waving a white handkerchief. The man identified himself as "John". Condon and "John" talked briefly before footsteps inside the cemetry startled the kidnapper. He climbed over the fence, dropped to the street, and walked swiftly toward Jerome Avenue.

The footsteps turned out to be those of a cemetery security guard. After assuring the guard that all was fine, Condon ran after "John". He caught up to him at the southern tip of the lake in Van Cortlandt Park. Condon and "John" walked to a bench near a tennis shack, where they talked for almost an hour! Condon showed "John" some large pins which had been used to pin a blanket over Baby Charles. "John" recognized them as the pins from the Lindbergh home. They discussed how the ransom should be paid, and the stranger agreed to prove he was genuine by furnishing the child's sleepsuit. According to Condon, the man sounded foreign but stayed in the shadows -- and Condon was unable to get a close look at his face. When they finished talking, the man ran off into the trees.

Police were convinced Condon had talked to a kidnapper. Condon said that "John" had told him the kidnapping had been planned for a year; in the nursey room ransom note, the same claim had been made.

On March 16, Condon received a package in the mail containing a baby's sleeping suit. Lindbergh positively identified it as the same suit his son was wearing on March 2. Condon placed another ad in the newspaper, using code given to him by "John", saying he was ready to pay the ransom. On March 21, Condon received a note in the mail insisting on no cops.

On March 30, Condon received a note threatening to increase the ransom to $100,000 and refusing to use newspaper code any more. The following day, Condon received a note telling him to be ready the next night. Condon affirmed his readiness by placing an ad in the afternoon edition of the newspaper.

At 7:45 P.M. on April 2, an unidentified taxicab driver delivered a note telling Condon to look for instructions under a stone in front of a greenhouse at 3225 East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx.

The police had fashioned a wooden box for the ransom that, they hoped, could later be identified. The ransom money itself consisted of gold certificates which were shortly to be withdrawn from circulation. The police felt that anyone passing large amounts of gold notes would draw attention to himself. Although the certificates were not marked, the serial number of each one was recorded. Unfortunately, the box was too small and could contain just $50,000 of the $70,000 ransom. The rest of the cash was wrapped in paper.

Charles Lindberg drove Condon to the greenhouse. The note instructed Condon to walk to Whittemore Avenue. He did so, leaving the ransom money in the car with Lindbergh. He got a bit turned around as he reached Whittemore, and was about to walk back to the car. Suddenly, a man said loudly, "Aye, doctor!" The man was inside St. Raymond's Cemetery; Condon was absolutely sure it was the man he'd talked to for an hour at Van Cordlandt Park. The wall of the cemetery ended and a low hedge began, and Condon met "John" at the hedge. "John" had seen the car, and asked who was in it. Condon said that Lindbergh had come with him. "John" asked for the money, and Condon told him that "times were tough" and Lindbergh had been able to raise just $50,000. "John" shrugged and said that would be good enough. Condon walked back to the car, told Lindbergh about the reduction in ransom, and retrieved the box. From where he sat in the car, Lindbergh could not see the men. "John" knelt, and examined the ranson money. He closed the box, rose, and handed over a note which, he said, would disclose Baby Charles' whereabouts. He then walked off into the cemetery. Neither man pursued John, for fear that he had accomplices who would kill the baby if John were interfered with.

The note said that Baby Charles could be found on a boat named "Nellie" near Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Police raced to Martha's Vineyard, but no boat was ever found.

On May 12, 1932, the badly decomposed body of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was accidentally found, partly buried, about four and a half miles southeast of the Lindbergh home. Trucker William Allen had gone into the woods to relive himself, and found the body. The police took control of the body, and an autopsy revealed a serious skull fracture below and to the right of the left ear. A decomposed blood clot was also found in this area. How the injury occurred could not be determined, but it was undoubtedly the cause of death.

The baby had died at least two months before, and been partially buried. The body had been chewed on by various animals, and some parts of the body were missing. Lindbergh and Gow identified the body based on an unusual physical characteristic (the toes of the right foot overlapped) and because the body was clad in a unique flannel shirt Gow had made. Lindbergh had his son's body cremated, and his ashes were strewn at sea off New Jersey on August 15.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Meanwhile, police began to suspect the kidnapping had been an "inside job". On June 8, 1932, officials began to question Violet Sharp, a British servant in the home of Anne Lindbergh's parents. She committed suicide on June 10. A few days later, police confirmed her alibi, discovering her innocence too late. Condon was also questioned by police, but could never be linked to the crime.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The first gold certificate showed up in the Bronx on April 8. More turned up in scattered locations, some as far away as Chicago and Minneapolis, but the people spending them were never found.

Gold certificates were withdrawn from circulation on May 1, 1933. A few days before, a man in Manhattan redeemed $2,980 of the certificates. Because the bank was busy, no one could remember anything about the man. He supplied a false name in Manhattan similar to one used by a woman who had lived there 20 years earlier.

More certificates showed up now and again over the next year. Most had been redeemed in the Bronx and Manhattan. A map showed that most of these had been redeemed at banks or used to buy goods at produce stores along the route of the Lexington Avenue subway. This subway line passed through the German-Austrian neighborhood of Yorkville, and some people were able to provide a description of the man who used them.

In March 1933, Arthur Koehler, a federal government expert on trees and wood, finished a detailed analysis of the homemade wooden kidnap ladder. He identified the grain and tool marks, and even that the wood had been used previously (holes where nails had been used were found). On November 19, 1933, Koehler located a store in the Bronx where five pieces of the kidnap ladder had been purchased.

* * * * * * *

On September 18, 1934, police located a redeemed gold certificate with a New York license plate number penciled in the margin. The certificate had been deposited in the bank by a Bronx gas station managed by Walter Lyle. Lyle told police he had written down the license plate number after feeling that his customer was acting suspicious.

The license plate number belonged to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German-American living in the Bronx. Hauptmann was arrested. One of the gold certificates was found on him, and over $14,000 more in his attic and garage.

Hauptmann claimed the money had been left with him by former business partner Isidor Fisch. Fisch had died on March 29, 1934, shortly after returning to Germany.

Several bank tellers, the gas station attendant, and others picked Hauptmann out of a lineup, although Condon could not.

Police swiftly found more incriminating evidence: A notebook in Hauptmann's home contained a sketch for a ladder similar to the one found at the Lindbergh home. Condon's phone number and address were written on a closet wall in Hauptmann's house, next to the phone. A piece of wood in the attic, Koehler said, was an exact match to the wood used to make Rail 16 in the ladder -- right down to the nail holes. Tool marks on the ladder matched tools owned by Hauptmann. At trial, the prosecution introduced evidence of Hauptmann's handwriting and grammatical style which was remarkably similar to that used in the ransom notes. Condon and Lindbergh both said Hauptmann was definitely "John". Another witness placed Hauptmann's car (or one like it) near the Lindbergh estate on the night of the kidnapping. Police discovered that a short time after the kidnapping, Hauptmann quit his job as a carpenter and began to engage in stock trading. And missing from Hauptmann's tool chest -- a single item, a three-quarter inch chisel.

Hauptmann claimed he had seen Condon's address in the newspaper, was intrigued, and wrote the address down. But he could not explain having Condon's phone number. He had a lone defense witness, who ineffectively challenged the handwriting analysis.

Hauptmann was convicted, and sentenced to death in the electric chair. He was executed on April 3, 1936.

* * * * * *

There is some concern that Hauptmann was innocent, or at least did not act alone. Forensic experts could not find Hauptmann's fingerprints on the ladder, evidence which the prosecution suppressed. How did Hauptmann know that the Lindberghs would be home that night? (They had returned very suddenly.) How did he know where the nursery was? How did he know he'd need a ladder? How did he approach the rural, isolated house without being seen? (There was only a single road leading to the house, and no trees or bushes nearby.) How did he escape the house without being seen? Why didn't the tire marks match those of Hauptmann's car? How come the nursery seemed to be wiped clean of all fingerprints? Why did everyone accept the sleeping suit as "the" sleeping suit, when they were nondescript and common?

And more.

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