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Cols. Lindbergh And Mustard
Want to write about a famous crime? Why not start out by totally ignoring character and motive?
April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
The presumption of innocence is carried a very long way by the American reading public, at least when it comes to celebrated crimes. Despite the weight of the evidence against them, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, and James Earl Ray all have their dogged defenders in print. So do Lizzie Borden and Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. We seem to prefer big explanations for big crimes. Just the other evening, clicking through the local public-access channels, I watched a bearded man with blazing eyes lay out an elaborate scheme that purported to link Mark David Chapman, the lunatic who murdered John Lennon, with the CIA.
Few crimes were bigger than the kidnap and murder of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., for which the German-born Bronx carpenter Bruno Richard Hauptmann was executed in 1936. Hauptmann has always had his champions too. The circumstantial case against him was strong: he was caught passing a ransom bill; more ransom bills were found hidden in his garage; handwriting experts testified he had written the ransom notes; expert testimony suggested the crude ladder used to reach the baby’s window included a section of board ripped from the floor of Hauptmann’s attic; Charles Lindbergh himself said he recognized Hauptmann’s voice as that of the man to whom money was delivered in a Bronx graveyard. But it would be hard for anyone familiar with the case to argue that he had been treated fairly. He was beaten by the policeman who arrested him. It amused his lawyer, a syphilitic drunk whose reputation for noisy ineptitude had earned him the nickname Death House Reilly, to adopt as his letterhead a crimson drawing of the kidnap ladder he insisted his client had not built. One supposed eyewitness turned out to be legally blind. And even many of those convinced of Hauptmann’s guilt believed he must have had help gaining access to the child’s nursery, perhaps from a household servant working either for the Lindberghs or for Lindbergh’s motherin-law, Mrs. Dwight Morrow.
The frenzied atmosphere in which both the investigation and the trial were conducted compounded the Lindberghs’ ordeal. Biplanes circled over their home, offering aerial glimpses of the kidnap house at $2.50 per passenger. Hot-dog sellers set up along the roadside to feed the hungry who drove out to see the spot in the nearby woods where the dead baby was found. A towheaded youth worked courthouse crowds selling curls allegedly snipped from the victim’s head until he had snatched his own skull nearly bald. The family received 38,000 letters, 12,000 of them recounting dreams, 11,500 expressing sympathy, 9,500 offering suggestions, and 5,000 from cranks, some of whom offered to send the Lindberghs their own children to renlace the one thev’d lost.
“We are a primitive people,” Lindbergh said after it was all finally over. In later years he was often denounced for being too critical of the way his countrymen conducted themselves, but surely what happened to him and to his family between 1931 and 1935 gave him sufficient cause for that belief, and were he able to read them, two new books would only reaffirm it.
Over the intervening years there have been several bestsellers about the case, some reaffirming the Hauptmann verdict, most challenging it. But these two new volumes go well beyond the mere righting of old purported wrongs to commit new and wildly irresponsible wrongs of their own. As blithely as children playing Clue rattle the dice to determine whether Colonel Mustard or Miss Scarlet committed murder in the conservatory with the candlestick, these authors ignore the most basic questions of character and motivation in order to titillate a new generation of readers who have forgotten the real, flesh-and-blood human beings most affected by the tragedy. In the process they dishonor the dead and malign the still living.
The first book, Crime of the Century: The Lindbergh Kidnapping Hoax (Branden Books), by two New Hampshiremen, Gregory Ahlgren and Stephen Monier, a lawyer and a smalltown cop respectively, is so clumsily written, so badly copy-edited and poorly researched (“Geraldo” and “Hard Copy” are cited in its bibliography) that little attention need be paid to it here. For the record, its thesis is that Charles Lindbergh himself accidentally killed his boy in the course of staging an elaborate practical joke and then —simply because he could not bear to be thought “a fool”—resolved first to cover up his ghastly error by fabricating a kidnapping and then to allow poor Hauptmann to be framed for it. There is, of course, not one shred of evidence to support the notion that the child’s father was actually his killer and plenty of evidence to show that it is as preposterous as it is poisonous.