The Story Of The Century


On the raw, gusty night of March 1, 1932, in the Sourland Hills of New Jersey, the twenty-month-old son of Charles A. Lindbergh and the former Anne Morrow, their first-born, was kidnapped from his nursery. Discarded nearby was a rough-made sectional ladder with a broken lower rung. A ransom note, with expressions and misspellings that suggested a writer whose first language was German, was left in the nursery. It led, on the night of April a in a Bronx cemetery, to the payment of fifty thousand dollars by an intermediary to a lone extortioner. But the child was not returned. Various hoaxers entered the picture, and underworld emissaries sought vainly to make contact with any gangsters who might have been involved.

On May 12 truckers stopping in woods not far from the Lindbergh home came across the child’s body.

Meanwhile a number of the ransom bills, of which police had recorded the serial numbers, began to appear in the New York area. A large part of the ransom, incidentally, had been paid in gold notes, which bore a yellow seal on the face and were redeemable by the Treasury in gold specie. By a decree of the Roosevelt administration taking the country off the gold standard in !933, gold currency was officially withdrawn from circulation. Such ransom bills therefore became all the more conspicuous.


On September 15, 1934, some two and a half years after the kidnapping, a New York gas-station attendant jotted down the license number of a driver who not only paid with a $10 gold note but boasted of having a “hundred more” at home. Four days later, after trailing the car owner about, FBI agents and New York police arrested him—a German-born carpenter named Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who lived in the north Bronx with his wife and infant son. In his wallet they found a $20 ransom bill, and $14,600 more in the garage behind his rented home.

Hauptmann went on trial for murder in the Hunterdon County Court at Flemington, a little town in the rolling farmland of west New Jersey, on January 2, 1935. “We realized,” said Lindbergh, testifying at the trial, “that after this circumstance had originally happened the sequence of events would probably be peculiar, not according to the ordinary logic of life.”

In fact, the tragic kidnap-murder of the Lindbergh baby became the occasion of a long-running carnival-circus that took one bizarre turn after another and ultimately reached its low, in many respects, with the trial of Hauptmann.

Outside the whitewashed nativestone courthouse in Flemington, a marketplace for chicken and egg farmers some seventy miles southwest of New York City, where nothing much had ever happened before in two centuries, souvenir peddlers promptly swarmed in to hawk tiny wooden replicas of the kidnap ladder.

On the first Sunday of the trial, when the courthouse was opened to sightseers, an estimated sixty thousand visitors from as far away as Chicago and Washington, according to their entries in the “guest book” the local sheriff provided, descended on Flemington, whose normal population was less than three thousand. Some twenty thousand automobiles, at times moving only three miles an hour and at other times not at all, choked the roads all the way back to New York and Philadelphia.

At the courthouse deputy sheriffs served as barkers, pointing out the main attractions. Tourists elbowed one another for the thrill of sitting in the chair Lindbergh occupied daily as an observer, marked with a sheet of paper breezily inscribed “Lindy.” But they backed off with a shudder from the camp chair assigned to Hauptmann; only three brave sightseers risked it all day. Hundreds had themselves photographed in the judge’s place and carved their initials into the bench. The century-old witness chair had to be nailed down lest it be carried off.

As the trial progressed attendance became an absolute must for the cafesociety set presided over by that huge, pear-shaped, rumpled arbiter of elegance Elsa Maxwell. Packs of “women in mink,” as they came to be called, became a regular feature of the court sessions, along with Broadway and Hollywood stars such as Lynne Fontanne, Clifton Webb, Jack Benny, and Estelle Taylor. The Union Hotel, the town’s only hostelry, which normally served fifty meals a day, dished out a thousand for the duration of the trial, and—significantly—two thousand drinks a day.

An inside group of newspapermen, doing their best to live up to the lifestyle of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s rowdy play THe Front Page, concocted a special trial anthem, adapted from the German beer-garden ditty “Schnitzelbank,” that ridiculed almost everybody and everything connected with the trial. A printable sample stanza went:

Ist das nicht der noon recess? Ya, das ist der noon recess. Schmells der court like Bronx Express? Ya, like rush-hour Bronx Express.