The Story Of The Century


During the six weeks of the trial some dozens of volunteer “confessions” were received from all over the country, “clearing” Hauptmann. The confessors turned out to be a variety of publicity seekers, psychopaths, and convicts hoping to wangle a brief vacation from their prison cells by being brought to Flemington to testify.

Nevertheless, for all this nightmarish hullabaloo, Justice Thomas W. Trenchard, a massive man who looked like a monument of Jurisprudence, managed miraculously to keep a firm hand on the trial proceedings and to guide them so fairly and dignifiedly and humanely (he bought rubbers for the entire jury to wade through the winter slush on their way to and from the courthouse) that no error was ever laid against him during the many appeals before Hauptmann died in the electric chair at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton on April 3, 1936.

Why this mass hysteria that for six weeks made Flemington a world news center? The main reason, of course, was that Lindbergh, the Lone Eagle, was still a world hero seven years after his epic solo flight across the Atlantic. Also this was a time when sensational murder trials, including the Hall-Mills and Snyder-Gray cases of a few years before, were the favorite reading matter of the newspaper public.

Reporters came from every continent to pour out as much as a million words a day from the little courthouse on a web of 168 specially installed lines that included direct wires to London, Paris, Berlin, and Sydney. It was the largest setup ever created for a news event, including the World Series and Olympic games. Technicians estimated that for the duration of the trial Flemington had a communications system large enough to provide normal service for a city of a million.

Newspapermen enjoyed calling the Hauptmann trial “the Story of the Century,” airily by-passing World War i. It was nevertheless a fact that day after day on the front pages of America, and many foreign journals as well, the trial was given top play over such simultaneous, and ultimately more significant, events as the first of the Moscow trials of Old Bolsheviks; the first appeasement of Adolf Hitler, this by the return to Germany of the Saarland territory (after which New Jersey’s local Sourland was misnamed); and the Roosevelt administration’s introduction of a key piece of New Deal legislation, the Social Security Act.

Seating capacity of the courtroom, with its church-pew spectator benches and some extra facilities, was no more than five hundred, and there was a daily struggle for admission that went all the way from primitive elbowing to ruses like obtaining pretend witness subpoenas from friendly lawyers in the case. I happened to be one of a hundred and fifty privileged newspapermen who were issued special press passes. My own blood-red ticket, imprinted in black, entitled me to Press Seat No. 3, which consisted of about twenty meager inches of sitting space in the first of two rows of unpainted pine benches and tables that were installed directly behind the enclosure for judge, defendant, lawyers, and witnesses.

There, in my narrow lebensraum, wearing down ten pencils daily, I contributed some five thousand words a day of the running story for the New York Post . This was a consecutive, chronological account of all that happened in the courtroom while it was happening: question-and-answer testimony, an evaluation of the same in relation to previous testimony and happenings, description of the appearance and behavior of the witnesses, skirmishes of the lawyers, reaction of the defendant and spectators. And every word of it had to be written by hand on manuscript-size sheets, passed up the aisle by messengers, and relayed to the attic, where a telegrapher especially assigned to me transmitted my running account to the Post , an evening paper, where it would be set up in type and printed only minutes later.

Simultaneously my senior partner, James Martindale, would be writing leads to the story, including revisions and bulletins, that would go at the top of the chronological account, changing as new developments occurred.

The telegraphers on such assignments had a knack for learning quickly to decipher the scrawls of their reporter wards. Though I had regularly flunked penmanship all through elementary school, my own personal guardian, Joe, of Postal Telegraph (I never learned the rest of his name), failed only once in interpreting my sixweek output of 150,000 words. On the fourth day of the trial, during testimony involving the kidnap ladder, a sheet of my copy came rustling back in reverse action over the chain of transmission from the attic. A marginal note from Joe inquired as to whether a certain circled hieroglyphic was to be read as “nail hole” or “mastermind,” indicating the broad spectrum of my indecipherability. (It was “nail hole.”)