- Historic Sites
The Story Of The Century
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
Other eyewitnesses proved far less convincing, including an eighty-sevenyear-old veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, Amandus Hochmuth, who claimed to have seen Hauptmann clearly at a distance of twenty-five feet as Hauptmann’s car whipped around a bend in the road toward the Lindbergh place. Even at that distance, said Hochmuth, he could see Hauptmann flush.
To test the fundamental reliability of eyewitness testimony, a fellow reporter on the Post , the late Henry Paynter, devised an impish experiment in which I had the pleasure of accompanying him one weekend. Equipped with a batch of photos of nine nationally prominent persons, we went on a tour among the farmer neighbors of the Lindberghs in the Sourland Hills. In each case we showed the photos and asked whether any such persons had been seen in the neighborhood at the time of the kidnapping. The responses were fairly astonishing. For instance, a photo of General Hugh S. Johnson, former chief of Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, brought the following comments:
“I remember him all right. He was coming up the road dressed like a tramp.”
“Isn’t he that Whately fellow, the English butler of the Lindberghs?”
“That’s a tough face. That’s one I’ll never forget. If ever I see that colt afoolin’ around my traps, I’d sure as hell go for my rifle.”
Concerning the notably mild-mannered Dr. Rexford Guy Tugwell, New Deal economist and Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, one witness remarked: “He has a criminal face. Isn’t that the Mr. Schmidt who killed himself around here?”
Justice Joseph Force Crater of New York, who disappeared in 1930 and has never been traced to this day, evoked these comments:
“He was around. He said he was a newspaper fellow.”
“Oh yes, he was prowling around here with that other fellow [Dr. Tugwell], asking the way to the Lindbergh place.”
Looking at the photo of Mayor La Guardia of New York, one of our witnesses declared: “I saw him driving in a blue sedan with something, maybe a ladder.”
Not one of the persons questioned identified the photo of America’s Public Enemy No. 1 of the time, Al Capone.
Another aspect of the eyewitness business developed when Hauptmann’s chief counsel, Edward J. Reilly—a florid, carnation-wearing old-time criminal lawyer known as the “Bull of Brooklyn"—began presenting the case for the defense. He led off with a string of Good Samaritans who had come forward to volunteer a variety of testimony intended to provide Hauptmann with alibis on critical dates and implicate other figures instead. Of a batch of seven such witnesses each was destroyed before he left the stand. It was proved on crossexamination that five had prison records and one had had three stays in mental hospitals. As for the seventh, an actor-taxi driver, he broke into a string of Will Rogers impersonations that made it hard to take him seriously.
The prosecution was able to confound these defense witnesses quickly through an elaborate checking procedure. The moment the witnesses gave name and address, special squads of New Jersey and New York police went to work checking local, FBI , and other files by telephone. The next day five more scheduled defense witnesses failed to show, and five more the day after.
Reilly, whose ornate dress (morning coat and striped pants, along with the daily carnation) did not go down well in backwoods Flemington, was not devoid of a sense of humor. In the last week of the trial, sitting next to his table at lunch in the Union Hotel, I heard him make a totally uninhibited comment on the nature and quality of his own witnesses. Addressing yet another would-be volunteer who had come to his table, Reilly bellowed: “You’ve never been convicted of a crime? You’ve never been in a lunatic asylum? I can’t use you as a witness.”
The city-slicker versus local-yokel antagonisms, heightened by Reilly’s big-town elegance, went right down the line, with victory not always going to the New Yorkers. Somehow the country boys managed again and again to clean out the visitors in impromptu crap games, including among their victims, on one occasion, that quintessence of Broadway sophistication Damon Runyon, who did a daily trial story for the Hearst syndicate.