The Story Of The Century


And there was the dark night when two of my Post colleagues fell for the most elementary rube racket of country carnivals. Coming back along Main Street to our rented quarters in the home of a local dentist, they were carrying a surprise treat of a case of beer and two dozen hamburgers when they were accosted by two Flemington youths who taunted them with obscenities. Carefully putting beer and hamburgers down on the sidewalk, my colleagues gave chase to their two tormentors. Promptly a third and a fourth yokel came out of the shadows and made off with our midnight snack.

Most causes célèbres seem to have a revisionist aftermath in which theories are offered to turn the official verdict upside down. The Hauptmann trial is no exception. To this day, forty-one years later, whenever it comes out at a social gathering that I covered his trial, the first question I am inevitably asked is “Did Hauptmann really do it?”

My instant answer echoes the closing argument of the chief prosecutor, Attorney General David Wilentz of New Jersey, that naturally no movie camera was present in the nursery to make a record of the break-in, but that a mass of other evidence, beyond the eyewitness testimony, leads to Hauptmann and nobody else.

1. Hauptmann was found in possession of a large number of ransom bills.

2. A full year before Hauptmann was arrested, a federal lumber expert, Arthur Koehler of Wisconsin, by a patient and brilliant process involving forty thousand mills and suppliers, had traced the ponderosa pine of the kidnap ladder to a lumberyard near Hauptmann’s home where he bought his own supplies and often put in a few days’ work. Koehler was actually visiting the yard one day while Hauptmann was there.

3. One rail in the ladder was proved to have been ripped from the flooring in Hauptmann’s attic, apparently when he ran short of lumber to finish the ladder. The positioning and angle of nail holes in the rail matched exactly the holes left in the joist from which the plank had been torn.

4. Inside a closet, on a wall, in Hauptmann’s home had been jotted down the telephone number John Condon had given the kidnapper during the ransom negotiations.

5. Work sheets in the construction of the high-rise Majestic Apartments on Central Park West, in New York, where Hauptmann was employed early in 1932, show that he went to work neither on the day of the kidnapping nor on that of the passing of the ransom.

6. After the date of the ransom payment Hauptmann never again worked at his trade, or at any, but spent much of his time—and money—playing the stock market. Not successfully.

The one question that remains open to this day is whether Hauptmann had an accomplice, and this opens up the subsidiary question of whether he deliberately murdered the baby after taking it from the nursery, or whether the child was killed in an accidental fall when a rung of the ladder broke.

If death was accidental, then Hauptmann would have required an accomplice to harbor the child while Hauptmann was meeting Lindbergh’s intermediary. If death was deliberate, no accomplice was necessary. At any rate, the FBI very early cleared Mrs. Hauptmann of any connection with the case. And FBI accountants produced their own kind of proof that Hauptmann was a loner in that they traced to him—either by his expenditures or cash left in hand or stock account balances—almost the entire fifty thousand dollars of the ransom.


Then, too, beyond all this, there was a conversation I overheard one day during a recess between two local lawyers who had signed on to assist the defense and the prosecution, respectively. The subject was the disclosure that Lindbergh, who attended the trial daily and sat only feet away from Hauptmann, was carrying a handgun in a shoulder holster under his jacket (because of constant crank threats on his life). The following dialogue then ensued: DEFENSE LAWYER : Say, aren’t you worried Lindbergh will pull that gun out some day and plug Hauptmann right between the eyes? PROSECUTION LAWYER : Now why would Colonel Lindbergh want to do anything like that? DEFENSE LAWYER : I’m damned if I wouldn’t.

Nonetheless in the attempt to answer the prosecution’s powerful case Reilly, the chief defense counsel, employed a habitual tactic of his in murder trials. He tried to shift guilt for the crime onto an amalgam of dead persons and prosecution witnesses, in this case creating an unlikely cabal of Isidor Fisch, Hauptmann’s acquaintance (dead); Oliver Whately, the Lindbergh butler (dead); Violet Sharpe, a housemaid for Mrs. Lindbergh’s mother (dead); Betty Gow, the Lindbergh nursemaid, a prosecution witness; and “Jafsie” Condon, the star prosecution witness.