April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
Want to write about a famous crime? Why not start out by totally ignoring character and motive?
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.
Noel Behn’s book Lindbergh: The Crime (Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press) has an equally ludicrous thesis, but since it is better written, published by a well-known New York firm, and comes with blurbs from four well-known journalists—Peter Maas, Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, and A. E. Hotchner (who should all know better)—it is more insidious. Behn claims to believe—I say “claims” because it is hard to credit that anyone could seriously believe it—that the baby was actually murdered three days before the world learned of the supposed kidnapping in a fit of mad envy by Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s older sister, Elisabeth, and that when the tragedy was discovered, the Lindberghs decided that rather than have the guilty woman arrested and risk a family scandal, they would enter an elaborate conspiracy to cover everything up, a wonderfully ironclad cabal that eventually included Charles and Anne Eindbergh, all the Eindbergh servants and some of the Morrow staff, Henry C. Breckinridge, the former Assistant Secretary of War who was the Lindberghs’ attorney, and William J. Donovan (who would one day run the Office of Strategic Services). According to Behn, Eindbergh himself saw to it that the first ransom note was written, ordered the child’s room wiped down to eliminate fingerprints, presumably dumped the corpse of his only child in the woods, then banged together a ladder and stomped around the muddy grounds to leave a false trail for the state police to find.
Where did Behn get this notion? From a ninety-three-year-old attorney named Harry Green, he says, who once worked for the New Jersey governor Harold Hoffmann. Two of the Morrow servants swore affidavits attesting to it shortly before Hauptmann’s execution, Behn claims he was told.
Just how had Elisabeth Morrow killed the baby?
Well, Green couldn’t remember.
Where are all the important affidavits now?
Thrown away by a janitor because they were water-damaged.
Any other “evidence"?
None—and Green has died since Behn says he interviewed him.
So far as anyone knows, Elisabeth Morrow was not even present at the Lindberghs’ estate on the day in question. Nor, though both sisters were smitten by Lindbergh when they first met him, is there any indication that Elisabeth was seriously envious when her younger sister won his heart or bore his child. Meanwhile, scattered through the first three volumes of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s published letters and diaries, there is ample documentation of the sisters’ deep affection for each other: when Elisabeth Morrow died of pneumonia at the age of thirty after a long series of crippling heart attacks, her grieving sister wrote that “life wasn’t going to be worth much without her, as the world would be without sun or fire”—hardly the sentiments of a mother writing about someone who she knew had slaughtered her child. Nor, I think, could any reasonable person reading Mrs. Lindbergh’s heartbreaking letters and diary excerpts after her child’s disappearance and death entertain for a moment Behn’s bizarre suggestion that they represent merely an after-the-fact attempt to “keep the fib intact, to make sure the record supports her husband’s scenario and there are no slip-ups that could point to her sister.”
It is impossible to demonstrate conclusively that Behn or the two New Hampshire sleuths are wrong, of course. Negatives always defy proof. But I would like to offer one more bit of suggestive evidence for the other side. In 1989 I wrote a film called “Lindbergh” for The American Experience series on PBS. The producer, Stephen W. Ives, was fortunate enough to get an on-screen interview with Mrs. Lindbergh. Our subject was the life and personality of her late husband, we assured her; we weren’t interested in probing into the painful business of her baby’s death. But Mrs. Lindbergh herself brought up the subject while trying to explain the stoicism with which her husband had always managed to put difficult things behind him. Men and women differed in the way they reacted to tragedy, she said; her husband “had to escape” after the baby’s death, she said. “He went flying and went on with his work.” She paused for a moment. “But I couldn’t take it in one draft at all. And I still can’t. I mean, when I draw the curtains at night I think, ‘It’s good to draw the curtains. Somebody must have known we were in the house.’ These things come back to you.”
Then she stopped, gestured helplessly with her hand, and sat quiet for a time, apparently lost in her memories of what cruel strangers had done to her and her family nearly six decades earlier. Mrs. Lindbergh is said to be in failing health now and no longer gives interviews. One can only hope the cruelty committed by these latest intruders into her life has been kept from her.