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The Story Of The Century

July 2024
18min read

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a decree of the Roosevelt administration taking the country off the gold standard in !933, gold currency was officially withdrawn from circulation.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.

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.”)

A newcomer to the Post , I was the youngest member of a staff of ten that our legendary city editor, the late Walter Lister, selected to take with him to Flemington. A brilliant newspaperman and an incidental playwright who coauthored one of America’s first expressionist plays, Spread Eagle , Lister was a severe taskmaster. At the time he was earnestly trying to model himself on that great archetype of the sadistic city editor, Charles Chapin of the old New York World , who not only tormented his staff fiendishly but murdered his wife and wound up editing the Sing Sing Prison house organ. Lister fell short of uxoricide but, as next best, created legend by firing his favorite drinking companion, whose wife was very pregnant, one blizzardy Christmas Eve.

How I came to be tapped for the assignment was that, first, I had developed a knack of writing fast and could compose up to sixty words a minute of a news story under deadline, a valued skill on evening newspapers, where edition after edition is chasing the news as it is happening.

Further, in a series of flukes my life had become oddly linked to Hauptmann’s from the day of his arrest to the day of his execution. Again and again I was consistently lucky on the Hauptmann story as on no other story before or after.


For instance, on the day of his arrest I was sent to get an interview with Hauptmann’s wife, Anna, at the friend’s apartment where she had taken shelter with her infant son. I arrived to find I had been preceded by some two dozen reporters who had exhausted every possible dodge to get Mrs. Hauptmann to open the apartment door and submit to an interview. They had posed as telegraph messengers, lawyers, delivery boys, even policemen. They had climbed a rickety back-alley fire escape and banged on the shaded and locked windows in vain. One had even yelled “Fire!” Among the crestfallen crowd were A. J. Liebling, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Joseph Mitchell, all of later fame.

Within sixty seconds of my arrival on the scene I became the only reporter Mrs. Hauptmann admitted, on that day and for two weeks thereafter (until a Hearst paper, the New York Journal , bought her away from me with money and put her on their payroll as an exclusive property). What did the trick for me was a completely fortuitous decision the year before, while I was working in Baltimore, to fill out the long provincial evenings by taking a six-month Berlitz course in German.

Now I had but to shout through the door of Mrs. Hauptmann’s hide-out in German: “Journalist. Wish to interview you about your husband’s innocence!” At once the door opened, and Mrs. Hauptmann asked, in German: “Who spoke German?” I stepped forward, and she let me in.

It was the most taxing interview I held in ten years as a newspaperman. Though I could understand Mrs. Hauptmann well enough, my own spoken German began to flag. But Mrs. Hauptmann soon began to accept questions from me in English; more serious was the fact that whenever I reached for my pencil and wad of copy paper to take notes, Mrs. Hauptmann froze in her tracks. So I put away pencil and paper altogether and as best I could committed the entire two-hour interview to memory.

Among the things she told me was that her Richard could not possibly have kidnapped and killed a child, because he was much too gentle and concerned about all living things. Once, she said, he had nearly wrecked their car to avoid hitting a squirrel. Often he had scolded people who picked flowers in the park instead of letting them live for all the public to enjoy.

A plain, stocky woman who looked exactly like what she had been before her marriage, a hardworking waitress in a bakery-restaurant, she was yet able to evoke a touching, even romantic, moment in her life with Hauptmann. A few months after they had met, in German circles in the Bronx, she said, he took her to a park bench for a talk. There, she said, he asked her to marry him but said that there was something he had to tell her before she gave her answer—that he was in the United States illegally. Because of some “trouble” as a youth in Germany he had been unable to obtain a visa but had smuggled himself into the United States as a stowaway on a ship. She had taken his hand in hers, she said, and kissed him and joined her life to his.

The same day as that first interview with Mrs. Hauptmann, I went to the little garage behind their home and poked through the mounds of debris left by FBI men who had torn the interior apart in finding the $14,600 of ransom bills. For no reason except the mild irony involved I picked up and took away with me a German detective novel entitled Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs (“The Finances of the Grand Duke”). At the time I had no reason to pay particular attention to the name inscribed on the flyleaf, Isidor Fisch.

Within twenty-four hours it developed that Hauptmann was trying to clear himself by pinning the ransom money on an acquaintance now dead with whom he had had some minor dealings in fur skins—Isidor Fisch. I learned also that all the police agencies involved were hunting desperately for a sample of Fisch’s handwriting to compare with that of the kidnapper’s notes. The Post , after printing a facsimile and analysis of the Fisch signature from Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs , was glad to accommodate the police.

So it went for me even during the trial. One day, as Hauptmann was being taken under guard from the courtroom during a recess and passing the kidnap ladder, which was standing against the wall in evidence, I lunged toward him impulsively and obtained a “world exclusive,” a first interview of two succinct sentences:

Q. Bruno, did you make that ladder?

A. I would be a second-hand carpenter if I make such a ladder.

I was struck by the incongruously high-pitched voice that came out of that virile athletic body, but I was later to observe a similar phenomenon in such undoubted manly specimens as Jack Dempsey, Fiorello La Guardia, Ernest Hemingway, and General Patton.

A definite obstacle to the proceedings were the mink-clad ladies from café society (the generational parent of the jet set and grandparent of the Beautiful People) who swarmed to the trial like the knitting women at the base of the guillotine during the Terror. Throughout the sessions they chatted, tittered, and giggled without concern for the fact that a man charged with the murder of a baby was on trial for his life. So many of them turned up in Flemington that the Journal assigned one of its society columnists, a Mrs. Sigourney Thayer who wrote under the house pseudonym “Madame Flutterby,” to spend full time at the trial reporting nothing but the activities of the women in mink.

In an angry piece for the New York Times novelist Edna Ferber wrote: “I found all the Maxwell party countersigns and passwords were being cooed back and forth. All the mink coats were saying to the Savile Row topcoats and burgundy mufflers, ‘Hello, darling! How are you? Isn’t this divine?'”

But high as Miss Ferber soared in her indignation, I believe she fell short of the social commentary we put together in the Post by simply quoting from the Encyclopedia Britannica’s wholly objective description of the mink as a “fur-bearing animal … of the weasel family … Few mammals are as voracious and bloodthirsty. … The female is of a savage disposition.”

Miss Ferber was herself one of another genus, the “trained seal,” as we working reporters called them, celebrities in other writing media who were sent to the trial by various newspapers and news agencies to catch a quick impression and make profound observations. Also present were Alexander Woollcott, the sage of the New Yorker , and novelists Fannie Hurst, Kathleen Norris, and Ford Madox Ford, who invariably found themselves thoroughly confused by the twists and turns of the testimony and would eventually appeal to some fiftydollar-a-week reporter of the working press to guide them through the maze.

As an aspiring young novelist I was flattered to do service for the most distinguished trained seal of the lot, Ford Madox Ford, a huge, kindly mass of a man well described at the time as resembling a beached whale and very near destitution because of the meager sales of his novels in the Depression. At Ford’s request I showed him around town so he could stock up on overnight supplies. At the drugstore he asked, wistfully, for “the very smallest quantity of toothpaste that you sell” (a ten-cent tube) and elsewhere for “the cheapest spirits you stock, and the very smallest quantity” (this last was a half pint of applejack, the highly potent and potable vin du pays of Hunterdon County, priced at seventy-five cents).

Though the strongest aspects of the case against Hauptmann proved to be a mass of solid, objective evidence of a kind that laymen mistakenly downgrade because it is “circumstantial,” there were also a host of eyewitnesses who claimed to have beheld Hauptmann in a variety of damaging situations. Chief among them was John F. Condon (“Jafsie,” as he called himself), a heavyset, seventy-four-year-old retired elementary-school teacher from “the beautiful borough of the Bronx.” In one of the more bizarre turns of the case he became the intermediary in the ransom negotiations simply by writing a letter to a neighborhood newspaper offering his services —with the astonishing result that the kidnapper, whom he later positively identified as Hauptmann, got in touch with him at once and met with him twice face to face.


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.

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.

As for Hauptmann’s possession of a hoard of ransom money, Reilly alleged that Fisch had left it with Hauptmann for safekeeping before returning to Germany to die in 1934, and that Hauptmann had helped himself to a portion of the funds in repayment of a debt owed him by Fisch. A brother and sister of Fisch came from Germany to the trial to rebut every aspect of Hauptmann’s story.

In the final analysis, in any event, Hauptmann was no ordinary hard- working family man plucked from nowhere to serve as a scapegoat. A World War i machine gunner at seventeen, he was unable to get work in the early Weimar period and turned to crime. He did a prison term for mugging two young women on the street and burglarizing, among others, a burgomaster’s house. Released on probation after four years in prison, he was soon rearrested for a series of factory burglaries but escaped jail and, with extraordinary determination, suffered hunger and extreme discomfort to stow away three times on German ships before finally making it to the United States in 1923—and to his death in the electric chair thirteen years later.

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