February 13, 1935. Carpenter Bruno Hauptmann is convicted of the abduction and murder of the 20-month old son of famous American aviator, Charles Lindbergh – a case that will make kidnapping a federal crime.
It’s morning, May 20th, 1927, on a muddy runway in Long Island, New York.
Aviator Charles Lindbergh stands next to his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. He flashes a smile at the crowd of spectators and reporters who’ve come to watch him begin his latest feat. Charles has flown countless missions and has almost 2,000 hours of experience in the air. But today, he’s about to attempt something no one has successfully done before: flying across the Atlantic Ocean.
After waving to the crowd… Charles climbs inside the belly of his plane and takes a seat in the cockpit. As he checks the controls, Charles braces himself for what he knows will be a challenging takeoff. His plane is heavy, weighed down by hundreds of gallons of gasoline. At the far end of the short, muddy runway, there are telephone lines that his bulky plane will have to clear. But Charles lives for these sorts of adventures, and he’s ready to pull off his most daring mission yet.
Charles starts the engine… and brings the plane to life. Then he pulls back on the throttle causing the Spirit of St. Louis to pick up speed and begin tearing down the runway. But just as the wheels begin to leave the ground… the heavy plane comes bouncing back down. Charles tries again pulling back on the yoke. On his second attempt… the vessel lifts off into the air but he hasn't yet cleared the telephone wires. So Charles grits his teeth… forcing his plane into a steep climb.
As Charles urges his plane upward, the fuselage begins to shake. Charles keeps pushing the plane higher and higher until finally, the short muddy runway and the dangerous telephone wires are behind and below him.
33 hours and 3,500 miles later, on May 21st, Charles Lindbergh lands in Paris, France. His successful Atlantic crossing instantly makes him one of the most famous men in the world. After completing his record-breaking flight, Charles continues to promote aviation by flying around the United States, Mexico, and Central America. His flying feats make him one of the best-known and beloved pilots of his time.
But Charles’ legacy will drastically change when he becomes the victim of one of the most infamous, and mysterious crimes in American history. In 1932, Charles’ 20-month-old son will be kidnapped. The subsequent search for the Lindbergh baby will enthrall the nation. In the end, the authorities will be unable to secure the safe return of the child, but they will find the man they believed was responsible for the so-called “Crime of the Century”: a German immigrant who will be convicted of kidnapping and murder on February 13th, 1935.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is February 13th, 1935: The Lindbergh Baby’s Killer is Convicted.
It’s Mar 1st, 1932 in Hopewell, New Jersey, at the estate of the world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, and his wife Anne.
It’s about 10 o’clock at night, and while her husband is in the study, Anne is getting ready for bed. It’s all a common routine; Charles works into the night, Charles Junior sleeps in his crib in a room nearby, the nanny hovers attentively, and Anne gets some time alone. But this evening, routine is shattered when the nanny comes rushing into Anne’s room, panicked: Charles Junior is gone.
Anne leaps out of bed, and the two women rush to the study to see if the baby is with her husband. But when Anne knocks on the door and pushes inside, she sees that Charles Senior is alone and oblivious.
Immediately, Anne fears the worst.
In the 1930s, America is in the throes of the Great Depression. Millions in the US are out of work, homeless, and desperate. Crime is on the rise, and one in particular: kidnapping. Anne and Charles are rich and successful, which makes them prime targets.
So Anne is not surprised when she steps back into her son's now vacant room and notices something on the windowsill: an unsigned, handwritten note with sloppy penmanship and bad grammar. The note says that if the Lindberghs want to see their baby again, they must pay 50,000 dollars, almost 1 million in today's money. The note ends with stern words of caution: “We warn you against making anything public or going to the police…”
Anne and Charles are terrified, they don't know who these kidnappers are, or where they’ve taken their son. All they know is that they were refused to be intimidated. Together, they’re one of the most powerful, well-connected couples in the United States. So the Lindberghs ignore the kidnappers' warning, and instead, pick up the phone and call the authorities.
When the police arrive, officers discover clumps of soil inside by the open window. Outside, they discover footprints in the mud and a homemade ladder used to climb through the window. But they can’t find any fingerprints or any other evidence to identify those responsible.
The next day, stories about the “Lindbergh baby kidnapping” are splashed on front pages all across the country. Anne tries to stay hopeful, but the press attention is overwhelming, as are the many offers of prayers and assistance. The Lindberghs hear from the head of the Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover himself. They even receive an overture from an imprisoned mobster, Al Capone.
Still, in spite of the many powerful people who want to help the Lindberghs find their son, the authorities struggle to uncover any meaningful leads. After days of searching, there is still no sign of Charles Junior. Until, finally, the Lindberghs receive another letter in the mail. In it, the kidnappers assure Anne and Charles that their baby is safe. But they warn them that the police must be called off, and the press too.
But the Lindberghs can’t make the police do anything, and they can’t stop the press either. Instead, they focus their efforts on using every connection and resource they have at their disposal to bring their son home.
But it won't be one of Charles and Anne’s well-connected friends that soon provides help; instead, a complete stranger.
Eight days after Charles Junior was taken, a retired educator - John Condon - grips an envelope tight in his hands. His breath quickens as he tears it open. But he already suspects he knows who it’s from.
Yesterday, John published a note in his hometown newspaper in the Bronx. Like many Americans, John is an admirer of Charles Lindbergh. And in his ad, John pledged to spend his own time, money, and resources to help secure the safe return of the Lindbergh baby.
John suspects the kidnappers do not want to deal with the police. So, in his ad, he also offered to act as an intermediary between the Lindberghs and the criminals. John promised not to provide any testimony or any other information against the kidnappers if they return the child. John hopes he can give the kidnappers what they want and bring Charles Junior safely home.
Now, John’s hands shake as he reads their response to his offer. The kidnappers want John to collect money from the Lindberghs, publish an ad in New York American magazine to let them know he has it, and then await further instructions.
John immediately telephones the Lindberghs to inform them of the letter he’s just received. And at a meeting in New Jersey, John, John assures Charles Lindbergh that he is a noble man, and he will do everything in his power to bring his son safely home.
Charles is reluctant to rely on a stranger, but he feels he has no choice. The kidnappers have chosen John to act as intermediary. So Charles grudgingly agrees to work with John as well.
But Charles is not willing to hand over the money, not until he’s certain his baby son is safe. So soon, Charles will send John on a mission to set up a meeting with the kidnappers and determine if his son is still alive.
It’s late at night on March 12th, 1932 in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
John Condon carefully wends his way through a maze of headstones, when he sees a mysterious man lurking in the darkness ahead. As John approaches, the man steps out of the shadows. And in a thick German accent, he asks John if he’s brought the money.
John shakes his head ‘no’ and carefully explains that Charles will not hand over any cash until he’s certain his baby is okay. The man with the German accent is frustrated by the deviation from the plan. But, he says, as a show of good faith, he will send proof of life in due time.
A few days later, a package arrives at the Lindbergh residence, containing the clothes Charles Junior was wearing the night he was taken. But Charles and Anne are not convinced by this that their son is alive. They’re desperate to get him back. But, they reason, if something has happened to baby Charles, they want to make sure the kidnappers don’t get away with it.
So the Lindberghs go to the IRS and devise a scheme. Instead of paying the ransom with cash, the Lindberghs agree to hand over marked gold notes instead. If the kidnappers use these unique bills, the IRS should be able to track them down.
So with the marked ransom ready, the Lindberghs give the money to John who waits to hear word.
Finally, in early April, the kidnappers make contact through an intermediary and instruct John to bring the money to St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the northeast Bronx.
On the evening of April 2nd, John walks into the cemetery with a parcel full of gold notes. As he makes his way through the eerie dark, John sees the mysterious man standing again in the shadows. When John hands him the money, he asks where the baby is. And in response, the mysterious man slips him a note before disappearing back into the darkness.
John immediately reaches the note and struggles to process what he’s reading. It says baby Charles is on a boat called the Nelly, anchored near Martha’s Vineyard. John doesn’t know if the baby is safe, alone, or even alive. All he knows is there’s no time to waste. He rushes to tell Charles the news.
Hearing of his son’s whereabouts, Charles leaps into action. He notifies the authorities and then prepares to make the journey from New York to Martha’s Vineyard to search for the boat himself. He arranges for a private seaplane and heads for a nearby airport.
In the skies over Martha's vineyard, Charles spends hours circling, looking for a boat called Nelly. But he never finds one. And finally, Charles is forced to give up and return home empty-handed.
In the coming weeks, Charles continues to work with the police to track down any new leads, but each one leads to a dead end. Anne loses hope and withdraws completely. John Condon places more ads in the paper, begging for more information about the whereabouts of Charles Junior. But no word ever comes.
Until the following month, on May 12th, when the body of Charles Junior is discovered partially buried five miles south of the Lindbergh home.
Charles and Anne are wracked with grief. Still, they are determined to find the people responsible. But the trail quickly runs cold, and more than two years pass before the Lindberghs catch a break, and finally get a glimpse of justice.
On September 15th, 1934, a man with a German accent uses a 10-dollar gold note to pay a gas station attendant in New York. From this transaction, the authorities follow a trail of clues that lead them to a man named Bruno Hauptmann, a German immigrant living in the Bronx.
Soon, the police place Bruno under arrest. And when they search his home, they find more than 10,000 dollars in gold notes. The authorities quickly determine that Bruno acted alone, and they have sufficient evidence to take him to trial. In October of 1934, a grand jury indicts Bruno for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh Junior.
When Bruno’s trial begins in January of the following year, the courtroom in New Jersey is packed with reporters from across the country. Charles Lindbergh is there too, determined to see justice done.
In the end, Bruno is convicted and sentenced to death. But he will proclaim his innocence to the end, and his trial will be the beginning of a mystery that will captivate Americans for generations.
It’s February 13th, 1935 in the small town of Flemington, New Jersey.
Inside a holding cell at the local courthouse, a thin, 35-year-old German immigrant, with deep-set eyes and an angular chin, listens to the sound of a bell ringing outside. Bruno Hauptmann - knows what the sound means: the jury has reached a verdict. And soon, two guards grab him by the arms, lift him up and lead him back toward the courtroom.
Throughout this Trial of the Century, as many in the press are calling it, Bruno has maintained his innocence. His lawyers tried to establish an alibi for him on the night of the kidnapping. They also asserted that Bruno didn’t obtain the ransom money from John Condon. They say he was given the gold notes by a friend who moved overseas and then died.
The prosecution tried to refute these claims with dozens of witnesses, including the eye-witness testimony of John Condon, who identified Bruno as the man he met with in the graveyard. But Bruno’s lawyers insisted that the witness testimony was not reliable and that the prosecution failed to provide sufficient evidence.
Now, as the guards guide him to the courtroom, Bruno can hear the crowd outside chanting, “Kill Hauptmann! Kill Hauptmann!” He hopes his lawyer’s efforts will be enough to spare him that fate.
As Bruno steps into the packed courtroom, he can see journalists frantically taking notes and spectators craning their heads to get a better look. Bruno takes his seat and the jurors file into the room. The judge bangs his gavel twice, and Bruno rises to his feet and listens as the jury foreman reads the verdict.
Moments later, a young boy in the crowd runs to a second-story window of the courthouse, flings it open, and yells the outcome to the crowd below: Bruno Hauptmann has been found guilty and sentenced to death. The boy’s pronouncement, and the subsequent roar of the crowd, is broadcast to the nation over the radio. And among the many Americans listening at home are Charles and Anne Lindbergh.
One year later, Bruno is executed. But his death by electric chair didn't put an end to the public’s obsession with the mysterious case, or to the host of theories that will crop up in the years to come. Some will believe Bruno was innocent. Others will believe that he was guilty, but that he did not act alone. There are even some who will believe that members of the Lindbergh staff, and even Charles Lindbergh himself, might have been involved.
But if the facts are murky, the horrific nature of the crime will always be crystal clear. At the time, the tragic kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby sparked Congress to take action. On the anniversary of Charles Junior’s birthday, lawmakers passed the Federal Kidnapping Act, which made kidnapping across state lines a felony punishable by death. This Lindbergh Law, as it's known, is still in effect today, decades after Bruno Hauptmann was convicted and sentenced to death on this day, February 13th, 1935.
Next on History Daily. February 14th, 1349. After being blamed for the spread of the Black Death, hundreds of Jews are executed in the Strausborg Massacre.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.