New book reopens the unclosable Lindbergh case: Author claims the aunt did it

January 09, 1994|By Anthony Scaduto | Anthony Scaduto,Newsday

Bruno Richard Hauptmann could hardly have foreseen how prophetic his close-to-final words would become when he uttered them on the night of April 3, 1936, shortly before being escorted to the electric chair in the New Jersey State Prison at Trenton.

Hauptmann, in the oddly syntaxed and sometimes poetic way he had of speaking, told his minister, "They think when I die, the case will die. They think it will be like a book I closed. But the book, it will never close."

More than a half century later, the book in the Lindbergh kidnapping case remains open. And, with the publication of Noel Behn's "Lindbergh: The Crime" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25), there is a new and sensational charge.

Mr. Behn, best known for his novels "The Kremlin Letter" (1966) and "Big Stick-Up at Brink's!" (1977), says the "evidence" he's uncovered (which he concedes is undocumented) is based on interviews with an attorney who was hired to investigate the case after Hauptmann was convicted and on "a logical reconstruction of events." It strongly suggests, he says, that Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. was not kidnapped from his crib on March 1, 1932, nor murdered by his abductor. Rather, he was murdered several days earlier by his aunt -- Elisabeth Morrow, Anne Morrow Lindbergh's sister -- because Elisabeth sought revenge on Anne.

And the toddler's father, possibly the most famous and popular man in the world at the time, devised the false kidnap plot to protect his family from the notoriety, says Mr. Behn.

Emotionally troubled

Often sickly and apparently emotionally troubled, Elisabeth believed Lindbergh should have been hers, that Anne stole him away, according to Mr. Behn, citing sources including Anne Morrow Lindbergh's diaries and letters. Elisabeth apparently had nervous breakdown after Charles and Anne became engaged, and had a mild heart attack after Charles Jr. was born. After Elisabeth returned to her mother's home, some miles from the new house the Lindberghs had just built in southern New Jersey's Sourland Mountains, ugly things happened -- the baby was found dumped into a trash closet and the family dog was killed, and Elisabeth was suspected.

The Lindberghs ordered the servants never to leave young Charles alone with his aunt. But one day they did just that, according to Mr. Behn, and the 20-month-old toddler was found several months later buried in nearby woods, killed by a blow to the head.

Hints dismissed

Several newspaper accounts at the time and some investigators had hinted that Elisabeth killed Charles Jr., but that view had always been dismissed as too ghoulish to consider and has not been heard since the '30s.

Anna Hauptmann, the executed man's widow, now 94 and living in a small town in Pennsylvania's Amish country, said recently, "I remember that about the sister, that she did it because she was jealous. I remember it from years ago, from the papers or from an investigator" for New Jersey Gov. Harold Hoffman, who was governor at the time of the trial.

There have been several books about the Lindbergh case in the past 17 years, starting with this writer's 1976 "Scapegoat," and several TV shows. "Scapegoat" -- to get my own tilt on record -- and the books and shows that came after documented Hauptmann's innocence. (One exception is "The Lindbergh Case," by Jim Fisher, who was given complete cooperation by New Jersey State Police and turned out what Mr. Behn, 65, calls "their version," and what others have called "a whitewash.")

Mr. Behn, raised in a Chicago suburb, is once-divorced and lives in New York. Before he began writing, he made a rather long detour in theater. He was a producer and manager of straw-hat theaters, then operated and was producer at the off-Broadway Cherry Lane from 1956 to 1961. He won an Obie in 1958 for producing Samuel Beckett's "Endgame."

"But theater was the distraction. Theater was the place for my gregariousness, but I wanted to write books," he says.

By 1963, he'd given up the theater and started "The Kremlin Letter." It was a best seller. John Huston directed the film, which starred George Sanders and Max von Sydow. Mr. Behn brings counterintelligence work to his espionage and crime books, having served in Army counterintelligence in the early 1950s.

Mr. Behn has been working on the Lindbergh case for eight years, off and on at first, but full time in the last four years. In brief, after studying the Lindbergh files for a couple of years and deciding he hadn't uncovered enough new material to write a book, Mr. Behn heard about Harry Green, a 93-year-old retired New Jersey lawyer living in Los Angeles.

Serious doubts

Mr. Green was Hoffman's friend and personal attorney. During the trial, Hoffman had become convinced that Hauptmann was innocent, mostly because some of the investigators working on the case gave him copies of official State Police documents that cast serious doubt about his guilt.

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