Lindbergh case riveted nation


March 30, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

A spring rain that had fallen steadily through the day was followed by stiff winds that swayed through the tall trees surrounding the country estate of Charles A. Lindbergh Sr., and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

To escape the constant glare of publicity that had surrounded Lindbergh since his historic 1927 flight from New York to Paris aboard the Spirit of St. Louis, and his subsequent marriage to Anne Morrow, daughter of Ambassador Dwight Morrow, the couple had decided to settle in a rural section of New Jersey.

On 500 acres of dense woodland that also included a landing strip, in the Sourland Mountains near Hopewell, they had built a twin-gabled fieldstone house. Their nearest neighbors were on the surrounding farms. Reached by a curvy, rural single-lane road and a long lane, the new house was not visible to passers-by.

During the last weekend of February 1932, the couple, and their 20-month-old son, Charles A. Lindbergh Jr., who had come down with a cold, spent a long weekend in the new house.

On Monday, March 1, 1932, as they prepared to spend a quiet evening at home, the child's mother and Betty Gow, a nurse, prepared the baby for bed. Later, tip-toeing into the nursery at 10 p.m. to check on the baby, Gow made a startling discovery: The child was missing from his crib.

Racing to the nursery, Lindbergh stared down into an empty crib as his wife entered the room.

"Do you have the baby?" she asked.

"Anne, they have stolen our baby," he replied.

On the window sill of the child's room lay an envelope containing a ransom note. In the mud, some distance from the house, was a crude ladder that the kidnapper had used to enter the baby's room. It was the beginning of an odyssey that caught and maintained the world's curiosity for the next severalyears.

Despite an intensive search, the remains of the baby were not found until May 12, 1932, when a truck driver stumbled upon a shallow grave in the woods.

The kidnapping and subsequent trial and execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was charged with the crime in 1934 after some of the ransom money was found in his Bronx home, has been called the "Crime of the Century."

In January 1935, the spectacular trial began in Flemington, N.J.

Some of the most recognizable names in American journalism, theater and film, along with the otherwise curious, jammed the rural Hunterdon County town to participate in what H.L. Mencken called the "biggest story since the Resurrection."

Despite Hauptmann's denial of any involvement with the baby's kidnapping and complaints of police brutality, he was found guilty by a jury after only 11 hours of deliberation and sentenced to death.

Doubts surrounding Hauptmann's guilt persist to this day, At the time, though, appeals to the Supreme Court were unsuccessful, and a stay of execution failed to keep him from the electric chair.

As he awaited execution, Hauptmann passed his days in Cell 9 of the gloomy, fortress-like New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, visiting with his wife, Anna Hauptmann, and his counsel, C. Lloyd Fisher.

New Jersey Gov. Harold G. Hoffman, who had reprieved Hauptmann once, refused to do so for a second time, and execution was set for April 3, 1936.

On a crystal clear, cold night, as Hauptmann sat in the red brick death house, the bells of nearby St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church began to peal as the hour of execution approached. They stopped suddenly, then began to ring again 10 minutes later. Crowds of the curious gathered in the streets outside the prison walls.

Under threat of prosecution if cameras were smuggled into the execution chamber, 55 witnesses slowly filed into the room. They "sat tense, wondering whether the stoical Bronx carpenter would break," reported The Sun.

The politically ambitious New Jersey Attorney General David F. Wilentz, who had prosecuted Hauptmann at Flemington, had predicted the "cold prisoner would thaw out when he hears the switch," said the newspaper.

At 8:41 p.m., Hauptmann, who was ashen white and with a shaved head, was led into the death chamber. "Hauptmann did not say a word in the death chamber. Not even a murmur passed his lips," observed The Sun.

"He slumped into the chair. Three guards fastened the straps about his arms and body, and the electrodes on his right leg. Robert H. Elliott, the official executioner, fastened the cup-shaped head piece and the mask."

At 8:43, Elliott spun the rheostat and 2,000 volts surged through Hauptmann's body. "He stiffened. His arms became tense. The muscles on his bare right leg bulged."

A second shock was administered at 8:44 p.m., a third and final one a minute later. Dr. Howard Weisler, prison physician, held a stethoscope to Hauptmann's chest. "This man is dead," he said to the prison warden. The time was 8:47 p.m.

Speaking with reporters, the prison warden said that Hauptmann did "not lose his courage, but at no time did he smile. ... He was in fairly good spirits all day and never seemed to give up hope."

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