Monday, August 27, 2012

The Kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh, Jr.

When one thinks of famous aviators, Charles Lindbergh usually comes up. Lindbergh went from obscurity to instant stardom when he made his non-stop flight from Long Island, NY to Paris France in his little plane that could, The Spirit of St. Louis. He won the Orteig Prize and the Medal of Honor (he was a U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve officer) for the flight, and used his fame to promote commercial aviation and the use of air mail. As famous as Lindbergh is for his flying feat, it is almost completely eclipsed by the kidnapping and eventual murder of his infant son, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. in 1932.

Junior, as I will refer to him from now on, was only 20 months old when he was spirited away from his nursery room. Betty Gow, the Lindbergh's nursemaid had just put the Junior down in his crib and left him to sleep. When she returned shortly after to check up on Junior, she wasn't able to find the tightly swaddled baby. Worried but not panicked, she checked with both Lindbergh parents whom she suspected had possession of the child. When neither did, everyone started to panicked. Charles searched the nursery and found a white envelope on the radiator. The police were called and they, along with the media and the Lindbergh's attorney, rushed to the Lindbergh house. Upon investigation, police found only a short section of tire tracks in the mud, and sections of a makeshift ladder that was ditched into the bushes. A fingerprint expert arrived on the scene and attempted to find any solid fingerprints on the envelope or the ladder, but both proved fruitless. The envelope was spotless, and thanks to all the handling from the police and media, the ladder had over 400 partial prints on it. Things were not off to a good start.

Police opened the envelope shortly after and found a brief handwritten letter that was riddled with spelling and grammatical mistakes. In it, the kidnappers asked for $50,000 dollars in different variations of bills, and the usual requests not to involve the media or the police. The note reassured the Lindbergh's that Junior was safe, and that they would know the kidnapper's letters by the mark located below the message (said mark is shown above). Word spread quickly, and the Lindbergh's were flooded with well-wishers and old friends who had ideas of their own on who had kidnapped the baby. Charles' friends were absolutely sure that the mob had something to do with it, so they set out to get answers from people who knew people in the mob. This all led to high profile gangsters trying to make money off the whole thing, most notably Al Capone, who offered his services in exchange for money and the opportunity to be let out of prison. Authorities were not fooled and turned him down.

After President Herbert Hoover found out about the kidnapping, a lot more enforcement agencies became involved in the search to find "Little Lindy." The New Jersey police put out a $25,000 reward for the safe return of the child, which was made all the more enticing when the Lindbergh's added a reward of their own: $50,000. 75 grand is a pretty good chunk of money now, but in the early days of the depression, that was something worth devoting your time to. The Lindbergh's received a second note from the kidnappers a few days later and gave it to his friend to give his "mob connections" instead of the police. The "mob connections" ended up being lackeys of the newspaper The Daily News, and soon copies of the note were being sold on street corners for five bucks a pop. All ransom letters received after this one were now automatically suspect. Another letter came to the Lindbergh's and like the the first one sent by mail, it was from Brooklyn. The New York City Police Commissioner, Ed Mulrooney, wanted to get a group of police together to try and devise a way to pinpoint where the letters were coming from and raid the area. Charles feared for the life of his baby and declared that if Mulrooney went ahead with any such plan, he'd use his influence to ruin his career. Mulrooney backed down. A third letter arrived, agai n from Brooklyn, this one declaring that the police were involved, so the ransom would be raised to $70,000.

Here's where things get interesting. A well-known Bronx personality named John Condon wrote an open letter to the Bronx Home News and told them he was willing to help the Lindbergh's in any way possible and would add an extra thousand dollars of his own money to the reward. Condon, or Jafsie (a phonetic pronunciation of Condon's initials) as he was also known, was sent a letter supposedly from the kidnappers who must have seen his letter in the Bronx Home News. In the letter, they expressed their desire for Condon to be the intermediary between them and the Lindbergh's. Condon then put out an ad in New York American that the money was ready, per the kidnappers instructions. Condon eventually met with a representative of the kidnappers, though he couldn't see his face, as he stayed in the shadows. The person claimed that he was Scandinavian and was part of a gang of three men and two women. The baby was safe and on a boat, but they weren't ready to give the baby up and receive the ransom. Condon expressed doubt that the man and his associates even had the baby, to which the man responded that they would soon send the baby's sleeping pajamas as proof. The man then asked Condon in a roundabout way if he would be executed if the baby were dead. This unsettled Condon, but the man assured him that the baby was still alive. Sure enough, after the meeting, Condon received the baby's pajamas. He took them to Charles to get validation, and got it. The mysterious Scandinavian gang had the Lindbergh's baby. Condon later received a letter that the gang was ready to receive the ransom.

The ransom was put into a small wooden box, and was made out of Gold Certificates, in the hopes that either the box could be identified later, or the Gold Certificates could be tracked easier than the everyday notes. Condon and Charles followed the kidnappers notes to several different areas in Manhattan. After a long wild goose chase, they were sent to St. Raymond's Cemetery where Condon encountered who he thought was the same man from the other night, given the pseudonym "John." "John" accepted the money from Condon, though Condon told him they could only come up with $50,000. "John" got away, as Charles had insisted that no police be involved. The note given to Condon told them that the baby was on the boat called Nelly at Martha's Vineyard. The child was in the care of two women whom "John" claimed were innocent. Condon and Charles scoured the piers at Martha's Vineyard, but never saw a boat called Nelly. Lindbergh even got into a plane and flew low over the area in an attempt to scare the kidnappers out of hiding. But it was all for naught. Charles realized that he had been tricked.

Nearly two months after Junior had been kidnapped, a delivery truck driver pulled his car to the side of the road about five miles from the Lindbergh's house. As he went into the trees to take a leak, he discovered the corpse of a toddler. The trucker contacted the police, who then took the body to nearest morgue in Trenton, NJ. The body was badly decomposed and it appeared the infant had suffered a significant head injury. The left leg and hands were missing, and there were signs that the infant had been chewed on by animals as it sat in the woods. They could also tell that someone had tried to hastily bury him. The nursemaid Gow and Charles were brought in to identify the baby. They could tell by the overlapping toes and the shirt Gow had made for him that it really was Charles, Jr. It was surmised by all present that it was a blow to the head that had ended Junior's short life. Charles insisted on having the baby cremated afterward.

The kidnapping had far reaching effects that we all kind of assume were around forever. At the time, kidnapping was considered a local crime, and it was in no way the Bureau of Investigation's job to get involved. However, once Congress heard the baby was found dead, they shot a bill through that made kidnapping a federal crime. Now the FBI could get involved right quick.The whole tracking the money idea eventually paid off, as they eventually found someone in possession of some of the ransom bills in 1934. The man, Bruno Hauptmann, was a German immigrant with a record in his home country. After Hauptmann was arrested, the police searched his house and found over $12,000 of the ransom money hidden behind boards and in a can in the garage. Hauptmann was interrogated throughout the day and night that followed and was beaten at least once. Hauptmann claimed that he was given the money by an old associate of his who owed him. The associate, who had moved back to Germany, had died earlier in year, however. Hauptmann claimed he had no idea where his associate got the money and furthermore claimed that he had nothing at all to do with the kidnapping. Additional evidence was found that made the case against Hauptmann even more damning. The exact same wood used for the ladder, plus plans for the ladder were found in the house. Hauptmann even had Condon's address and phone number written down on a closet wall in the house. Hauptmann was charged with both murder and extortion. Handwriting and fingerprint experts, on top of Condon and Charles took the stand against Hauptmann. Evidence was even put forward that suggested that Hauptmann had dropped the baby when getting it out of the Lindbergh's house, and Junior had been dead from the beginning of the kidnapping. In the end, Hauptmann was sentenced to death and was electrocuted in 1936. Interestingly enough, Hauptmann had the chance to get life instead of being put to death. All he had to do was confess. Nothing doing. He pledged his innocence to the end. Hauptmann wouldn't even give newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, the satisfaction of writing his own confession in Hearst's paper for $90,000 and life in prison.

The legend of the kidnapping lives on today. People still write books about the "Crime of the Century," some claiming that Hauptmann was actually innocent, and some calling those people nuts and revisionists. In 2005, the show Forensic Files studied the evidence with newer technology and came up with the same conclusion: Hauptmann had done it. The newer movie J. Edgar features the baby kidnapping as a backdrop, and several other movies and shows have alluded to the criminal act. All involved suffered due to the incident. Condon was made out to be a suspect for the two years after the baby was found and before Hauptmann was discovered. The Lindbergh's eventually went into a "voluntary exile," sneaking off on a boat to Europe so they could be spared the public hysteria that was still revolving around their dead son. The Lindbergh's did not come back to the states until 1939. Questions are still unanswered about the case since Hauptmann never confessed. Why would someone choose the Lindbergh family to get a ransom out of? Did Hauptmann accidentally kill the baby, or did he do it on purpose later on? Another mystery among thousands in American history. This one just happens to be a sad and morbid one.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Innovators Over Inventors

Well it's been about six months now since my last post. I'd like to say that it was because I was so busy trying to get a teaching job, or that I was busy getting married, but it's simply not true. I just haven't really had anything pressing to write about. I haven't been reading many history books or come across any interesting stories. Plus, I just haven't made time for this blog, as it seems to be the least popular of the three I have. Be that as it may, I still love doing this, and I'll keep doing this until for some reason I can't anymore. That being said, I'll get onto today's subject. Something that I've noticed while reading snippets of history, or by visiting museums, is that we all seem to value innovators, but not inventors. The real kick in the teeth is that we still label them inventors. List off a few inventors that you know off the top of your head. Go ahead, I'll wait. Who did you come up with? Did Edison, Ford, Bell, and the Wright Brothers come up? They didn't invent jack. They did however innovate said things they are known for. Edison gave the electric light its long lasting filament, Ford made the car easy to build and affordable with the assembly line, Bell made the telephone practical, and the Wright Brothers had film and knew how to market themselves. If you walked up to any average Joe and asked them who invented the light bulb, they would say Edison. Sure they'd be wrong, but nobody cares about Humphrey Davy and his first use of an incandescent bulb. He may have "invented" the light bulb, but he sure as hell didn't make it practical.

History is a fickle thing. I've known this for quite some time, but ever since I became a full fledged history nerd, it's been hitting me more often. People only remember those who have basically forced history to remember them. Two things happened to all the so called inventors; either they invented an impractical idea that had potential, or they didn't know how to market their practical idea. Light bulbs, telephones, and cars are all great ideas, but they all started out really impractically. Light bulbs wouldn't stay lit for long at all, telephones hardly worked at all, and cars took a really long time to make and were pretty dang expensive. It took Edison, Bell, and Ford to change the face of these inventions, and in the process, make them their own. Several men claimed to have had successful flights in heavier than air machines before the Wright Brothers in 1903, but even if they did, they lacked something very important: proof. The Wright Brothers were the first ones to get one going and to have photo proof of it. Plus they patented the hell out of the plane design. If you couldn't work the patent system back then, you lost. That's why Edison has so many claims on so many inventions. He knew how to work the system, and there's probably a few inventions of his that aren't even his at all.

When anyone thinks of an MP3 player, they think of an Ipod. Plain and simple. Did Steve Jobs invent the MP3 player? No, but he made an extremely attractive and practical one. Apple knows how to market their products, which is why tablets and MP3 players that are not Apple are almost always considered inferior. Who invented the MP3 player? Who cares, because we have someone that gave us the perfect end product. We celebrate Jobs, Gates, Ford, and Edison, not the no names who truly invented the products. So, if you do end up inventing something, please patent the hell out of it quick, and make sure its so awesome that no one will even try to make it better because it is truly at the zenith. That's right, I finally used zenith in a sentence. Oh, and prepare for lawsuits, because that's exactly what all of the innovators had to go through. People like Bell, Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Eli Whitney all had to go through long court battles just to keep their names in the history book. Oh, and one last thing: Al Gore did not invent the internet, apparently that British guy in the opening ceremony of the Olympics did. So, mystery solved.