The true story of the Lindbergh kidnapping...
Though described by writer H.L. Mencken as the "the biggest story since the Resurrection," the kidnapping of pilot Charles Lindbergh's 20-month-old son, which occurred on March 1, 1932 in Highfields, New Jersey, may not disturb those raised on a steady stream of America's Most Wanted marathons, ripped-from-the-headlines Law & Order episodes, and true crime podcasts in the same Biblical manner. But that doesn't mean the details of the case, particularly the way it played out in the press and the role the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) played in the investigation, aren't still fascinating in their own right.
At the time, Charles Lindbergh was an American folk hero, the pilot responsible for the first solo transatlantic flight and the first nonstop solo flight from North America. Like Amelia Earhart, he was a celebrity in an emerging field that combined technological innovation, life-threatening danger, and old-fashioned heroism. As author James Zemboy points out in The Detective Novels of Agatha Christie, the excitement around aviation had bled into the previous Christie novel Peril at End House, which featured a character nicknamed "Mad Seton" who was "attempting to fly around the world in a new aircraft named 'The Albatross.'" Pilots were celebrities of the skies.
When Lindbergh's son, Charles Jr., was kidnapped, the incident quickly became a media sensation, with the New York Times running the story on the front page with the headline "Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped From Home of Parents on Farm Near Princeton." In addition to Lindbergh's fame and wealth, the specifics of the case captured the imagination of the public: the $50,000 ransom demanded for the baby's safe return, the makeshift ladder discovered near the property, and the nurse returning to the child's room to discover he was gone. The Times story includes a chilling sentence about the "muddy footprints that trailed across the floor from the crib to an open window."
The ransom was eventually paid using bills that included gold certificates that would soon be discontinued -- and would later prove instrumental in the solving of the case -- but the baby was not returned. Months later, Charles Jr.'s body was discovered in the woods about four-and-a-half miles from the Lindbergh's house. It was believed that the kidnapper had "accidentally and fatally dropped the boy while climbing down the ladder." The arrest of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German carpenter with an extensive criminal record in his home country, didn't occur until 1934. He was tried, found guilty, and executed on April 3, 1936, claiming his innocence until the end. (This set the stage for decades of ongoing alternate theories about the case.)