On March 1, 1932, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr., the 20-month-old son of aviation superstar Charles Lindbergh, disappeared from his bedroom in Hopewell, New Jersey.
Given Lindbergh’s incandescent worldwide celebrity, the kidnapping quickly got labeled “the crime of the century,” with cynical newspaper columnist H. L. Mencken calling it “the biggest story since the Resurrection.”
Multiple law-enforcement agencies, military officials, and the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) mounted a firestorm search for the child. Several ransom notes demanded $50,000. Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, continually dropped off money as per their instructions.Tragically, on May 12, a truck driver discovered Baby Charlie’s body in a wooded area about 4.5 miles from the Lindbergh’s home. A severe blow to the head had done him in.
Soon thereafter, authorities noticed bills from the ransom payments being spent in Manhattan. They ultimately trace $14,000 of the marked money to the Bronx apartment of a German-born carpenter, Bruno Richard Hauptmann.
Protesting his innocence and saying he got the cash from a dead business partner, Hauptmann nonetheless was convicted and executed for the crime on April 3, 1936.
Still, the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping is an atrocity that has never just gone away. Controversy and conspiracy theories continue to surround the case, including the explosive notion that Charles Lindbergh, a Social Darwinist, orchestrated the murder of his own child because Baby Charlie was sickly and perhaps even disabled.
While Baby Charlie (and perhaps Bruno Richard Hauptmann) may never get proper justice, his abduction and death led to the Federal Kidnapping Act, which makes transporting a kidnapping victim across state lines a federal offense.
In addition, the crime has echoed through every subsequent generation and remains a fixture in the popular consciousness. Here are some examples of just that.
THE TERM “LINDBERGH BABY”
One ongoing theme among doubters in the official kidnapping story is that the body found in the woods was not that of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., and that the actual son of the famous airman was still out there, somewhere.
Through the years, hoaxers have attempted to claim to be the grown-up “Lindbergh Baby” to no serious avail. The term itself, though, is more often employed as a darkly humorous acknowledgment that someone may have a sketchy past or just suddenly showed up out of nowhere; e.g. — “Who’s that new guy at work — the Lindbergh Baby?”
Scores of fact-based books have been written — and continue to be written — about the Lindbergh kidnapping. In addition, the books seem to espouse as many conflicting theories on the crime as there are authors.
Among the most noteworthy are:
• The Case That Never Dies: The Lindbergh Kidnapping by Lloyd C. Gardener first hit best-seller lists in 2004 and is largely regarded as the essential volume on the tragedy. Gardener paints a conspiracy of powerful men in government and the military at work, with Charles Lindbergh at the top.
• The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case: A Critical Analysis of the Trial of Bruno Richard Hauptman by James M. Dedman III and George R. Dekle Sr., a pair of attorneys who propose how the court proceedings might have played out given modern technology.
• Cemetery John: The Undiscovered Mastermind of the Lindbergh Kidnapping by Robert Zorn, in which the author delves into the case based on the idea that his own father may have known one of the abductors.
The inherent horror, drama, and mystery of the Lindbergh kidnapping has inspired multiple fiction authors.
Two such giants are Agatha Christie, who created a variation on the case as a plot detail in her 1934 classic, Murder on the Orient Express; and James Patterson, whose detective hero Alex Cross contends with a Lindbergh kidnapping copycat in 1993’s Along Came a Spider.
The Aviator’s Wife, a 2013 bestseller by Melanie Hauser, tells the story from the point of view of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Baby Charlie’s mother.
On the big screen, Clint Eastwood’s 2011 FBI founder biopic J. Edgar contains scenes centered on the Lindbergh kidnapping. The case has proven more directly fertile, though, in the realm of TV films,
The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case (1976) is an NBC movie starring Cliff De Young as Charles Lindbergh and Anthony Hopkins as Bruno Richard Hauptmann. The future Dr. Hannibal Lecter won an Emmy for his performance here.
Crime of the Century (1996), which originally aired on HBO, argues that corrupt government figures and desperate law-enforcement officers targeted Hauptmann and sent him to his grave just to get the case closed in the public’s mind. Irish actor Stephen Rea stars as the accused kidnapper.
In May 1932, shortly after Baby Charlie’s body turned up, country-western songwriter Bob Miller, recording as Bob Ferguson, rushed out a double-sided novelty single of two tribute songs: “Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr.” and “There’s a New Star Up in Heaven (Baby Lindy Is Up There).”
Three years later, cowboy crooner Goebel Reeves issued his own musical take on the case via the ditty, “The Kidnapped Baby.”
Decades later, multiple shock rockers in the realms of punk and heavy metal have called their bands some variation on “The Lindbergh Baby,” as well as a more subtly provocative “neo-folk” trio from Vermont named just that.
Main image: Charles Lindbergh, Jr. missing poster [FBI Archives]