A Hero in the Skies But Not Everywhere Else
‘The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping: Investigation Reopened,’ Forensic Files Special
The last post unlocked the virtual electronic door to the lost Forensic Files Special about Charles Lindbergh.
Peter Thomas narrates the story about the kidnapping of the aviation hero’s 20-month-old son on March 31, 1932. The case engrossed the public and broke its heart when the baby turned up dead by the side of a road in May of that year.
The investigation into the kidnapping — culminating in the trial and execution of German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann — seemed a testament to the strength of the U.S. justice system.
It also made Charles Sr. a sympathetic character in addition to an admired one.
He and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, went on to have five other children. She wrote a series of popular autobiographical books, including A Gift From the Sea, which sold 3 million copies before she died in 2001.
Charles took on diplomatic roles and high-paying consulting gigs. For the most part, he got to retain his hero status until his death in 1974.
Everything pertaining to the couple seemed steeped in high-mindedness and respectability.
Or was it?
Not that it was their fault, but all sorts of untoward things — from the tacky to the tragic — happened as a result of the investigation into Charles Lindbergh Jr.’s kidnapping and murder. And Anne and Charles did some things on their own that made for less-than-perfect legacies.
Here are seven surprising facts about the Lindberghs, the kidnapping, and what was called Trial of the Century back in 1935.
1. There was a far-fetched theory that Charles Sr., who sometimes played cruel practical jokes, killed the child either accidentally or intentionally and used a kidnapping hoax to cover it up. Rutgers University history professor Lloyd C. Gardner contended that Charles Sr. subscribed to social Darwinism and eugenics and devalued his son because had some physical deficiencies, including hammertoes and a cranium deformity. But there was virtually no way for people with suspicions to speak out during the investigation, because Charles Sr. was running the show, according to Yankee Magazine.
2. An innocent party ended up dead because of the investigation. Suspect Violet Sharpe, a domestic worker for Anne’s mother in Englewood, New Jersey, committed suicide by ingesting poison crystals on June 10, 1932. Investigators had raided her room, confiscated her belongings, and questioned men whose phone numbers they found among her things. They presented photos of each man to her, which made her hysterical. It turned out that Violet, who was 27 and variously described as a waitress, servant, or maid, didn’t want the Morrows to know that she disobeyed their rules by visiting a speakeasy (one media source called the place a “grill”) in Orangeburg, New York, on the night of the kidnapping. There was also a rumor that Violet’s real worry wasn’t the Lindberghs but rather her boyfriend; she didn’t want him to know where she went or who she was with. Ironically, her night on the town served as an alibi in relation to the kidnapping, according to the FBI website. Anne Lindbergh, who was expecting another child, was at the Morrow home when Violet killed herself, and the family “broke the news gently and made sure she inadvertently didn’t visit the part of the house where Ms. Sharpe’s body lay.” Another casualty of the case, Henry “Red” Johnson — the boyfriend of Charles Jr.’s baby nurse, Betty Gow — faced deportation when investigators discovered he was in the U.S. illegally. The police ultimately cleared both him and Violet of having anything to do with the kidnapping.
3. After Bruno Hauptmann’s arrest, the police detained his wife, Anna Hauptmann, for questioning. When lawmen took Anna to get her something to eat, a cry of “Hang her” arose from a crowd of locals who converged on the restaurant and taunted her through the window. Meanwhile, police were physically abusing the husband she loved, and telling him such things as, “Your wife is being held in the women’s jail with a lot of prostitutes. She is separated from the baby. Your wife is hysterical. She will probably become an imbecile from this thing,” the Washington Post would later report in “The Sorrows of Anna Hauptmann.”
Anna survived the trauma of the trial in 1935 and electrocution of her husband in 1936 and got to bring up her and Bruno’s own little son. She ignored suggestions that she should change her last name, and never lost faith in Bruno. Over the years, she tried suing the state of New Jersey for wrongful death and fraud. In the early 1990s, she petitioned Governor Christie Whitman to reopen the case. All Anna’s legal salvos failed. She died in New Holland, Pennsylvania, in October 1994.
4. The trial sparked odd instances of entrepreneurialism. Stores sold framed pictures of the Lindbergh baby, nicknamed “the Eaglet.” A vendor hawked miniature versions of the homemade wooden ladder found outside the baby’s window on the night of the kidnapping. You can find some of these souvenirs for sale online today.
5. The Lindberghs had a cordial relationship with Adolf Hitler’s administration before World War II. Charles made a diplomatic trip to Germany in 1936 and came back a fan of “the organized vitality of Germany.” Anne said that “the energy, pride, and morale of the people” impressed her. Charles asserted that Jews were a threat because of their “large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government”— part of a credo that anti-Semitic people still use today. The couple believed in isolationism and didn’t want the U.S. to fight against Nazis. The Lindberghs later changed direction and supported the allies. Charles vehemently denied any bigotry. “He didn’t hate Jews,” his daughter Reeve Lindbergh said in a video interview. “But he made the kinds of casual anti-Semitic statements that people of his era made. He felt he was misrepresented and had nothing to apologize for.”
6. Five surviving children by the same woman didn’t satisfy Charles Sr.’s ego. He felt entitled to spread his Northern European genes even more. During his visits to Germany as part of his work for the U.S. government and a commercial airline, he secretly cheated on Anne with three German women, and ended up having a total of seven children out of wedlock with them. Shortly before his death, Charles asked the women to keep the children a secret. Three of them came out in 2003 — two years after Anne died—but never sought any money from the Lindbergh estate, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.
7. As if Charles Sr. didn’t already have enough real progeny, pretenders emerged. A number of men in their AARP years came forward, each claiming himself as the real Charles Jr. All the stories seemed unlikely, but they were hard to thoroughly refute. No one could find Charles Jr.’s fingerprints, and Charles Sr. had the baby’s remains cremated shortly after they were discovered, so there wasn’t any forensic evidence to dig up. And Anne Morrow’s children didn’t particularly want to hand over their DNA for tests.
Harold Roy Olson, of Westport, Connecticut, a representative of a computer manufacturer, brought up the possibility that he was the Lindbergh baby in 1976 and demanded to see federal files to help him prove it. Next up, Kenneth W. Kerwin of Biddefort Maine, who a 1981 New York Times story described as a disabled factory worker, was asserting that he was the Lindbergh baby and should be declared an heir to his estate. An insurance salesman born as Loren Paul Husted kicked things up a notch by changing his name to Charles Lindbergh. He theorized that back in 1932, someone robbed the grave of an anonymous child, dressed it in baby Lindbergh’s clothing, and left it where someone would find it. In 2001, the Lost Angeles Times ran an article by writer Michael D’Antonio, who compared the man’s appearance to Lindbergh family photos and concluded that “the similarities—the strong chin, broad nose, distinctive mouth and even the hairline—are uncanny.” Husted told the East Bay Times that he sent Anne Morrow Lindbergh a Mother’s Day card every year but never heard back from her.
That’s all for this post. Until next time, cheers. — RR
Watch the Forensic Files Special courtesy of the Internet Archive
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