Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Pop History Moment: The Taking Of The Lindbergh Baby


When nanny Betty Gow put her infant charge to bed at 8 PM on this day in 1932 it had been a day like any other; little did she know that when she checked in on him just past 9 PM it would be the last time she would ever see him alive. At 10PM, she looked in on him again, only this time he was gone. Rushing to find the baby's parents, she strove to stay calm in case either of them had taken him - his mother understandably doted on him and his father, despite a stoic countenance, could be a bit of a practical joker; when it was clear neither of them had taken the child the couple's butler, Ollie Whately, called the police in the nearest town, Hopewell, New Jersey, at around 10:25 PM. Chief Harry Wolf arrived promptly on the scene.

It's every parent's nightmare - in this case it would soon become the entire country's nightmare as well; for this was no ordinary baby, but the only son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Armed with a rifle, Lindbergh senior searched the grounds of their home. Beneath a second-storey window he found a makeshift ladder, it's top rung broken*; above it, inside the nursery, the baby's bedding was found untouched, but there were muddy footprints on the rug and a note on the window sill, handwritten by someone obviously semi-literate, demanding a $50,000 ransom for the baby's safe return.

Overnight the private tragedy of the Lindberghs became what has been called the first media circus, and which America's leading journalist of the day H.L. Mencken called 'the biggest story since the Resurrection'; the next morning President Herbert Hoover vowed to 'move Heaven and Earth' to find the child, going so far as to pass the Lindbergh Law, which would make kidnapping a federal offense. The Lindberghs offered a $50,000 reward, to which the state of New Jersey added $25,000; this is a substantial sum even now, but in the early days of the Great Depression it represented a fortune - more than a million dollars in today's money.

The baby's body, or anyway the body of a baby, was found by the side of the road near the Lindbergh's estate in May 1932 by a delivery man named William Allen who happened to stop along a stretch of road to relieve himself, but it would be more than 30 months before a German immigrant itinerant carpenter and petty criminal named Bruno Hauptmann would be collared for the crime. He was arrested in September 1934, put on trial in January 1935, found guilty the following month after an laughably inept trial, and executed in April 1936 despite constant protestations of his own innocence.

*One theory states that the child may have been killed during the abduction - thus the relevance of the broken ladder rung.
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