The Lindbergh Baby Case
When days are dull, idle journalists will sometimes ask each other what possible event, apart from the crack o' doom, would make the most absorbing page of world news.
American journalists were asking themselves that question during those uneventful days of January and February, 1932.
One held the view that if Japan suddenly disappeared beneath the ocean - as she well might do - that would provide the finest news story conceivable.
Another thought that if a modern Guy Fawkes secreted sufficient dynamite underneath the Empire State Building to blow that structure, the world's tallest, a thousand feet into the sky before it curved down into New York Harbour, such an event would take quite a lot of beating.
Yet within a few weeks the occurrence of something unconceived of even by the fertile brain of an imaginative journalist had provided sufficient material for the most dramatic news story in the annals of American journalism.
Kidnapping was not a new phenomenon in the United States in the spring of 1932. Indeed, the heartless abduction of the baby son of Col. and Mrs. Lindbergh was but the brutal climax of a long series of these outrages. Yet about this crime there was something more daringly audacious, more calculatingly callous, than anything hitherto attempted; it shocked America as it had not been shocked in the memory of any living person; and it sent shudders of horror round the civilised world.
Charles Augustus Lindbergh Junior was no ordinary son of no ordinary parents. To realise the place which the child's father, Col. Lindbergh, held in the hearts of his countrymen, one has to call to mind that he was at that time, and still is, Public Idol No. i, the Prince Charming of America. Not even the President, during his term of office, has any greater place in the affections of the American people than the man who made that amazing solo flight from New York to Paris in The Spirit of St. Louis.
Furthermore, Lindbergh was married to the daughter of the late Dwight Morrow, and he, too, was celebrated: he was an Ambassador, and a possible President. When Lindy was engaged America went crazy; when their firstborn son arrived there was as much popular enthusiasm in America as there is in this country at the birth of a Prince of Wales.
That birthday at Englewood, where the Morrows lived! Legions of reporters waiting at the gates of the great house for news of the expected child. When they hear that a baby son weighing 7½ lbs. has been born, and is blinking at the summer sunlight, the journalists leap into their cars and race away to the nearest telephones. The news flashes round the world by telegraph, cable and wireless; radio broadcasters step to their microphones and announce the event to a chain of eagerly-listening stations. Within an hour, messages of congratulation are pouring into the Morrow home from the rich and the poor, the famous and the unknown. Very soon a song, specially written to welcome the new arrival, is being sung over the radio.
For days the road to the Morrow's home becomes like a highway to a sacred shrine of pilgrimage. It is black with a long procession of cars and people. Little children from Englewood bring their bouquets of daisies and other wild flowers. So many gifts roll up that no room can be found in the great house to hold them all. What to do with the bounty of the American people becomes a real problem to the Lindberghs.
Only intimate friends are allowed past the gate; but everybody wants to get nearer. Subterfuge is tried. One man, wheeling a brand new baby carriage, walks up to the guards, but is stopped and told that no such article has been ordered.
All America goes wild over the event. Baby Charles Augustus commands columns of news and picture space. He is the most praised and envied personality in the United States. Yet within twenty months he has been ruthlessly snatched from his crib in his parents' home and taken none knows where so that ransom money may be extorted from his heartbroken parents! From that evening, March i, 1932, until the spring of 1936, the Lindbergh Baby Case is to provide the world with a series of shocks and surprises without parallel in the history of American crime.
In the early days of their engagement Col. Lindbergh and his bride-to-be flew over New Jersey looking for some spot in that beautiful state where they might build their home. New Jersey provides charming homesteads for many thousands of New Yorkers. But the Lindberghs wanted a site which would shelter them from the intolerable publicity which was the penalty of their fame. A hill-top which looked across a valley to another hill, the whole made inaccessible to the outer world by encircling woods, attracted their eye. It was a few miles from the town to Hopewell. They landed, looked the place over, and obtained possession. While their house was building they lived with the Morrows over at Englewood.
Who was to whisper to the proud parents of Charles Augustus Junior that, before the roof went on their new building, evil-minded men would be surveying the land and taking careful notes of the plan of their house? Who was to warn the Lindberghs that one day these intruders would use the knowledge then collected, and further information obtained no one knew how, to deal a blow which would drive them into voluntary exile from their native land?
It was the evening of March i.
The great house, glowing with lights from top to bottom, was the only bright spot in the wooded gloomy district. Dinner was being served in the dining-room to Col. and Mrs. Lindbergh. Upstairs, on the second floor, in a nursery well stocked with childish delights, was Betty Gow, a Scotch nursemaid, busy tending Charles Augustus, her baby charge. That day the boy was not quite his normal self, for he had developed a slight cold, and his mother had been in to fasten the shutter of the window. But the shutter had warped and could not be made firm.
Baby, a chubby golden-haired boy, was just beginning to talk and to toddle. With his blue eyes, dimpled chin and fair complexion, he closely resembled his father, though relatives could also detect in his face a likeness to his mother. He had recently been weighed, had registered 30 Lbs., and his height had been noted as just 2 ft. 9 ins.
It was a chill, dark evening. At about 8 p.m. Betty Gow wrapped the slightly feverish infant in a white sleeping-robe and put him to bed in his tiny crib. At 8.30 she ran up to see how he was faring, and discovered him to be sleeping comfortably. It was an hour and a half afterwards when she returned again. This time the little crib was empty. During those ninety minutes' absence a dark saloon car had been driven to a spot near the grounds and from it had come one or more persons carrying a home-made three-piece ladder, which had been laid against the wall underneath the nursery. The person or persons who had climbed the ladder had quickly made an entrance, snatched the child from his crib in his sleeping-robe, and departed hurriedly.
But they had not gone entirely without trace. In the nursery and on the gravel below the window were marks of muddy feet, but as these had been covered with stockings or moccasins, they were useless for identification purposes. Before leaving some one had laid a note addressed to Col. Lindbergh on a cedar chest in the nursery. In the blaze of publicity that followed there was no reference for a time to this note or to its contents, the reason for which reticence will soon appear. A chisel was found near the spot and the ladder, at first thought to belong to the house, was discovered abandoned on the edge of the wood about sixty feet away.
The kidnappers had selected for the outrage an evening when Col. Lindbergh was to have been present at a public dinner in New York; but, as it happened, he had mixed up his dates, and so he was at home. The only other persons in the house that evening were Betty Gow, the nurse, the butler and his wife.
Diabolical luck must have attended the kidnappers, for not one of the occupants heard a sound of strangers outside the house or in the nursery; the only other guardian of the place, a pet terrier, gave no warning bark.
When Betty Gow, returning to the nursery at 10 p.m., discovered the empty crib her screams brought Col. Lindbergh running up the stairs. Within a few minutes he was telephoning frantically to the Superintendent of Police at Hopewell. That officer raced out of the station, leaped into a car, and drove at once to the Lindberghs' home - but not before he had left word with his subordinates which, flashed by teletype across the States, had caused the police everywhere to swing into vigorous and united action. But the kidnappers had the advantage of perhaps an hour's start. By now they might be hidden in the underworld of New York. The bewilderment and horror in the Lindberghs' home at the discovery of their loss can in some measure be imagined. While her husband dashed into the grounds to search for the intruders, the distracted mother, whose second child would soon be born, stayed inside and telephoned the terrible news to her mother. Her fortitude at this time and during that long and anxious period of fruitless search, of false alarms and false clues, of long and frequent absences of Col. Lindbergh on wild-goose chases that followed, served to increase the tide of affection and sympathy which flowed out to her from countless parents in all parts of the world.
As the news circulated, the entire nation, from President Hoover downwards, united to express horror at the outrage. From every quarter came spontaneous outbursts of sympathy and indignation. Accustomed as they were to lawlessness, this audacious attack on their Public Idol left all America stunned. It seemed as though the favourite child had been snatched away from every home in an evil night.
That first cry of amazement that went up from a million homes was followed by cries of helplessness and utter despair. A former Senator opined that "our righteous visible republic stands helpless to enforce its laws against the unseen republic of crime." The Vicar of St. Paul's, Trinity Parish, said that: "Only to God can we turn in such a calamity and catastrophe."
The kidnappers were denounced in Congress, and legislation to make kidnapping a crime punishable with death was accelerated.
The churches, while deploring the crime, appealed to the kidnappers to restore the child. At one radio station three clergymen prayed at one service for his return. The representative of Cardinal Hayes, speaking on the radio, said, "May God send forth His holy angels to protect the child and to restore it safely and promptly to its sorrowing parents. Be merciful also to the perpetrators of this vile deed.... Bring them to a sense of the unnatural and outrageous sin they have committed."
The one American who perhaps approached somewhat to the popularity of the Lindberghs was Will Rogers, humorist and wise-cracker, whose comic corner in the New York Times was eagerly turned to daily by a vast audience anxious for their morning laugh. But to-day they found their favourite comedian to be deadly serious:
"Why don't lynching parties widen their scope and take in kidnapping?" shouted Will Rogers. "They are ten times more premeditated, and they are performed by more normal people."
Then Will Rogers drew back the curtain on the Lindberghs' home life. He revealed that whilst the baby's mother always called their missing child "Charles Augustus," his father referred to him less formally as "It." Will Rogers went on:
"What a shock to everybody! But how much more of a one when you have seen the baby, and have seen the affection of the father and mother, and the whole Morrow family for the cute little fellow?
"Two weeks ago Sunday, Mrs. Rogers and I spent the day with them. The whole family interest centres round the kidnapped child. He has his father's blonde curly hair, but even more so.... It's almost golden and all in little curls. His face is more of his mother's. He has her eyes exactly. His mother sat on the floor in the sun-parlour among all of us and played with him for an hour. His dad was pitching a soft sofa pillow at him as he was toddling around. The weight of it would knock him over. I asked Lindy if he was rehearsing him for forced landings!
"After about a fourth time of being knocked over, he did the cutest thing. When he saw it coming he dropped of his own accord. He was just tumbling and jabbering around like any kid twenty months old. He crawled up in the back of the Morrow auto that was going to take us home, and he howled like an Indian when they dragged him out.
"I wish" - and all America echoed that wish - "we had taken him home with us and kept him."
When the rest of the police, and the troopers who had been sent for, and the newspapermen, arrived, they found Col. Lindbergh bare-headed, pacing the grounds of his mansion, and flashing his electric torch everywhere as he searched for clues. The trail of the shoeless footprints was followed to the end of a rutted lane where a car had probably been standing. It was long after midnight before Col. Lindbergh could be persuaded to return to the house and leave the search for the rest of the night to the officers.
Meanwhile posses of motor-cycle and bandit squad police had put down a heavy guard at all bridges over the Delaware River and at every other road junction for a great distance. So many cars were now racing to the neighbourhood of the Lindberghs' home that it required a couple hundred more officers to regulate them. Within a very short space of time an army of at least 100,000 police were engaged in the hunt for the kidnappers. And these were augmented by hundreds of thousands of civilian detectives, all determined to participate in running down the perpetrators of this staggering outrage.
From the Canadian border right down to Mexico every car was subjected to a close scrutiny; thousands of automobiles were stopped and searched, and their occupants forced to identify themselves. At the same time bridges, ferries, railroads, steamship lines and inter-urban buses, and all other methods of travel were carefully watched. About 250 baby farms in Manhattan were visited. Picked detectives were sent on rounds of known underworld haunts in search of clues.
The furore which swept the country, as news of the crime spread, brought in an avalanche of clues, most of which were worthless. But from the confused detail that piled up one fact stood clear - the kidnappers knew about Lindbergh s movements and knew their way about the house and grounds. Yet the only real clues were the rickety home-made ladder which was searched and searched again for fingerprints, a chisel intended to serve as a jemmy, and traces of footprints found in the road.
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