Today in 1934: Bruno Hauptmann indicted for Lindbergh baby’s murder

October 8, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryOn this day in 1934, a grand jury indicted Richard “Bruno” Hauptmann for the murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of the famous aviator who flew solo across the Atlantic in 1927.

Hauptmann’s indictment kicked off a trial that ranks with Scopes and O.J. Simpson as one of the most widely followed trials of the 20th century.

An estimated 60,000 people flooded the Lindberghs’ tiny New Jersey town during the trial, including celebrities, famous novelists, and more than a thousand reporters and news technicians.

The crime had been committed two years earlier, when the 20-month-old toddler went missing from his crib shortly after bedtime. A ransom note was discovered near the boy’s second-story window, and a homemade ladder was found on the premises. Acting through an intermediary, Charles Lindbergh paid the $50,000 ransom, but the promised information about the boy’s whereabouts turned out to be bogus.

Two months later, the baby’s body was discovered in the woods near the Lindbergh home. The coroner determined that the boy had died around the time of the kidnapping from a blow to the head – a blow that may have come when the kidnapper slipped on the ladder and fell to the ground.

Hauptmann, a German immigrant and carpenter, was arrested two years later, after he paid for a tank of gas with an unusual $10 gold certificate that was linked to the ransom money.

The state had a strong case, albeit one built mostly on circumstantial evidence. For starters, $14,000 of the ransom money had been found in a shoebox in Hauptmann’s garage. (Hauptmann explained that he had been asked to hold it for his business partner, Isador Fisch, who had since returned to Germany and died from tuberculosis.)

Then there were the expert witnesses. Eight handwriting experts presented strong testimony that Hauptmann wrote the notes. (“He might as well have signed the notes in his own name,” one quipped.) Another witness – a xylotomist, or wood expert – showed how one of the rungs of the ladder matched perfectly with a gap in the floorboards of Hauptmann’s attic.

Ed Reilly and Bruno Hauptmann converse during Lindbergh baby trialHauptmann’s defense attorney, “Big Ed” Reilly, was no slouch. With hundreds of murder cases under his belt, the 52-year-old trial attorney (shown here, with Hauptmann) was a seasoned litigator. However, there were whispers that alcoholism had taken its toll on the boisterous “Bull of Brooklyn,” and that his best days were behind him.

Reilly spent much of the trial attempting to pin the crime on the now-deceased Isador Fisch. However, the credibility of nearly every witness Reilly called was seriously damaged on cross-examination. In one typical example, a woman testified that she saw Fisch with a woman and a baby in New York City on the night of the kidnapping, but she was later exposed as a “professional witness” who had testified for pay in other trials.

No  witness for the prosecution placed Hauptmann at the scene of the crime, and none of his fingerprints were found.  But by the end of the six-week trial, the circumstantial evidence was enough to convince the jury of Hauptmann’s guilt.

Hauptmann was executed the following year, but he maintained his innocence all the way to the electric chair. In the decades since, questions about withheld evidence and other irregularities have emerged – along with more than a dozen men (and even a woman) claiming to be the grown-up “Lindbergh baby.”

For a complete account of the Lindbergh baby trial and other famous trials from Socrates to Zacarias Moussauoi, see the excellent Famous Trials website, created and maintained by Professor Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law.