Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century by Thomas Doherty

In the mid-1990’s, I latched on to the Lindbergh kidnapping for some reason. Maybe the seed was planted while I was in high school, when a documentary came out and my World History teacher made a comment that implied maybe the wrong man was sentenced to death based on new evidence. While scouring bookstores with my then-boyfriend (now husband), I found quite a few books written about Lindbergh and the kidnapping. Each book came to a different conclusion than the last one on the Lindbergh kidnapping, and I never came to my own conclusion myself.

So when I saw Little Lindy is Kidnapped was available as an Advanced Readers Copy (ARC) on NetGalley, I requested it. I was curious to read, in this age of media manipulation, how the press of 1932-1935 handled the “Crime of the Century.” All opinions in this review are my own.

Some background: Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly from New York to Paris in a 33-hour flight, in 1927, when planes were still in their infancy stage. He was proclaimed a hero, a massive ticker tape parade was held for him in New York upon his return (some say it was the largest New York had ever seen), and no matter what he said (very little) or did (a lot of experimental aviation), people wanted to know about it.

However, Lindbergh was a very private man. He chose an equally private and intelligent wife, Anne Morrow. The hounding of the press was unheard of in it’s day; even the top Hollywood stars did not have to deal with so much press. So the Lindbergh’s decided to build a house in the remote town of Hopewell, New Jersey, near Anne’s parent’s estate.

The house was still under construction in 1932 when the kidnapping took place. Twenty-month old Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was taken from his second-story bedroom on a night when the Lindbergh’s were not normally at the estate; they had only stayed there and not travelled to their other home because Little Lindy had a cold. A ransom note was left by the windowsill with an unusual marking.

The result was pandemonium. Colonel Norman Schwarzkopf of the New Jersey State Patrol (and father to the General Norman Schwarzkopf of the 1991 Gulf War fame) and the law enforcement officials in both New Jersey and New York didn’t so much take control, as let Charles Lindbergh make important decisions in how to investigate the crime.

The Lindbergh kidnapping was a boon to newspapers, radio stations and newsreel makers. Little Lindy is Kidnapped explores the who, what, where and why of the news coverage. During the investigation, radio won the day, as their updates were near instantaneous. In an age when more and more homes were buying radio, despite there being a Great Depression on, just shows the pull that radio had on the nation. Newspapers published several editions of their papers each day, updated with the latest information. Newsreels filmed the press conferences and the other reporters on scene, as the Lindbergh’s rarely gave statements themselves.

Surprisingly, Hollywood movies did not take the bait and start churning out kidnapping movies. There were a few minor movies in the pipeline, but they were heavily censored, and then in 1934, the Hays Code was implemented, and for the next 30 years, kidnapping was not allowed on the big screen.

For ten weeks, the press camped out near Hopewell, New Jersey for the latest updates, reporting even the slightest thing. The only times Charles Lindbergh addressed the press was to request for privacy during the trying time. Walter Lippmann of the New York Herald-Tribune even turned on his fellow journalists and told the newspapers to “call off their reporters and detectives and let Colonel Lindbergh alone.” Nothing worked. The press would not let up on the hottest story of the decade.

The FBI was finally called in, and the U.S. Treasury Department came up with the idea of paying the ransom with “gold certificate” bills. Franklin Roosevelt, as president, was moving the U.S. currency off the gold standard and all gold certificate bills had to be turned in to the banks in exchange for new bills by a certain date. The Treasury Department kept a list of all the bills in the ransom package.

The ransom was paid to a man nicknamed “Cemetery John” based on where the handoff took place, and Lindbergh and the intermediary said the man spoke with a German accent. And then nothing happened. The intermediary heard nothing back from the abductor about the safe return of Little Lindy. Then, ten weeks after the kidnapping, a laborer walked into the Sourland woods on Mount Rose Hill in New Jersey to relieve himself and stumbled upon a skull and a baby’s foot sticking up out of the underbrush.

So the kidnapping investigation became a murder investigation. For two years, there was little information released. The list of marked gold certificate bills was released to banks and businesses and were told to look out for those passing the bills. Over those two years, the press would report on where the bills were passed. The FBI and Treasury Department had narrowed down the suspect’s location to the Bronx in New York.

Finally, an astute gas station attendant received a gold certificate bill, now pretty much out of circulation, and struck up a conversation with the man who gave it to him. The man said he still had a lot of them back at home. The gas station attendant was smart enough to write the license plate number down. And that was how Bruno Richard Hauptman was captured.

The trial was a media circus. There was an attempt to keep the radio and newsreel press out, but after much jockeying, it was agreed that the newsreel people could have a camera in the courtroom if they only shot when court was not in session; they surreptitiously filmed during the trial anyway. And somehow a microphone was repeatedly hidden in the courtroom.

When the trial was in session, crowds of up to 100,000 packed the streets. Vendors started selling souvenirs like Lindbergh ladders (key evidence in the case), local restaurants had Lindbergh-themed meals, and in general, just to gawk at the key players in the case. All the while the press was reporting every scrap of information possible as well as a fair amount of conjecture.

Quickly, it became clear that Hauptman was the ultimate bad guy. An immigrant from Germany, a country the U.S. had just fought in a war not so long ago, who spoke highly of the new German leader, Adolf Hitler. Some in the press played this up to the hilt.

Hauptman was naturally found guilty and sentenced to death by electric chair. This was another media maelstrom. The press was not invited to witness, but that didn’t stop the radio reporters from counting down to the minute Hauptman was executed. When the execution was delayed by about half an hour, radio personalities had to ad-lib.

The press, sadly, never left the Lindbergh’s alone. Anne had given birth to another boy before Hauptman was caught, and eventually the Lindbergh’s fled to England to live in peace. They returned in 1939, with a decidedly different Lindbergh: an appeaser who thought highly of Adolf Hitler and prominent spokesman of America First Committee, the nation’s largest isolationist group. Suddenly less and less people were interested in what Lindbergh had to say.

Little Lindy is Kidnapped is a very interesting take on how the press played a big part in the story of the Lindbergh kidnapping. Sometimes they became the story. In today’s world, endless coverage of an event is commonplace with so many media outlets. Back in the 1930’s, with very few media outlets, the reporters and photographers found a way to create endless coverage. The closest thing I can recall of wall-to-wall coverage of an event was the O.J. Simpson murder trial of the 1990’s. After that, channels like Court TV became commonplace. The reporters and photographers of the 1930’s were decades ahead of their time.

Little Lindy is Kidnapped is being released to the general public on November 3, 2020.

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