The Original, Horrific, True Crime Documentary

We Americans love our true crime stories. There’s something fascinating about the macabre, and the media has taken notice, supplying a steady diet of books, podcasts, Netflix documentaries, and Dateline episodes. And, while the phenomenon may have exploded in recent years, it’s highly a “new” form of entertainment.

All the way back in the 1930’s, the kidnapping and murder of a young child from his crib set off a nation-wide man-hunt…and obsession that still lingers to this day.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean without taking a single stop, guiding his single-engine plane from New York to Paris and his name into the history books. By the early 1930’s, Lindbergh was considered an American hero, admiration and renown for the aviator having spread throughout the country as a source of a national pride.

But on March 1, 1932, his name became synonymous with a different kind of fame. As Charles and his wife Anne relaxed downstairs in their Hopewell, New Jersey home, their infant son, Charles Augustus Limbergh Jr., was taken from his crib. His absence was discovered around 10 pm, when the child’s nurse went to check on him. A window next to the crib had been left open, and a crude ransom note was left on the windowsill.

Dear Sir,

Have 50,000$ redy 25000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills. After 2-4 days will inform you were to deliver the Mony.

We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Polise the child is in gut care.

Indication for all letters are singnature and 3 holds.

Despite the note, a broken ladder, and footprints on the ground beneath the nursery window, police were unable to secure any solid leaders on the kidnapper or the infant before word spread; Hearst’s International News Service produced an unprecedented 50,000 words within the first 24 hours of the child’s abduction. Soon, hundreds of journalists and curious neighbors descended on the Lindbergh residence, effectively destroying the crime scene.

As time passed, the only leads that poured in were the ransom notes Lindbergh continued to receive from the kidnapper. Five days after the abduction, he received one upping the monetary demand to $70,000. Another one insisted Lindbergh use no intermediaries to carry out the exchange. Fearing the plot was a result of some kind of mob extortion attempt, Lindbergh ignored the demand and enlisted the help of Dr. John F. Condon to negotiate for him; Condon, therefore, took out an ad in the local newspaper, offering an extra $1,000 if the kidnapper agreed to allow him as a go-between. A fourth letter confirmed the kidnapper agreed.

“The communications soon became an exhausting wild-goose chase,” said Jordan Zakarin of Biography, “with more notes indicating where to find other notes and, at one point, the kidnapper producing a piece of young Charlie’s clothing to prove that they weren’t just opportunistic liars. Finally, after a series of in-person meetings in an upper Manhattan cemetery and letter exchanges that took them to the twelfth ransom note and brought the price down to $50,000, Condon handed over the cash and was told that the baby could be found in Martha’s Vineyard on a boat called the ‘Nellie.'”

A happy ending, however, was not to be had.

On May 12, 1932, the body of Charles Jr. was found, badly decimated, along a highway near Lindbergh’s estate.

A German immigrant named Bruno Richard Hauptmann was eventually arrested for the crime. When his trial date finally arrived in 1935, the media–and the public–had lost none of its thirst for details. A record 700 reporters rushed to Flemington, New Jersey, where the trial was to be held. Despite cameras not being allowed to film the proceedings, five newsreel companies — Fox Movietone, Hearst Metrotone, Paramount News, Pathé News and Universal Newsreel — camped out outside the courthouse with over 100 men, 50 cameras and 35 sound trucks. At each day’s conclusion, they would re-enact moments from inside the courthouse and put the news in local cinemas, where people would pack in for the latest updates.

The emotional trial lasted six weeks, with Hauptmann maintaining his innocence, and an insatiable public hung on every single word relayed from the media. Hauptmann was eventually found guilty and executed by the state of New Jersey in 1936.

Though the trial was over, the public’s appetite was far from satisfied. True crime would soon become a staple of print, radio, and screen for years to come.

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