Saturday, January 10, 2009

Radio Aspects of the Lindbergh Kidnapping, Pt. 3

Originally published in the November, 2008, Old Radio Times.(

Radio Aspects of the Lindbergh Kidnapping
Jack French © 2008

Although most law officials thought the kidnapping was the work of a gang (as many kidnappings were in those days) Shoenfeld declared in November 1932 that the kidnapper was a lone amateur. He also concluded the kidnapper was a German alien with little formal education, recently settled in the Bronx, had been institutionalized, worked with wood, had low income, was approximately Lindbergh’s age, if married, was tyrannical at home, was methodical and very cautious, had supreme confidence in himself, and when arrested would not cooperate nor confess. While the profile was not specific enough to uncover the kidnapper, it was accurate in all respects, which the police would confirm after the arrest of the kidnapper in 1934.

The ransom bills continued to be turned in after the U.S. went off the Gold Standard on April 5, 1933 but now any that were gold certificates became more rare every day so they were more likely to arouse the suspicions of merchants and banks who accepted them. In addition, the kidnapper had used up most of the five dollar bills and was using the tens and twenties. Eventually a few of the recipients actually remembered the description of who had given them the bill. A pattern description emerged of a Caucasian male, mid-30s, medium build, felt hat, German accent . . . it was the same description Dr. Condon had provided of the man to whom he paid the ransom in a Bronx cemetery. But it brought the police no nearer to his capture.

Finally on September 15, 1934, the big break in the case occurred. Walter Lyle, a manager at a gas station at Lexington and 127th Street, got a ten dollar gold certificate from a man who was paying for 98 cents worth of gas. Lyons was afraid it might be counterfeit so before the man drove off in his 1930 Dodge, Lyon wrote down his license number on the ten dollar bill. Three days later the teller processing the gas station’s deposit found the ransom bill and phoned the authorities. Their interviews at the gas station confirmed that what had happened and a quick check of motor vehicle records determined that license plate was registered to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, 1279 E. 222nd Street in the Bronx.

A decision was made to arrest Hauptmann away from his residence so they could catch him with another ransom bill in his possession. They set up surveillance, including three cars, and when he left the next day, September 19, 1934, they followed him from his home to White Plains Avenue where they arrested him in his car. Among the twenty-nine dollars in his wallet, Hauptmann had a 20 dollar gold certificate which was part of the ransom package.

He was taken into custody and a search of his residence and garage discovered about $15,000 in the missing ransom money (carefully hidden), a tool set in which a chisel was missing (which matched the one found the night of the kidnapping), and Condon’s address and phone number written in a closet. Hauptmann was grilled for several days and never confessed to any wrong doing. He insisted the money found had been left to him by an associate, Isador Fisch, who had died in Germany a few months ago. Despite all the overwhelming evidence, he continued to protest his innocence and the October 5, 1934, The March of Time program summarized his interrogation for CBS radio,citing all the damning evidence against the kidnapper. (The program is in general circulation.) While there are no credits on this program, Hauptmann was probably voiced by Dwight Weiss, who did most of the roles on The March of Time which required a German accent.

After a grand jury indictment and extradition to New Jersey, the trial was to begin in the courthouse in Flemington, NJ, a town of less than 3,000 people, located an hour from New York City. Due to various motions, the trial was postponed a few times and finally began on January 2, 1935. The prosecution team was led by David Wilentz, the state’s AG, while the defense team was headed by Edward J. Reilly, a prominent Brooklyn defense attorney. The trial had attracted over 100 reporters from America and Europe, 25 radio and telegraph operators, and even a newsreel camera were used in the gallery. Walter Winchell and other well-known columnists were there, joined by prominent novelists also pressed into service: Edna Ferber, Alexander Woolcott, Fannie Hurst, and Damon Runyon. Sports stars, Broadway luminaries, and other show-biz personalities flocked to courtroom as spectators including Jack Benny.

Samuel Leibowitz, a prominent Brooklyn defense attorney, was hired by WHN Radio to broadcast regular trial updates on the air. They were done on transcription disks for subsequent airings and are apparently the only radio programs that survived, of the thousands of radio shows and bulletins that came out of the lengthy trial. Nearly five hours total of Leibowitz’s trial observations remain with us, but unfortunately they are all in the custody of the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan. That means that anyone can go there in person and listen to them, but no one can dub any copies of them. Here is an excerpt from one of Leibowtiz’s programs: “What difference does it make whether there was an accomplice, or two accomplices, or a whole army of accomplices? If (Hauptmann) had a hand in this kidnapping, whether he actually committed the kidnapping or not, he is just as much of a fiend, and is just as guilty as if he actually killed that innocent child.” The trial would last for six weeks with nearly 400 witnesses, dozens of evidence items introduced, and a variety of experts on handwriting, wood, and medicine testified. All of Hauptmann’s past history was revealed including his robberies in Germany, his escape from jail there, and entering the U.S. as an illegal alien. It was shown he had not worked a day after the ransom was paid and yet spent money lavishly for the next two years during the Great Depression. Jack Benny summed up the pitiful defense in a statement to the press: “Bruno needs a second act.” Near the end of the trial, Hauptmann’s attorney went on national radio and appealed for witnesses with any knowledge of the case to come forward. Only a few kooks responded. The jury convicted Hauptmann of murder on February 13, 1935, with no recommendation for mercy, thus requiring the death penalty.


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