Sunday, January 11, 2009

Radio Aspects of the Lindbergh Kidnapping, Pt. 4

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

Radio Aspects of the Lindbergh Kidnapping
Jack French © 2008

The wall to wall radio coverage of the trial elevated several announcers and commentators to a higher level of fame that they previously had. But the radio personality that benefited most from the trial was a new announcer at WNEW who had just started at $20 a week. Hearing that WNEW would be broadcasting periodic reports from the Flemington court house and wanted something to fill the gaps between, Martin Block convinced station management that him playing musical records would be the best solution. He called his show Make Believe Ballroom, a title he borrowed from former associate, Al Jarvis, who used that same name for his west coast DJ show. Block’s show became very popular during the six weeks trial and when it was over, WNEW made it a permanent fixture in their programming, eventually making Block a millionaire.

Mutual Radio had a tradition in those years to air a year end summary each December of what they termed “The Top News Stories of the Year.” In 1935 the program was narrated by announcer Seymour Birkson. Although the Hauptmann trial was clearly the top story that year, Birkson bumped it down to number 2, right behind the Italian war in Ethiopia. Birkson summarizes the trial in a half dozen sentences. Copies of this program are in general circulation.
But it would be over a year before the execution, due to a series of long and complicated appeals, one of which went all the way to the Supreme Court. Hauptmann’s widow raised thousands of dollars, mostly from German audiences in the East and the Midwest, pleading “Help me get a new trial for the father of my poor baby.” Meanwhile the kidnapper was held at the state prison in Trenton, declining to confess in order to escape the death penalty, even after a personal visit by the governor. On the scheduled day of his execution in April 1936, he was asked what he wanted for his last meal. He declined, saying he was not hungry, but he did have a special request. When asked what it was, Hauptmann said he wanted to address the American people on the radio so he could convince them he was innocent. The request was denied.

After all appeals were exhausted, the execution was scheduled for April 3, 1936. Hundreds of press and radio reporters gathered outside the prison, not counting the 30 members of the media who were among the 55 official witnesses watching the room containing the electric chair. All had been frisked for cameras and microphones since the warden was aware that five years earlier a reporter with a camera hidden on his leg, photographed murderess Ruth Snyder when she was electrocuted.

Everyone had been told the execution would take place at 8 PM so Gabriel Heatter, who gained some publicity with his bulletins on the trial in Flemington, took his place outside the prison with about five minutes of material in case the execution was a few minutes late. However, the few minutes stretched to 45 minutes and Heatter ad-libbed without a break for the entire time, a feat that would push him to the top of radio commentators and insure his successful career on the air. Hauptmann was executed at 8:45 and the news was flashed around the world.

The grieving widow was given no peace from the media. She was staying in a room at the Stacy-Trent Hotel in Trenton with a few friends and defense attorneys. About five minutes after the execution, about a dozen camera men, newspaper and radio reporters burst into her room, taking photos and shouting questions at her. After about 15 minutes, her associates were able to push the media out of the room, leaving the widow sobbing on her bed.

But the case did not die with Bruno Hauptmann. Doubts about his guilt were expressed by Eleanor Roosevelt, NJ Governor Harold Hoffman, and other well-known figures who were apparently unfamiliar with the mountain of evidence of his guilt. Hauptmann’s widow embarked on a crusade to prove his innocence, a quest that she followed until the day she died in 1994 at the age of 96. To further complicate the case, about a dozen men sought the spotlight by claiming to be the Lindbergh baby, now grown up. While they may have been seeking an inheritance from the Lindbergh millions, at least three of them actually sued NJ for the records to prove their preposterous claims and one of them made a living on the lecture circuit with his claim.

A wise philosopher once pointed out “Nothing is as strong in human beings as the craving to believe in something that is obviously wrong.” So it was natural that Anna Hauptmann’s pleas would find sympathetic ears. The mutterings about Hauptmann’s innocence, which simmered for years, became more prominent in 1976 with the book “Scapegoat” by Anthony Scaduto which claimed the baby was not even killed but was still alive in the person of Harold Olsen (one of the dozen impostors.) Anna Hauptmann filed a series of multi-million dollar civil suits against NJ in the 1980s, and while she lost every case, the publicity encouraged the publication of more pro-Hauptmann books, including Noel Behn’s 1994 book, a TV documentary, and an HBO movie, all claiming that Hauptmann was not the kidnapper, he was an innocent victim of a law enforcement plot.

All these phony theories of Hauptmann’s innocence were crushed in the 1999 book, “The Ghosts of Hopewell” by Jim Fisher, a Lindbergh historian. I do not have time to summarize his compelling evidence but I urge you to read his book if you have slightest doubts about the case and the verdict.

Now over 75 years after the kidnapping, the case continues to fascinate many people. When the Union Hotel in Flemington, which had housed the jurors, several reporters, and many prominent spectators, was offered for sale three months ago, it made the front page of several Eastern papers. Today, across the street from the hotel, in the original court house, a live drama of the Trial of the Century is being performed every weekend in October. Actors portraying all the main characters of this drama are featured in this two and a half hour summary of the trial. Harry Kazman wrote and directs this play and you can find details at

The pertinent sites of the ransom negotiation, the payoff, and the arrest of Hauptmann are all covered in a bus tour of the Bronx every year in May, usually the third Saturday. Richard Sloan, who created and manages this interesting tour, has been researching the case for years. You can email him for details at <>


Post a Comment

<< Home