Mistrial

Michael Davie

  • The Airman and the Carpenter: The Lindbergh Case and the Framing of Richard Hauptmann by Ludovic Kennedy
    Collins, 438 pp, £12.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 00 217060 4

The greatest story since the Resurrection was how Mencken described the 1935 trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby. Among the three hundred-odd reporters present, besides Mencken, were Damon Runyon, Ford Madox Ford, Edna Ferber, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Walter Winchell and Joseph Alsop, who was required to write no less than ten thousand words a day for the Herald Tribune. Celebrities who dropped by included Ginger Rogers, Moss Hart, Lynn Fontanne, Jack Dempsey, Robert ‘Believe-it-or-not’ Ripley, Elsa Maxwell and Jack Benny. They were in court less because of Hauptmann than because of Lindbergh, the biggest celebrity of them all. It is a sign of the passing of time that on the dustjacket of this book the name of Ludovic Kennedy is five times bigger than Lindbergh’s. Half a century ago, nobody’s name was bigger than Lindy’s.

Lindbergh was born in Little Falls, Minnesota, the son of a Congressman; his parents parted when he was 14. He left school at 16, learned farm work, dropped out of an engineering course at the University of Wisconsin, and joined a flying circus. To drum up business, he would climb onto the wing of a plane and wave to the people in the streets below; attached by straps, he stood upright on the wing while the pilot looped the loop. He was billed as ‘Daredevil Lindbergh’.

A decade later, Lincoln Kirstein’s sister told Harold Nicolson, who was writing a life of Lindbergh’s father-in-law, that but for his pioneering solo flight to Paris Lindbergh would have been in charge of a gas station on the outskirts of St Louis. This sounds like snobbery. Lindbergh’s marriage to Anne Morrow, the daughter of Dwight Morrow – banker, ambassador and millionaire – took him into a more elevated society than that of Little Falls; Lincoln Kirstein, the balletomane, and his sister were part of it. Harold Nicolson also made a social judgment – though he found Lindbergh ‘as nice as can be’. He described him as ‘like a bright, young chauffeur’. Ludovic Kennedy draws attention to a disagreeable side of Lindbergh’s character: a taste for aggressive practical jokes. But he was fearless, and an inspired mechanic. When he took off at dawn on 20 May 1927 for his historic flight across the Atlantic, the runway at Roosevelt Field, New York, was sodden; The Spirit of St Louis was carrying a thousand pounds more weight than ever before, and its engine was not generating full power because of the damp; Lindbergh had had only two hours sleep. The aircraft cleared the telephone wires at the end of the runway by 20 feet. It was ten hours before Lindbergh crossed Newfoundland, 33 hours before he landed in Paris. The French President decorated him; King George V received him at Buckingham Palace; President Coolidge sent a cruiser and an admiral to bring him home. In Chesapeake Bay, Mr Kennedy tells us, the cruiser was met by four destroyers, two army dirigibles and a fly-past from all three services. Ashore in Washington, the entire Cabinet entertained him to dinner, and the Secretary for War promoted him to colonel in the US Army Air Corps. In New York, three or four million people watched a ticker-tape parade. ‘Colonel Lindbergh, the city is yours,’ said the mayor. Lindbergh was 25.

Two years later he married Anne Morrow, and on 1 March 1932 their son Charles Augustus junior was kidnapped from their home near Hopewell, New Jersey. Three months after that, the baby was found murdered in nearby woods. In early 1935, at the ‘trial of the century’ at Flemington, New Jersey, Lindbergh took the stand to give evidence against Hauptmann. He committed perjury. Why?

Mr Kennedy has a shocking story to tell. The subtitle of his book is ‘The Lindbergh Case and the Framing of Richard Hauptmann’. Mr Kennedy is the author of three previous books about miscarriages of justice: after 10 Rillington Place (1961) the Queen granted a free pardon to the corpse of Timothy Evans, who had been hanged for a murder he did not commit; A Presumption of Innocence (1976) brought the Queen into action again to pardon Patrick Meehan for a murder he did not commit; Wicked beyond Belief (1980) was followed by the release of David Cooper and Michael McMahon, also detained for a murder they did not commit. Few readers of Mr Kennedy’s latest book will finish it thinking he has spoiled his immaculate record. The reader may be left with lingering doubts about whether Hauptmann had no connection whatsoever with the kidnapping but still be convinced that he was not guilty of kidnapping and not guilty of murder. He was electrocuted, maintaining his innocence to the end, on 3 April 1936. It all happened a long time ago: scarcely worth raking over the dead coals, some may think. But Hauptmann’s wife is still alive, ‘in a trim house in a Philadelphia suburb’, Mr Kennedy tells us. She is 79. ‘The state of New Jersey murdered an innocent man, they killed my husband God knows he was innocent I have told the truth,’ she wrote to Mr Kennedy in January 1984, thanking him for a Christmas card. Besides, capital punishment has again become fashionable in the United States, and the one argument against capital punishment that its advocates have never been able to answer is that sometimes the wrong person is executed.

The most extraordinary point about Mr Kennedy’s book is the patent ease with which he is able to justify his subtitle. The police concealed crucial files, bribed witnesses, distorted handwriting evidence, beat up Hauptmann, harassed him constantly while he was in their custody, manufactured false evidence, and entirely changed their original version of the kidnapping – which was that more than one person must have been involved – once they realised that they were going to be lucky to able to nail one suspect, let alone a gang. Hauptmann was an immigrant German carpenter who had been in jail in Germany for theft before he arrived in the United States as a stowaway. He prospered, married, and acquired a sinister con-man friend and business associate, Isidor Fisch. Ransom gold certificate bills paid by Lindbergh turned up in Hauptmann’s possession. He lied about them to the police. Later he said he had been given them for safe-keeping by Fisch, by then dead. Perhaps he had; perhaps he hadn’t. Mr Kennedy has no difficulty in accepting Hauptmann’s account, but it is possible to imagine other scenarios. At all events, once the police had found what was undeniably Lindbergh ransom money in Hauptmann’s garage, they had a foundation on which to construct a case. Fifty years on, the witnesses they produced to support their case seem comically inadequate: a self-important windbag named Dr John F. Condon, who agreed to testify against Hauptmann only after the police had threatened to charge him with complicity in the kidnapping; a down-and-out hillbilly who was paid to say he had seen Hauptmann near the Lindbergh estate on the night of the kidnapping (the picture of this man reproduced in the book could have been taken by Walker Evans as part of his series about the Depression); an old bearded fellow who said he had spotted Hauptmann at the scene of the crime, yet who was, in truth, half-blind – later (after Hauptmann was dead) he identified, in the presence of the governor of New Jersey, a bowl of flowers as a woman’s hat.

Why did the jury, and successive appeal courts, take any of this evidence seriously? The Kennedy answer is that the trial of the century was not so much a legal trial as a trial by publicity. From the beginning, the police were under intense pressure to produce results. The press was unrestrained, proclaiming Hauptmann’s guilt as soon as he was arrested. All this might have mattered less if Lindbergh had behaved differently. He had been present, some eighty to a hundred yards away, when Dr Condon handed over ransom money to a man in a dark street outside a cemetery. He had heard a man call out: ‘Hey, doc!’ That was his original statement. On the stand, however, he said the words were ‘Hey, doctor!’, and positively identified the accent as foreign and the voice as Hauptmann’s. Did he change the wording, Kennedy asks, because the pronunciation of two syllables would scarcely have been enough to distinguish a foreign from an American accent? ‘Hey, doktor!’ sounded more Germanic. Nobody asked Lindbergh, the hero, how he could be so sure that the voice he had heard in 1932 was Hauptmann’s, and not that of any other German immigrant, especially when he had been nearly a hundred yards away. Lindbergh evidently believed what he wanted to believe. On the night Hauptmann was found guilty he told Harold Nicolson that his ‘one dread all these years’ had been that the wrong man would be accused. But he was ‘quite sure’ that Hauptmann was the right man. He told Nicolson that Hauptmann had eyes like those of a wild boar: ‘mean, shifty, small and cruel’. No one else made that comparison, and it is scarcely supported by the photographs of Hauptmann in this book. But once Lindbergh had testified as he did, Hauptmann was as good as dead.

A juror was later to speak of the great importance the jury – who had been investigated by the State authorities before they were chosen – attached to Lindbergh’s testimony. Once he had spoken, it was in almost everyone’s interest to persuade themselves that Hauptmann was guilty. Hauptmann’s principal counsel, Edward Reilly, who was paid for by the Hearst press in exchange for exclusive interviews, was an incompetent alcoholic – and Lindbergh was one of his heroes. Reilly told a policeman during the trial that his client deserved to die. His most spectacular dereliction of duty was his failure to ask Lindbergh a single question about the words allegedly spoken at the cemetery.

The United States is a disorderly country, and half a century ago it was more disorderly still. In 1933, a mob broke into the San Jose jail in California, dragged out two kidnappers, and hanged them from a nearby tree. During the Hauptmann trial, a nation in the mood of a lynch mob waited outside the courtroom, and careerists and perjurers were at work within. Yet there were those who were appalled at what went on, among them Edna Ferber, Clarence Darrow and the American Bar Association. Not all newspapers went with the tide. Doubts began before the execution. The governor of New Jersey, a former sports writer, Harold Hoffman, set up his own investigation and soon uncovered police faking. But though he delayed the execution, he could not prevent it.

Where are they now? Lindbergh became pro-Nazi, worked for Pan-Am after World War Two, and died in Hawaii in 1974. Hoffman embezzled $300,000. The New Jersey State police chief became a major-general. Reilly went into a mental home a year after the trial. The wives of both Lindbergh and Hauptmann live on. So, perhaps, do the real kidnappers.

Mr Kennedy’s prose could be improved. In a book necessarily packed with relevant detail, he might have done better to cut out all irrelevant details, such as the origins of the Bronx and of Hunter’s Island (‘once the property of a John Hunter’). He makes one error, confusing Ben Nicolson, Harold Nicolson’s art-historian son, with Ben Nicholson the painter. He fails to describe adequately the way doubts about the case have slowly spread, so that the reader cannot be sure when he is supporting the conclusions of other investigators, when he is disputing them, and when he is breaking new ground. It is irritating that a book like this should have no footnotes. However, Mr Kennedy undoubtedly makes his case, and readers will share his hope that a way will be found to mitigate a flagrant miscarriage of justice, and thus make some restitution to an old lady whose courage, dignity and faith in her husband’s innocence have never flagged.