Monday, May 22, 2023

The Common Law Crime of Kidnapping: Lindbergh’s Baby

By Sherri Stewart

Kidnapping, as defined by the Common Law (the legal system the United States adopted from England), was a misdemeanor, punishable by fine, imprisonment, or pillory—also known as stocks. However, depending on its gravity, kidnapping is now considered a dangerous felony—even rising to a capital offense, especially if it involves ransom, extortion, or harm to the victim. The elements of a kidnapping are varied, but most involve unlawful asportation (substantial movement) and secret confinement of a person without consent, by means of threat, force, or trickery.

One of the most famous criminal cases of the twentieth century involved the kidnapping of the baby of aviator Lieutenant Charles Lindbergh on March 1st, 1932. At approximately 10 P.M. the Lindberghs’ nurse, Betty Gow, found that 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh Jr. was not in his crib. Gow then alerted Charles Lindbergh, who immediately went to the child’s room, where he found a ransom note, containing bad handwriting and grammar, in an envelope on the windowsill. Taking a gun, Lindbergh searched the grounds with the butler, and they found impressions of a ladder and footprints under the window of the baby's room, a wooden ladder with one of the steps broken, and a baby's blanket. 

Once the police were contacted and word spread, a circus of reporters and fans crowded the Lindbergh house for months. Not only that, mountains of letters and hundreds of phone calls from people claiming they knew something bombarded the police and the Lindberghs—even Al Capone called from prison offering his help. As the police followed up on each crank call, they lost valuable time finding the baby. New ransom notes arrived via a go-between, one of which Lindbergh paid in gold certificates to a man in disguise who spoke with an accent, but he didn’t produce the baby.

Two months later, a delivery truck driver pulled over to the side of the road and discovered the dead toddler hidden in a cluster of trees, less than five miles from the family’s home. In the months and years that followed, the police tracked the serial numbers on the gold certificates, finally getting a hit at a car repair shop. The repairman identified the man who’d given it to him as Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant. The police tore apart his garage and found buried there several gold certificates with the same serial numbers as well as other incriminating evidence. 

In the case, The State of New Jersey v. Bruno Richard Hauptmann (1935), although Hauptmann maintained his innocence and the evidence was circumstantial, the jury found him guilty, and he died by electric chair.

An analysis of the elements of the crime of kidnapping are undeniable. It was unlawful to take the child from the home. There was movement (asportation) of almost five miles, the child was taken at night in secret and hidden in a cluster of trees, but the question is—when did the child die? The ladder showed a broken step, so is it possible Baby Lindbergh wasn’t meant to die, but was accidentally dropped when Hauptmann fell off the ladder? Since all parties, have now passed away, we’ll never know the answer.

Even so, the case still finds its way into modern novels and movies, The Aviator’s Wife, Murder on the Orient Express, and Along Came a Spider.


Selah Award finalist Sherri Stewart loves a clean novel, sprinkled with romance and a strong message that challenges her faith. She spends her working hours with books—either editing others’ manuscripts or writing her own. Her passions are traveling to the settings of her books and sampling the food. She traveled to Paris for this book, and she still works daily on her French, although she doesn’t need to since everyone speaks English. A recent widow, Sherri lives in Orlando with her lazy dog, Lily. She shares recipes, tidbits of the book’s locations, and other authors' books in her newsletter.

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  1. Thank you for your post today. It was helpful to have all the information in one post, I can never remember that stuff and get lost in rabbit holes when I try to put it together from different readings. This is such a tragic story, and I can never understand why grown people want to hurt children or involve them in the sordid sides of life, like this aspect of trying for personal gain.