LOCAL KIDNAPPING CASE INSPIRES FAMOUS MURDER MYSTERY

By Anna Morton, Artistic Assistant

 
   
 
  Ransom note left in the nursery:
Dear Sir!
Have 50.000$ redy 25 000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days we will inform you were to deliver the mony.
We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police The child is in gut care. Indication for all letters are Singnature [Symbol to right] and 3 hohls.

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has an unexpected connection with Mercer County, New Jersey. Christie was known to draw inspiration from current events and contemporary news stories in her writing, such as the infamous child abuse case in Shropshire, England that influenced her successful play The Mousetrap. Behind Murder on the Orient Express is a local crime often referred to as “The Crime of the Century”: the kidnapping of Colonel Charles Lindbergh’s firstborn son in Hopewell, New Jersey.

Lindbergh completed his world-renowned transatlantic flight from New York to Paris on May 21, 1927, making him the first person to complete a solo flight across the Atlantic. He became a popular American hero, and the flight won him the highly sought-after Orteig Prize, worldwide fame, and the nickname “Lucky Lindy.”   

Tragedy struck five years later, on the night of March 1st, 1932. Between 9:00 and 9:30pm, Lindbergh’s twenty-month-old son Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. was taken from his crib on the second story of the family’s home just outside of Hopewell, New Jersey. Both Lindbergh parents, their cook, their butler, and the baby’s nursemaid were in the house at the time of the kidnapping. The nursemaid reportedly put the baby down around 8:00pm, and by the time she returned to check on him at 10:00pm, he was gone. The kidnapper had left a ransom note on the windowsill asking for $50,000 and warning Lindbergh against contacting the authorities. Nevertheless, the household immediately called the Hopewell police who arrived at the scene and transferred the case over to the New Jersey State Police. Officers from Lambertville and West Trenton began what would turn into a lengthy and exhaustive investigation.

While the authorities worked on the investigation, Lindbergh explored options for contacting the kidnappers—his first priority was the safe return of his son. Ten days after the kidnapping, Dr. John Condon, an eccentric retired school principle from the Bronx, published a newspaper ad volunteering himself as an intermediary between the kidnappers and the family. The kidnappers responded with a ransom note indicating that they approved of this plan, so Lindbergh agreed to work with Condon as a go-between.

In the following month, Condon exchanged multiple communications with the kidnappers through the newspapers, and several more ransom notes were delivered. On April 12th, Condon paid $50,000 in ransom money from Lindbergh to a man identified as “John” in exchange for a note indicating the location of the baby, but the lead in the note was a dead end.

The next significant development in the case came on May 12th, when a truck driver stumbled upon the baby’s body in a wooded area about two miles from the Lindbergh’s home. An examination indicated that the baby had died from a head injury about two months prior, placing the death just around the time of the kidnapping. It seemed clear that the kidnappers never intended to return the baby to his family.

It took two years and six months to identify a suspect. By tracking the serial numbers of the currency that Condon had given to “John” as ransom money, the police were able to apprehend and arrest Bruno Richard Hauptmann on Wednesday, September 19, 1934. According to testimony given by Condon, Hauptmann greatly resembled “John,” with whom he had met multiple times during negotiations. Handwriting analysis noted many similarities between samples of Hauptmann’s handwriting and the handwriting of the ransom notes; he was also found with $13,000 in ransom money and admitted to making purchases with other bills known to have been part of the ransom package. The evidence, while circumstantial, seemed to point clearly to his culpability. Hauptmann was tried in Flemington, New Jersey in the winter of 1935, convicted of murder on February 13, 1935, and sentenced to death. On April 3, 1936, he was executed in the electric chair at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.

This high profile kidnapping bears a strong resemblance to a crime referenced in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. The book was published in 1934 when the Lindbergh case was still open and the police had yet to track down a suspect. The crime received international news coverage while Christie penned her famous mystery, with headlines like “Lindbergh Kidnap—First Pictures: How the Baby Was Stolen from Bed” in The Daily Mirror and “Lindbergh Baby Kidnaped” [sic] in The Morning Post. With sensational articles like these featured in the British newspapers of the day, it is easy to see how Christie was influenced by a crime that occurred thousands of miles away.

To read more about the Lindbergh Kidnapping, visit the Additional Reading page.

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