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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Revisiting The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping

Charles Lindbergh won worldwide acclaim in 1927 when he became the first person to fly an airplane non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean, departing from Roosevelt Field and landing the following day in Paris.

Less than five years later, Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, tragically endured the dark side of being a global celebrity. Charles Lindbergh, Jr., their 20-month-old son, was kidnapped and later found dead, after being taken from his crib in the family’s Hopewell, New Jersey home.

PBS’s Nova program is broadcasting on Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 9 p.m. Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?, a very engaging one-hour documentary. The filmmakers re-examine, with subject matter experts, what were arguably The Crime, and the Trial, of the 20th Century, at least until the mid-1990s, when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ronald Goldman.

 Bruno Hauptmann, despite protesting his innocence until the end of his life, was in the mid-1930s convicted for his role in the kidnapping and death of the Lindbergh baby. Hauptmann, a German immigrant, was executed and Nova’s experts believe he was involved in the crime, pointing to how one-third of the monies the Lindbergh family paid in ransom for their baby’s safe return were found in Hauptmann’s possession. It begs the question: who had the rest of the money, and is it possible that Hauptmann had accomplices who were never brought to justice?  

The Nova investigation brings viewers into the Bronx, where a man of German ancestry named John Knoll, a rumored Hauptmann co-conspirator, resided in the early 1930s. But the most provocative and shocking theory about who was behind the kidnapping comes from Rutgers University’s Lloyd Gardner. The retired history professor believes the perpetrators had a reliable source within the Lindbergh household who was able to tell them when the baby would be most vulnerable.

While the documentary makes no mention of the Lindbergh family’s Long Island ties, it is worth noting that Charles and Anne Lindbergh, after the death of their first-born, eventually had five more children, and lived in the early 1940s in Lloyd Neck, according to Lindbergh, A. Scott Berg’s outstanding 1998 biography. Berg also learned while doing his research that Lindbergh wrote parts of We, his bestselling 1927 memoir, while staying at Falaise in Sands Point. It was then the home of Harry Guggenheim, a major financial backer of the earliest U.S. aviation projects.

I think what Berg’s biography of Lindbergh does best is chronicle how Charles and the former Anne Morrow, an accomplished writer who went on to write a few bestsellers herself, were not only well-positioned at an early age to succeed in life but took full advantage of their good fortune. Lindbergh’s father, an attorney, was a Minnesota Congressman while Morrow’s father, Dwight Morrow, was the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico before winning election to the U.S. Senate from New Jersey.

Yet the Nova program affirms how little of the Lindbergh and Morrow families’ history remains in the public’s collective memory, with most Americans remembering little about them beyond The Spirit of St. Louis and how its pilot’s 20-month-old son met a cruel fate.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net