Who Killed Lindbergh's Baby?
Expert investigators reexamine one of the greatest murder mysteries of all time. Airing July 31, 2013 at 9 pm on PBS Aired July 31, 2013 on PBS
- Originally aired 01.30.13
(Program not available for streaming.) In the aftermath of his 1927 solo transatlantic flight, Colonel Charles Augustus Lindbergh–the Lone Eagle–became the most famous human being on earth. And when he and his lovely wife Anne produced an adorable baby son, Charlie, an eager press quickly dubbed him Little Lindy or sometimes just the Eaglet. But on the evening of March 1, 1932 Lucky Lindy's luck ran out. Bold kidnappers snatched his baby from the family home near Hopewell, New Jersey, while everyone in the house was awake. Negotiations with the kidnappers stretched out for weeks. But Little Charlie never came back. His body was discovered not five miles from Hopewell. Now, NOVA is reopening one of the most intriguing, grisly, and confounding crime mysteries of all time as a team of expert investigators employ state-of-the-art forensic and behavioral science techniques in an effort to determine what really happened to Lindbergh's baby and why.
Who Killed Lindbergh's Baby
PBS Airdate: January 30, 2013
NARRATOR: It is one of the most haunting crimes in American history: the daring kidnapping and tragic death of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., the precious son of America's then-greatest hero.
PAULA FASS (Author, Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America): The kidnapping, the death—Americans witnessed something truly awful here.
NARRATOR: One man, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, was arrested, tried and executed, but was he really guilty? Did he have accomplices? And could the crime have been masterminded by someone inside the Lindbergh household?
JOHN DOUGLAS (F.B.I. Special Agent, Retired): What we do know for sure is that the baby was put to sleep in that bedroom.
NARRATOR: John Douglas, America's leading criminal profiler, is on the hunt for clues that could solve this notorious kidnapping.
JOHN DOUGLAS: Did the police do a sketch of him?
ROBERT "BOB" ZORN (Author, Cemetery John: The Undiscovered Mastermind of the Lindbergh Kidnapping): I've shown this to hundreds of people and they all say, "That's the guy."
NARRATOR: Is there a new suspect in this old case? And can an amateur sleuth, a forensic pathologist, a handwriting expert, a veteran archivist and a master carpenter help John Douglas finally solve the crime of the century?
JOHN DOUGLAS: We owe it to the victims' families to know that the person who perpetrated this crime didn't get away with it.
NARRATOR: Next, on NOVA, Who Killed Lindbergh's Baby?
Eighty years ago, this narrow country lane led to the scene of one of the most perplexing crimes in American history, and this man wants to solve that crime once and for all. He's John Douglas, legendary F.B.I. profiler, who pioneered the use of behavioral analysis for tracking down serial killers and other dangerous criminals.
Today, he has come to this isolated estate, in Hopewell, New Jersey, to try and unravel a mystery as cold as the grave: the daring kidnapping and tragic death of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., age 20 months when he was stolen in 1932.
JOHN DOUGLAS: Wow, it's been 80 years, but it still looks the same.
NARRATOR: Douglas has worked thousands of cases and helped in the prosecution of violent offenders all over the world, but this notorious crime still haunts him.
JOHN DOUGLAS: I have been fascinated by this case for years. There are just too many unanswered questions about who did it and how it was pulled off. What we do know, for sure, is that the baby was put to sleep up there, in that bedroom, and the rest of the household was awake when he was abducted.
NARRATOR: The crime would touch a fear lurking in the heart of every parent, that somehow, without warning or reason, their child would be taken from them, never to return.
JOHN DOUGLAS: And when you can't solve a crime like that, or come up with satisfactory answers, the case won't go away, because, with children, it's like we somehow failed to protect them.
NARRATOR: Never before had a child this celebrated and adored been so shockingly victimized.
JOHN DOUGLAS: For the first time, we all realized that any one of us, at any given time, can be the victim of a violent crime, because it happened to the most famous family in the world.
NARRATOR: With his triumphal solo flight across the Atlantic, in 1927, Charles Augustus Lindbergh instantly became a global icon.
PAULA FASS: Charles Lindbergh was the hero of the world, not just of the United States. He seemed to personify the best of an American: young, informal, very handsome, tall and a bit shy. He's irresistible to the world at that moment.
NARRATOR: As this 1927 hit song clearly demonstrates.
When Lucky Lindy met heiress Anne Morrow, he not only taught her how to fly, he married her. And when the celebrity couple had their first child, a boy they called Charlie, their charmed lives seemed complete.
But their joy lasts less than two years.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: Message that shocked the world comes in on the police teletype.
PAULA FASS: When the Lindbergh baby is reported missing, the country is in a state of shock. There is a sense of disbelief that this extraordinary royal prince really would have been stolen.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: The crime was committed by means of a ladder placed against the house.
NARRATOR: With no eyewitnesses and few clues, other than a homemade ladder left by the kidnappers, the police had a difficult time reconstructing the events of the crime.
What emerged as facts were these: sometime between 8 and 10 p.m., on Tuesday, March 1, 1932, one or more individuals came to the house with a homemade folding ladder that left scrape marks on the wall to the right of the baby's bedroom window. The kidnappers apparently climbed the ladder and entered the room through the unlocked window. Once inside, they snatched the sleeping baby from his crib. They may have silenced him or rendered him unconscious, because no one in the household reported hearing Charlie cry out or struggle as he was taken from his bedroom and whisked away.
The kidnappers left the ladder by a service road and used a car to make their getaway. They had placed a ransom note on the baby's windowsill demanding $50,000 for his safe return and warned Lindbergh there would be trouble if he involved the police.
The criminals left no fingerprints or other helpful forensic evidence to guide the investigation, so where to begin?
JOHN DOUGLAS: As an investigator, one of the first questions to strike me is: did they have inside help? This is first time the Lindberghs were here on a Tuesday. The house was not quite finished, so the family only came on weekends. They spent weekdays at Anne's family's estate in Englewood, New Jersey. But Charlie had a cold, and Anne didn't want him to travel. So how did the kidnappers know they'd even be here that night?
NARRATOR: John Douglas wants to profile the type of offenders who could have committed this crime. Were they organized professionals or lucky amateurs? One way to answer this question would be to figure out what they intended to do with Charlie.
JOHN DOUGLAS: It takes too much planning and resources to take care of a toddler. It's a whole lot easier to pretend the child is alive, collect the ransom and be on your way. And that's what I think happened here.
NARRATOR: At a late night meeting in a Bronx cemetery, the kidnappers did collect the ransom and did get away scot-free. Dr. John Condon, Lindbergh's emissary, handed over the $50,000 in a wooden box, in exchange for a note telling Lindbergh where he could find his baby. But it was all a ruse.
Two weeks later, a truck driver, walking in the woods, stumbled upon Charlie's decomposing body, not five miles from his Hopewell home. And from the state of the corpse, it appeared he died the very night of the kidnapping.
An entire nation mourned Charlie's death as if this child was their very own.
PAULA FASS: There is a loss of innocence that takes place as a result of the kidnapping. The death, all of it, makes Americans confront the fact that they have witnessed something truly awful here.
NARRATOR: The baby had a fractured skull. And when police found cracks in the ladder, they theorized the breaking ladder startled the kidnapper, who dropped the baby by accident. But John Douglas disagrees with this scenario, and so does this man. He's former North Carolina Chief Medical Examiner John Butts, an expert on suspicious child deaths.
JOHN BUTTS (North Carolina Chief Medical Examiner, Retired): It has been proposed that the injuries this child suffered were the result of some type of an accident. This is problematic for me, because, while it might explain some of the injuries, it doesn't explain all of them.
On the left side of the child's head, there was a fracture line, extending from the anterior fontanel, the soft spot in the front top of the head, to back behind the ear. Now, on the right side of the head he described a rounded, approximately half inch in diameter, defect behind the right ear. To me this second injury, the one on the right side of the head is the one that's most intriguing.
NARRATOR: Police reports stated that an officer trying to extricate the baby's remains accidentally poked a hole in his skull with a stick, and this created the round, impact-like injury on the right side. But again Butts is skeptical.
JOHN BUTTS: In my opinion an individual pushing or prodding a body with a stick could not poke a hole through the skull, under virtually any circumstance.
NARRATOR: So what caused this injury? And how did the baby suffer severe damage to both sides of the skull? Butts sees one possible scenario, and it's not accidental, it's murder.
JOHN BUTTS: If he were lying on his left side, head down, on a hard surface, and he was then struck a forceful blow, on the right side of the head, by a hammer, pipe, that would compress the head, and it might do so with sufficient force that there might be resulting fracture on the left side, as well.
NARRATOR: Butts's theory supports Douglas's contention that the kidnappers killed Charlie intentionally. And this helps him build a profile of the type of offenders who could have perpetrated this crime.
JOHN DOUGLAS: What I'm seeing here are very ruthless individuals, with a violent criminal history, not first-timers. They are daring enough to kidnap the Lindbergh baby and risk the death penalty if they are apprehended. These are hardcore guys.
NARRATOR: It took the police two and half years to finally corral a suspect, through a combination of foresight and luck. When authorities prepared the original ransom money, they handed out lists of the serial numbers to banks and stores. They also used gold certificates, a currency that would soon go out of circulation, the idea being that the serial numbers on these old bills would be easier for merchants and bank tellers to spot.
MARK FALZINI (Archivist, New Jersey State Police): About two and a half years after the kidnapping, a guy pulls into a gas station, up in New York, and buys about 98 cents worth of gas and pays with a $10 gold certificate. Now the gas station attendant is suspicious, but he's not thinking, "Oh, this is Lindbergh ransom money." He's thinking, "We're off the gold standard now for about a year or so. The bank might not take this money." So, just in case, he writes down the license number of the car on the edge of the bill. And that license number was Richard Hauptmann's.
NARRATOR: When police went to the home of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant carpenter, living in the Bronx, they found $14,000 of the ransom money, a small handgun and other suspicious evidence. They arrested him on the spot.
NEWSREEL: Thousands storm the courthouse in Flemington, New Jersey.
NARRATOR: The biggest trial ever seen in America began in Flemington, New Jersey, on January 3, 1935. Thousands of reporters and onlookers descended on the small town, all scrambling for a front-row seat. It was such a mob scene…
PAULA FASS: A lot of people were beginning to express doubts about whether justice could be served, in the context of this kind of circus.
NARRATOR: At the trial, Hauptmann presented himself as an innocent working man who would never commit such a crime. But a closer look at his background calls this assertion into question.
MARK FALZINI: Prior to coming to the United States, he had a criminal record, back in Germany.
NARRATOR: Mark Falzini is the Archivist for the New Jersey State Police Museum. The Museum's trove of case-related documents includes a detailed history of Hauptmann's background in his hometown of Kamenz, where he was arrested for several crimes.
MARK FALZINI: He did use a ladder to climb into the second story window of the mayor's house and stole some money and watches. And one other time, he worked with an accomplice, where they held up two women pushing a baby carriage, at gunpoint.
NARRATOR: To get to the United States, Hauptmann had to escape from jail, stow away on a steamship and lie his way through American immigration. So, despite his engaging, clean-cut demeanor, Hauptmann was bold, ruthless and criminally sophisticated, the very attributes of John Douglas's profile of the Lindbergh kidnappers…not to mention his history of using ladders to commit crimes.
Prosecutors claimed he personally built the kidnap ladder. But Hauptmann denied ever seeing it.
This is the actual kidnap ladder Hauptmann supposedly made in his garage.
KEVIN KLEIN (Master Carpenter):The ladder is actually kind of tricky to make.
NARRATOR: Kevin Klein, a master carpenter and amateur sleuth, has studied every inch of it.
KEVIN KLEIN: I think Hauptmann probably found whatever he could and scrounged it up to build this.
NARRATOR: The ladder was cleverly designed, with three sections that nestled together making it easier to carry, set up and remove.
After the kidnapping, the police brought the ladder to Arthur Koehler, a wood expert, to see if he could find clues that would lead to the kidnappers. Koehler numbered each piece of wood and traced its origin.
KEVIN KLEIN: Probably the most important part of this ladder, or at least in terms of convicting Richard Hauptmann, is rail 16, which is found on the third section here. This rail was positively I.D.'ed as connecting to a floorboard in Hauptmann's attic.
NARRATOR: Rail 16 is made of yellow pine. When police noticed that Hauptmann's attic contained yellow pine floorboards they asked Koehler to compare a sawed off board with rail 16.
KEVIN KLEIN: He looked at the grain patterns and drew the conclusion that the two had been connected. There was a small portion missing between the two, but you could draw the grain figure and it matched perfectly.
NARRATOR: To John Douglas, the wood evidence is conclusive.
JOHN DOUGLAS: If I was working this case, and the police found a piece of that ladder matches wood found at that residence, I would tell the police, "Why am I here? Why did you bring me into the case? You got your man."
NARRATOR: Douglas has come to the actual Flemington courtroom where Hauptmann's trial took place. It took six weeks of grueling testimony, but on February 13, 1935, the jury handed down its verdict: guilty as charged, with a sentence of death.But was Hauptmann the only person involved in the crime? As he waited in his cell, prosecutors, convinced he did not act alone, offered him a deal: they would spare his life if he named his accomplices.
Yet he never wavered from his claim of innocence and thereby sealed his fate: execution in the electric chair.
Because he chose to die when he could have saved his life, many people began to wonder if Bruno Richard Hauptmann might have been innocent after all. At the New Jersey State Police Museum, in Trenton, John Douglas studies artifacts from the case and reflects on Hauptmann's claim of innocence.
JOHN DOUGLAS: I've seen a lot of cases where a criminal swore he was innocent, went to his death, and we later found out through D.N.A. or other evidence that he was guilty. Some criminals just want to protect the family's name. Hauptmann had a young son, and I think that's why he claimed he was innocent.
NARRATOR: Anna Hauptmann maintained her husband's innocence to her death in 1994. And a recent German television documentary, set in his hometown, has again raised questions about his guilt. So controversy about Hauptmann's conviction lingers on.
JOHN DOUGLAS: But we're left with only three possibilities: Hauptmann's innocent; he's guilty and acted alone; or he's guilty but had help.
NARRATOR: Douglas is convinced Hauptmann is guilty. And he's equally certain he had accomplices. One reason is the ransom money.
JOHN DOUGLAS: What's unusual about the ransom money is that one third of the money is in Hauptmann's possession. Where are the other two-thirds? Did they go to two other people?
NARRATOR: The other reason is Douglas's experience as a psychological profiler.
JOHN DOUGLAS: I've seen many, many cases like this in my career, and, usually, what you need is multiple offenders who can reinforce one another psychologically and, and feed off each other in perpetrating the crime like this.
On the night of the kidnapping it was dreary, it was dark, it was muddy, it was way too risky, unless I have criminals around me to hold the ladder, do the surveillance, give me a high sign. It's not going to be one person perpetrating a crime like that. So is it two people, three people. For sure it is not one person.
NARRATOR: But no suspects other than Hauptmann have ever been found, and Douglas wants to know why. So he asks Mark Falzini, who knows the historical record better than anyone.
JOHN DOUGLAS: You know, Mark, as an investigator, one of the first things that strikes me, that stands out, is that once Hauptmann is arrested, the investigation kind of shut down. Why? Why was that?
MARK FALZINI: It had been a two and a half year investigation, at this point, and they were under a lot of pressure to put an end to it. Remember, Lindbergh is the world's most famous man, at this point, and they had to end this thing.
JOHN DOUGLAS: So they just wanted everyone off their backs, at that point?
MARK FALZINI: Exactly.
JOHN DOUGLAS: The police must have interviewed thousands of suspects. You have thousands upon thousands of files.
MARK FALZINI: The police did interview quite a few people. They interviewed people at Lindbergh's house. They interviewed staff at the Morrow estate and all of Hauptmann's friends and associates.
JOHN DOUGLAS: Any good leads?
MARK FALZINI: There were a few leads, but all ended up going nowhere.
JOHN DOUGLAS: I want to throw a name at you. John Knoll. Does that ring a bell? Does that name come up in the investigation?
MARK FALZINI: No. That name does not come up anywhere in the collection.
NARRATOR: So who is John Knoll, and why is John Douglas looking for him?
Douglas's interest in Knoll comes from this man, Bob Zorn. Zorn's quest to link John Knoll to the crime goes back to his father Gene Zorn, who, as an adult, read an article on the kidnapping that triggered a dramatic childhood memory, a memory that put father and son on the trail of a lost kidnapper.
BOB ZORN: This whole story begins in the summer of 1931, when my dad was a 15-year-old boy, growing up in a German neighborhood in the South Bronx. And my father had a neighbor who lived three doors down from him, a German immigrant and a deli clerk named John Knoll, who encouraged my father to take up stamp collecting.
And one day, in the summer of 1931, John invited my dad to go to Palisades Amusement Park, in New Jersey, where they had the world's largest saltwater swimming pool.
And there, waiting for John, were his younger brother, Walter, another deli clerk whom my father knew, and then a third German-speaking man. Well, my dad heard that these two men, John and Walter, were calling this third man Bruno. And the three men were talking about some place called Englewood.
NARRATOR: Englewood, New Jersey, was the location of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's family estate. The Lindberghs stayed there while their Hopewell home was under construction.
BOB ZORN: Fast-forward to December of 1963. By this point, my father is a 47-year-old bank economist, living in Dallas, and walks into his Dallas barbershop, and he reaches for a magazine called True, December, 1963 issue. And in it is an article about the Lindbergh kidnapping.
And certain words just seem to jump off the page. Of course there's "Bruno," Bruno Hauptmann. My dad had remembered that. John and Walter Knoll had called the third man Bruno. And then there's "Englewood," where the Lindberghs had been living in 1931.
The author of the article stated that Hauptmann was undoubtedly guilty but that he had worked with accomplices who could still be at large. And one of these accomplices was a man calling himself John.
NARRATOR: "John" is the name of the kidnapper who was given the ransom at a Bronx cemetery. And Gene Zorn began to wonder if this "John" could be John Knoll, the deli clerk from the Bronx.
After his father's death, Bob Zorn took up his dad's quest to link John Knoll with the kidnapping and made several discoveries. But he wanted an expert, familiar with the case, to validate his findings. That's when he contacted John Douglas to hear him out. The men went to Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx, where two critical players make their debut in the case.
The first was Dr. John Condon, a retired Bronx schoolteacher. Condon idolized Lindbergh and placed an ad in a Bronx newspaper, volunteering to mediate negotiations between his hero and the kidnappers. Inexplicably, both parties accepted him.
MARK FALZINI: One of the most infuriating things about the Lindbergh case is that Dr. Condon is the key to the investigation. He was the one who met with one of the gang members in the cemetery, twice. He was the one who turned over the ransom money. He was the one receiving all the ransom notes. He was also a blowhard. He liked to embellish things.
JOHN CONDON: I am more than pleased to solve that mystery on which I have been working without cessation.
MARK FALZINI: When you read his statements, you never know what to believe, with Dr. Condon.
NARRATOR: In Condon's account of his first meeting with the kidnappers, he goes to the cemetery, but, at first, can't find any one.
BOB ZORN: And then, after a while, a man who had secreted himself inside the cemetery reached out and started waving a handkerchief to attract Condon's attention.
JOHN DOUGLAS: Is that one of the kidnappers?
BOB ZORN: Yes, it was one of the kidnappers.
JOHN DOUGLAS: Did he say anything?
BOB ZORN: Well he had a heavy German accent, and the first thing he said was. "Have you gotta da money."
NARRATOR: The man with the German accent says to call him John and becomes known as "Cemetery John." Condon is the only person ever to see Cemetery John, so his description is critical to Bob Zorn's quest to match him with John Knoll.
BOB ZORN: He said that he was a guy built about like me—I'm 5'7," 165—with a high forehead, large ears, a pointy chin and then a large lump or fleshy mass at the base of his left thumb.
JOHN DOUGLAS: What do you mean?
BOB ZORN: Well, it would appear to be an abnormality. A photograph I have of John Knoll clearly shows that there was something very abnormal about his left thumb.
NARRATOR: This photograph, taken a few years after the kidnapping, is the best view we have of both of Knoll's thumbs. Hand specialists are divided on whether they reveal a clear abnormality, but both thumbs are large and discolored, so he might have had some physical anomaly.
JOHN DOUGLAS: Did the police, at any point, did they do a police sketch based on the description provided to them?
BOB ZORN: They did.
JOHN DOUGLAS: Tell me about that.
BOB ZORN: Well the, the police took the description and they had a sketch artist do a sketch of him. I got a photograph of John, and then I set that photograph next to this police sketch, and it was a dead ringer. And I've shown this to hundreds of people and they all say the same thing: "That's the guy."
NARRATOR: But at the trial, Condon swears it was Hauptmann he met at the cemetery and not someone who looked like John Knoll or had a malformed thumb.
So whom did Condon really meet? If it was Bruno Hauptmann, then John Knoll is not Cemetery John. But there might be a more reliable source than Condon to prove Knoll was part of the plot.
The kidnappers communicated with Lindbergh through a series of 15 handwritten ransom notes. Although some appear as though written by different authors, the prosecution's handwriting experts determined they were penned by one person, and that writer was Hauptmann.
They compared the notes to letters Hauptmann wrote to a Mrs. Begg. Just as today, they focused on individual letter shapes, the spacing between words, and the way letter pairs, like T-H, are made. In addition to these physical comparisons, they pointed out that the notes were written as if by an immigrant.
MARK FALZINI: This is the first ransom note that was left in the nursery. It says, "We warn you from making any ding public or for notify the police." It's an odd way of writing. The "Dear Sir" ends with an exclamation point. The dollar sign is put after the dollar amount, which is a German way of writing the money. Also there are misspelling of words. The word "signature" is spelled s-i-n-g-n-a-t-u-r-e.
NARRATOR: But the defense expert, using the same comparisons, said Hauptmann was not the author. So who is right?
We might know, if we had taken Hauptmann's Begg letter envelope, retrieved a D.N.A. sample from the licked flap and compared it to D.N.A. samples from the ransom note envelopes, but New Jersey refused our request to do a D.N.A. analysis.
Today, handwriting analysis has become more sophisticated. And besides Hauptmann's writing, Bob Zorn has samples of John Knoll's writing on self-addressed envelopes, valued by stamp collectors.
If a modern expert could match Knoll's writing to the ransom notes, this would strongly suggest he was part of the kidnap plot. So, NOVA asked Sargur Srihari, a pioneer in computer-based handwriting analysis, to compare both men's writing with the notes.
SARGUR SRIHARI (University of Buffalo): A computer can do a lot more than a document examiner can do.
NARRATOR: Srihari's pattern-recognition software can isolate words and letters from multiple documents and compare them by precisely measuring their slope, height, width and contour.
SARGUR SRIHARI: And we are to do that for every letter of the English alphabet.
NARRATOR: Srihari analyzed Hauptmann's writing first, taking the Begg letters and comparing them to six of the ransom notes.
SARGUR SRIHARI: The results of comparison of the ransom notes and Hauptmann writing are shown here at the individual letter-pair level and, as well as, individual character level.
NARRATOR: Each comparison gets a score. Positive values indicate a higher probability the writing is from the same person; negative values, a lower probability.
SARGUR SRIHARI: For instance, the letter, the letter pair AM or A-M has a fairly high negative score, indicating that they don't seem to be written by the same individual. There are some positives, as well. So, what matters is the sum total of all of these things. And that total turns out to be negative, indicating that it is unlikely that Hauptmann wrote the ransom notes.
NARRATOR: If Srihari is correct, then Hauptmann did have a co-conspirator who wrote the notes. And could it be John Knoll? Srihari's initial analysis of Knoll's writing showed positives for the word "John." But other comparisons did not.
SARGUR SRIHARI: What we did here was compare letters such as E-R and N-O, and so on, and we're also comparing S-T, again with a negative value. The summary of these comparisons is that it is unlikely that John Knoll was the writer of these ransom notes.
NARRATOR: Srihari's conclusion does not completely eliminate Knoll as a suspect, but it means John Douglas must dig deeper into Knoll's story to prove he's a lost kidnapper.
BOB ZORN: John, my dad grew up in this South Bronx neighborhood. It was a German neighborhood at the time.
NARRATOR: Douglas's key question: does Zorn have evidence Knoll and Hauptmann ever met?
BOB ZORN: The house is gone now, but it looks pretty much like this. Now, my grandparents rented a third-floor flat in one of these homes, and John Knoll lived three doors down, in the second floor of an apartment he rented for $10 a month.
JOHN DOUGLAS: It's very interesting, but how would Knoll and Hauptmann get to know each other? What makes you think there's a connection?
BOB ZORN: When Hauptmann came to the states, in 1923, he immediately started visiting people from his home village of Kamenz, and as it turned out, my grandparents' landlord was from the same village of Kamenz.
NARRATOR: If Zorn is right, Hauptmann would have come to this German neighborhood to meet his hometown friend. And that friend would have surely introduced him to his German neighbor and drinking buddy, John Knoll.
BOB ZORN: So I think it's very likely that John would have come to know Bruno Hauptmann.
JOHN DOUGLAS: The thing that's puzzling, from an investigative perspective, is that nowhere in the police backgrounds checks with names, associates of Hauptmann, did Knoll's name ever come up.
NARRATOR: It's possible Hauptmann kept his association with John Knoll secret from his wife, his friends and the police. But there may be a bigger problem connecting Knoll with Hauptmann and the kidnapping. Bob Zorn's father remembered that Knoll and his brother called a third man Bruno, but what if this Bruno wasn't Bruno Richard Hauptmann?
MARK FALZINI: Whenever anyone tells me that they have heard of somebody conspiring with a man named Bruno my reaction is, "Well, Hauptmann never went by the name Bruno. Nobody ever called him Bruno." That was his given name, "Bruno Richard Hauptmann," but he always went by Richard, even back in Germany. And we have here a schoolbook of his from 8th grade, and it's signed "Richard Hauptmann." There is no Bruno to be found.
NARRATOR: Could this name issue eliminate John Knoll as a possible suspect? Douglas is not sure yet. But he is sure the kidnappers knew in advance the Lindberghs would be here, at Hopewell, when they would normally have been in Englewood.
JOHN DOUGLAS: They had to have inside information, coming from inside this house, to know Lindbergh was going to be here this particular night.
NARRATOR: The police never found that inside source, but this man believes he knows who it is. Lloyd Gardner is a respected Rutgers historian who authored a major book on the kidnapping, with a controversial theory about the crime.
JOHN DOUGLAS: So Lloyd…in a nutshell, Lloyd, what do you think happened?
LLOYD GARDNER (Rutgers University): What do I think really happened? I think that someone on the inside had to have coordinated what happened that night. And my conclusion is that Charles Lindbergh, himself, was involved in coordinating the kidnapping.
NARRATOR: As shocking as this sounds, questions about Lindbergh's behavior emerged soon after the kidnapping. He didn't trust the police and used his enormous influence to control them and the investigation. He even kept the ransom notes and negotiations with the kidnappers secret. So, some people began to wonder if he was hiding something. But why would he want his own child kidnapped?
LLOYD GARDNER: Lindbergh was very much involved in the eugenics movement, and I think Lindbergh was very afraid that little Charlie was not ever going to be a healthy young man.
NARRATOR: Eugenicists believe in creating superior human beings by selectively breeding the smartest and strongest people, those with good genes, and sterilizing the physically and mentally weak.
There were rumors that Charlie had some physical problem. And if he did, this could be a sign that Lindbergh had inferior genes.
LLOYD GARDNER: And his feeling about having an imperfect child may have weighed on him very, very heavily.
JOHN DOUGLAS: Is there any evidence that Lindbergh's baby had any health problems?
LLOYD GARDNER: Yes. The family doctor noted an enlarged or still-open fontanel that should have been closed. He had difficulty getting the child to stand up straight when he was doing the physical examination and children who have this problem are often associated with rickets.
NARRATOR: Charlie's physician described him as having a "moderate rickety condition," but not the severe form of rickets that can bring deformed bones and other skeletal issues. Rickets is caused by a vitamin D deficiency, so the Lindberghs were giving Charlie vitamin supplements. But was he seriously affected or mildly compromised? According pathologist John Butts,…
JOHN BUTTS: His medical record shows no evidence that he had any significant medical problems. If he did have rickets, it was a very mild condition for which he was being appropriately treated.
NARRATOR: But what if his condition was more serious?
JOHN DOUGLAS: Do you think that this would be enough motivation to plan a kidnapping and killing of his own child?
LLOYD GARDNER: I don't think Lindbergh wanted the child killed. Obviously something went wrong. I think Lindbergh's idea, his overriding idea, was to get the child out of the household and into an institution. This is not unusual, for wealthy families to do something with a child who is not quite right.
NARRATOR: Gardner believes it was Lindbergh who told the kidnappers when the baby would be at the unguarded Hopewell residence and not at the well-guarded Englewood estate. Although any staffer could have given the family's location, only Lindbergh knew one thing.
LLOYD GARDNER: He would be the only person who would know whether he was going to be in Hopewell that night.
NARRATOR: That evening, Lindbergh had scheduled a speaking engagement in New York that evening. He was normally punctual, but this time he missed the appointment and returned home. He claimed he forgot the commitment, but Gardner has a different theory.
LLOYD GARDNER: The fact that he missed this appointment enabled him to come down to Hopewell and direct the kidnapping from the inside, to make sure that there was no interference with it being carried off successfully.
NARRATOR: Although the kidnapping may have been successful, little else was. Charlie ended up dead, and the Lindberghs received new kidnap threats against their second child. By 1936, they abandoned the Hopewell home and fled to Europe for a three-year exile.
While there, Lindbergh's embrace of eugenics attracted him to the superior race philosophies of the Nazis, who embraced him, in return. After the war, Lindbergh returned to Germany, as a consultant for Pan American Airlines and the Air Force. And by the 1950s he's embarked on an elaborate and shocking scheme.
LLOYD GARDNER: What finally convinced me that Lindbergh was involved was the evidence that came out about his families in, in Germany.
NARRATOR: Using the assumed identity Careu Kent, starting in 1958, Lindbergh secretly fathered seven children with three German women. He swore the families to secrecy and died, in 1974, believing his double life would remain hidden. But in 2003, some of his German children revealed the truth, after D.N.A. testing proved Lindbergh's paternity. Gardner sees Lindbergh's secret life as consistent with his philosophy.
LLOYD GARDNER: That is a perfect eugenics kind of experiment. What he wanted was to spread his sperm around as much as possible, in hopes of creating this, this better race.
NARRATOR: Despite Lindbergh's eugenics beliefs and secret families, John Douglas does not believe he's also a criminal mastermind.
JOHN DOUGLAS: While he's a schemer, it doesn't make him a killer. And I don't see a violent bone in that man's body, and I don't' see him trusting anyone, no one at all, to perpetrate a crime like this, with others involved. Why? Because of a lack of control; he needed to control every single aspect of his life.
NARRATOR: And this would include the investigation itself, something Lindbergh believed he could handle better than the police.
PAULA FASS: It was no surprise, at least to me, that Lindbergh wanted to take charge. Most of the history of kidnapping, certainly up to that point, was about police incompetence and the inability of most police to bring children who had been ransomed back. So he, who had conquered the Atlantic, imagined that he would be able to conquer this particular situation.
NARRATOR: But if Lindbergh was not involved, who supplied the kidnappers with vital inside information?
Douglas now believes it was Violet Sharp, a servant in the Morrow household, who gave contradictory information to the police. And when they came to interrogate her for the third time…
MARK FALZINI: She ran upstairs to her room, and she drank silver polish that had potassium cyanide in it. And within minutes, she was dead.
NARRATOR: Investigators eventually concluded she was emotionally disturbed and not a conspirator. Douglas has refined this conclusion.
JOHN DOUGLAS: Perhaps she had guilty feelings because she may have inadvertently provided information to someone who called the Morrow family asking for the whereabouts of the Lindberghs, and she might have said, "Well, they're not here tonight. They're over in Hopewell."
NARRATOR: With Lindbergh eliminated and Sharp as the likely unintentional informer, Douglas turns again to Hauptmann's kidnap partners and decides to look at John Knoll one last time. He wants to know if Knoll's behavior after the crime reveals anything suspicious.
JOHN DOUGLAS: Bob, why should I look at John Knoll as a suspect in this case? Was there any change in his behavior on or about the time of the kidnapping?
BOB ZORN: Absolutely. Three weeks after the ransom was paid, John suddenly seemed to have a lot of money, and he started becoming very, very generous to my father in terms of collectibles for my dad's stamp collection.
JOHN DOUGLAS: Did Knoll go anywhere?
BOB ZORN: Three weeks before Hauptmann goes on trial, on January 2nd 1935, I've got this photograph, here, of him sailing, with $700 first class tickets, with his wife, to Hamburg, on the S.S. Manhattan.
JOHN DOUGLAS: That's expensive, right?
BOB ZORN: Seven hundred dollars for two roundtrip tickets to Germany? That was an awful lot of money, the equivalent of about six years rent for John.
JOHN DOUGLAS: What do you think?
BOB ZORN: I think it's possible it was some of the ransom money. And then, the very day that Hauptmann is convicted, February 13th, 1935, is the day that John leaves Europe to return to the states.
NARRATOR: So is John Knoll Cemetery John after all? Hauptmann's long missing partner in crime?
JOHN DOUGLAS: What I like about Knoll is that the artist's rendering of Cemetery John, it looks a lot like Knoll. Also, the malformed hand, that's something that's pretty unusual, pretty unique. What Zorn showed us was that when the monies were paid, we had Knoll going on a spending spree. Also, when Hauptmann was indicted, he takes off. He doesn't return to the country until Hauptmann is convicted. So when you start putting all these things together, all of these bits and pieces, if I was involved in the investigation back then I would be putting Knoll on the front burner.
NARRATOR: Douglas knows there isn't enough evidence to convict John Knoll. He's a prime suspect to be sure, but his trail may be too cold now to be certain of his guilt. And he believes this case may never be completely solved, as a result of mistakes Lindbergh, himself, made.
JOHN DOUGLAS: An ordinary citizen would never be able to take an investigation like this and maintain control over the police, over the overall investigation, but someone of Lindbergh, Lindbergh's status, I mean, he was a hero. People dropped to their knees, "Whatever you want, Mr. Lindbergh. We'll do whatever you say. Sorry, sir. Yes, sir." And unfortunately, by him doing that, it pulled the police away from the investigation. And he was able to basically help the bad guys get away with the crime.
NARRATOR: Because Lindbergh feared for Charlie's life, he kept authorities away from the cemetery. Douglas believes if he had let the police tail Cemetery John, he could have led them to the rest of the gang, and, in a stroke, removed the doubts that have surrounded this tragedy ever since.
The death of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., triggered an outpouring of grief not felt since the Lincoln assassination, and not felt again until the murder of John F. Kennedy. But the tragedy would produce changes that would help protect other children.
PAULA FASS: One of the most concrete legacies of the Lindbergh case is the Lindbergh Law, which was passed by the congress the day after the kidnapping, which makes, for the first time, kidnapping a federal offense. And it makes it a capital offense, makes it a very serious crime to kidnap a child or anybody for that matter.
NARRATOR: Unfortunately, young children remain vulnerable to abductions—primarily by parents in custody disputes and sometimes by sexual predators—but their kidnapping for ransom is rare in the U.S. since the Lindbergh Law. And today, public alert systems have combined with better police work to aid in the arrest and prosecution of all child abductors. But the ones who got away still haunt John Douglas. And for the Lindbergh case…
JOHN DOUGLAS: Bruno Hauptmann guilty; John Knoll intriguing; but someone absolutely got away with money and murder.
NARRATOR: But why, after so many years, is Douglas still looking for answers?
JOHN DOUGLAS: When you get a case like this, we refer to it as an "old dog" kind of case. I mean the case now is 80 years of age. So why do we look at it? We look at it for the victims, and that's who we work for. We work for the victims, whether the case is Ron Goldman, Nicole Brown Simpson of the O.J. Simpson case, whether it's the JonBenét Ramsey case that remains unsolved to this day. But we owe it to the victims, to the victims' families. And that's really our mission, to give some type of closure, small closure, so that we know that the person who perpetrated this crime didn't get away with it.
- PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
- Larry Klein
- WRITTEN BY
- Mark Olshaker & Larry Klein
- Mark Olshaker
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A NOVA production by Lawrence Klein Productions, LLC for WGBH
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All rights reserved
- (Lindbergh nursery)
- © Bettmann/CORBIS
- John Butts
- N.C. Chief Medical Examiner (Ret.)
- John Douglass
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- Mark Falzini
- Archivist, New Jersey State Police
- Paula Fass
- Author, Kidnapped
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- Rutgers University
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- Author, Cemetery John
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