Rutgers historian offers theory 80 years after ‘crime of century’

Charles A Lindbergh Jr.
Charles A. Lindbergh Jr.
New Jersey State Police

Eight decades after the crime that transfixed the world, a Rutgers professor has added a thrilling new chapter – evidence that Charles Lindbergh may have been involved in the kidnapping and murder of his son.

Lloyd C. Gardner, professor of history emeritus, points to Lindbergh’s fascination with Social Darwinism and evidence that health problems plaguing his 20-month-old son Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. suggested the child was far from perfect.

Gardner had painstakingly researched the 1932 kidnapping and murder of the “Little Eaglet,” son of the American hero-aviator and his socially prominent wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh. His research included the subsequent arrest, trial, conviction and execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for Gardner’s 2004 book The Case that Never Dies: The Lindbergh Kidnapping, published by Rutgers University Press.

Now, after almost another decade of research, Gardner has added a dramatic afterward to his work – the theory that Lindbergh, the “Lone Eagle,” was somehow involved with little Charlie’s abduction. The author also believes the child’s death could have resulted from an accident during the kidnapping, which, to this day, is still considered the crime of the century.

Rutgers' Lloyd Gardner will be featured in the PBS Nova special "Who Killed Lindbergh's Baby?" today at 9 p.m.
“I’ve resisted the theory that Lindbergh was involved,” Gardner says. “The evidence against Hauptmann is quite compelling, but the evidence of his being the sole kidnapper is less compelling. Once you conclude it was conducted by a group or more than one person, the question becomes, why?”

The PBS series Nova interviewed Gardner about his theory for a program to air this winter about the kidnapping that was inspired, in part, by another Lindbergh book.

Gardner notes the abduction took place during an era when criminals, often gang members, routinely kidnapped family members of the rich and famous to supplement their incomes. No one was more famous than Lindbergh. He also refers to speculation that Hauptmann, an otherwise insignificant immigrant carpenter with a criminal record in his native Germany, somehow became obsessed with Lindbergh and wished to knock him from his pedestal.

Charles A. Lindbergh
Charles A. Lindbergh

“Was Hauptmann’s ego such that he had to do this to the Number 1 person in the world?” Gardner asks. “Some psychologists think that, but I don’t find an obsession with Lindbergh. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved and that he was sure nothing would happen during the kidnapping.”

More significant is the famous aviator’s fascination with Social Darwinism, which Gardner finds especially noteworthy due to numerous questions raised about his child’s health. Lindbergh adhered to the growing Scandinavian-German notion of the 1930s about the racial superiority of northern Europeans compared to southern Europeans and Asians.

“What we know about Lindbergh’s character,” Gardner says, “is his desire to spread his healthy genes and his belief in the eugenics movement, which goes hand-in-hand with his pro-German feelings before the war. His secret affairs starting in 1957 with three women in Germany, two of them sisters, which led to seven children besides the six he had with his wife, are reminiscent of an experiment.”

At the same time, the author says there is “pretty good evidence” that little Charlie was not perfect. Although the child’s health and physical condition at the time of his abduction were downplayed – even hidden from a curious public and law enforcement by Lindbergh and the boy’s doctor – he appears to have been afflicted with a rickets-like condition that affected the development of strong bones. He required mega doses of Vitamin D and daily exposure to a sunlamp kept cribside. He also had hammertoes on his left foot, a too-large cranium and unfused skull bones.

Moreover, the famous father took personal charge of many aspects of the investigation. He isolated household staff who may have had knowledge of his son’s medical condition from questioning by authorities including J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Also, following a cursory autopsy, he ordered the body cremated and the ashes scattered.

While Gardner says that for a long while he “fought in his own mind” against the idea of Lindbergh’s involvement, he thinks the kidnapping “went too far” and that his child died on the rainy and windy night of the abduction from his home, Highfields, in Hopewell, N.J., on March 1, 1932. That date also marks the first time that Lindbergh “inadvertently” missed a public speaking engagement. He came home from New York City, where he worked, instead of going to a dinner where he was to speak. Was it merely a coincidence – or did he choose to facilitate the  kidnapping, maybe by diverting attention from the boy’s second-floor bedroom or as a lookout to allow the abductor – or abductors – to escape down a back staircase?

Will we ever know? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t discourage Gardner’s best sleuthing efforts.