The Case That Won’t Quit: The Lindbergh Baby

For the first six weeks of 1935, the national spotlight shone on the Hunterdon County Courthouse in Flemington during the "Trial of the Century."


Courthouse— New Jersey’s Lindbergh Kidnapping and Trial, $21.99, Arcadia Publishing. For more information, visit www.arcadiapublishing.com.

THEN: For the first six weeks of 1935, there was no tougher ticket than for the gallery at the Hunterdon County Courthouse in then remote Flemington for the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, accused of kidnapping and murdering the 20-month-old son of the most famous man in America, East Amwell resident Charles Lindbergh. “From the air, the cars looked like a stream of ants, there were so many people who wanted to be there,” says Lloyd Gardner, a Rutgers professor who has recently revised his 2004 history of the crime, The Case That Never Dies.

NOW: The crowds are long gone, but downtown Flemington and its colonnaded courthouse haven’t changed much. As for the Lindbergh case, it continues to fascinate conspiracy theorists. In addition to Gardner’s update, the events of March 1, 1932, when the baby disappeared, have been reexamined for a new NOVA documentary, Who Killed Lindbergh’s Baby?, due to be televised by PBS in January, and in a new book by Robert Zorn.

Gardner and Zorn agree that Hauptmann, a German immigrant, probably had something to do with the kidnapping, but both propose that he did not act alone. Gardner posits that Lindbergh himself, a proponent of eugenics and of the superiority of Nordic ethnicity, may have engineered or approved of the kidnapping and subsequent murder of his son.

“There is the possibility that from Lindbergh’s point of view, the baby was disabled,” says Gardner, citing evidence that Charles Jr. suffered from rickets. Gardner says it is possible Lindbergh Sr. would have at least wanted the baby institutionalized. In his later life, Gardner says, Lindbergh secretly fathered children with Nordic women to test his eugenics theories.

The NOVA documentary features Zorn’s book, which draws on family lore to implicate a possible co-conspirator in the kidnapping. As a teenager, Zorn’s father, Eugene, was befriended by John Knoll, a German immigrant. On an excursion to Palisades Amusement Park, Eugene C. Zorn overheard a conversation between Knoll and a man named Bruno. For years, Eugene believed that conversation had something to do with the kidnapping. Before the elder Zorn died in 2006, Robert Zorn promised his father he would investigate.

“It is almost certain that John Knoll was Cemetery John,” says Robert Zorn, referring to a mysterious figure in the case who arranged for the drop off of the ransom money. In his book, Cemetery John: The Undiscovered Mastermind of the Lindbergh Kidnapping, Zorn builds a powerful, if circumstantial, case that Knoll was the brains behind the crime.

Zorn cites Gardner in his book but can’t go along with his theory. “Lindbergh was a control freak. He wouldn’t trust anyone to check the air pressure in his tires,” says Zorn. “He loved the boy and would never have approved anyone doing anything like that.”

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