Sixty years before O.J. Simpson’s "Trial of the Century," there was the Lindbergh kidnapping case. Both the crime and subsequent trial took place in New Jersey, but the Bronx played a starring role in the drama: A small fortune from the Lindbergh ransom money went missing and may still be buried there. No one seems to be looking for the hidden treasure, but some are afraid that they might start.
In 1927, Charles Lindbergh became America’s Hero after making aviation history as the first solo trans-Atlantic pilot. Then in 1930, he and his wife, writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, became America’s darlings when their first baby was born. Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was the blessed progeny, the "fat lamb," as his mother called him–a cute, towheaded toddler. Everyone wanted a peek at the little guy.
Someone wanted more. On March 1, 1932, Charles Jr. was snatched from his crib in Hopewell, NJ. That same night, the Lindberghs received a ransom note demanding $50,000 dollars for the safe return of their child.
Unemployment reached 25 percent at the height of the Depression, and kidnapping, not yet a federal crime, was a quick and easy way for thugs to make a lot of money. Many a wealthy man–or member of a wealthy man’s family–was held for ransom in the 1930s, and no one was the wiser. Most families, believing that silence was the way to go, kept quiet. Kidnapping the rich became the home invasion of its day.
Lindbergh, however, didn’t keep silent. The report of the kidnapping created a frenzy. All cars entering or leaving New York City were stopped and searched. Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf (father of the Gulf War general) led the N.J. State Police in their search, while Lindbergh himself was allowed to lead the actual investigation–a foolish choice given the stress and worry the man was under.
A few days after the kidnapping, a 71-year-old Bronx school principal, Dr. John "Jafsie" Condon, wrote a letter to the Bronx Home News (circulation 150,000) offering to act as an intermediary for Lindbergh and the kidnappers. He even offered to throw in an extra $1,000 of his own money. Condon was known as a blustery neighborhood character that no one took seriously–except, for some reason, Lindbergh and the kidnappers.
On March 12, 1932, Condon and Lindbergh–with no police following, as per Lindbergh’s order–drove to 233rd St. and Jerome Ave. in the Bronx. They parked by the gates of Woodlawn Cemetery, and Condon met a man wearing a fedora and a handkerchief over his face. Details of the exchange were made clear, and on the night of April 2, 1932, Condon and Lindbergh headed back to the Bronx to meet with the same man, who became known as Graveyard John. Condon handed over $50,000 in gold certificates. With Lindbergh’s knowledge, an FBI agent had secretly recorded the serial numbers of the notes.
Graveyard John took the money and told Condon that the baby could be found on a boat. Graveyard John then walked off into the nearby woods, and Lindbergh sent out a posse in search of his child. There was no boat or baby. On May 12, 1932, the Lindbergh baby was found dead in the woods near his Hopewell, NJ, house. Animals had eaten away at the corpse, yet Charles Lindbergh stood over the body and declared it to be his son.
John "Jafsie" Condon became an immediate suspect and was vilified. Not one to duck a fight, Condon fought back and said he was still in touch with the kidnappers and he would solve the crime.
I recently stood outside of Condon’s Decatur Ave. home. On a block that’s seen better days, the old Victorian stands out. It’s clearly been kept up. I rang the bell, and an elderly gentleman by the name of John Machalski shuffled onto the porch to talk. Machalski laughed when I brought up the name of Jafsie.
"Fifty-five years ago, I bought this house from his sons. It was a nice neighborhood then. Now…" He looked around and shrugged.
Machalski told me that every so often a tour bus will stop in front of his house and dozens of people will walk onto his property.
"They make some mess," he said.
Machalski walked with me on the wooden porch and showed me an old shed in the backyard.
"That was Condon’s music room. He was a violinist, and he went back there to play. Maybe he was so bad no one wanted to hear him."
I told Machalski that more than $30,000 of the Lindbergh ransom money is still missing. He laughed again.
"For years, my neighbor, a dentist, used to see me out working in the garden and he would ask if I had found the money yet. I never did, but I don’t want people coming out here looking for it. It’s not here."
From April 1932 to September 1934, $5,000 of the ransom money was spent in stores, gas stations and movie theaters in and around the New York area. In September of 1934, the police were tipped off that a Bronx man named Bruno Hauptmann had spent some of the Lindbergh gold certificates. Authorities searched the house and found $14,600 of the Lindbergh money hidden there.
Hauptmann claimed innocence, but he looked like he was guilty of something. He was a bread thief from Germany, and his trial was a circus. People paid $500 to get a seat in the New Jersey courthouse. Hauptmann was defended by an elderly drunk who was two years away from an insane asylum. He took the stand in his own defense and claimed that a friend of his named Fisch had asked him to hold the money while he went back to Germany. Fisch died, and Hauptmann reasoned that the money was his to spend. Neither the prosecutors nor Hauptmann could answer for the rest of the money, nor could they identify anyone else involved in the kidnapping. Hauptmann was held up as the guilty party.
While the jury was deliberating, crowds outside the courthouse chanted, "Kill Hauptmann… Kill Hauptmann." And that they did. Hauptmann was found guilty, and at 8:47 p.m. on April 3, 1936, in Trenton, NJ, Bruno Hauptmann was electrocuted.
Hauptmann’s old house sits in the far reaches of the east Bronx, in a forgotten neighborhood of one-family homes. No one walks around this part of the Bronx, but not because of crime. Rather because it’s more of a dingy suburb than part of the city.
A locked, chain-link fence guards the cape house where Hauptmann once kept his stash. A sign warns visitors to "Beware of Dog," and the mailbox by the front door is padlocked. Around back is the shed where Hauptmann once plied his trade as a carpenter. There were two cars in the driveway and the lights on the first floor were on, so I went back in, banged on the fence and yelled out.
A beefy man with a gray crew cut and leering scowl stuck his head out of the door and asked what I wanted.
"I’m sorry to bother you," I started, "but did you know that this house was once owned by a kidnapper named Hauptmann?"
"Yeah, I know all about that."
"Did you know that $30,000 of the ransom money is still missing?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Look, I’m not the owner."
"Have you ever looked for the money?"
"No, but others have. Maybe they found it."
With that he ducked back inside and bolted his door.
I stood there for a minute, looking at the house. I wondered: Where is the rest of that money?