Against the backdrop of a country in dire economic straits, the newspapers were locked in a fierce circulation war, in which editors assumed the right to embellish and often invent news. On the day following the kidnapping, a member of the New Jersey Police arrived at the Lindbergh’s home to find 400 journalists and photographers, including the entire staff of the International News Photo Service who had fitted two ambulances with developing equipment. No doubt their screaming sirens would ensure they made it to New York before anyone else…. People became even more desperate for news of the Lindberghs and circulation rose by 15-20%. On several occasions attempts to make contact with the kidnappers were wrecked when papers blew the story…. Journalists resorted to increasily dubious practices to steal a march on their competitors and their job was made easier by the fact that police were often on the payroll of a newspaper in return for inside information. Astonishingly, Tom Cassidy of the Daily News was given access to Hauptmann’s apartment, where he scratched some incriminating phone numbers on the inside of a cupboard.

Leopold and Loeb, the Chicago thrillkillers, killed because they thought of themselves as Nietzschean supermen; Clarence Darrow, whose bravura courtroom performance saved the pair from execution, took the case specifically because of the publicity it would attract — he wanted a national soapbox from which to air his opinion about the death penalty. But for all of the twentieth century’s famous trials — O.J. Simpson’s murder case launched a cable network — only one was the "crime of the century": the Lindbergh kindapping. When a suspect, a German carpenter, petty criminal, and illegal alien named Bruno Hauptmann, was caught, sixty thousand people crowded into Flemington, New Jersey (current population: 4,200), to be closer to the case. And newspapers jumped on the story with both feet:

Against the backdrop of a country in dire economic straits, the newspapers were locked in a fierce circulation war, in which editors assumed the right to embellish and often invent news. On the day following the kidnapping, a member of the New Jersey Police arrived at the Lindbergh’s home to find 400 journalists and photographers, including the entire staff of the International News Photo Service who had fitted two ambulances with developing equipment. No doubt their screaming sirens would ensure they made it to New York before anyone else…. People became even more desperate for news of the Lindberghs and circulation rose by 15-20%. On several occasions attempts to make contact with the kidnappers were wrecked when papers blew the story…. Journalists resorted to increasily dubious practices to steal a march on their competitors and their job was made easier by the fact that police were often on the payroll of a newspaper in return for inside information. Astonishingly, Tom Cassidy of the Daily News was given access to Hauptmann’s apartment, where he scratched some incriminating phone numbers on the inside of a cupboard.

Hauptmann insisted on his innocence until the end, and after his execution, his wife fought for decades to clear his name. Although she was unsuccessful, some people still believe Hauptmann was set up, the victim of an unfair trial and a few nasty coincidences. (At the low point of the Depression, Hauptmann had tens of thousands of dollars in gold notes in his attic that the serial numbers of the money used in the ransom payment had been recorded; Hauptmann maintained that the money had been put in his care by a relative who subsequently died, and that he was frightened to spend it because private gold ownership was illegal.) While the preponderance of evidence points to Hauptmann’s guilt, dozens of questions remain unanswered about the case, the largest being the question of what the kidnappers intended to do with Charles Junior. After the ransom payment, the Lindberghs were told that he could be found on a particular boat in Martha’s Vinyard. There was no boat, and there was no boy. Several weeks later, his decayed body was found in a field near the Lindberghs’ home; his skull had been crushed. Had the murder been planned? The ransom note hinted at a well-planned crime:

Dear Sir. We have warned you note to make anything public also notify the police now you have to take consequences- means we will have to hold the baby until everything is quite. We can note make any appointments just now. We know very well what it means to us. It is realy necessary to make a world affair out of this, or to get your baby back as soon as possible to settle those affair in a quick way will be better for both- don’t be afraid about the baby- keeping care of us day and night. We also will feed him acording to the diet.

We are interested to send him back in gut health. And ransom was made aus for 50000$ but now we have to take another person to it and probably have to keep the baby for a longer time as we expected. So the amound will be 70000 20000 in 50$ bills 25000$ in 20$ bill 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000 in 5$ bills Don’t mark any bills or take them from one serial nomer. We will form you latter were to deliver the mony. But we will note do so until the Police is out of the cace and the pappers are quite. The kidnapping we prepared in years so we are prepared for everyding.

But the ladder — a homemade ladder matching a design in carpenter Hauptmann’s journal — that the kidnapper used to reach the child’s second-story bedroom had broken rungs when the Lindberghs discovered it. Did the kidnappers intend to kill him, or was it a tragic accident? Hauptmann took the answer, if he knew it, to his grave.

There’s another reason the Lindbergh kidnapping was the crime of the century. The crime of ransom kidnapping of children is almost entirely a twentieth century invention. Amazingly enough, according to John Marr‘s zine Murder Can Be Fun, the first American child kidnapping for ransom wasn’t until 1874. Little Charley Ross (not to be confused with Chicago’s Charles Ross, a kidnapping and murder victim in the 1930s) was lured into a stranger’s buggy while playing outside his Philadelphia home. A message — the first of twenty-three letters — was sent to his father, Christian Ross, a prosperous local merchant:

July 3
Mr. Ross- be not uneasy you son charly bruster he al writ we as got him and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand. You wil hav two pay us befor you git him from us. an pay us a big cent to. if you put the cops hunting for him yu is only defeeting yu own end. we is got him fitt so no living power can gits him from us a live. if any aproch is maid to his hidin place that is the signil for his instant anihilation. if yu regard his lif puts no one to search for him you money can fech him out alive an no other existin powers don’t deceve yuself and think the detectives can git him from us for that is one imposebel

yu here from us in few day

The detectives in Philadelphia searched the homes of Italian immigrants; like gypsies, they were popularly believed to be child thieves. The word kidnapping is an old one and has precisely the etymology it seems to, "child nabbing", but until Charley Ross case, kidnapping children had been done for a more direct profit. The term was a bit of cant recorded by Captain Grose and his successors: "Originally one who stole or decoyed children or apprentices from their parents or masters, to send them to the colonies; called also spiriting: but now used or all recruiting crimps for the king’s troops, or those of the East India company, and agents for indenting servants or the plantations." That’s how Stevenson’s Kidnapped! meant the term; the protagonist was a young heir whose evil uncle tries to have him shipped to the New World as a slave.

The Charley Ross case was something new, and the particulars seem dreadfully familiar. The Pinkertons detective agency launched a nationwide manhunt. An underworld contact delivered a lead, but seemed to be playing both sides. The American public was fascinated and hugely sympathetic; a song about Charley called "Bring Back Our Darling" was written and published as sheet music, and thousands of reports of the child’s whereabouts — all mistaken — poured in. Christian Ross, worried at the example he might set, held out for a while, but eventually decided to yield to the criminals’ demands, saying, "It is comparatively easy to sacrifice another man’s child for the public good." But he had waited too long, and the correspondence had stopped. The chief suspects were killed in an unrelated police shootout. Christian Ross arranged for bottles with his son’s picture to be made, and wrote a book about the experience, The Father’s Story of Charley Ross, the Kidnapped Child, with the money all funding the search efforts. As with most famous lost children, dozens of people claiming to be Charley Ross appeared. The crime shocked America, and it wasn’t until the arrival of the twentieth century and 1900’s Eddie Cudahy kidnapping that a child would be held for ransom and returned alive. The Cudahy case was the dambreaker on a crime that would lead to everything from the black comedy of Chowchilla to the tragedies of the Lindbergh Baby and Bobby Greenlease and Marion Parker. They all attracted attention (Parker’s case inspired both songs and sermons). Although Eddie Cudahy was released unharmed (which, along with a lack of appropriate laws on the books and the Cudahy family’s massive unpopularity, kept his kidnappers out of jail; one apparently sent Eddie the occasional Christmas card), they almost all ended badly. In 1939, a 69-year-old man was the last of nearly five thousand ersatz Charley Rosses to have his claim dismissed by the Ross family. They never found their little boy.