Publication date September 4, 2007
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Chapter 1: The Bones of the Eaglet (excerpt)A dozen tiny bones, nestled in my palm: they were virtually all that remained, except for yellowed clippings, scratchy newsreel footage, and painful memories, from what was called "the trial of the century."
That label seems to get thrown around quite a lot, but in this case, maybe it was right. Seven years after the Scopes "Monkey Trial" and half a century before the O.J. Simpson debacle, America was mesmerized by a criminal investigation and murder trial that made headlines around the world. Now I was to decide whether justice had been done, or an innocent man had been wrongly executed.
The case was the kidnapping and death of a toddler named Charles Lindbergh, Jr.—known far and wide as "the Lindbergh baby."
In 1927, Charles Lindbergh—a former barnstormer and airmail pilot—had flown a small, single-engine plane, the "Spirit of St. Louis," across the Atlantic Ocean. He did it alone, with no radio or parachute or sextant, staying awake and on course for 33 hours straight. By the time he reached the coast of France, news of his flight had reached Paris, and Parisians by the thousands flocked to the airfield to welcome him. The moment he touched down, 3600 miles after leaving New York, the world changed, and so did Charles Lindbergh’s life. His achievement brought him fame, fortune, and a pair of nicknames: "Lucky Lindy," which he hated, and "the Lone Eagle," which reflected both his solo flight and his solitary nature.
Five years after he flew into the limelight, Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, were living in a secluded New Jersey mansion. They had a 20-month-old son; his parents named him Charles, Jr., but journalists called him "the Eaglet." It was the heyday of sensational yellow journalism, and savvy reporters and publishers knew that a Lindbergh story—almost any Lindbergh story—was a surefire way to sell newspapers.
So when the heir and namesake of Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped, a media frenzy broke out: the case attracted more journalists than World War I had. The ransom notes—at first demanding $50,000, then later upping the ante to $70,000—made front-page headlines and newsreel footage; so did the claims, emerging from towns throughout America, that the Lindbergh baby had been found alive and well. But all those claims, and all those hopes, were laid to rest two months after the kidnapping, when a small child's body was found in the woods a few miles from the Lindbergh mansion. The body was badly decomposed; the left leg was missing below the knee, as were the left hand and right arm—chewed off, it appeared, by animals.
On the basis of the body's size, the clothing, and a distinctive abnormality in the one remaining foot—three toes that overlapped—the remains were quickly identified as the Lindbergh baby's. The next day they were cremated, and a broken-hearted Charles Lindbergh flew out over the Atlantic, alone once more, to scatter his son's ashes. No one called him Lucky Lindy now.
The police eventually arrested a German immigrant named Bruno Hauptmann, a carpenter whose garage rafters had apparently been used to construct a makeshift ladder used to reach the Lindbergh's second-floor nursery. Hauptmann was arrested after police traced a large portion of the ransom money to him. He was charged with kidnapping and murder: the baby's skull had been fractured, though the injury might actually have resulted from a fall, since the ladder broke during the abduction. Despite allegations that some of the evidence against him was suspect or fabricated, Hauptmann was convicted. He died in the electric chair in April of 1936.
Nearly fifty years after the crime—in June of 1982—I was contacted by an attorney representing Bruno Hauptmann's widow, Anna. All these years after his execution, Mrs. Hauptmann was still trying to clear her husband's name. Her only chance was a dozen tiny bones. Recovered from the crime scene after the body's cremation, they had been carefully preserved ever since by the New Jersey State Police. At the request of Mrs. Hauptmann’s attorney, I drove up to Trenton to see if this handful of scattered bones might somehow show that the body had been incorrectly identified; that a rush to judgment had triggered a terrible miscarriage of justice. Let them be the bones of a younger boy, an older boy, a girl of any age, she must have prayed. Anything but the bones of Charles Lindbergh, Junior.
I was her final hope—a small-town scientist backing up traffic at a tollbooth as I asked directions to the headquarters of the New Jersey State Police.
It was a long and fascinating road that had brought me here to Trenton, and by that I don't mean the New Jersey Turnpike. What had brought me here was a path that once pointed toward an uneventful career in counseling but that suddenly veered off in the direction of corpses, crime scenes, and courtrooms.
My forensic career began as a result of an early morning traffic accident outside Frankfort, Kentucky, in the winter of 1954. On a damp, foggy morning, two trucks collided in a fiery crash on a two-lane highway. When the fire was out, three bodies—burned beyond recognition—were found in the vehicles. The identities of both drivers were easily confirmed, but the third body was a bit of a mystery.