It’s a story that reads like fiction. An American hero is the victim of a heartless, mercenary crime. His infant son is abducted from a crib in a suburban New Jersey home, and a misspelled note is left in the baby’s place, demanding $50,000. The ransom is delivered to a shadowy figure in a dark cemetery, but the baby is later found dead in the woods. Even the villain of the tale, a German-born carpenter who speaks broken English and who fought on the wrong side in World War I, seems plucked from the pages of a pulp detective novel.
The story is real. The hero was Colonel Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to fly nonstop from New York to Paris, and the villain was Bruno Hauptmann. The Lindbergh case, the “crime of the century,” captivated Americans at the height of the Great Depression, and the search for the killer became a national priority when President Hoover ordered 5,000 FBI agents to “make the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby a live and never-to-be-forgotten case, never to be relaxed until those criminals are implacably brought to justice.”
Ultimately, Bruno Hauptmann shouldered the burden of justice alone. He was arrested on this day, Sept. 19, in 1934, when much of the ransom money paid two years earlier was found in his Bronx garage. He had used some of the ransom money to buy gas, as TIME reported:
Jurors took him to be a bad man and a worse carpenter, since the homemade ladder he used to access the second-floor nursery broke when he climbed down with the baby. Prosecutors alleged that the child might have died, accidentally, in the fall. Hauptmann was sentenced to death by electric chair.
There were some who found the immigrant too easy a target, including New Jersey Governor Harold Hoffman, who wagered his political career on Hauptmann’s innocence—or at least the notion that Hauptmann hadn’t acted alone. The governor accused state police of bungling the case and launched his own independent investigation.
While Hoffman’s investigation failed to turn up exonerating evidence, the story did get stranger mere days before Hauptmann’s scheduled 1936 execution. New Jersey’s Court of Pardons “mysteriously received copies of a 25-page ‘confession’ to the Lindbergh kidnapping signed by one Paul H. Wendel, a 50-year-old Trenton lawyer who was disbarred in 1920 after conviction of perjury,” according to TIME. Wendel, who happened to be in a mental institution, was taken into police custody, where he said the confession had been forced out of him after he himself was kidnapped, tortured and then confined to the institution by a crooked cop. A judge declared his confession “incredible,” and Hauptmann was executed as planned. The discredited governor, who may have aspired to heroism of his own by uncovering the true killer, became a mere footnote in the saga.
Read the 1934 account of the arrest here, in TIME’s archives: 4U-13-41