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CRIME: At Flemington

10 minute read

The most extraordinary passenger on the Aquitania as that Cunard-White Star liner steamed out of Southampton for New York last week was a pretty Scottish nursemaid whose name was not printed in the passenger list. She was whisked incognito to her cabin, where a stalwart British stewardess was posted before the door to keep out undesirable visitors. Nurse Betty Gow, from whose care the world’s most famed baby was snatched on the windy night of March 1, 1932, was returning to the U. S. Surrounded by all the melodrama of a penny-dreadful, Nurse Gow, it was whispered, was to be met in New York Harbor by a police launch, spirited away to a hotel. There she was to be kept incommunicado until time for her to testify at what promised to be one of the 20th Century’s most spectacular trials. For the murder of Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., Bruno Richard Hauptmann was to be tried for his life at Flemington, N. J. next week.

Nurse Gow is of no real importance to defense or prosecution. But the thick conspiratorial atmosphere enveloping her voyage to the U. S. typified the whole course of the incredible crime and its fabulous aftermath.

Scene. Flemington is the seat of Hunterdon County, on New Jersey’s western border. A meticulously neat, elm-shaded town of nearly 3,000, it serves as a trading centre for a rich old agricultural community. About ten miles to the southeast is Sourland Mountain, where the child was kidnapped.

Flemington has been on the newspaper map ever since the kidnapping occurred. It was a base of police operations and, after the baby’s corpse was found, the place where pettifogging Boat-Builder John H. Curtis of Norfolk was tried for fraud after he led Col. Lindbergh on a wild goose chase for his son. But even the citizens of Flemington were not prepared for the sort of life & death contest which was about to be staged in their town. The 100-year-old courthouse seats only 250 people in all. More than 400 reporters and special correspondents have applied for seats at the trial. In the little room under the roof, Western Union set up 75 sending machines, Postal 50, a battery calculated to dispatch 1,000,000 words a day on the case. Sheriff John H. Curtiss (who added the second “s” to his name after the exposure of Boat-Builder John H. Curtis) good-naturedly turned over his private office to two news services.

The Union Hotel, only inn in town, was restricting its hospitality to the jurors and others officially connected with the case. Newshawks were advised to rent rooms elsewhere, and the town’s housewives were preparing to reap a rich harvest from the influx of at least 1,000 guests. Already hearing the distant clink of coins, Flemington’s town council deadlocked over the proposal to permit erection of street-side hot dog stands, a measure hotly challenged by the town’s two restaurateurs.

Prisoner. Flemington’s strictly modern jail was built in 1930. Since Oct. 19 it has housed in Cell No.1 Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the 34-year-old German carpenter whom the people of the State of New Jersey charge with first degree murder. Hauptmann’s wife Anna and their infant son Mannfried have been living in a Flemington boarding house ever since he was extradited from New York. Townsfolk nod kindly to her as she walks down the main street with her son. His jailers also say that Bruno is “a nice guy.” But ever since he has been in the Flemington cell, hard electric lights have burned on Hauptmann day & night while three guards have stood outside his cell, two inside. None has uttered a word. This modification of the common police practice of the ”gold-fish bowl” has not budged Hauptmann’s stolidity. His resolute refusal to talk is one of the defense’s big assets. When Hauptmann crosses from the jail to the jam-packed courthouse on Jan. 2, he will have maintained under considerable pressure a dogged three-month insistence on his innocence.

Defense, Shortly after Hauptmann’s arrest in The Bronx with $20 of the Lind bergh ransom money in his pocket, Anna Hauptmann fell into the hands of one Harry Whitney, who has since described himself as the Hauptmanns’ “business manager.” At first Hauptmann refused to have any lawyer, discarding several of his wife’s selection. By the end of his first week’s imprisonment, however, he had agreed to retain James M. Fawcett of Brooklyn. It was Lawyer Fawcett who unsuccessfully fought Governor Lehman’s extradition warrant before The Bronx County Supreme Court. He was subsequently succeeded by Edward J. Reilly. also of Brooklyn, who has an impressive record for getting his clients off murder charges. Story was that Fawcett was dropped because he wanted Hauptmann to plead insanity. Reilly has been nothing if not aggressive in his handling of the pre-trial ballyhoo. He criticized the New Jersey police for bungling the investigation, declaring that the case could have been settled by competent hands in 48 hours. He staged a birthday party for Baby Mannfried. He shrewdly pointed up the prosecution’s weakness by trying to get a bill of particulars forcing the State to answer twelve questions in regard to its line of action. The court ruled that only the last question, “What was the cause of death?”, need be answered. The answer, from the Trenton County physician’s report: “Diagnosis of death is a fractured skull due to external violence.”

Lawyer Reilly has often and bitterly protested about the manner of Hauptmann’s incarceration, and last week accused the Federal Government of transferring two Department of Justice investigators to the West because they were implicated in trying to beat a confession out of his client. The Department of Justice promptly replied that the agents, if needed, would be back at Flemington in time for the trial.

Associated with Lawyer Reilly is a local attorney named Lloyd Fisher who defended Boat-Builder Curtis. Prime witnesses for the defense are Mr. & Mrs. Frederick Christiansen, in whose Bronx bakeshop Anna Hauptmann worked at the time of the crime. He is expected to testify that Hauptmann called for Anna there on the night of the kidnapping.

Prosecution’s witnesses will be many. First on the list is Col. Lindbergh. He will swear that he recognized the voice of Hauptmann as the one which called “Hey, doctor, over here, doctor!” the night that he and Dr. John F. (“Jafsie”) Condon passed the $50,000 ransom over a Bronx cemetery wall in a vain attempt to get the baby back. About all Nurse Gow can say is that she did not see the kidnapper. Joseph Perrone, a New York taxicab driver, will identify Hauptmann as the man who gave him a dollar to take the message to Dr. Condon which opened up the ill-starred negotiations. The inexplicable “Jafsie” was able only “partially” to identify Hauptmann when first confronted with him. There is literally no telling what the 74-year-old retired Bronx school-teacher will do when he gets on the stand. Last fortnight he made a mysterious motor trip to West Palm Beach on business “connected with the case.” He did the case no good when he told reporters there: “No one saw Hauptmann kill the baby. I don’t think they can convict him.” The doctor thought, however, that Hauptmann might be proven guilty of extortion.

New Jersey’s job is to make an entirely circumstantial case sufficiently powerful to convince twelve Hunterdon County jurymen “beyond a reasonable doubt” of Bruno Hauptmann’s guilt. In charge of this difficult task is David T. Wilentz, the State’s Attorney General who took over the prosecution of the Hauptmann case as soon as it broke last autumn. Small, dark, shrewd 40-year-old Prosecutor Wilentz is not only a good orator and jury handler but an able politician as well. Coming from Perth Amboy in Middlesex County, however, he will have no great local influence with the jurors in Hunterdon County. Last week he charged an attempt by somebody to tamper with potential jurors by circulating a pamphlet to the effect that “Aviator’s Baby Was Never Kidnapped or Murdered.”

Impervious to politics, ballyhoo, everything except strict justice, is the jurist before whom Bruno Hauptmann will go on trial for his life. He is Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whitaker Trenchard, affectionately called “Uncle Tom” by his cronies in Flemington, where he has presided at the sitting of the Hunterdon County Court for years.

Cases. The prosecution will contend that Hauptmann is guilty because:

1) He is positively identified as the man who passed a $10 ransom bill at an uptown Manhattan filling station; he had $20 of the ransom money on him when arrested and $14.590 more was found in his garage. 2) Isidor Fisch, Hauptmann’s partner in random business ventures, used ransom money to pay his passage back to Ger many, where Fisch died of tuberculosis in 1933. 3) The handwriting on the note left in the baby’s crib and subsequent ransom notes tallies with the handwriting on Hauptmann’s automobile license application. 4) The man who wrote the ransom notes delivered to Dr. Condon the sleeping suit worn by the baby on the night of the abduction. 5 ) Hauptmann did only a few days’ work after March 1932, yet lived in mod est luxury. 6) The ladder by which the kidnapper entered the nursery was made of wood from a Bronx lumber yard where Haupt mann once worked and from which he subsequently bought supplies, and the nails in it were similar to nails in the garage which Hauptmann built himself. 7) Messrs. Condon, Lindbergh and Per rone can in one way or another identify Hauptmann with the crime. 8) The crime was a one-man job be cause the ladder was left behind. 9) Government auditors will try to account for Hauptmann’s spending most of the $50.000 ransom. 10) Hauptmann’s criminal record in Germany marks him as the type of man to execute the crime. These charges Defense Counsel Reilly will duck, denounce or deny point by point as follows:

1) Hauptmann did not know the money he was passing was ransom money. He “dipped into it” when he found a shoe box full of it left by Isidor Fisch, who owed Hauptmann $7,500 which he never repaid.

2) Fisch’s passage money was his own. By inference the defense will do everything in its power to lay the crime at dead Fisch’s door.

3) Defense handwriting experts will contradict those of the prosecution.

4) If Hauptmann did not write the ransom notes, the evidence of the child’s sleeping suit falls of its own weight.

5) Hauptmann’s thrift and small winnings in the stockmarket enabled him to live with comparative ease. His wife Anna was occasionally employed after March 1932.

6) Thousands of people bought lumber from the Bronx lumber yard. Thousands more could buy such nails as were found in the ladder.

7) Taximan Perrone could not have positively identified the ransom negotiator because he saw him at night. Col. Lindbergh’s identification of the voice is not positive since many voices sound alike. Dr. Condon’s eccentricity bars him as a credible witness.

8) From the start police have insisted that the crime was not a one-man job, that as many as five might have participated.

9) Pending the Government’s courtroom audit of the ransom bills, the defense line is unpredictable.

10) A previous criminal record is not always admissible as evidence of probable guilt.

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