Saturday, December 24, 2011

Give 'Em Hell, Harry!

If we get in touch with them, they will think they are in a China war.
Inspector Harry Walsh, March 3, 1932

Inspector Harry Walsh of the Jersey City Police Department could have played one of the 1930s tough cops in any of the gangster movies.  He was accused more than one time of using the “3rd Degree” when he questioned suspects; and he was very much a political figure under “Boss” Frank Hague, who ran Jersey City as his personal fiefdom in this era.  On Walsh’s desk were two cradle-style telephones with center ovals that ordinarily had the phone number inside. One phone used for local calls had a picture of Hague in the oval, while the long distance phone had a picture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.[1]

As noted in my last post, Harry Walsh always believed that the kidnaper had to have accomplices.  From the moment he arrived on the scene on March 2, 1932 to the eve of Hauptman’s execution he was convinced that the crime could not have been carried out by one man climbing into the nursery, seizing the child from the bed, and then exiting down a ladder with the child to make his get-away unaided.  He never wavered from that view.  He also believed that the crime could have been solved earlier had proper police procedures been followed.  But, instead, he argued, the State Police, following Col. Norman Schwarzkopf’s lead, allowed Charles Lindbergh to set the limits on what could and could not be done.  Walsh was not shy about expressing his views and these got him into a peck of trouble with both Schwarzkopf and J. Edgar Hoover.  He deserved some of the criticism, certainly, but his role in the investigation deserves a second look.

Hague deputed Walsh to Hopewell the day after the kidnaping – in response to Gov. A. Harry Moore’s request, who had promised all the state’s resources would be made available for the search.[2]  Walsh took a leading role in most of the original interrogations, especially in three key ones:  Violet Sharp, the maid he suspected of tipping off the kidnapers; John Condon, the eccentric schoolmaster who paid over the ransom money to the man he called “Cemetery John,” and John Hughes Curtis, the financially troubled shipbuilder from Norfolk, Va., who invented a story of kidnapers who used a man named “Sam” to deliver messages about where and when to pay the ransom.  Walsh ultimately broke Curtis’s story, and got him to confess he had made it all up. But he had no luck with Violet or Condon.

Without going into great detail here, Walsh pursued the maid with tough questioning until he uncovered the lies Violet told about her activities and who she associated with on the day and evening of the kidnaping. He did not have the chance to follow-up that success, and Violet’s strange behavior eventually culminated in her suicide – for which Walsh received plenty of criticism, in the United States and in Violet’s homeland, Great Britain, as a bully who drove the woman to suicide.  In the Condon interrogations, Walsh believed he had been very close to cracking the schoolmaster’s story, had he been given more opportunity to press him about his “relationship” with Cemetery John, and whether his own indiscretions might account for his behavior.  Either Condon was incredibly naïve about his dealings with CJ, he believed, or somehow complicit.  But he would never know which was the case because Lindbergh had ruled out any attempt to stake out the pay-off site, and he was called off Condon.  (For those who wish to look deeper, the paperback edition of my book will be published in the late spring of 2012.)

In the early days of the investigation Walsh was the most quoted police officer at the kidnap site.  And, in those early days, he was highly complimentary to Lindbergh for the cooperation the police received and the generosity of the family in providing space for the police officers.  The only thing that bothered him were the crowds of people and the mass of passing automobiles that clogged the roads around Highfields.  Under such conditions it was tough to carry out an investigation.

Walsh was called to the scene on May 12th when the body was found not 100 feet off the roadside a few miles from the house; and was the first to “touch” the child by attempting to turn it over with a stick.  In doing so, he penetrated the skull.  This act caused some confusion and consternation among prosecutors later, because the hole resembled a bullet wound.  If the child had not died at the house as the result of a fall – the original prosecution theory – then there would be unwanted complications.  However that might be, the inspector testified at the Hauptmann trial that the corpse, “veiled with vermin,” might have been placed in a hole dug out for the purpose, or might not have.  Could nature have explained why the body was only “buried” a few inches deep?  “That is altogether possible.”

Prosecutor David Wilentz warned Walsh to stick to answering the questions without speculating.   But little details bothered Walsh.  A week after the corpse was found a conference was held at Highfields summoned by Schwarzkopf and which included representatives from the Bureau of Investigation (later the Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI) and the Treasury Department.  Schwarzkopf opened the session, but most of the time Harry Walsh took the lead in answering questions and exploring the theories that had developed.

He was discreet and offered no public criticisms until after the body of the child was found.  Like later investigators several things stood out in Walsh’s mind:  He could not understand why or how the window where the ransom note was found on the sill had been closed.  He came back a couple of times to that point as if posing the thought might cause them to theorize about the oddity.  He thought it was very important as well that one of Charlie’s thumb guards, a contraption with laces that tied around the wrist, had been found by Betty Gow, the nursemaid, “in the middle of the road just about half way between the two ruts” at the entrance to the property a month after the kidnaping.  In the middle of the road, presumably where it would be easy to see, yet it had not been found for a month. 

For Walsh, the place where the thumb guard was found suggested further proof of a gang, presumably with the person carrying the dead child from the house stripping off the sleeping suit and handing it to someone in another car.  He did not mention the possibility that the thumb guard was a plant, however, placed there long after the kidnaping, possibly to get rid of incriminating evidence.  A photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer did bring up this point in a letter to Governor Harold Hoffman in 1936, however, informing him that he had walked over that entire area the morning after the crime, taking pictures and looking for “clues” and saw nothing in the road where the thumb guard was found.

At the May 18th conference, Walsh rehearsed his theory that Violet had been the one to tip off the kidnapers, but he also equivocated on whether it was an “inside” job or not, since if the crime had been planned by outsiders who took turn watching the goings on inside the house, they could have seen all they needed to know about the set up since there were no curtains or shades on the windows.  What nagged at him was the timing, the “Tuesday Night” problem, and that was where Violet came in. But while Schwarzkopf issued a press statement that her suicide indicated pretty certainly that she had secret knowledge, the trail ran out when her companions on that evening were quizzed.

Most important to his mind was the role of the enigmatic Condon.  It had taken four and a half hours to get his story, Walsh told the assembled group at Highfields.   The FBI representative, Mr. Nathan, asked the key question:  “Of course you gentlemen are convinced that Condon is straight?”  No, answered Walsh, he was not.  “I do not know whether it is the truth but I understand he has been arrested on two or three complaints of corrupting the morals of minors and another sex case or carnal abuse.”  These rumors swirled around Condon for years without posing a serious threat to his story (or various stories) of the meetings with “Cemetery John.” For Walsh, they apparently seemed to indicate that he might have been an unwilling participant in the crime as a man being blackmailed.  When he first questioned Condon at Highfields on May 12, Walsh went easy on him.  But not so on June 2 when he tried to pick out weak points in his story, especially his apparent vow to the kidnapers that they could “trust” him, in a long session at the Alpine State Police station.  What did that mean, he hammered at Condon, how far did that go?  Would he stand by guilty murderers? “From the circumstances of this case as I know them you know more than you have told us.”  Condon insisted this was not the case, and would contend in his articles and “memoir” of the case, Jafsie Tells All,  that Walsh made him walk along a narrow path near a precipice as the interrogation went on to frighten him. 

Walsh zeroed in on what many have always regarded as the strangest moment in the final transaction on April 2 – Condon’s ability to barter down the ransom from $70,000 to $50,000.  Condon’s claim had been that he had convinced the man he met that night that Lindbergh could not scrape together more than the original demand for $50,000.  In this version given to Walsh Cemetery John supposedly replied, “We know it’s hard times like that, why certainly we’ll take fifty thousand.”  Walsh was rightly amazed.  The reply is almost a parody of genuine empathy, if not gallantry – and as such revolting.  In other versions of his conversation, however, Condon had said that Cemetery John was much more grudging, saying that if they could not get the $70,000 they would have to accept fifty.  Either way, it sounded fishy to Walsh, who put it to the schoolmaster that the reason “they” accepted the lesser figure was because the money was to have gone to Condon who had been told that the child was dead and no longer wanted any part of the scheme.

If one were dealing with anyone else but Condon, such a conclusion would not be unwarranted.  But one is hard-pressed to accept any of his statements as resembling a true account of events.  Walsh confronted him with the language of the ransom notes that said the kidnapers had raised the price because they had had to take in an additional conspirator:  “That person couldn’t have been anybody but you.”  They went round and round on that question until Walsh finally gave up.

Meanwhile, shortly after the May 18th Conference, some of those who had gathered for the confab staged a re-enactment of the crime.  They were led in this acting out  by Colonel Lindbergh, who had suggested the idea.  After a detective climbed down from the nursery on “the ladder” (although it is not clear from the story whether it really was the ladder), Lindbergh led the group along the path he supposedly traced with his flashlight the night of the crime, “as well as along other possible routes in an attempt to fix on the true one.”[3]

What Walsh thought of the re-enactment we do not know.  A few months later in a series of newspaper articles, Walsh re-enacted his own role for readers of the Jersey Journal.  Every day that passes he wrote in November 1932, make it less likely that a “complete solution” would be possible, but, as the old saying went, “murder will out.”
He said that J.Edgar Hoover had recommended a well-known man in police circles for shady dealings, one Morris “Mickey” Rosner, as a go-between if a mob had the child.  That was not so, and he was rightly criticized for saying Hoover had been the instigator through Lindbergh’s friend and lawyer.  However that may be, Walsh revealed that Rosner had been paid $2,500 by Lindbergh, and given an opportunity to read the ransom note.  The men Rosner contacted heralded their role in the press – but produced nothing of importance.  The way Walsh described the Rosner affair in these articles indicated that he had not agreed with Lindbergh’s role from a fairly early date. The Colonel had guided the search that first night, then he directed it towards a New York mob, and he prevented police from following the car he and Condon drove to the pay-off rendezvous.  Walsh felt keen frustration that “normal” police procedures were not followed, and said so in these articles, which also alienated Col. Schwarzkopf. 

Walsh was unrepentant about his dealings with Violet Sharp.  He sarcastically referred to her bank balance of $1600, saying he wished he had that much set aside.  And he dismissed explanations that claimed she was embarrassed by what he had uncovered about her social life.  The people she might have tipped off, he believed, were “professionals” because they knew the child was dead even as the negotiations for its return continued and reached a climax when Condon handed over $50,000 in a specially made box to “Cemetery John.” Amateurs would never have the courage to go through with it after the child died. They were capable of making trips down to see if the body had been discovered – a brazen display of sang froid if there ever was one.

In any event, by the time of the Hauptmann trial, relations between Walsh and the NJSP had reached a low point.  And after the trial when Gov. Harold Hoffman tried to find out by his own investigation the story of all that happened that night, the first of March 1932, Walsh seemed ready to help in any way he could, according to defense attorney Lloyd Fisher, who had been “in touch” with the inspector “on various occasions.”  Fisher also said that “Walsh had told him not to hesitate to call upon him if and when he, Walsh, could be helpful.”   Whether he would have allowed his doubts about the investigation and the trial to overcome his natural political instincts to stay far away from Hoffman’s controversial  foray into the workings of Jersey Justice,  is more doubtful.[4] 

So we are left to ponder the same questions Walsh did about the way the crime was carried out by the perpetrators and “solved” to the satisfaction of a jury in Flemington, New Jersey.

But there was one more thing of interest in Walsh’s articles.  Near the end of the last article in the Jersey Journal, Walsh took up the question of the child’s health:

“ ‘Was the baby a mute?’  That is another question I hear.
  The baby was a normal, healthy happy youngster.
  Why anyone should start such a crazy whisper story about Baby     
  Lindbergh is beyond me – but I suppose such aspersions are one  
  Of the taxes on fame.”[5]

In my next post I will discuss the ransom notes and their seeming knowledge about Charlie’s health.

[1]   Walsh’s rank seems to go up and down almost as often as a flag on a flagpole, at least in media accounts.  Sometimes he is listed as Captain, sometimes Inspector, sometimes Chief. 
[2]   Years earlier Walsh had been sent to New Brunswick to help with the re-investigation of the famous Hall-Mills murder case, which ended in an unsuccessful prosecution of Reverend Hall’s brothers-in-law.  Famous as the “Minister and Choir Leader” case, the bodies of Hall and Mrs. Mills were found in an orchard with love letters strewn about them.  It was always suspected the widow’s brothers were the culprits. But the point to be made here was that experienced officers like Walsh were often “loaned” out for big profile cases.
[3] “Lindbergh Reenacts Baby’s Kidnapping,” New York Times, May 20, 1932.
[4]  M.&M. to Harold Hoffman, February 21, 1936, from the “Meade Files” in the Hoffman Collection at the State Police Museum.  (I would like to thank Michael Melsky for going this letter to my attention.)
[5]   Jersey Journal, November 23, 1932.