Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Mystery of the Ransom Notes:I

Never the least stir made the listeners,   
 Though every word he spake 3
 Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house.
                                                Walter De La Mere,  “The Listeners.”


            The Lindbergh kidnap ransom notes have been discussed from almost every angle.  Handwriting experts at the trial and afterwards down to recent television shows, especially one on Court TV, have reaffirmed the prevailing verdict that the author of all the notes was Bruno Richard Hauptmann.  The first book length study of the handwriting by expert J. Vreeland Haring, The Hand of Hauptmann (1937), argued that the notes – all of which were written by the same person, he insisted – constituted the scientific means necessary for a conviction once a suspect had been apprehended and samples of his writing “fell into the hands of the police.”

It is an identification which places the writer of these notes on the scene of the crime; it is a witness more certain and unerring than any human witness who may have observed his stealthy entrance in that nursery on the night of March 1 and actually seen the despoiling of the crib….  (p.39)

            We will leave Mr. Haring’s assertions, including his insistence that Hauptmann was not instructed how to write any words, or use any specific spellings for another post.  In this one I want to concentrate on a peculiarity of the notes not much discussed in all the furor over authorship and whether there was one or more writers of what must be one of the longest “dialogues” in kidnaping history.  No, I am not referring to the “singnature,” that strange symbol of interlocking circles and three holes.  That also will have to wait for another time.

            In this post I would like to call attention to the persistent concern shown in the notes to re-assure the Lindberghs that the child was in “gute care,” and being taken care of day and night by “two ladys.”   If one simply reads through the notes from the very first one to the last, without considering any other aspect of the notes, or the circumstances of the way they were handled, this concern stands out more than any other Various commentators on the psychology of ransom notes pointed out at the time and later that phrases used – and the threats not used – indicated the child was already dead.  The willingness to continue negotiations for as long as it took suggested the same point to some commentators; while to Harry Walsh it also suggested that the perpetrators kept tabs on the corpse’s location indicating it was safe to go on talking.  The promise that the child was in good care was present in the first note left on the window sill the night of the kidnaping. 

Is it possible the note was written in the nursery at the very time the child was taken out of the crib?  No.  A later note, on March 7, said the kidnaping was planned for a year, but not carried out because of concern about the child’s health.  “we was afraid the boy would not be strong enough.”  So, in effect, if this statement is to be credited, the kidnapers in the nursery note promise that the boy will receive good care, and that he is now strong enough to endure the trauma.  This reassurance is repeated in note after note throughout the negotiations from March 1 to the payoff night April 2, 1932.  The note that remarked on concern about the first year of the child’s life  --“the boy would not be strong enough” – thanked the Lindberghs for the information they had given in the newspapers about the child’s diet.  Another note even said that the child was eating more than the diet required!

Try reading the notes by themselves and see if that is not the dominant theme – a running commentary about the child’s physical health.  The oral dialogue between John Condon and the man he labeled “Cemetery John” at Woodlawn Cemetery on the night of March 12, 1932, contained a mini-history of the kidnaping in two sentences.  Remember that the notes promised the child would be in good care, and that the kidnaping had been delayed for a year out of concern for the child’s health, and that it was now eating better than the recommended diet.  During the conversation at Woodlawn, the shadowy figure who met Condon expressed great fears about his role – he suggested he had been trapped into participating in the crime.[1]  “Would I burn if the baby is dead?”  To which Condon supposedly replied, sharply:  “Is the baby all right?”   “The baby is happy and well –better as it was.  (Italics added.)

If (always a question) Condon’s recollection of the conversation is correct, it would appear that Cemetery John (a) had close enough connection with the family to know some details about the child’s health or (b) read the rumors that Harry Walsh discredited that there was something wrong with Charlie. Either way, it would seem that the kidnaper(s) had something of an obsession with the child and that money was only part of the reason for the crime

[1]   Readers of the previous post will note that Harry Walsh believed Condon had been not straight about the case and that he had some dark secrets in his past that might have been used as blackmail, or, more simply, that he was capable of such a crime.  John Condon/Cemetery John, or JC/CJ.  Psychologist alert!