Friday, January 13, 2012

The Thumb Guard Discovery

"I will leave it to the jury whether it is bright and shiny," 
Ed Reilly, Defense Attorney

"No, you needn't leave it to the jury.  It is not bright and shiny; that is my view,"
David Wilentz, Prosecutor

Like the mystery of the second taxicab driver, there have always been questions about the discovery of one of Charlie’s thumb guards on April 1, 1932, the day before the $50,000 ransom was paid to Cemetery John at St. Raymond’s cemetery. According to the accepted narrative, Betty Gow, the nursemaind, and Elsie Whateley, housekeeper at Highfileds,  were in the habit of taking a mid-day walk down the gravel path, and on this day they saw the thumb guard on the ground before them.  “I recognized it immediately,” Betty testified. Lindbergh Case students will no doubt remember that the thumb guards had been placed on Charlie at bedtime every night, including the night of the kidnapping.  Thumb guards were popular at that time as a preventive measure to keep babies and young children from sucking their thumbs during sleep periods. Despite all the searches of the property in the days following the crime, all the police, reporters, onlookers, and the rest -- no one had noticed a thumb guard on the gravel road up to the house.  This was considered odd because it was not a small piece, but a rather large wire contraption with long shoelaces attached to it. Where it was found, moreover, was in the opposite direction from where the ladder and footprints were discovered. And in addition, it was found smack in the middle of the road, not off to one side or another. Commentators ever since have wondered about the thumb guard and when it was removed from the child.  Some have even postulated that it was not placed on the child that night – so as to induce a deeper sleep. 

Such speculations were inevitable because it seemed difficult to understand how something that big and shiny could have gone unnoticed for a month. At the trial, prosecutor David Wilentz questioned Anne about whether she recognized the thumb guard.  She did.  He then tried to get her to say that she had seen it placed on Charlie’s hand and wrist that night, but she demurred.

At the trial there ensued a three-way exchange between prosecutor David Wilentz, defense attorney Ed Reilly, and Betty Gow over the thumb guard discovery.  Defense Attorney Reilly during cross-examination of the nursemaid called attention to the condition of the thumb guard as a large piece of apparel, with the long shoestring ties.  He also called it "shiny."  Wilentz immediately objected to that description, saying it was not shiny.  Reilly replied that he would leave it to the jury to decide.  Anticipating Reilly’s line of questioning, Betty Gow in response then declared that it was much muddier when she found it than it now appeared to be in court.  Reilly pounced on that statement, pointing out that during direct examination she had told Wilentz that it was in exactly the same condition as when it was discovered.  Gow shot back that it could not be in the same condition because it had been handled by people.

She won laughter and approval for her quick wit, and much sympathy for standing up to a bully.  Reilly, a florid man, had leaned close during cross-examination, and had made no secret of his desire to pin the crime on the servants – or at least raise serious questions about their possible involvement.  And so the round went to Wilentz, courtesy of Betty Gow’s sharp wit. 

But that is not the end of the story. In a letter to Governor Harold Hoffman, who was conducting his own investigation in early 1936, a former photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, told the governor that he had walked that path the morning after the crime taking photographs of the entire area.  There was no thumb guard present on the road at that time.  A recently discovered deposition in the Robert Peacock Papers at the New Jersey State Police Museum, moreover, suggests that Reilly was right in pursuing the matter with the Attorney General and the witness.  Peacock took the deposition from a Morton Clemmer Maish, the maker of the thumb guards, known as Baby Alice Thumb Guards, on January 14, 1935.  This exchange is of some interest:

Q. What is the character of the metal from which that is made?

A. It is Monel metal.

Q. Does that metal rust?

A. No.  It corrodes very slowly.

Q. What is Monel metal?

A. It is a composition of approximately 30% copper and 70% nickel.

Q. Does it corrode at all?

A. On any metal there is a slight oxidation on the surface, even
though the surface remains bright.

Q. Is there slight oxidation in the one in your hand?

A. Yes.

Q. How long could that remain out in the elements and be in the condition in which it now is?

A. A year or more.  The guard would then become dirty but not corroded.

The question therefore needs to be posed again:  How could everyone have missed the thumb guard for a month after the kidnapping? Mr. Maish's statement makes it plain that the Monel metal type of thumb guard even when exposed to the elements did not have a surface that retained dirt easily.  And that is to say nothing of the long, white shoe strings.  Reilly’s verbal assault on Betty Gow occluded the real meaning of the thumb guard discovery as more evidence of a conspiracy to kidnap Charlie.  The question then becomes, why was it placed on the road as the ransom negotiations reached a critical moment?