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Charles Lindbergh, the ‘Lone Eagle’, was an American hero his countrymen could only dream of becoming. An aviator, a military officer, an author and an inventor. He was the first person to make a nonstop flight between New York City and Paris, a distance of roughly 3,600 miles (5,800km), on his own, in what is described as “one of the most consequential flights in history”, helping usher in a new era of air transportation. For Lindbergh, his life was unparalleled, until the unthinkable happened in 1932.

On this day 91 years ago, Lindbergh experienced every parent’s worst nightmare: his child went missing.

Charles Jr, who was born on June 22, 1930, was barely 20 months old when he was abducted from his crib in the Lindbergh’s New Jersey home, leading a major search operation as attempts to find the child were made.

The story was described by many outlets as among the most important in US history, including by journalist H. L. Mencken who dubbed it and the following trial as “the biggest story since the Resurrection [of Jesus]”.

The Lindbergh story began on March 1, 1932, when Charles Jr was discovered to have gone missing by the family’s nurse, Betty Gow. Anne, Charles Jr’s mother, had just come out of a bath when Ms Gow alerted her to his disappearance.

Mr Lindbergh was told of Charles Jr’s vanishing and immediately went to the child’s room where a harrowing ransom note had been left on the windowsill.

The note was littered with bad spelling and poor grammar, and said: “Dear Sir! Have 50.000$ redy 25 000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days we will inform you were to deliver the mony.

“We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police the child is in gut care. Indication for all letters are Singnature and 3 hohls.”

The note was examined by a fingerprint expert who was unable to find any usable evidence, leading investigators to assume the kidnapper had used gloves on his hands and had a type of cloth on his shoes.

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Further examination of the note led insiders to believe that due to its poor English, the kidnapper was likely foreign. A sketch artist was then used to paint a person the FBI believed was likely to be the kidnapper.

After the note was found, Mr Lindbergh grabbed a gun and went around the house with Olly Whateley, his butler. They found footprints on the ground under Charles Jr’s window, “pieces of a wooden ladder and a baby’s blanket”.

Like the note, no fingerprints were found on the ladder, but it was noted that different types of wood were used to create the device, leading investigators to believe it had been constructed by someone who had experience in building.

The FBI’s director, J. Edgar Hoover, said his team would be on-call to help the Trenton New Jersey Police Department with its investigation, and soon a $25,000 (£21,000) reward was offered for information regarding the case.

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Days after Mr Lindbergh took control of much of the case, working in tandem with H. Norman Schwarzkopf of the police department. In quick succession two more ransom notes were found, demanding more than $70,000 (£58,000).

Investigators attempted to locate the kidnapper, but were unsuccessful.

By March 8, John F. Condon, a retired New York teacher, placed an advert in a Bronx local newspaper telling the kidnapper he would act as an intermediary for discussions between the Lindberghs and those involved. He was soon contacted.

Across the next few days, Mr Condon was spoken to by the kidnapper via newspaper columns, under the name of Jafsie. These secret notes revealed locations across New York where the child was believed to have been.

Eight days after his first plea, Mr Condon was sent Charles Jr’s sleeping suit as proof that they had the child, with a make-or-break demand that they be given money within two weeks or the child be killed.

This led to Mr Lindbergh and Mr Condon desperately waiting in a car just over a month after Charles Jr first went missing, soon meeting a man called John in a Bronx cemetery.

A handover of $50,000 (£41,000) was made in exchange for what they believed would be the exact location of Charles Jr. The money, which had its serial numbers recorded by the US Treasury Department, was handed over and the duo told the child could be found on a boat called the Nelly, in waters near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Sadly, upon investigation, there was still no trace of Charles Jr.

On May 12, Charles Jr’s body was found less than five miles (8km) from where he had been taken. An autopsy of the youngster found he had been killed by sustaining a blow to the head shortly after he was taken.

Writing for Crime Traveller, author JT Townsend noted that though the case would “lay dormant for more than two years”, the authorities were continuing to trace the bills that had been handed over to “John”.

The writer continued: “[The FBI] were following the money, as the gold certificates were showing up all along the eastern seaboard. Despite Lindbergh’s objection, the police had allowed bank officials to record the serial numbers from the bills.

“On September 17, 1934, a Lindbergh ransom bill was passed at a gas station in the Bronx.

“Since it was a gold certificate, which were being recalled by the government, the attendant wrote down the license number on the bill so he wouldn’t get stuck for the $10 (£8.31). It was confirmed by the bank’s list and was traced back to one Bruno Hauptmann, who was arrested the next day.”

The case against Hauptmann quickly built up, and in the aftermath of his arrest more than $13,000 (£10,800) in gold ransom notes were found in his garage, and he was then identified as “John”.

Analysis of his handwriting was consistent with the note that was left in the Lindberghs’ home, and he was indicted. Hauptmann’s defence rested on his claim he was holding the money for a friend.

The case began in January 1935, and the evidence built up against Hauptmann. Tools owned by the defendant matched those used on the ladder, and Mr Condon’s telephone was found written on a door frame in Hauptmann’s home.

Hauptmann maintained his innocence, claiming he had been beaten by the police, who were attempting to force him into matching the handwriting samples found on the ransom notes.

Five weeks later, Hauptmann was found guilty, and sentenced to death. On April 3, 1936, despite still denying any involvement in the kidnapping, he was executed by an electric chair.

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