Nazis, Scientists, and the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping Conspiracy

Today I’d like to discuss an extremely timely and important issue that everyone just can’t stop talking about: the abduction of the Lindbergh baby. What exactly happened? Who really did it?? Did it happen AT ALL??

Okay I’ll be honest, prior to the first week of this new year, I had spent approximately 30 seconds thinking about the Lindbergh baby. Those 30 seconds consisted of vague references made on TV, like in Season 7 episode 8 of the Simpsons when the FBI tries to arrest Homer’s mom and his dad announces that he’s the Lindbergh baby. This led me to assume the baby was kidnapped and never found. So basically all 30 seconds of thought I gave it were wrong.

I know that now, all thanks to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that I absolutely would not have clicked on were it not a very slow news week and I was bored: “Retired Oakland judge has shocking theory about infamous Lindbergh kidnapping. And it’s catching on.” Now, before I reveal to you the details of this shocking theory, let me share the absolute basics of this case, because like I said, I had no idea until I tumbled down this rabbit hole.

Charles Lindbergh was an aviator who was launched into worldwide fame in 1927 when he won a $25,000 prize by completing the first nonstop transatlantic flight between New York City to Paris. Eight years earlier, some guys flew from Newfoundland, Canada to County Galway, Ireland but no one gives a shit about those places. Also, at least five men died attempting to win the New York/Paris prize so I guess it WAS kind of a big deal. And that prize was equivalent to nearly half a million dollars today, so it was front page news all over the place.

Lindbergh got a bunch of awards, was Time’s Man of the Year, and traveled around the world being a big old celebrity, eventually ending up in Mexico City where he met the daughter of the US Ambassador there. He married Anne Morrow shortly thereafter, and they moved to New Jersey where they became an “It” couple. “It” couples were allowed to live in New Jersey back in the 1920s.

In June of 1930 they had their first baby, Charles Lindburgh, Jr., aka Little Lindy, and it was, again, front page news. Paparazzi, letters of congratulations from all over the world, crowds at the gates, children bringing flowers, it was a real party.

Less than two years later, in March of 1932, the Lindberghs’ nurse realized the baby was not with his mother as she had assumed, and informed Charles Linbergh. He went to the nursery where he found a ransom note, written in poor English, demanding $50,000 for the return of the baby. He and the family’s butler searched the grounds, but all they found was a discarded baby blanket and a broken ladder that had been propped up against the house to access the nursery.

The police got involved, the family had a few more interactions with the kidnapper, and finally in early April they handed over the cash in the form of sequential gold certificates, knowing that the US was about to switch to greenbacks which would make the bills stand out more. In return the kidnapper handed over a note that said that the baby was on board a boat docked off the coast. No boat was ever found, but in May a truck driver happened to find the body of the toddler in a grove of trees about 5 miles away from the Lindbergh home.

More than two years later, a man named Richard Hauptmann was caught spending one of the bills from the ransom money. He claimed a friend gave him the bills before going to Germany, where he soon died. No one believed him. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and put to death for the crime.

So, why did I assume the baby had never been found? What was with all those jokes on the Simpsons and other shows? Well, because years after the case concluded, conspiracy theories started flying around, including one that suggested the baby who was found wasn’t REALLY Little Lindy, but was in fact a doppelganger, with the real toddler still alive. It’s like the Elvis thing: what if this famous person is actually, secretly, still living amongst us? Wouldn’t that be weird! 

There were also conspiracy theories that someone in the household was part of the kidnapping, and even theories suggesting that the Lindberghs themselves were part of it, like those suggesting that the baby died from some accident and the Lindberghs invented the kidnapping to cover it up. Like most conspiracy theories, there was no real evidence to support these, but people like to think about this stuff, don’t they?

All of this brings me to the Chronicle article that sent me down this path. What is this “shocking theory?” Could it possibly be more shocking than these previous baseless conspiracy theories, especially if it’s “catching on” so much that it gets sober news coverage in a well-respected newspaper? Let’s see: 

“Using information gleaned from medical reports on the kidnapping and the dead baby’s body, New Jersey State Police files and papers written by Lindbergh and Nobel Prize-winning French biologist Alexis Carrel, Pearlman theorizes that Lindbergh may have offered his son to Carrel to see whether they could preserve living organs outside of the body long enough to be transplanted…Pearlman suggests — using medical writings and photos by Carrel and others — that Carrel or his team may have removed a thyroid and part of a carotid artery from young Charles, leading to his death, then concocted a kidnapping hoax to cover up the crime.”

Do you see? Do you see why I’ve spent the first 8 days of the new year obsessively reading about the kidnapping of a baby 92 years ago?

True Crime writer and retired Oakland judge Lise Pearlman’s first “evidence” is that Lindbergh and Carrel were friends and that Lindbergh was a eugenicist. I was very interested to learn that both of these are true. Lindbergh’s wife’s sister suffered from heart problems, and he became deeply involved in her care. He was frustrated that surgeons couldn’t fix a heart the same way he would fix a faulty gasket in a plane engine. Her doctor pointed out that to do that, they’d need a way to keep the heart pumping while they operated. Lindbergh was curious to learn more, so her doctor referred him to a colleague at the same institution: Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel, who had already developed groundbreaking surgical techniques and was at the time interested in organ transplantation. The two men hit it off like gangbusters, probably thanks to their similar levels of intelligence, curiosity, and belief that yes, the Nazis might be taking things way too far but honestly some people are naturally better than other people and wouldn’t the world be a better place if we focused on making sure those people were breeding as much as possible? Lindbergh would go on to form a friendship with Henry Ford, possibly for the same reasons!

Carrel told Lindbergh that the big problem he had with keeping organs alive outside the body was infection. Almost immediately Lindbergh went to work designing a glass “perfusion” device, which Carrel was able to use to keep bits of tissue alive for up to a month without infection. Whole organs were much harder, though, due to the addition of metal pieces. So they spent several years testing various new designs to try to get something to work.

It’s during these years that Little Lindy was “kidnapped,” or, as Pearlman claims, Lindbergh handed his firstborn son over to Carrel because he was born with what some said was “an abnormally large head” and was “sickly,” as a eugenicist, surely Lindbergh thought the child was “disposable.”

Look, far be it from me to defend a eugenicist and, let’s be honest, a Nazi who just got a little queasy when he saw his philosophy taken to its reasonable conclusion. You could certainly use Lindbergh’s stated beliefs to argue that he was a monster, but in all my research I failed to find any evidence that he was a stupid monster. At that point in their experiments, Lindbergh and Carrel were working on the tissue and organs of animals, because that’s literally what has been done for centuries. They would eventually find success in 1935 by keeping the thyroid gland of a cat alive without infection for 18 days. Pearlman’s assumption that these two intelligent, rational scientists started with some bits of tissue, then tried and failed to keep the organs of random lab animals alive, and finally thought “oh fuck it let’s try the organs of my only child,” is so preposterous that it wouldn’t get greenlit as a Lifetime original movie. But I CAN imagine it. Eric Roberts is Charles Lindbergh. Rob Lowe is Alexis Carrel. It’s late at night and they’re both standing over a dying rabbit as its heart, laying outside its body, pumps its final beat.

C: “That’s the last rabbit the Institute had available for us.”

L: “So I guess that’s it, then.”

C: “I guess so.”

L: “Hold on. I have an idea,” says Lindbergh.

C: “Does your family have a cat,” asks Carrel excitedly.

L: “No, but I do have a toddler with an abnormally large head.”

Smash cut to the next night. The two look down on an operating table covered in baby guts.

C: “Damn dude I’m sorry, I really thought that was going to work.”

L: “Whatever, his head was too big.”

C: “What do we do now?”

L: “I have another great idea”

The leaps don’t stop there, of course, because to assume that that’s what happened you’d also have to assume that the household staff was in on it but refused to tell the police, that to cover this all up Lindbergh himself created a worldwide media sensation by offering rewards for information, and that the evidence against Hauptmann was all planted or made up. By the way, here’s a brief overview of that evidence:

Hauptmann got the US by sneaking in, because he was a convicted criminal in his native Germany. One of his crimes was apparently putting a ladder against a house to climb through a window and rob the inhabitants.

Merchants in Hauptmann’s neighborhood reported seeing him pay for items with gold certificates long before he said his “friend” gave him the money. Between the ransom exchange and his arrest, Hauptmann spent $36,000 despite being unemployed the entire time and despite it being, you know, the Great Depression.

Every handwriting expert in the country agreed that the notes were written by Hauptmann. His defense couldn’t find one expert to argue otherwise.

A plank was missing from Hauptmann’s attic floor. A piece of the broken ladder fit perfectly in the gap, matching the dimensions, grain, and nail holes.

I’ll stop there. There was a lot of evidence that Lindbergh planted.

Like I said, this is hardly the first Lindbergh conspiracy theory. Jim Fisher, professor of criminal justice at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and writer of several books on the kidnapping, is hilariously but understandably fed up with these people trying to rewrite history. In regards to one True Crime writer finding a “handwriting expert” in 1985 to argue that Hauptmann did not write the notes, Fisher writes that the expert, “was a graphologist who advised couples, based on their handwriting characteristics, if they were compatible for marriage. I would submit that couples idiotic enough to do this, are probably quite suitable for each other. It’s nice when stupid people find love.”

He goes on to say, “What one believes is now more important than what one knows. Science and rational thinking have lost ground to pseudo-science and magical thinking. A large percentage of the American public consider astrology, reflexology, iridology, and graphology as real sciences. Today, if you work at a muffler shop, you’re a mufflerologist. People believe in psychics, flying saucers, alien abductions, ghosts, firewalking, dowsing, and spontaneous human combustion. In a gothic world of dark conspiracies where the moon landing was faked; Elvis Presley and the Lindbergh baby are alive; Oliver Stone is an historian; and J. Edgar Hoover is remembered as a self-loathing cross-dresser; there is no such thing as historical reality. In fact, one can argue that for most people history is dead.”

By the way, THAT paragraph led me to do more research and learn that he’s right: J. Edgar Hoover was not a cross-dresser, something I had just taken for granted. And honestly he was probably too much of an asshole to be self-loathing.

It’s particularly interesting to me that this new “theory” about Little Lindy was dreamed up by a retired judge, because Fisher, writing years before Pearlman got this press, went on to write, “In the 1930’s, August Vollmer, John Wigmore, and others worked hard to get the expert into court. Seventy years later, judges should be throwing half of them out. In the (field) of scientific document examination, the graphologists are no longer at the gate, they’re in the courthouse. In America, everyone has a right to express their opinion, but not in court. If everyone is an expert, no one is.

Albert S. Osborn said it first, judges have to find a way to identify the phonies. But because these charlatans have become such clever impersonators, it’s not easy. They have created bogus diplomas, phony journals, fraudulent professional organizations and counterfeit resumes. They’re dug in, and it’s going to take extreme measures to blast them out. If judges don’t take responsibility for this task, little will change. Jurors are no longer capable of spotting the frauds. In fact, one way to avoid jury duty is to exhibit a rational mind and knowledge of science.”

Speaking as someone who was excused from jury duty just a few months back, that hits hard.

So it might seem pointless to talk about and to learn about a kidnapping that happened nearly a century ago, but maybe it’s a worthwhile lesson. Conspiracy theories might be salacious fun, but ultimately the truth matters. History matters. If we accept the rewriting of the past, we open ourselves up to the charlatans of the present.

Still, I’m strangely grateful that Pearlman hatched this harebrained “theory” and that the San Francisco Chronicle gave her credulous coverage and promotion for her new book, because I ended up learning all of this stuff. But my god am I grateful that she’s no longer on the bench in my town.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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