On March 13, 1932 Erastus Hudson of Plattsburgh was asked to visit the crime scene in the Charles Lindbergh home to secure whatever evidence he might produce. First using the standard dusting process, which was best for solid surfaces, he found no prints in the nursery on any items that had already been checked, confirming Kelly’s results, but he did find thirteen on the baby’s books and toys. These were extremely valuable because the baby had been born at home, and thus no fingerprints had been taken. Those gathered by Hudson were the only means of identifying the baby for certain—if he were ever found.
Turning his attention to the ladder that had yielded no prints to police experts, Hudson spent a couple of days applying his innovative process. He estimated collecting “more than 500 fingerprints and fragments, some of which were sufficient to be of value.”
How were such different results possible? In part by drawing on his strong background in fingerprint chemistry. “I first became interested in the subject in 1917, when I was in the navy,” he said, where he gained plenty of experience by fingerprinting men as part of the enlistment process. Years later, after learning about a system in France using silver nitrate, he experimented with it until a method was perfected. On surfaces of wood, like the ladder in question, it became routine for him to recover latent prints even six to eight months old. On paper surfaces, said Hudson, “prints sank in within a few hours, and powder at that point would be ineffective”—but using the silver nitrate method allowed the retrieval of those same prints even months later.
Hudson identified only a few of the individuals whose fingerprints were found on the kidnapper’s ladder before leaving the rest of the prints and information in the hands of investigators. As promised, he remained anonymous, allowing the police to take credit for his work.
As the case progressed, several ransom notes were received by Lindbergh in addition to the one found at the scene on the night of the kidnapping. This prompted another offer from Hudson to help. “Early in May 1932, I wrote Colonel Schwarzkopf that I was quite sure an iodine-gas process, unknown to police, would develop fingerprints on the ransom notes. I never received a reply from him.”
On May 12, the nation was stunned by the announcement that the badly decomposed remains of a child, with parts of limbs and organs missing (presumably the work of wild animals) were found about four miles from the Lindbergh home, and had been identified by three people—Mr. Lindbergh, the baby’s nurse, and a doctor—as those of young Charles. Although the methods of identification (viewing the badly decayed form) were deemed sketchy by some, and the autopsy report noted, “Sex undetermined due to marked decomposition of body,” the child’s remains were cremated the next day, eliminating a critical piece of evidence.
Despite the absence of protocol requiring federal involvement, the FBI case file titled “Lindbergh Summary” cites May 13 as the date of an order by President Hoover that, “all government investigative agencies place themselves at the disposal of the state of New Jersey, and that the Bureau of Investigation [FBI] serve as a clearing house and coordinating agency for all investigative activity by federal investigative units in this case.” (Some of the information in this piece is drawn from those FBI case records.) Hoover was only slightly ahead of himself: on June 22, he signed into law the Federal Kidnap Act, making the crime the purview of federal enforcement agencies.
As the search continued for the perpetrator (or perpetrators), Erastus Hudson returned to his regular job and, like everyone else, monitored the case in the media as it played out over the next two years. Then, on September 19, 1934, police arrested Bruno Richard Hauptmann, charging him with kidnapping and killing the Lindbergh baby.
Said Hudson, “When the news of Hauptmann’s arrest came out, I called a state police officer at the Trenton barracks. He told me in high elation that, ‘We got our man!’
“Were his prints on the ladder?” I asked. The reply was ‘No.’
“Then you’ll have to look further,” I said.
“‘Good God, don’t tell us that, doctor!’ he said, nonplused.”
Erastus was serious, believing that the evidence showed Hauptmann did not build or carry the ladder, and that even if he were somehow involved, Bruno was helped by one or more accomplices.
During the buildup to the trial, Hudson became increasingly uncomfortable with a particular issue. “When the press and police were at the height of their attack on Hauptmann—unheard, untried, and unconvicted as yet—I felt that, in fairness to the defendant, Colonel Schwarzkopf should make public the fact that fingerprints had been found on the ladder and that none of them were Hauptmann’s. He [Schwarzkopf] had repeatedly denied that prints had been found on the ladder. I wrote him to the effect that if he did not make this public, I would see fit to do so, at the same time stating the opinion that if Hauptmann had made the ladder from six to eight months prior to the kidnapping, his prints should be on it.”
So strong was Hudson’s belief that they had arrested the wrong man (or only one of those responsible), he offered to testify for the defense about the ladder and fingerprints. There was no intent on his part to embarrass the police, especially the fingerprint technicians, whose work he praised, even though it fell short of his own groundbreaking method. (The silver nitrate method is often credited to Hudson, principally because others had tried to perfect it, but Erastus was the first to use it effectively. That he did so in such a high-profile case led to its spread quickly thereafter.)
Several days into the trial, Hudson was called to the witness stand to describe his role in assisting investigators. He detailed the two procedures for harvesting fingerprints, and explained why his method, utilizing body chemistry, produced outstanding results in certain circumstances. Attorneys attempted to discredit his claim of finding upwards of 500 prints on the ladder, but time after time he proved calm, cool, and unshakable.
A second issue involving the ladder was infamous Rail #16, said by prosecutors to have been taken from a board in Hauptmann’s attic. The proof cited was four nail holes in the board that matched holes in a broken beam in Hauptmann’s attic. This was disputed by Hudson, who said that when he inspected and fingerprinted the ladder, Rail #16 had only one nail hole. No matter how often he was asked the same question, which was many, many times, he calmly replied that there was only one hole. Despite intense efforts by Attorney General David Wilentz to rattle him, Hudson’s demeanor, sincerity, and unwavering stance gave the defense perhaps its biggest boost during the entire trial. Hudson’s believability led many to question whether the holes had been added after the fact to strengthen the case against Hauptmann.
One reason the Lindbergh case is still discussed today is the great number of inconsistencies, and nebulous areas of evidence and testimony, allowing reasonably strong arguments to be made for either a correct or incorrect verdict. Testimony surrounding the ladder added heavily to the mix.
Read the conclusion of the story here.
Photos: Ladder leaning near Lindbergh nursery window (NJ Archives); Bruno Richard Hauptmann (1935 Pathé Film); Hudson Headline (The Daily Courier, Connelsville, Pa., 1935)