“Trial of the Century” is a term frequently bandied about in the media to define extremely high-profile court cases. In the 1900s, twenty or so sported the moniker—the Scopes Monkey Trial, Nuremburg, Charles Manson, and O. J. Simpson among them—but always in the running, and at the top of many lists, is the Lindbergh Kidnapping in 1935. (The crime was committed in 1932; the court case began three years later.) At the center of one of the main issues during that trial was a North Country man, whose testimony spawned doubt among observers that justice was achieved. Many books have been written about the case during the ensuing 81 years, addressing the controversy as to whether the final verdict was justice or a travesty thereof.
That North Country man was Erastus Mead Hudson, born into a prominent Plattsburgh family in March 1888. (Hudson Hall at Plattsburgh State University is named after Erastus’s father, George Henry Hudson.) He attended Plattsburgh High School, and after graduating from Harvard in 1913 with a bachelor of science degree, Erastus attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, graduating in 1917 with specialties in bacteriology and body chemistry.
He then enlisted in the navy medical corps, and after a brief stint at the Naval Hospital in New York, Hudson was assigned as one of the two medical officers aboard the transport ship USS Leviathan. (Among the crew during this time was future film star Humphrey Deforest Bogart.) The Leviathan, formerly the German ocean liner Vaterland, was seized by the US and turned into a World War I troop transport that made ten trips across the Atlantic, carrying more than 110,000 soldiers to France and England. The ship’s first landing was at Liverpool, where Hudson observed the men of Scotland Yard taking fingerprints, which sparked in him a deep interest in the scientific methods they employed. After the war ended, he served at the Naval Hospital in Newport, Rhode Island, the Bureau of Navigation in Washington, D. C., and in the office of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, before finally leaving the military in March 1921.
Hudson ran a medical practice in New York City after the war and became proficient in forensic medicine, which led to frequent appearances in court as a medical expert. In that same line of work, he had continued studying fingerprinting techniques and became an acknowledged expert in the field. As a respected criminologist, he was touted by the navy’s own fingerprint expert as one of the best in the business. Among those he testified for in court was the Department of Justice, solidifying his credentials.
But Dr. Hudson’s notoriety in legal circles was a mere blip compared to the fame that would come his way in the 1930s. Charles Lindbergh, by virtue of his aerial exploits, had become a national hero and an icon in the extreme, reaching a level of fame and endearment that few stars ever attain. For that reason, the March 1, 1932 disappearance of 20-month-old Charles Jr. from the Lindbergh estate near Hopewell, New Jersey, shocked the nation.
While the family was at home, an intruder had placed a ladder against the house, climbed to the second floor, made off with the child, and left a ransom note on the windowsill. The wooden ladder believed used by the perpetrator was found near the Lindbergh home. In time it became perhaps the most important piece of evidence in the case—and that’s where Erastus Hudson entered the picture.
Beginning on the day of the kidnapping, fingerprinting work was done by a New Jersey Police expert, Frank Kelly, who used standard techniques. Both Mrs. Lindbergh and the baby’s nurse, Betty Gow, confirmed that they had opened and closed the nursery window that night and made routine contact with other surfaces in the room. In his own words, Kelly described the surprising results he obtained: “I processed the windowsill, the window inside and out, the crib, the screen, the light in the back of the screen, the French windows, the window on the north side of the nursery, the bureau drawers, a little chair that was at the foot of the crib—everything in the room that it was possible to obtain a fingerprint from.”
But Kelly found no prints whatsoever, which was certainly puzzling, for several people in the household should have left prints on surfaces that weren’t touched by the kidnapper on a quick, in-and-out job.
On March 3, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice James Minturn contacted Erastus Hudson, asking if he could capture fingerprints from wood (the wooden ladder was a critical piece of evidence, but police said it, too, was entirely free of fingerprints). When Hudson confirmed that he could, Minturn reached out to Governor Arthur Moore, ensuring that this special capability was not overlooked.
A few days later, Hudson wrote a confidential letter to New Jersey State Police Superintendent Norman Schwarzkopf (father of Stormin’ Norman of Operation Desert Storm; both were actually Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf), mentioning that his advanced process had been demonstrated before Judge Minturn. “I believe that this method will reveal on the Lindbergh ladder—even though it may have been handled a great deal recently—many fingerprints of its constructor, and those of the criminals as well. For its constructor, particularly, would leave many fingerprints in places which would not ordinarily be handled once the ladder was assembled.
“As the practical use of this method requires some skill, I shall be very glad to cooperate with you at my own expense, my only request being that my connection with the case be kept secret, and the credit for such work, if successful, go entirely to the men of your department who might work with me. There certainly can be no harm in trying this method. If it proves to be fruitless, nothing is lost; but if successful, it should be of great assistance to you.”
Photos: Erastus Hudson (NJ Archives); Lindbergh poster (Wikipedia); Lindbergh estate (1935 Pathé Film)