From a forensics perspective, Dr. Erastus Hudson voiced his deduction that the Lindbergh kidnapping was an inside job, based on evidence with which he was personally familiar. “A point of great importance rested in the absence of any fingerprints on the nursery window and its remarkably broad sill. Kelly [of the New Jersey State Police] had powdered it a few hours after the kidnapping. No prints were found, although Betty Gow [the child’s nurse] and Mrs. Lindbergh had opened and closed the window that same night. Miss Gow had rubbed the child’s chest with an ointment, the oleaginous base of which would have augmented the secretion of the finger ridges in leaving clear prints.
“Of course, there would have been older prints as well. The reason Kelly failed to get all these prints was because they must have been washed off. Someone with a pail of water and cloth undoubtedly bathed those spots where fingerprints must have been left. They did so between the time Betty Gow put the baby to bed and about four hours later, when Kelly began investigating.
“It is ludicrous to suppose that the kidnapper climbed the ladder with the pail and rag, and descended with this in one hand and the baby in the other. It is equally unreasonable to suppose that anyone alien to the household, wearing gloves—as the prosecution contended the kidnapper did—would have any interest in eliminating the normal fingerprints to be found in the nursery.
“Bluntly, the absence of fingerprints on the window proves conclusively that others than Hauptmann were involved; that the kidnapper had an accomplice probably within the Lindbergh household. Major Schoeffel of the state police called my attention to this fact when he told me, ‘Doctor, I cannot understand why the fingerprints of Betty Gow were not on that window.’ Miss Gow even showed Kelly where her hand was placed on the window. No reflection whatever is meant to be cast upon Miss Gow, least of all that she may have been an accomplice.”
Among the larger questions remaining unanswered, or unsatisfactorily answered by Schwarzkopf on the witness stand, were two related to Hudson’s work. After more than 500 prints were discovered on the ladder, why was it scrubbed clean? Ostensibly, it was washed by police to remove residue left behind from the fingerprinting process. And since Hudson’s effort uncovered huge amounts of evidence on the ladder, far beyond what police had found, why wasn’t he asked to apply the same process to the ransom notes? Schwarzkopf admitted that Hauptmann’s fingerprints were not among those found on the ladder, and was evasive about the ransom notes, saying that they were tested with Hudson’s method. But he finally conceded that Hudson himself, the acknowledged expert in the method and willing to work for free, did not see the ransom notes.
The trial ended in mid-February 1935 with a guilty verdict and a death sentence, scheduled to be carried out on January 17, 1936. But Hudson’s involvement didn’t end there. New Jersey Governor Harold Hoffman had received a letter from Colonel Schwarzkopf, indicating that some of the governor’s men had “threatened” troopers who had worked on the case.
At the end of the month, Governor Hoffman released the contents of his reply to Schwarzkopf, calling Lindbergh’s “the most bungled case in police history.” His 5,000-word missive contained many questions and blunt statements about the investigation, including the widely held belief that this was not a “one man job,” and that, “Had sound and ordinary police methods been used following the commission of the crime, many doubts entertained today might have been eliminated, and two and a half years might not have lapsed before the arrest of a person….”
With Hauptmann’s fate now in his hands, the governor visited the prisoner in his cell and came away impressed by his claims of innocence. Hoffman agreed with Dr. Hudson’s conclusion that since Hauptmann’s fingerprints were not on the ladder, the ransom notes, or in the nursery, he couldn’t be the perpetrator—or at least not the sole perpetrator. During a delay of execution, the governor’s own investigation began, conducted by a group that included Erastus Hudson. But the crime had been committed nearly four years earlier. In the interim, evidence was either missing (at the insistence of Mr. Lindbergh, the baby was cremated the day after its body was discovered) or had been handled and rehandled so often that its integrity couldn’t be certain (besides inexplicably being washed clean of fingerprints, the infamous ladder had been disassembled and reconstructed several times).
A separate, private investigation was sponsored by magazine editor Paul Clancy, who fired the criminologist leading the effort and replaced him with Dr. Hudson. But neither effort led to anything more than further delays in Hauptmann’s execution. His life ended in the electric chair on April 3, 1936.
Based on his court testimony and the two investigations, there should be no inference drawn that Hudson was “against” police or lawmen in any way. He was widely respected in legal circles as an expert witness with no agenda other than determining the truth. In fact, nine months before Hauptmann’s death sentence was carried out, Hudson was cited for another advance in fingerprinting that he developed while working with members of New York City’s police department. Based on his expertise in body chemistry, he devised a way to capture fingerprints from linens (clothing, bedsheets, etc.), and in some cases, even from the insides of gloves, an extremely valuable development in solving crimes where the perpetrator wore them to mask his identity.
He was subsequently named an honorary consultant to the city police department by New York’s commissioner, Lewis Valentine. His work was featured in a number of publications, including the New York Times and Finger Print and Identification Magazine, which credited him as the inventor of the new “linen” process. His methods were used in countless investigations, including many cold-case studies where evidence had been preserved.
Hudson died in September 1943 at the age of 55, but his name lives on in connection with the famous case. Conspiracy theorists, doubters, district attorneys, detectives, and average folks continue to assess the Lindbergh case in books and discuss it on websites. Because of so many twists and turns that cause doubts and suspicions, it’s one of those stories that captured the public’s imagination and refuses to die.
Many of those doubts and suspicions were raised through the work of Plattsburgh’s Erastus Mead Hudson.
Photos: Erastus Hudson showing print taken from palm touching cloth; Finger Print Magazine cites Hudson’s work (both images from 1935 issue)