“CEMETERY JOHN”: startling story about an 81 year old kidnapping

I just finished reading a nonfiction book titled “CEMETERY JOHN: The Undiscovered Mastermind Of The Lindbergh Kidnapping.”
On March 1, 1932 the 20 month old son of Col.Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh was taken from his upstairs bedroom while he slept in his crib. It became known as “The Crime of the Century” and later, “The Trial of the Century” when a man named Bruno Richard Hauptmann was tried and convicted of the kidnap/murder of Charlie Lindbergh. The baby’s father , Charlles Lindbergh, was a national hero at the time after he became the first aviator to cross the Atlantic Ocean (non-stop) in May of 1927. Charles Lindbergh was celebrated all over the world for his feat of crossing the ocean from New York to Paris in that flight in his small plane, “The Spirit Of St.Louis”
( I saw that small aircraft hanging in the main aviation room of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. in 1985 and was amazed at its small size and seeming frailty.)
In 1932 the United States was in the depths of economic depression and a rash of kidnappings had occurred …by criminals hoping to make money by collecting ransom money from the rich parents of the children who were kidnapped. But the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby was not like other kidnappings….the kidnapper(s) demanded 50 thousand dollars in ransom money and Charlie Lindbergh Jr. was the son of the most famous couple in the United States.
A wooden ladder was found at the scene of the kidnapping and had been used to bring the baby out of the house in a dangerous climb down a rickety wooden ladder that was obviously home made by the perpetrator. There were two sets of footprints leading away from the Lindbergh house to a small secluded road behind the house.
The search for the kidnappers was conducted mainly by the New Jersey State police although the newly founded FBI with a young J. Edgar Hoover at its head got involved somewhat— but the main work of pursuing the kidnappers was done by the state of New Jersey.
The NJ state police dismissed Hoover as an “amateur” and did not want his new organization involved at all.
Several ransom notes were sent after the first one was found on the windowsill of the baby’s room. The writing was badly misspelled ..it had been written by someone who did not have command of the English language and many German language words and expressions were used in the notes.
Eventually a go-between named John Condon met the shadowy person who called himself “John” at a cemetery in the Bronx burrough of New York City. Two meetings with the man during dark hours led to the delivery of the ransom money–bills that had been marked for identity when they were used. John Condon did see enough of the man’s face to know the shape of it and a few other features.
The baby was not returned (several wild goose chases in an airplane searching for a boat off the coast of New York were of course unsuccessful after the ransom note said the baby was being held on a “gud bote” The mystery of what happened to Charlie Lindbergh did not become known until months later when the baby’s badly decomposed body was found just off the secluded road on the Lindbergh property. It had been tossed into the woods in a burlap bag probably within a short time after the baby was snatched from his crib. He had been dead throughout the entire process of ransom notes and negotiations for his return. The horror of the discovery of Charlie’s body shocked Americans to the core….the entire nation was absorbed in the kidnapping and its aftermath.
Col. Lindbergh was portrayed as being a man of emotional steel..never giving a hint of his grief even after his baby’s body was found and he was one of those who identified it wiht no emotion at all..along with the baby’s nurse Betty Gow . Apparently Lindbergh was a man who kept all his feelings tightly controlled..a characteristic of his entire life..learned from his Swedish American father and grandfather (of Little Falls, MN.) Anne Morrow Lindbergh was a woman who could not contain her mother’s grief although she felt she had to for her husband….a mystifying thing to us in this time and place. Anne never really recovered from Charlie’s death and gave vent to her grief in her writing..letters, diaries and a book titled HOUR OF GOLD, HOUROF LEAD .
Eventually after much investigation and amazing detective work for that era, a German immigrant, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was captured and charged with kidnapping and murder and stood trial and was convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair. He was executed for the crime shortly after the trial ended.
The account of Hauptmann’s trial is disturbing because the state of New Jersey was so eager to bring the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby to a satisfactory close. But the facts of the trial are highly disturbing due to many miscarriages of justice regarding Hauptmann. Lies were told by one of the key witnesses (John Condon) to accomodate the Prosecutoin’s case. Condon was the onlhy person to have seen the man called Cemetery John and Condon when seeing a lineup in the prison where Hauptmann was kept did NOT identify Hauptmann as Cemetery John..in fact Condon said at that time that the man was NOT in the lineup at all. He changed his testimony at the trial and outright lied about it…to appease the Prosecution. Even though Hauptmann was a part of the kidnap conspiracy he was not the only one involved and could not have been just on the two sets of footprints evidence at the crime scene.
It is a hard part of the book to read because of the lies and the badly prosecuted case along with a very bad defense for Hauptmann as well.
Now many years after the kidnapping and death of the baby, Robert Zorn has personally investigated the 1932 crime and come up with amazing conclusions that totally differ with the one-kidnapper theory that sent Hauptmann to his death.
Robert Zorn’s father, Gene Zorn, told his son a true tale of going to an amusement park with a neighbor named John Knoll when Gene was only about 15 years old. His friendship with Knoll centered around a mutual stamp collecting hobby. But at the amusement park, Gene Zorn saw 3 men— including John Knoll talking (In German) a long time and recognized the word “Englewood” which was where the Lindbergh home was and the place where baby Charlie was kidnapped. Strangely that day, John Knoll told Gene Zorn to go back to the Bronx by himself..something he was not prepared to do but he had to find his way back to that borrough by himself.
Many years later when Gene Zorn was an adult, he made a connection to that day and suspected the Knoll brothers..John and Walter of being “in on” the kidnapping plot with Bruno Hauptmann.
Robert Zorn (Gene’s son) carried on his father’s investigation after his father’s death and came up with incredible connections of the Knoll brothers with Bruno Hauptmann. The ransom notes at the time of the kidnapping stated that the plot had been in process for over a year’s time.
One has to read the book to follow the complicated paths to Robert Zorn believing that he knew how the kidnapping was carried out by the three German immigrants on the night of March 1, 1932. He traced what he was sure happened that night and concluded that Hauptmann entered the house by the unlocked front doow and crept up the stairs in stocking feet and got the sleeping baby out of the crib where he handed Charlie off to a waiting John Knoll who was at the top of the wooden ladder by the baby’s bedroom window. Walter Knoll was on the ground trying to steady the wooden ladder (which has been built by carpenter Bruno Hauptmann)
Knoll could not hold on to the 30 pound baby and dropped him so the baby’s skull was fractured in the 10 foot or more fall off the ladder. Charlie Lindbergh was dead or dying a few minutes after his kidnapping. Hauptmann went back downstairs without being detected andd followed the Knoll brothers to the car on the secluded road. The kidnappers heartlessly threw the baby who was inside a burlap sack, into the edge of the roof where his body was found many weeks later by two truck drivers who thought is was an animal skeleton they were seeing. It was what was left of Charlie Lindberg whose body had been scavenged by animals so that part of one arm and parft one leg were completely missing. His golden curly hair was the identifying factor for the body of the baby. With no DNA evidence yet available, Charlie’s hair was compared with curls his grandmother Betty Morrow had saved…and thus was he identified after long weeks lying atop the ground in the woods.
Zorn’s book and the amazing detective work done many decades after the 1932 kidnapping and the execution of one man who was definitely identified as a kidnapper by the marked money bills in his possession and evidence of his building the ladder by analysis of the wood used in it. But two conspirators went free and lived lives years after the crime. John Knoll whom Zorn was certain was the Planner and Mastermind of the kidnapping lived a long life..travelling back and forth to Germany and the U.S. several times.
Robert Zorn was also convinced that it was John Knoll who was the man who came to be known as “Cemetery John” after he inadvertently admitted to his name being “John” when he met with John Condon in the Bronz cemetery on two occasions during the negotiations for the ransom money and the return of the baby..which could not happen because Charlie Lindbergh died on the night he was taken from his home.
The book is absolutely fascinating as well as a masterpiece of detection and non fiction.
One comes to the conclusion that justice was not done in the Lindbergh kidnapping case and two of the kidnappers went scott-free with only Bruno Hauptmann executed for the crime.
The Lindberghs had other children—Anne was already pregnant with Jon when the kidnapping of Charlie took place; they also had Land, Anne, Scott and Reeve who is an author at the present toime of some very good childrens’s books. Anne Morrow Lindbergh lived til she was 94 years old but Col. Lindbergh died at age 74 and was cremated on the island of Hawaii. Col. Lindbergh also had Charlie’s body cremated and the ashes were scattered over the Atlantic by his father flying a plane alone just as he had done in his famous cross- Atlantic flight.

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Kay Syvrud

I am a retired elementary "schoolmarm"..I was a school librarian/media director for nearly 25 years before I retired in 2004. Naturally one of my fondest things is reading! I also love reading aloud to young children, something I did for so many years with amazing results; every child wants to read the same book as the teacher read!!!! I also am fond of my gardens...both flower beds and vegetable plots. I love being outdoors....mowing the lawn after my husband has done so with a big lawn tractor...I trim with my small power mower! I have a rain barrel to collect rainwater for plants! I have an old fashioned "pedal" bike I love to ride. I enjoy going to a Silver Sneakers class at a community center about 20 miles from my country home on what I call the "Buffalo Bluff" which overlooks the Buffalo River and its valley below. I LOVE to write and am working on a book for my grandkids so they will always know more about Grandma when she was still "kickin" and "had all her marbles"!!!!