New book offers definitive account of Lindbergh kidnapping

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Through some incredibly persistent sleuthing, consultation with specialists in modern criminal investigative analysis, and a good dose of luck, author Robert Zorn has solved what has been correctly called “the crime of the century”: the Lindbergh kidnapping.

From that raw windy March night in 1932 when a homemade wooden ladder was leaned against the side of the new home in Hopewell, New Jersey of the most famous man in the world — Colonel Charles Lindbergh — and the 20-month-old son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh was kidnapped from his nursery on the second floor, this crime and its aftermath has captured the public imagination. Even with the execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann in 1936, questions about the crime have continued to swirl around the case. Cemetery John answers all the open questions and at last exposes the two other men who planned and carried out this shocking crime. Upon publication on June 14, this book will be front-page news. In presenting his account of his investigation, Robert Zorn has written what will be considered the definitive book on the Lindbergh kidnapping.

The facts of the kidnapping are familiar — we know exactly what is going to happen — but in the author’s hands, the story unfolds with all the horror of the first time.

Young, handsome, and famous for making the first solo flight across the Atlantic, Charles Lindbergh was hounded by the paparazzi. He was the celebrity of his day. To escape the public glare, he and his wife had purchased 425 remote acres in the Sourland Mountains outside of Hopewell, New Jersey and there were building their home, Highfields, where they spent weekends as the work on the house was nearing completion. During the week, they lived with Anne’s widowed mother, Betty Morrow, in her large mansion in Englewood, New Jersey. Because their 20-month-old son Charlie was getting over a head cold, Charles and Anne decided to spend Monday night in the new home and delay their return to Englewood.

On Tuesday, March 1, 1932, Charlie, as usual, was put to bed in his nursery on the second floor of the house at 7:00 p.m. A nurse checked on him at 8:00 p.m. Colonel Lindbergh arrived back home from New York City at 8:25. At 9:15, Lindbergh went into the library, directly below the nursery, to read. At 9:57, the nurse went to check on the baby again. The baby was gone. One of the windows in the nursery was open and on top of the windowsill was the envelope which contained the ransom note.

Clues abounded, every lead was followed, every demand met, but 72 days after the kidnapping the baby’s body was found in the woods within sight of “Highfields.” On September 15, 1934, a man paid for gas in Manhattan with a ten-dollar gold certificate that matched one of the serial numbers of the ransom money. The attendant wrote down the license plate, which the police tracked to Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who lived in the Bronx. There, in his second-floor apartment, they found in a notebook a penciled sketch of the ladder recovered outside the Lindbergh’s home, a tool set missing only a three-quarter chisel identical to the one found near the abandoned ladder, thousands of dollars more of the Lindbergh ransom money, and a wooden plank missing from his attic that matched a rail of the ladder.

After a circus-like trial, Hauptmann was convicted and sentenced to the electric chair, to the end never admitting any involvement with the crime and never fingering an associate.

And so the case ended with as many questions open as answered, all of which are laid out in Cemetery John with precision. And then, with new evidence and equal precision, the author proceeds to answer each one.

The author’s father, Eugene C. Zorn, Jr., who became a nationally respected economist, grew up in the Bronx three doors down from a German immigrant delicatessen clerk named John Knoll. On a summer day in 1931, Knoll, then 27, had taken 15-year-old Eugene Zorn, with whom he shared an interest in stamp collecting, to a day at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. There they met up with Knoll’s brother and another man named Bruno, and the three spoke together in German. Some 30 years later, upon reading a magazine article about the Lindbergh kidnapping, Zorn suddenly began putting together bits and pieces he had overheard and observed about his neighbor and realized that they were all pointing toward the conclusion that Knoll had been a part of the crime.

Eugene Zorn died in 2006 at the age of 90. On his deathbed, his son, author Robert Zorn, promised that he would continue uncovering the truth about the kidnapping. The author has kept that promise in a book both judicious and gripping.

“I’m convinced that John Knoll engineered and carried out the Lindbergh kidnapping and that he was Cemetery John,” said retired FBI special agent Edward F. Sulzbach. “I taught students in my criminal profiling classes at Quantico that life is simply not that coincidental, and there are too many compelling pieces of evidence that point squarely at Knoll for him not to have been involved. And like the physical profile, the behavioral profile of the ringleader of this crime matches the personality profile of John Knoll, not that of Hauptmann, who was a common criminal and not a leader type.”

Robert Zorn’s account of his own investigation into this 80-year-old mystery is as compelling and dramatic as the crime itself. The term “page turner” is used too frequently, but Cemetery John is just that. Once you start reading it, you will not stop. This book should be on the top of everyone’s summer reading list. You won’t be disappointed.

Arthur T. Vanderbilt, II is the author of “Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt” and many other nonfiction books. He was inducted into the New Jersey Literary Hall of Fame in 2001.

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Arthur T. Vanderbilt, II