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The Crime of the Century
"The most important equation to solve in life is the human equation." -- Robert Zorn, Cemetery John
Every once in a while, something happens that grabs America by the shoulders and gives it a good shake. The colors of the rainbow suddenly muddy. Our silver linings become streaked with tarnish. Heroes are brought to their knees. There was probably never a time in the 20th century when Americans needed the hope of rainbows and silver linings more than during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Shirley Temple was the biggest box-office star in the country throughout much of the decade. Millions of weary people flocked to theaters to watch the curly-headed moppet sing and dance their troubles away for 90 minutes. The movies always had a happy ending, too, no matter how distant the prospect seemed to be at first. With everything else that they had to deal with, Americans clung to the promise of a happy ending.
The expectation was shaken badly after the kidnapping of the 20-month-old son of Charles Lindbergh on a windy and cold night in March of 1932. Lindbergh was arguably the most famous man in the world, a genuine hero after his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. It made the abduction of his only child even more puzzling to authorities. There were richer men and there were certainly families whose ordeal would attract less attention and sympathy.
A note was left on the windowsill of the baby's room demanding $50,000 in ransom. The three pieces of a homemade ladder were found a few yards from the house. Two sets of footprints trailed off to an abandoned road at the back of the 425 acre Hopewell, New Jersey estate.
After a number of notes from the kidnappers, the ransom was paid. Lindbergh was told that he could find his son on a boat called the Nelly off of Martha's Vineyard. The aviator flew over the waters around the island for days. There was no boat and no child.
Three and a half months later, the badly decomposed body of Charlie Lindbergh was found four miles from his parents home. Foraging animals had pulled the small body out of the burlap sack in which he had been dumped. His father, who insisted upon seeing the remains, identified his son by a slight deformity in one of his toes.
It was about as far as anything could get from a happy ending.
The notion that only one man kidnapped the Lindbergh baby was advanced more out of desperation than logic. Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was caught passing some of the ransom money, wasn't doing any talking other than to profess his innocence. He went to the electric chair in 1936 without betraying any names.
Everyone thought he was guilty. Practically no one thought that he acted alone. The authorities seemed content to let the business fade in the public consciousness. As awful as the murder was, there were more depression years to slog through and other troubles for people to weather. Anne and Charles Lindbergh moved to Europe, where they found people more civilized.
In the decades since the kidnapping, many theories have been advanced concerning the other people involved in the crime. Robert Zorn's new examination has a better pedigree than most of them.
Mr. Zorn's father was acquainted with a German immigrant named John Knoll. Gene Zorn, then 15-years-old, was invited to spend the day at the Pallisades Amusement Park in New Jersey by his Bronx neighbor. It might have been just a pleasant day of fun for the teenager, but it ended up haunting him all of his life. Gene, who didn't speak German, only understood two words of the conversation between Knoll and the two men they met at the park. One of the men was called Bruno and they was talking about something in Hopewell.
Seventy-four years later, Robert Zorn promised his dying father that he would continue to seek justice for Charlie Lindbergh.
Cemetery John is the result of that pledge. Using psychological profiling, handwriting analysis, first-hand conversations with surviving members of Knoll's family, and garden-variety common sense, Robert Zorn makes a compelling case that the mastermind behind the most infamous crime of the last century has been unmasked at last.
It might not qualify as a happy ending, but, in 2012, we are used to doing without them. Shirley Temple hasn't made a movie in years.