- The setting: A bleak and blustery evening at an estate in 1930s Hopewell, N.J.
- The scene: At 9:00 p.m., a well-dressed man hears a noise he later likens to an orange crate falling off a kitchen chair. Noting nothing amiss, he shrugs and returns to his evening activities. The night continues uneventfully until 10:00 p.m., when nurse Betty Gow checks on her young charge. With a shock, she discovers the twenty-month-old boy missing. Alarmed, Gow reports the disappearance to the well-dressed man and his wife, the child’s parents, who are revealed to be famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
With this opening act, the night of March 1, 1932, ushered in the sensational “crime of the century” — and, unexpectedly, wood forensics.
The ensuing search for baby Charles, Jr., turned up a ransom note on the windowsill of the nursery. This kidnapping claim prompted the Lindberghs’ estate caretaker to contact the local authorities, who called the New Jersey State Police. When the first state troopers arrived, they investigated the outside area of the house, particularly the ground below the second-story nursery window. They found footprints in the wet ground, but neither measured nor made plaster casts of them. Two deep impressions pointed to the use of a ladder, and a carpenter’s chisel laid nearby. Widening the search, the investigators recovered a homemade ladder in three sections. The bottom section was broken, presumably during the ascent or descent. Within the nursery, no blood stains or fingerprints provided evidence.
LINDY’S BABY KIDNAPPED screamed the morning newspaper headlines. Though the case did not fall under federal jurisdiction, the FBI was put on the case, increasing the high intrigue. For months to follow, the public would be captivated and agitated by stories of the botched police investigation, a series of ransom notes, and thousands of (mis)leads. The story of Little Lindy’s kidnapping aroused public interest; 38,000 letters arrived at the Lindbergh estate offering sympathy, prayers, and assistance.
Among these offers was a letter from Arthur Koehler, chief wood technologist at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. Koehler’s particular research interest in the identification, cellular structure and growth of wood gave him the specific training and abilities for what he proposed to do: detect clues in the broken ladder. His letter went unanswered.