Long before flying around the world became a daily event, aviator Charles Lindbergh basically wrote himself a chapter in the history books when he became the first person to complete a solo transatlantic flight in 1927. But the man went from being a national hero to a tragic figure. To this day, the kidnapping of his infant son in 1932 is still one of the most unforgettable true-crime cases of the 20th century.
Most people remember Lindbergh as either a highly accomplished pilot, or a grieving father. The story of the famous aviator has faded over the decades, but his influence is impossible to deny. Beyond flying across the Atlantic alone or losing a son in a terrible kidnapping, Lindbergh’s legacy was massive. So how did he come to be such a legend? What really happened with his son? And what’s this we hear about living a double life?
You’re about to find out…
A Defining Moment
“How long can men thrive between walls of brick, walking on asphalt pavements, breathing the fumes of coal and oil, growing, working, dying, with hardly a thought of wind, and sky, and fields of grain, seeing only machine-made beauty, the mineral-like quality of life?”— Charles Lindbergh.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, on February 4, 1902, Lindbergh grew up in Washington, D.C., where his father, Charles August Lindbergh, was a congressman. They moved to Little Falls, Minnesota, where little Charles saw a daredevil pilot, or “barnstormer,” buzz through the skies. Lindbergh remembers lying in the grass and looking up at the sky, thinking “how much fun it would be to fly up there among those clouds.” That was the first time Charles Lindbergh thought of becoming a pilot.
No to College, Yes to Flying
In 1922, Lindbergh decided to drop out of college, where he was studying mechanical engineering, to pursue his dream of flying. And it was during that same year that Lindbergh finally achieved that wish when he was a passenger in a two-seat Lincoln Standard biplane flown by Otto Timm. Soon after that amazing moment, the wannabe-pilot started taking flying lessons.
After dropping out of college at the age of 20, Lindbergh worked for the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation, which fixed and sold airplanes. While a fellow employee of his would fly the aircraft for publicity, Lindbergh would step onto the planes’ wings to attract attention. By 1925, Lindbergh graduated from the Army Air Service and walked away with a pilot’s license.
Wowing the Crowds as a Stunt Pilot
Before being known as the pilot who flew across the Atlantic Ocean alone, Lindbergh was a barnstormer in the mid-1920s. Barnstormers were what they called stunt pilots. After earning his pilot’s license, Lindbergh spent two years as an itinerant stuntman and aerial daredevil. During his daredevil excursions through the American heartland, the young pilot wowed the audiences below with his daring displays of wing-walking, parachuting, and even mid-air plane changes.
After buying his own plane, Lindbergh became one of America’s top stunt pilots, known for twisting into complicated loops or killing the engine at 3,000 feet and gliding to the ground. Despite the dangers of stunt flying, Lindbergh, who came to be known as “Lucky Lindy,” would only really face death during his days as a U.S. Army flier, test pilot, and airmail pilot.
Developing Nerves of Steel
It was during his time as a test and airmail pilot that Lindbergh survived a record four plane crashes by bailing the plane and parachuting to safety. Other than barnstorming, Lindbergh was also a delivery pilot, working for US Air Mail, and travel across the country. After having served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Lindbergh delivered airmail between St. Louis and Chicago.
The rushed delivery schedule meant that Lindbergh and other pilots flew at night in poor visibility, having to push through extreme weather, suffering from fatigue. Those flights helped give Lindbergh nerves of steel, preparing him for a daring goal: to fly solo across the oceans. But first, there was a cash prize to earn…
Racing for the Cash Prize
Pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown made a nonstop transatlantic flight a few years prior, in June 1919, from Newfoundland to Ireland. But their flight was only half the distance of Lindbergh’s goal, which was to fly from New York to Paris. At the time, a hotel owner named Raymond Orteig offered up a $25,000 prize to the first person to travel such a route – “a stimulus to the courageous aviators.”
For several years, no one took him up on his offer, which could be a testament to the fact that very few people believed that it could even be done. But Lindbergh was a daredevil after all and decided to go after that cash reward (which would be close to $350,000 today).
Guts and Technology
Lindbergh’s decision to make that infamous journey in 1927 required two things: guts and technology. Lindbergh had developed the nerves and bravery for such a feat, but he still needed the right aircraft – a plane that could make the 3600-mile flight. Funded by the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce, Lindbergh ordered a $15,000 plane to be built by the Ryan Airlines Corporation of San Diego.
The plane was nicknamed The Spirit of St. Louis. Because the aircraft needed extra fuel storage, everything unnecessary was removed to make it lighter — the radio, gas gauge, and parachute were all taken out. Lindbergh even had to give up having a window in his cockpit, meaning the gas tank took over his field of vision. Instead, he had to use a periscope to see.
Making a Custom-Built Plane
Ryan Airlines wasn’t Lindbergh’s first choice for his plane. Before them, Lindbergh was turned down by Fokker, Travel Air, and Wright-Bellanca. After contracts with Ryan were signed on February 25, 1927, all the company’s 35 employees worked overtime. Lindbergh specified that the aircraft should be built for himself only, with a single-engine that could carry more than enough fuel for the flight.
Lindbergh helped with the initial design. By April 25, the plane was ready. That’s when he took the plane and headed for New York on May 10. With him, he painted the names of all the workers (as well as a Native American swastika, which was a good-luck symbol in the pre-WW II era) inside the plane’s spinner nose cone.
Accepting the Challenge
As a mail pilot, Lindbergh was comfortable peering out of the side windows to take off and land. A Ryan Air engineer (and former U.S. Navy submariner) designed a retractable ‘periscope’ that slid horizontally out the left-hand window to give Lindbergh a limited forward view. To use it, he had to look into a small mirror, about the size of a 3×5-inch index card.
The Spirit of St. Louis had a 46-foot wingspan, so the tail was lengthened. This forced Lindbergh to have to keep his hands on the control stick and his feet on the rudder pedals at all times. But the motivated pilot accepted the challenge. After all, he didn’t want to get too comfortable and accidentally doze off and wake up in the ocean.
The Public Was Spellbound
Word started building of Charles Lindbergh’s attempt to make the journey and win the cash prize. Close to 500 people were there to see him take off. Though several others were also competing for the prize, Lindbergh became a public favorite thanks to his youth, good looks, and guts to attempt such a bold, solo flight.
The press dubbed him “Lindy,” a name Lindbergh came to hate, only tolerating the nickname “Slim” instead. Though at the time, Lindbergh sought press coverage, he grew to dislike being hounded by the newspapers of the day, which are often lacking accuracy and dignity. Nevertheless, the news of his upcoming flight gripped the nation.
But with all the preparations and time spent readying himself and his plane, Lindy wasn’t getting much sleep – something that would nearly cost his life…
3,610 Miles in 33 1/2 Hours
The Spirit of St. Louis was a challenging plane to fly, to say the least. Think about it as similar to driving across the country in a car with a painted-over windshield, where you have to rely on side windows and instruments, thinking ‘only 1,000 miles to go.’ But the sacrifices were worth it. As we are well aware, Lindbergh made the flight, going 3,610 miles in 33 1/2 hours.
But that’s not to say that it wasn’t extremely exhausting and nearly traumatizing. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean – alone – demanded more of himself than just excellent flying skills or a custom aircraft. The flight took a real toll on the young aviator, where he had to stay awake for the entire solo flight and maintain focused concentration throughout.
Fatigued and Trying to Stay Awake
Lindbergh lifted off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island, New York, at 7:52 a.m. on Friday, May 20, 1927. He arrived at Le Bourget Aerodrome, just outside of Paris, at 10:22 p.m. (Paris time) on Saturday, May 21. Just to give some perspective: what took Lindbergh 33.5 hours would take a modern-day jetliner today 5 to 6 hours.
But those were a long 33.5 hours. Along with the risks of navigating the foggy Atlantic skies, Lindbergh’s biggest challenge during his long flight was just staying awake. Halfway through, fatigue set in, and Lindbergh had to literally force his eyes to remain open with his fingers. “My eyes feel like dry stones,” is what Lindbergh wrote. That’s when he started to hallucinate…
Hallucinations and Delirium
With him, he had five sandwiches, a canteen of water and some Army rations. But he delayed eating, thinking that his hunger will help him stay awake. In the darkness and fog, he flew by his instruments. He left side windows open so the chilly air and rain will keep him alert. He went so far as to skid the surface of the ocean, hoping the cold sea spray would keep him awake.
With his pre-flight preparations and the journey itself, Lindbergh was running on 55 hours without sleep. And 24 hours into his journey, he became delirious, seeing ghosts pass through his cockpit. Lindbergh later wrote of visions of “fog islands” in the sea below him. Lindbergh became aware that he was not alone.
Seeing Ghosts in the Cockpit
He reported seeing “vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane.” Lindbergh claimed that these “ghosts” spoke to him and offered him words of wisdom for his journey. Their voices gave him advice about the flight, navigation, and offered reassurance. He came to find the voices comforting.
For nearly 30 years, Charles Lindbergh kept that part of his journey a secret. That is until he wrote “The Spirit of St. Louis,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, in 1953. Some historians believe that Lindbergh’s paranormal experience was based on the so-called Third Man Factor theory. It’s the idea that people who are close to death are helped by an unseen being (a guardian angel if you will), offering support or guidance.
150,000 Spectators Awaiting His Arrival
The hallucinations eventually faded, and within a few hours, the dangerously exhausted pilot landed in Paris to find a crowd of more than 150,000 impressed spectators, which created “the largest traffic jam in Paris history.” They crowded around the plane, somewhat crushing it, cracking some of the wood spars. Lindbergh had to be pulled from the aircraft and carried onto the field. French officials took him to a nearby hangar.
After being awake for 63 hours, the pilot slept in the home of the U.S. ambassador to France. He asked about Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, the two French airmen who were on the same mission as he was and left twelve days before him. He was told that they are still missing and presumed dead. And so, France praised Lindbergh for his incredible achievement.
The Flight Made Him a Millionaire
The Spirit of St. Louis was taken inside and put under guard. Souvenir hunters were already cutting pieces of fabric from the fuselage – hoping to keep them or make a pretty penny. The chair’s cushion, a lubrication fitting, and other items were stolen. Lindbergh later learned that the clipboard holding his logbook was also stolen, which was a particularly distressing loss for the aviator.
Although there was indeed a $25,000 prize for the accomplishment, Lindbergh’s wealth came from the public’s mythologizing of his journey. City after city, he was thrown celebratory parades, eventually making it to every state. His 1927 autobiography, “We,” became a bestseller. Lindbergh later wrote articles about aviation for The New York Times. With all his projects, the man became a millionaire.
Let it Be Known
But let it be known that Charles Lindbergh wasn’t the first person to fly across the Atlantic. In the years before his famous flight, dozens of other pioneering aviators successfully completed flights across the Atlantic. But most of those before him made the long journey in multiple stages or used lighter-than-air aircraft.
As mentioned earlier, in 1919, British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland in biplane before crash landing in a bog. What made Lindbergh’s flight such a major achievement was not that he was the first one to cross the Atlantic by airplane, but rather that he was the first one to do it ALONE and between two international cities.
Lindbergh’s flight made him a worldwide celebrity like no other at the time. His plane was returned to the U.S. on a Navy ship, but he later flew The Spirit of St. Louis across the country and into Central America on goodwill tours. He received honors from around the globe. Back home, then-president Calvin Coolidge awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Lindbergh became a private man who developed a resentment towards the intrusive and tactless press. It’s likely due to the tragedy that the poor man and his family had to endure. In 1932, tragedy, shock, and sorrow came to his previously positive life when his 20-month-old son was kidnapped and then murdered.
The Mysterious Kidnapping
In 1927, while in Mexico City, Lindbergh met a woman named Anne Morrow, the daughter of one of his financial advisors. The couple would eventually marry in 1929 and go on to have six children. But tragically, their firstborn child, Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., fell victim to an awful kidnapping and murder. On March 1, 1932, the Lindberghs’ home in East Amwell, New Jersey, was broken into.
The mysterious kidnapping prompted a public outcry that was never before seen. His 20-month old son was taken from his crib in his second-floor bedroom. The kidnapping was financially-motivated, of course. There was a ransom note, after all. A ransom payment was made, in accordance with the note, using telltale money that the authorities hoped could trace them to the kidnappers.
With a Little Help From a Famous Gangster
The attention ended up hindering the police efforts. The kidnapping was initially listed as a local crime, meaning the federal authorities didn’t have jurisdiction. But regardless, no abduction captured the public’s attention quite like this one. The Lindberghs received thousands of offers to help them, including a letter from none other than gangster Al Capone.
While Capone was waiting to be sent to prison for tax evasion, he released a statement offering the Lindberghs not only his condolences, but an offer to assist. “I know how Mrs. Capone and I would feel if our son were kidnapped.” The gangster offered a $10,000 reward for any information that would lead to the arrest of the kidnappers.
The Efforts Proved Unsuccessful
Capone even suggested using his criminal connections to find the kidnappers in exchange for his release from prison. But the Lindberghs didn’t accept his offer. Reportedly, Capone still worked with some underworld figures who claimed they found out some information on the crime. But unfortunately, all the efforts to bring Charles Jr. to safety weren’t successful.
The baby, whom the press dubbed “Little Lindy” was found on May 12, about 4.5 miles from the Lindbergh home. However, the baby was not alive. According to the police, he had been killed on the night of the kidnapping. Only one man, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, was convicted of the crime. He was later executed.
The Little Lindbergh Law
In the kidnapping’s aftermath, the Federal Kidnapping Act was enacted by Congress in the same year no less (1932). The law, also known as the Little Lindbergh Law, declared that if a victim of kidnapping was taken across state lines, federal authorities are obligated to take over the case. Certain states went even a step further, activating their own versions of the law.
One version of it made the crime a capital punishment if the victim was harmed in any way. While laws were being passed and the newspapers were relentlessly covering the case, the Lindberghs themselves were feeling bombarded and overwhelmed by the media – in addition to the agony they were already feeling. So, the pilot and his wife moved to Europe to escape the press.
As the war was looming in Europe in the early 1930s, Lindbergh and other well-known Americans joined “America First,” which was an isolationist group that aimed to keep America out of the war. As a result, Lindbergh’s previously ironclad reputation took a serious hit, and he was majorly criticized for not just this, but for his admiration of Germany and his accompanying anti-Semitic statements.
The aviator had made a few trips to Germany in the 30s to inspect their air force. He returned to America, convinced that the Germans were fully capable of overpowering the rest of Europe. He was then one of the most vocal opponents of America’s involvement in the war. He gave dozens of public and radio speeches. He criticized President Franklin Roosevelt and Jewish-run newspapers, arguing in favor of isolationism.
From Hero to Traitor
As the United States inched closer and closer to war, many denounced the former hero, who started to appear as an anti-Semite and a traitor. But once the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Lindbergh decided to give up his crusade and offer his services to the U.S. military. But the military refused his offer. In fact, President Roosevelt (who privately called the aviator a n*zi) barred Lindbergh from serving.
Lindbergh then started to work as a consultant for Henry Ford in a factory making bomber planes. It was then that he helped develop P-47 fighters and other aircraft. Lindbergh later traveled to the war’s Pacific Theater as an observer only. While he was officially a civilian, he flew nearly 50 combat missions and even shot down a Japanese fighter plane.
The Lindbergh Quarter
The accusations of Lindbergh being pro-German and anti-Semitic followed him for the rest of his life. In the early 1940s, his campaign for American isolationism was the target of satirical political cartoons by Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. On a “Lindbergh quarter,” Dr. Seuss illustrated an ostrich with its head in the ground instead of an eagle.
Speaking of being pro-German, at one point during the war, Luftwaffe (Germany’s aerial warfare) commander-in-chief Hermann Goering awarded Lindbergh with the Service Cross of the German Eagle, acknowledging his pioneering work in aviation. Lindbergh reported his experiences in Germany to U.S. intelligence, informing the American military of German technology.
After the war, Lindbergh continued to work in aviation. He also turned out to be a part of the advent of the country’s space program. He worked with Robert Goddard, the so-called “father of modern rocketry.” Lindbergh first learned of Goddard’s experiments with rockets in 1929. Soon after, the two started what would become a lifelong friendship.
Lindbergh was convinced that Goddard’s work would one day facilitate a trip to the moon. He managed to persuade philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim to give Goddard $100,000 in funding. The physicist’s breakthroughs later proved invaluable in the early development of missiles and space travel. When Apollo 8, the first human-crewed space mission to orbit the moon, occurred in 1968, Lindbergh sent the astronauts a personal message: “You have turned into reality the dream of Robert Goddard.”
Keeping Organs Alive
Lindbergh was known for having a hands-on approach to both prepping and repairing his aircraft, but he directed his mechanical wizardry toward biology. Affected by his sister-in-law’s battle with heart disease, he teamed up with Nobel Prize-winning French surgeon Alexis Carrel, spending much of the early 1930s developing a method for keeping organs alive outside the body.
By 1935, Lindbergh and Carrel developed a perfusion pump consisting of Pyrex glass that was capable of moving air and fluids through removed organs to keep them functioning and infection-free. The pump was considered a medical breakthrough and helped pave the way for further development of artificial organs. Lindbergh and Carrel co-wrote a 1938 book called “The Culture of Organs.”
A Loyal Conservationist
Having traveled so much during and after World War II, Lindbergh claimed that his travels made him very aware of the toll modern civilization was taking on both animal and plant life. In the 60s, the lifelong pilot went so far as to argue that he would rather have “birds than airplanes.” He gave his support to the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
He used his celebrity to lobby for environmental causes, like fighting for endangered species such as blue and humpback whales, tortoises, tamaraws, and eagles. He also spent time living among indigenous tribes in Africa and the Philippines, helping to secure land for the formation of Haleakala National Park in Hawaii.
The Late Father of… 12?
Speaking of Hawaii, Charles Lindbergh ended up being there in Kipahulu. Lindbergh spent his final years on the island of Maui. It was there that he died of lymphoma on August 26, 1974, at the age of 72. He left behind his wife and children. But as it turns out, Lindbergh had not just one, but three secret families.
It looks like his travels to Germany were more than just business. Beginning in 1957, Lindbergh started engaging in lengthy affairs with three women while he was still married to Anne. Aside from his five (surviving) children with Anna, he also fathered multiple other children – seven to be exact – with these other women.
Call Him Careu Kent
In 2003, DNA tests confirmed that Lindbergh was the father of three children with German hat maker Brigitte Hesshaimer. But neither Hesshaimer nor Lindbergh ever revealed that lineage to the kids, who only knew him as the man who came to visit them several times a year. To them, he was a writer named “Careu Kent.”
The three adult children waited until their mother’s death in 2001 to pursue their longtime suspicion that Kent was actually Lindbergh. It took a couple of years, but their instincts proved to be correct. The aviator also allegedly fathered two children with none other than Brigitte’s sister, Marietta, a painter. It doesn’t even end there…
Letters to His Mistresses
Lindbergh also had a son and daughter with his personal secretary, a woman named Valeska, who was an East Prussian aristocrat living in Germany. All seven of his “illegitimate” children were born between 1958 and 1967. Ten days before he died, Lindbergh wrote a letter to each of his European mistresses, pleading with them to continue lying basically and keep the secret of his illicit activities – even after his death.
Each of the three women (who never married) managed to keep their affairs a secret from their children, who, for almost a decade after his death, didn’t even know the true identity of their father. In the case of Lindbergh’s and Bridgette’s kids, only after reading a magazine article about the aviator in the mid-80s, did something click.
She Figured It Out
Brigitte’s daughter, Astrid, figured it out after seeing that article about Lindbergh. She later discovered snapshots of the man she once knew as Careu Kent and over 150 love letters that he sent to her mother. After both Brigitte and Anne Lindbergh died, Astrid made her findings public. That’s when the DNA tests were performed.
Reeve, Lindbergh’s youngest child with Anne, wrote in her personal diary in 2003: “This story reflects absolutely Byzantine layers of deception on the part of our shared father. These children did not even know who he was! He used a pseudonym with them (To protect them, perhaps? To protect himself, absolutely!)”
He Refused To Celebrate Mother’s Day
According to his daughter, Reeve, her father didn’t like manufactured holidays. Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, for example, were commercially driven and insincere, according to Lindbergh. He refused to acknowledge either one, at least in the Lindbergh household. While his children were forced to surrender to his beliefs while he was still around, his frequent (and secret) trips to Europe allowed them to celebrate Mother’s Day in secret.
Due to his frequent traveling, Lindbergh apparently saw his kids (the ones he shared with Anne) as little as only a couple of months per year. In addition, Anne was apparently instructed to keep him up to date on every single one of the kids’ infractions. The man was strict to say the least.
Pop Culture Inspiration
What a story, right? Well, Hollywood also thought so. The most well-known (and poorly-made) portrayal of Charles Lindbergh on the big screen was the 1942 film ‘The Spirit of St. Louis.’ Actor James “Jimmy” Stewart was a longtime admirer of the pilot and was himself an aviator who flew bombing missions during World War II.
Unfortunately, while the movie was in production, Stewart was twice as old as Lindbergh had been at the time of his solo Atlantic flight. It was this major age difference that contributed to the film’s both critical and commercial failure.
But when it comes to music, Lindbergh’s infamous flight inspired many popular songs. One of the most well-known tunes made in honor of the pilot was “Lucky Lindy” by L. Wolfe Gilbert and Abel Baer.
All the Fame
The fame that Lindbergh experienced after his flight across the ocean simply can’t be exaggerated. He could essentially be called one of the country’s first celebrities ever. He was flooded with attention, worship, and job offers. According to one writer, it was “as though Lindbergh had walked on water, not flown over it.”
One of the few magazines that never covered the Lindbergh flight was Time. However, the magazine found an opportunity near the end of the year to do so. During a period of time when there was “slow news,” they dubbed Lindbergh the “Man of the Year” and ran an entire issue just on him. He happened to be the first person ever given this honor by Time. And they have been running the trend-setting title ever since.