CEMETERY JOHN: The Undiscovered Mastermind of the Lindbergh Kidnapping
By Robert Zorn WG’81
Overlook Press, 2012, $26.95.
By Maureen Corrigan | One summer’s day in 1931, a 15-year-old Bronx boy named Eugene Zorn was invited by an older neighbor to go to Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. The trip took several sweaty hours by subway, foot, and ferry; but, curiously, when the pair arrived at the park, the neighbor—a German immigrant named John Knoll—didn’t join “Gene” in the pool. After splashing around for a while, Gene dressed and found his neighbor near the ferry dock, talking in German with two men.
Gene didn’t understand German, but he made out two words in the conversation that would come to haunt him later in life: one was Englewood; the other was the name of one of Knoll’s companions, a tall guy named Bruno. Gene Zorn always remembered that day because Knoll abruptly ordered him to return to the Bronx by himself.
If your ears have just pricked up, you know your cold case history. So shocking was the 1932 kidnapping and murder of 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh Jr. that it was precipitously dubbed “The Crime of the Century.” Here’s a synopsis: On the night of March 1, 1932, the baby was snatched from his nursery crib on the second floor of the Lindberghs’ newly built mansion, Highfields. Both Charles and Anne were in the downstairs parlor at the time and servants were scattered about the house. A ladder was left at the scene of the crime and ransom notes followed, demanding $50,000 from Lindbergh, then the most famous man in the world by virtue of his solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. Though Lindbergh paid the ransom, baby Charlie was not returned. Seventy-two days after the kidnapping—and a manhunt that preoccupied the nation—the baby’s corpse was discovered by a trucker in woods close to the isolated Lindbergh estate. That estate was located in Hopewell, New Jersey, but the family previously had been staying with Anne’s parents at their home in … Englewood.
Though investigators—then and now—agree that the crime had to be the work of several kidnappers, only Bruno Richard Hauptmann—a German-born carpenter living in the Bronx—was ever arrested and convicted. Hauptmann went to his death by electrocution in 1936, keeping mum, except to insist on his innocence.
Robert Zorn first heard his father tell that peculiar story about the expedition to Palisades Amusement Park when he was on his spring break in 1980 from graduate school at Wharton. By then, Gene Zorn, a well-respected economist, had come to believe that he’d been a witness to a planning meeting of the Lindbergh Baby kidnappers. (One of the kidnappers’ eccentrically spelled ransom notes boasted to Charles Lindbergh that “You would not get any result from Police becauce our kidnaping was pland for a year allredy.”) The Zorns began their own investigation into John Knoll. After his father’s death in 2006, Robert Zorn continued the quest alone, traveling to Germany to interview Knoll’s surviving relatives, ferretting out clues in research libraries, and talking with FBI profilers and forensic psychiatrists. The end product of those decades of digging is Cemetery John.
Like so much else about the Lindbergh case, Zorn’s book makes a deep and unsettling impression. (I read Cemetery John on a vacation road trip and couldn’t stop talking about it, appalling my easily spooked teenaged daughter and intriguing our mystery-loving hosts.) More importantly, as a posthumous indictment of John Knoll (who died in 1980), Cemetery John is pretty convincing.
Part of the reason Cemetery John resonates is due to Zorn’s modesty. He doesn’t overplay his evidence; instead, he wryly acknowledges the possibility that this could all turn out to be yet another “grassy Knoll” theory and discloses that Charles Lindbergh reacted “dismissively” to the elder Zorn’s attempt to contact him in 1972. Little wonder. By then, Lindbergh must have been hardened to any overtures, given the battalions of crazies, celebrity seekers, and amateur sleuths who’d dogged his steps ever since the kidnapping. (The Lindberghs, along with their second son, Jon, fled the United States for England shortly after Hauptmann’s trial.)
For those readers new to—or foggy about—the details of the Lindbergh case, Zorn succinctly dramatizes the horrific highlights. The desperate Lindberghs were strung along, not only by the kidnappers’ callous ransom notes (assuring them, for instance, that their baby was being cared for by nurses), but by a host of predators, including a pair of Damon Runyon-esque cigar-smoking mobsters who’d moved into the mansion, pledging to use their underworld connections to crack the case. During the Hauptmann trial, local vendors outside the courthouse in Flemington, New Jersey “hawked fake rolls of ransom bills … and wooden replicas of the kidnap ladder.” Clearly, voyeurism and vulgarity were thriving in the Garden State long before the advent of Jersey Shore.
The compelling center of Zorn’s book, however, is the material—both hard fact and hypotheses—relating to John Knoll. As Zorn details, Knoll, a humble deli clerk, introduced the young Gene Zorn to stamp collecting. Starting in the spring of 1932 (after the ransom money had been paid), Knoll gave his young neighbor several extravagant stamps, including one celebrating the fifth anniversary of Lindbergh’s flight to Paris. The commemorative covers on some of those stamps, known to collectors as cachets, bear a resemblance to the distinctive signature on the ransom notes: two interlocking circles and three punched holes.
The ransom notes directed that an emissary appointed by the Lindberghs should meet with one of the kidnappers in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The later police sketch of that man, who said his name was “John,” did not resemble Hauptmann but does look similar to a contemporary photograph of Knoll. Even more suggestive is the fact that “Cemetery John” was described as having a “large fleshy mass” on his left thumb; a 1936 photo of Knoll seems to reveal a swelling on the left thumb. Bruno Hauptmann hailed from the same German town as an acquaintance of Knoll’s; after Hauptmann’s arrest, Knoll disappeared from the Bronx. As Hauptmann’s trial approached, Knoll and his second wife sailed first-class on the SS Manhattan from New York to Hamburg. Not too shabby for a deli clerk.
Those are just some of the salient details that qualify John Knoll to be a “person of interest” in the Lindbergh case. Aided by criminal profilers, Robert Zorn theorizes that his father was manipulated by Knoll to be the “archivist” of his infamous crime. If so, that would mean that Cemetery John stands, not only as a fascinating testament to a long quest for the truth shared by the Zorns, but also as a disturbing memorial to a monster who got away scot-free with murder.
Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, and critic-in-residence at Georgetown University.