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How the US Forest Service’s Forest Products Lab Helped Solve the “Crime of the Century”

The ladder used to convict Bruno Hauptmann of kidnapping is seen here in a contemporary crime-scene photograph. Scientists at the Forest Products Laboratory were able to prove that one of the steps used in the ladder was from a plank of wood in Hauptmann’s attic. Forest Service photo.

The ladder used to convict Bruno Hauptmann of kidnapping is seen here in a contemporary crime-scene photograph. Scientists at the Forest Products Laboratory were able to prove that one of the steps used in the ladder was from a plank of wood in Hauptmann’s attic. Forest Service photo.

In the early 1930’s, before the age of DNA and forensics, piecing together the evidence of a crime scene was a difficult task involving fingerprints (if you could get them), eyewitness accounts (if there were any), or a confession (not likely). Law enforcement had none of these as they tried to convict Bruno Hauptmann, the man they believed was guilty of what was then being called the “crime of the century”– the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby.

It was amid this national media frenzy that the U.S. Forest Service Forest Products Lab would in many ways introduce the concept of forensics into crime solving.

The pressure was on.

Charles Lindbergh was a hero, a giant of the new worldwide media outlets. His intrepid and extremely dangerous solo flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis was a first in human history and changed forever what the world considered time and distance between continents. When his 20-month-old son was kidnapped and subsequently murdered it caused a nationwide flurry of fear and fascination—the people wanted this case solved.

The FBI had used marked bills for a ransom demanded by the kidnapper. These traced bills lead them to Hauptman. But he had an alibi. The FBI would need more and solid evidence to convict him.

This is where the Forest Products Lab came in. One of the pieces of evidence gathered at the crime scene was the homemade ladder used to climb up the side of the Lindbergh home to snatch the baby from his crib. Forest Service scientist Arthur Koehler was able to identify through microscopic techniques the wood used in the ladder. This allowed for a step-by-step process of discovering where the wood for the ladder was milled and ultimately sold, and to whom–Hauptmann. Additionally, Koehler was able to prove that one of the steps used in the ladder was from a plank of wood in Hauptmann’s attic.

This was the first time wood forensics were used in a major triall and helped send a brutal kidnapper and murderer to the electric chair.

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