01 October 2007

The Lindbergh Case: The State Police vs The Press

When the “Crime of the Century” occurred in the evening of March 1, 1932, it was, of course, immediately reported to the local and state police. At 10:46 PM, a teletype was sent from Department Headquarters in Trenton to all police stations throughout New Jersey and the neighboring states announcing the kidnapping and providing a description of the child.

Always looking for a “scoop”, the Press monitored the police teletypes and within fourteen minutes, at 11:00 pm the Philadelphia Ledger became the first newspaper to call the State Police about the kidnapping. At virtually the same instant, the Newark News called Department Headquarters. Two minutes later the State Gazette phoned. Then, the Newark Ledger. And so it went, every two minutes a newspaper was phoning the State Police for information. By the end of that hour twenty newspapers had phoned Headquarters.

According to State Police Superintendent Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Director of the Investigation, “several hundred newspaper reporters arrived at the Lindbergh residence during the night [and] were entertained by Colonel Lindbergh.” They “...did not leave the place until specifically requested to do so through their editors by Colonel Lindberg [at] about 4:00 pm Wednesday, March 2nd.”I The State Police quickly established a sub-station in the garage of Lindbergh’s estate where they installed filing cabinets and teletype machines. Lieutenant Walter J. Coughlin was appointed as Publicity Officer and was on duty at the Publicity Room at the State House in Trenton.

Lt. Coughlin will maintain contact with Major Schoeffel for the purpose of giving press releases at 8am, 12 noon, 4 pm and 8 pm. Any special or emergency press release will be forwarded to Lt. Coughlin without delay for immediate release...Lt. Caughlin will handle the release of all statements to the press and he is the only one authorized to give out any statements to the press.ii

Colonel Schwarzkopf held a press conference where he laid out his vision of the relationship of the relationship between the State Police and the Press:

This conference was asked for the purpose of the establishment of press relationship between the police and the newspaper correspondents. I said that I would hold such a conference and I am here for that purpose and nothing else…No publicity is given out by the police authorities in charge of this case, no one will get any scoop and you will all get the same break. We are trying to do this to be fair to all the correspondents.

The main purpose of all of our activities is the recovery of the Lindbergh baby alive and as quickly as possible…We are there as a police authority and are working as a police authority. This, of course, involves a great volume of work and it is a definite interference with my work if I have to come in to Trenton for a conference with the press…I am too busy to come in to Trenton or to give any personal conferences…We will give out no opinions and we will not make any predictions. Things that we give to the press are actual facts as we have found them…We will co-operate to every extent with the press. We want to do that [as] we realize the fine work the press is doing in carrying out the news of this case and we want to co-operate with you…If you will not mis-quote or misconstrue any of the things that are said and also in the handling of rumors if you will make every effort to verify them before the publication goes out. The State Police is not looking for publicity…of [any] kind…We hope you appreciate our earnest efforts to co-operate with you.iii

Beginning on March 7th, representatives from the Press submitted a series of twenty-two questions regarding various aspects of the investigation and asking for confirmations of rumors. The questions were submitted at various times throughout the day and were answered during the scheduled press releases. Twenty-one Press Questions and Answers were exchanged over a five-day period.

Because the questions were not screened prior to submission, the State Police began to become overwhelmed by the demands of the Press. Finally at 2:03 am on March 11th, the Press Submitted what became the “last straw” for Colonel Schwarzkopf’s patience. “Questions From Publicity Room State House Series No. 21” consisted of fourteen questions, each a paragraph long and requiring very detailed answers and explanations. They went on to insist that “…if the answer to any of the above is ‘no answer’ or ‘not to our knowledge,’ kindly explain why…such an answer was made.”

Colonel Schwarzkopf took it upon himself to reply to this latest series of demanding questions from the Press. He handwrote a four-paragraph reply that was transmitted to Lt. Coughlin at 3:43 am:

The questionnaire that has just been forwarded to me is so involved and commentary that it would require several hours and considerable discussion to competently answer it. The answering of these questionnaires has taken a great deal of time – the time that really belongs to the advancement of the[ir] work[.] The police authorities have the work on the case as their uppermost responsibility and this must receive first and foremost consideration. We regret the attempt that has been made to dictate to the police and the disregard that is shown to our earnest effort to cooperate with the press. The time required to answer these questionnaires is interfering with our work and therefore we will discontinue to answer questionnaires. In place thereof two bulletins will be issued daily from Hopewell – one at eleven am and one at ten pm. In addition you have our assurance that the moment anything definite develops we will issue a bulletin immediately so that you may have prompt and authoritative information.
--Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf

The first Press Bulletin was issued by Colonel Schwarzkopf on March 11th at 11:04 AM. The Press obviously was not the least bit happy about this new arrangement.

Just three hours after Schwarzkopf issued his proclamation and four hours before the Press Bulletin was issued, one or more reporters sent Colonel Schwarzkopf a Western Union Press Message that was hand delivered at 6:35 AM. It was signed “The Press”:

Although you have issued a dictum that the world at large, through the press, may not trouble you with any further questions regarding the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping, we nevertheless hopefully transmit to you, with all due humility, the questions which were prepared during the four and one half hours in which you decided you would not answer the last or any further questions which questioned the efficiency of the New Jersey State Police investigation in to the disappearance of the Lindbergh Baby.

The telegram continued on with a list of ten questions, each designed to be a slap in the face of Schwarzkopf and the State Police. For example, “The Press” wrote,

1.—To clarify the confusion caused by your silence in the face of conflicting reports, will you tell us whether you or any of the investigators have information that the kidnapping was done by amateurs, or by professional gangsters or kidnapers? If the answer to this is “NO ANSWER”, will you tell us why the question is not answered?
2.—Do you think that the baby’s safety justifies abandonment of police methods and a surrender to organized gangsters?
3.—If the answer to the above is “NO ANSWER”, or something of the sort, will you tell why?

The last “question,” posted by “The Press” further demonstrated the anger and frustration felt by the reporters who were now faced with a wall of silence:

Despite the fact you have destroyed the established system of communicating with you, can you inform us in some way, at the State House, in Trenton, how we can and will or will not receive a reply to this our final communication under present arrangements?

The audacity of the criticism in the two-page telegram was shocking in 1932. So much so, that editors and publishers immediately tried to disavow any connection to it.

Leonard Norman of New York’s Standard News Association was the first to send a telegram to Colonel Schwarzkopf informing him that “…neither [the] Standard News Association nor myself subscribe to [the] criticism expressed in [the] telegram…” Six more similar telegrams arrived from the United Press, Quentin Reynolds of the International News Service, the New York Evening Journal and others all desiring “…to disassociate [themselves] with and to disapprove of the type of questionnaire submitted to the State Police…”

Bates Raney of the United Press tried to explain to Colonel Schwarzkopf that the “public interest in the Lindbergh investigation is so strong, and of such international character, that this can only be served satisfactorily by respectful press interrogation at intervals of a responsible State Police official…” He went on to state that while “…it is our wish to cooperate heartily in every way possible, at the same time we press firmly and respectfully for the right of the public to know just how the investigation is proceeding…We urge that the Colonel make some immediate arrangement for personal contact between the press and a responsible State Police official…”

Quentin Reynolds, in his telegram, went further, pointing out to Schwarzkopf that the “...entire International News Service staff at Hopewell and Trenton have been anxious to continue cooperating with the authorities even to the extent of making subordinate our real duty of disseminating news to the all important duty of getting Lindbergh’s child back safely.” He did feel, however, that “the present system of bulletin communications is not nearly as efficient as the discarded questionnaire method” and he urged Schwarzkopf to reconsider his decision.

Some of the editors seemed resigned to the fact that the bulletin system was going to remain in place however they asked for a revision in the times the bulletins were to be issued. “The issuance of bulletins at 11am and 10 pm creates [a] difficult situation for [the] New York American as our first editions [go] to press before ten o’clock. [We] would appreciate [a] bulletin at 5:30 and six o’clock to remedy this.” The long span between the two bulletins put a hardship on many papers and was seen as discriminating against some of the newspapers and press services due to their publication deadlines.

While just about all of the newspapers’ telegrams to Schwarzkopf included a formal request for him to reinstate the regular press conferences, it was only Jack Miley of the Daily News who asked outright if it was “…upon your own initiative or by the authority and approval [of] Governor Moore that you have so despotically acted to abrogate press and police contact?”

Into the Lion’s Den

That afternoon, Lieutenant Coughlin was sent from his office in Department Headquarters across the street to the Press Room at the State House to mingle among the reporters in hopes of getting some insight as to how the press was handling the new system imposed upon them. Coughlin reported back what Schwarzkopf already knew; that the reporters were very dissatisfied with the new system. Referring to the initial teletype of ten detailed questions that caused Schwarzkopf to abolish the questionnaire system, “those reporters who are responsible for the telegram…realize now that they have made a terrible mistake and are crawling around [with] their tail between their legs.”

Not too surprisingly, Coughlin learned that it was not the reporters but rather their editors that were the source of the harsh criticism directed at Colonel Schwarzkopf. This was illustrated by the Trenton Times headline, “Schwarzkopf Offended, Won’t Answer Questions.”

Coughlin struck up conversations with some of the more experienced reporters and discussed the present situation. It was a mess of their own making and they knew it. The seasoned reporters tried to distance themselves from both the early morning teletype and the now infamous telegram that chided Schwarzkopf, claiming that “it was gotten up by Paynter of the New York Journal and five or six other men.”

Finger pointing aside, everyone in the Press Room knew they had to get things back on track. They offered several suggestions for re-establishing a working relationship with the State Police. At 3:47 PM, Lieutenant Coughlin forwarded these suggestions along with his own recommendations to Colonel Schwarzkopf who took them under advisement.

In the Press Bulletin issued at 10 o’clock that evening, Schwarzkopf delineated the compromises he was willing to make:

Respecting the requests of the press and wishing to cooperate with the press 3 instead of 2 bulletins will be issued daily. The time for these bulletins in accordance with your latest request will be 10-00 A.M., 4-00 P.M and 10-00 P.M. In a further desire to cooperate with the press and at the same time satisfy the public we will be glad to receive one hour before the time of publication of bulletins suggestions as to news to be covered and questions from the press. Both of these will be considered in the preparation of the bulletin and will be covered as far as possible in the bulletin by the information it contains.

The Colonel also made it clear that the time had come to put an end to the constant requests by the Press to change the system back to the way it was:

The stated policy as to information to be given out will continue and we request your cooperation in not making suggestions contrary to the defined policy. We earnestly hope that this bulletin and response to your suggestions and questions will satisfy the Press and our statement last night was offered in the same spirit of attempting to arrive at a solution, which would meet with everyone’s approval.

Just four days later, on March 15th, a new schedule was devised for the issuance of Press Bulletins when the 10:00 PM bulletin was bushed back to 9 o’clock. A day later, the 4 o’clock bulletin was pushed back to 3 o’clock provided, of course, the Press got their questions submitted early enough.

A committee of reporters was submitting the questions from the Press. It was hoped that this would help to prevent a submission such as the one received on the 11th that caused Schwarzkopf to put aside the Questionnaire System. To help to further alleviate the tension between the Police and the Fourth Estate, the first questionnaire submitted on the evening of March 11th ended with a diplomatic note: A majority of the committee responsible for this [list] hereby express appreciation for the Press arrangement announced by the police today.

At noon on May 29, 1932 the police investigation headquarters was moved from Lindbergh’s garage in Hopewell to the State Police Training School at Wilburtha. “The permanent headquarters for this investigation are now established at the Training School and the teletype installation is being removed and set up in the investigation headquarters just established…[with] the same method of operation, including the same press policy as heretofore…”

Also starting on May 29th, the Press Bulletins were handled by Trooper Gable and Trooper McCormick. They would phone questions to Wilburtha where a clerk would usually take the call and replies would then be phoned back to them.

When developments in the case would warrant, Special Bulletins would be issued to the press above and beyond the established schedule of announcements. One such special bulletin was issued on June 10th when it was announced the Violet Sharp, a maid working at Mrs. Lindbergh’s mother’s estate in Englewood, New Jersey, had committed suicide.

The last Press Bulletin on file in the State Police archives is #260 dated June 13, 1932. Issued at 4:15 in the afternoon, it discussed Dr. John Condon, the (in)famous Jafsie who acted as the intermediary between the kidnappers and the Lindbergh family and the further investigation into Violet Sharp’s suicide.

Regardless of how the Press continued to receive their information, receive it they did. In 1934 with the arrest of Bruno Richard Hauptmann and his subsequent trial and execution, it became impossible to satisfy the Press’s insatiable appetite for a story and the expressions “media frenzy” and “Yellow Journalism” took on new meanings.

Since the rocky relationship days of the Lindbergh Case, both the Press and the New Jersey State Police have striven to maintain an amicable relationship, realizing that the Press needs accurate information for their stories and the police needs the Press to publish accurate and factually correct stories in order to help with their investigations and to protect the public at large.

Internet press releases have replaced teletypes and the press liaison officer has evolved over the past seventy-five years from a temporarily designated spokesman to a permanently staffed office of responsible and reliable spokesmen and women under the direction of a State Police Captain. Armed with cell phones and “blackberries”, the Office of Public Information continues to work closely with the Press informing them of significant events and developments while portraying a professional and positive image of the New Jersey State Police.

i Schwarzkopf, H. Norman. Memorandum. April 7, 1932

ii Schwarzkopf, H. Norman. Organization Plan. March 9, 1932

iii Schwarkzopf, H. Norman. Text of speech given at press conference. [no date].