Eighty years ago, on March 1, 1932, the toddler son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh was kidnapped from the family’s new home in Hopewell, New Jersey. Thus began what instantly became one of the most sensational news stories of the 20th century, culminating in 1936 with the electric-chair execution of the person convicted of the crime, Bruno Hauptmann.
That paragraph is about 60 words. Within the first 24 hours after the kidnapping, one service alone–Hearst’s International– pumped out 50,000 words on the crime, the equivalent of a 200-page book. The story of the kidnapping and the manhunt and the trial was certainly an avalanche moment of American journalism– in terms of sheer scale, if not in ethics or quality. But it was through the radio, far more even than newspapers, that most Americans by 1932-36 were consuming–voraciously–a daily diet of news and sensationalism. Radio coverage, coupled with dramatic newsreels such as this one from March 3, 1932, made the sad and lurid Lindbergh baby story the first great electronic media sensation in history.
[The newsreel clip here is from the “Critical Past” website (readily apparent by the watermark), and is about 3 minutes long, including the “Ride of the Valkyries” music that opens the clip.]