As a young reporter with the New York Evening Journal, John Hohenberg covered the controversial “trial of the century” in which Bruno Richard Hauptmann was tried and sentenced to death for the murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son. Hohenberg later returned to the Journalism School, where he became a legendary professor and an administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes.
The New York Evening Journal – February 14, 1935
“Flares Gleam as 10,000 Cheer Death Verdict”
By John Hohenberg
FLEMINGTON, Feb. 11 – The Main Street that sprang into being under the fierce white light of a thousand flares, that resounded in the wolfish cries of close-packed throngs impatiently awaiting a death chair verdict, that heard a great bell mournfully tolling the knell of a murderer—that Main Street vanished today.
In its place remained a drab and dirty thread of concrete flanked by a few rambling old buildings and small, stuffy shops—the sparsely populated Main Street Flemington always has known.
Bruno Richard Hauptmann’s arrest brought a new, wild, throbbing spirit to the little thoroughfare, and with Hauptmann under sentence of death that spirit also died.
But Main Street had its hour last night—an hour that will never be forgotten in this old town, and an hour that will never come again to any of its 2,700 souls.
All through the day a black and spattered cavalcade of automobiles from all parts of the State had poured sensation-seekers into Flemington.
And all through the early evening some 10,000 persons had waited with grim patience in front of the century-old Hunterdon County Courthouse.
Discouraging rumors seeped from the closely guarded courtroom, but minute by minute the crowds pressed forward until it had almost engulfed the sparse blue-coated army of State troopers desperately trying to hold their ground.
They would not believe the jury had been locked up for the night. They could not believe, after more than 11 hours, that the jury would return anything less than a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree.
This, then, was the night that was to wipe out that other night of March 1, 1932, when the world was aghast at the news that the infant son of Col. Charles A. Lindbergh had been kidnapped.
This was the death watch.
This was retribution.
The first sign that something was afoot came when a few newspapermen, snatching a hasty meal at the Union Hotel, dashed from their supper tables and, hatless and coatless, fought their way to the courthouse door.
Restlessly, silent, the crowds stirred. Here and there a spectator shouted. Nerves were on edge. Even the iron resolution of the morbid cracked.
Then suddenly, like the thunderous crack of sledge hammer on a stout black anvil, the bell in the slender steeple of the courthouse clanged its warning with solemn, measured strokes.
“The bell!” came a hundred cries. “The bell! The bell!”
State troopers put their heads down and mowed a path through the waiting thousands—a path down which attorneys for the defense and for the State hurried to hear the verdict.
In a few moments flares burst like glaring daylight over Main St. and a great cheer was heard.
The lights wavered, hissed and leaped higher and higher, etching the wolf-pack into jagged outline, picking eager, grinning faces from the mob, exposing the bitter and unruly passion of the curious.
A flare spluttered and the night snuffed it out. Another burst with a roar and spattered the ancient courthouse in garish relief. The newsreel operators, straddled atop their trucks, busily ground away at their cameras and the newspaper photographers set off flash after flash as they went about their work.
“Jury’s coming,” some one yelled. “Jury’s coming in.”
The cry was taken up and it sped from mouth to mouth. Those in the rear shoved forward and those in the front catapulted themselves into the stalwart and unyielding line of State troopers.
“Judge is on the bench” came the word. “Judge is on the bench.”
The pack fairly shivered with apprehension. Suppose, each asked his neighbor, just suppose they let him go. Suppose, just suppose, they only give him life.
But the pack might as well have saved its fears.
In two minutes the verdict arrived.
“DEATH IN CHAIR.”
Feet trampled the courthouse stairs in mighty confusion. Voices roared requiem inside the closed doors. At a front window a disheveled figure bent over a radio microphone, yelled and gestured, turned away and rushed back, yelling still.
“What is it?” they demanded outside.
And from a point near the courthouse steps the answer rushed back:
“Guilty of first degree murder—death in the electric chair.”
All the rest—the polling of the jury, the sentencing—was lost in the throbbing fury of the pack until the courthouse door opened and the figures of four women and eight men, led by State troopers, trailed slowly down the steps.
Once more the pack cheered—not for the work well done that is required of all good citizens—but because its cry had been heard, its demand satisfied.
“I won my bet,” a woman squealed.
“Good work,” a man shouted at the jurors.
“You put him in the hot seat.”
A woman in blue stood in a doorway and wept.
“The poor man,” those close by her say. “The poor wife.”
The jurors looked neither to the right nor to the left and vanished inside the Union Hotel, where they remained for the night. Soon afterward out came Edward J. Reilly, chief counsel for the defense. Perhaps two hundred wild men tried to follow him.
But others, restraining these brave spirits, yelled:
“Let him go.”
There was a lonely shout of “Yea, Reilly,” from a man in an automobile.
Another, almost directly in the attorney’s path, loudly proclaimed:
“That’s the last kidnaping that guy will ever do.”
Reilly, too, went on.
The other personages of the trial appeared and were greeted with much the same treatment, whether they had aided the prosecution or the defense. Little by little, the pack that for more than an hour had blocked Main St. completely, dwindled until only a few hundred, still keeping their faithful death watch outside the jail house door, remained.
But in the little shops, the restaurants, the homes and the wayside resorts, the great news was mulled over and over again.
Perhaps the greatest gathering was in “Nellie’s Bar,” inside the Union Hotel, made famous by newspapermen and taken away from them by the bustling and scratching tourist trade.
The mob in the bar was jammed from one wall to the other. There was laughter. There was song. There were cheers. And more laughter. Glasses were lifted. Toasts drunk.
“We did for Hauptmann!” cried the pack.
And upstairs, just two flights above, a woman member of the jury that had sentenced Hauptmann to die in the chair sobbed her heart out because she had done her duty to her town, her State and her nation.