On an evening in March, 1932, a kidnapping occurred. Maybe there were other similar incidents that evening—crimes are seldom discrete—but this particular one at a home in New Jersey caught the imagination, if not the revulsion, of all Americans.
On that evening, sometime between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m., the twenty-month old child of Charles and Anne Lindbergh was taken from his upstairs nursery. In the same room lay a small white envelope containing this note:
Dear Sir! Have 50,000$ redy 2500$ in 20$ bills 1500$ in 10$ bills and 1000$ in 5$ bills. After 2-2 days we will inform you were to deliver the Mony. We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the polise the child is in gute care. Indication for all letters are singnature and 3 holes.
By the next morning curious onlookers and souvenir hunters swarmed about the Lindbergh estate, leaving a crime scene virtually useless to investigators. Over the next two months a continuing stream of notes and letters arrived, assuring the Lindberghs of the baby's safety. But on May 12 the body was found in some woods nearby: experts believed the child had died on the night of the kidnapping.
Richard Hauptmann was no boy scout. He had been arrested for robbery in his native Germany, spent time in prison for burglary, and was re-arrested after his release for more burglaries. He was in the United States illegally, having stowed away on an ocean liner. He lived within the German community and worked as a carpenter until a license plate number implicated him in the kidnapping, and further evidence let to his indictment and prosecution. After the first of many trials of the century, this "most hated man in America" was executed on April 3, 1936.
Years later a tranche of evidence was discovered that had never been examined at the trial. Some of it supported the opinion that Hauptmann had been framed, but his wife, who died in 1994, was never able to reopen the trial and exonerate her husband.
A botched investigation and questionable evidence may have conspired to undo Bruno Hauptmann, but nothing worked against him as much as his ethnicity. He was a German national at a time when American's leftover antipathy toward the country that began the Great War was still prevalent. Perhaps worse, he was a German national at a time when the Nazi party and its presumptive leader Adolf Hitler had begun a new round of saber-rattling. And that ransom note. Gute? Who pronounces good that way other than a German?
Hatred, distrust, even fear of foreigners was growing, and the same nationalism that was fueling the Nazis and fascists in Europe was working its way through depression-ridden America. It was not a good time to be an immigrant, legal or otherwise—not a good time to speak another language, honor unusual customs, enjoy untraditional foods, or look different.
It's unlikely that any Central American refugees seeking a new start in today's America have ever heard of Lindbergh or Hauptmann. If they had, they'd have a better idea of why refugees can be tear-gassed at the border, why children can be ripped from their parents, and why—when two of them like Jakelin Caal Felipe Gómez Alonzo die in custody—a politician like Iowa's Steve King can laud the record of ICE, while others who share his same warped viewpoint seem to accept the incidents as collateral damage.
Individual lives—and the lives of nations—move forward by fits and starts. Maybe in this new year America can start moving forward again instead of retreating to an often shameful past.