by Joan Shaddox Isom
In the mid-thirties, the story of the Lindbergh baby's kidnapping was in all the papers and on the radio. Although we lived miles from the nearest town, our parents were still concerned about our safety. They warned us about strangers.
But who was a stranger? Mr. Eudy, who delivered groceries in a rattletrap truck that looked like the vehicle on the bread wagon postage stamp from a few years ago? Or Austin Henley, who shot rabbits and tossed their frozen carcasses on our back porch and went away whistling before the sun was up? Maybe Mugg Tinbit would qualify as a stranger. She lived in a shack on the edge of our property, and roamed the woods with a bucket picking anything she fancied. But I couldn't conceive any of these people kidnapping a baby and holding it for ransom. The thing to do, I reasoned in my callow fashion, was to be suspicious of everyone except my parents and my brothers and sister.
Someone asked me once, "What was the first national event you remember?" Time is confusing, with nebulous loops and turns, but I believe the first big news story that imprinted itself on my young mind was the execution of Bruno Hauptman, a thirty-five-year-old German carpenter who was convicted of the kidnapping/murder of the Lindbergh baby.
That evening in rural Arkansas, we, like everyone else in the country, sat around the radio, our mood anxious yet subdued. We were eating apples, and I recall my father throwing his peelings into the fireplace with an abrupt, lashing motion. My three brothers had called a hiatus to the pinching and kicking, their general rowdy behavior that flourished at close quarters, and they sat on the floor, hands folded between their knees. Mama was at her incessant mending, darning sock heels and sewing on buttons, looking up at my father now and then as if to sense his mood and take her cue from him. No one spoke as Hauptman's words filtered through the static.
"I didn't do it. I didn't do it," he repeated over and over in a voice that must have given up hope long before this night as he walked to the electric chair.
I think I was feeling a mixture of fascination, satisfaction (that an alleged killer was receiving justice), and sorrow too, for somehow the man's voice haunted me. In our minds, hadn't we already convicted Bruno Hauptman before he ever went to trial? After all, he was not from this country, and he certainly did not speak our language, a factor so significant then as now, no matter how many times we deny it. Even today, particularly since 9/11, and despite consciousness raising, soul searching diversity workshops and human relations seminars, isn't our attention abruptly arrested when we're on a cross-country flight and the men in the seats behind us are speaking in a language we don't know? Don't we eye them warily as we passed them on our way to the lavatory? And in Oklahoma, when April 19, l995, blew away our complacency, didn't we, before we discovered the perpetrator was one of our own, rant about those foreign terrorists?
In the pre World War II days when Germans were not in favor, the only exception being the prize-fighter Max Schmelling, beloved by most kids although he'd knocked out our own "Brown Bomber," Joe Louis, somehow it seemed fitting that the Lindberg baby's kidnapper be a person so unlike us. In our case, living in the South, we noted that Hauptman didn't speak in the soft drawl to which we were accustomed, and since he was someone so remote, it hardly mattered when the executioner reached up and pulled the handle to send him to his death. Odd man out.
But in the thirties, too young to understand ethical questions, my brother and I merely saw the Hauptman execution as inspiration for a ghoulish new game. Dad's heavy mission style desk chair with wooden arms became the dreaded object. As I recall, we found some kind of wire to simulate electrical cord, tied it to one of Mama's metal cooking pots and used that to clamp over the prisoner's head. But the whole scenario began in the court room. I played the role of the judge, my gavel a ball-peen hammer. Robby played Bruno Hauptman who stood solemnly to receive his sentence.
"'Mr. Haputman," I would growl, peering over a pair of Mama's old spectacles, "you have been found guilty of kidnaping and murder! You're gotta' die in the 'LECTRIC CHAIR!" I would pause dramatically after my pronouncement so as to allow the prisoner to receive the full brunt of the sentence.
"But your honor, I--I am an innocent man..." my brother protested. Never having been to court, I didn't know that judges refrained from engaging in arguments with condemned men. "Ha!" I shrieked. 'You're guilty and you're gonna' die, you good for nothin' baby killer!"
Then the scene switched to the hallway that connected the bedrooms in our house. With no windows, it was a perfect place. We set Dad's chair at one end and aimed his desk lamp at it. Strange shadows danced on the walls. I tied a handkerchief over Robby's eyes, and he began the long walk down the hall, while I, now playing a guard's role, walked beside him, holding his arm and laughing in a sinister tone. He stumbled with his hands stretched before him as I guided him toward the chair. All the while he was repeating the words, "I didn't do it. I didn't do it."
I strapped my brother in with leather belts filched from various closets, and slammed the metal pot down on his head. Then I would raise the blindfold and peer into his face to ask the all-important question: "What do you want for your last meal?'"
"Chocolate pudding with whipped cream," he would say, even though he knew I had no idea how to make it. I would tell Mr. Hauptman he was nuts if he thought I would make him chocolate pudding. "All right. How about a biscuit with sugar and butter?" he'd wheedle. And sometimes I'd oblige; other times, I sent him to his death on an empty stomach.
For both of us, the best part of the execution was the moment the imaginary electricity coursed through Robby's body. I pulled the handle to turn on the electricity, all the while making appropriate hissing sounds as my brother went into his death throes. Of course the belts never held him, and he would fall on the floor convulsing like a cockroach hit with a shot of Black Leaf Forty. It was then that I would throw myself upon him to hold him down while he died properly. But in the process, he always managed to grasp my arm or leg in a death grip from which I couldn't escape. Robby had told me that when a person is dying and he grabs you and then expires, the grip can't be broken and you have to be put into the coffin with the deceased and buried alive, a scenario that had kept me awake many nights.
Over and over we enacted the execution of the kidnaper, extending the drama to include the judge's journey (Robby playing the judge), to tell the bereaved parents that justice had been done. The story would end happily with the Lindbergh’s saying that they wished they had a little girl and boy to adopt, at which time, my brother and I, playing our materialistic little selves," graciously agreed to ally with our new parents if Robby could have his own airplane and I could have a spotted pony.
The game might have gone on until my brother tired of it and sought other pursuits with his friends, but Mama happened to see us. She could have told us our behavior was gruesome, which it absolutely was, but she fell back on her usual admonition: "Stop it, now! You're actin' ugly!
That night, lying awake and wondering about Mama's reprimand, I recall asking the silent form in the next bed. "Robby, why is it ugly to play 'lectrocution?" But he was asleep, or pretending to be, and I was left alone in the dark to ponder the infinite retribution of personal evil, and the guilt that we all, in one way or another, would someday have to confront.
Joan Shaddox Isom's work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Nimrod; Negative Capability; The Indian Historian; Terrain: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments; Spire Magazine; The Clouds Threw This Light; A Gathering of Spirit, and others. In addition to her two published poetry collections, and several plays, her book for young readers, The First Starry Night (Charlesbridge) was published in '98, and The Leap Years (Beacon Press) which she co-edited, was published '99.
© 2004, Joan Shaddox Isom, All Rights Reserved