Charles Lindbergh: Biography, Flight & Kidnapping

Instructor: David White
Learn about Charles Lindbergh, what made him famous, and why he dominated the American public's attention for an entire decade of the 20th century. Then test your new knowledge with a quiz.

Who Was Charles Lindbergh?

In the 21st century, reality television and the Internet have allowed just about anyone to become a celebrity in the public eye. But in 1927 there were relatively few instantly recognizable celebrities, and perhaps none of those few were more well known than Charles Lindbergh Jr.

Charles Lindbergh, 1927
Lindbergh, 1927

Charles was born in 1902 to Swedish immigrant parents. Charles' father, Charles Lindbergh Sr., was a well-known congressman from Minnesota, and his mother was a high school chemistry teacher. After graduating from high school in 1918, Charles intended to study engineering, but he dropped out of college during his second year in order to attend flight school.

Flying Career and the Spirit of St. Louis

Though he had dropped out of college, by 1923 Lindbergh had saved enough money to buy a decommissioned Army plane for $500, and after a year and a half of being a passenger and mechanic, Charles Lindbergh took his first solo flight in May of that year.

Lindbergh's experience in and around airplanes, coupled with the fact that he was able to purchase his own plane may not seem like much in the 21st century, but in his day this was highly unusual. Keep in mind that in 1923 people had only been flying for a little over a decade, and the money and experience required to fly made it impossible for the large majority of the population.

After years of working as a wing-walker in air shows and as an airmail pilot, Charles Lindbergh was able to finance a new plane, which he named the Spirit of St. Louis. With his new plane, Lindbergh entered a competition to win the Orteig Prize, which had been offered to the first pilot to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. Though no one had successfully been able to complete the trip since the prize was first offered in 1919, in 1927 Lindbergh accepted the challenge and completed the trip in less than two days using only a map, a compass, and the stars to guide him.

Lindbergh makes headlines with the Spirit of St. Louis
Lindbergh headlines

Lindbergh's flight from New York to Paris made him an instant celebrity around the world for a number of reasons. At such an early stage in the history of flight, Lindbergh had succeeded at a challenge that had cost several others their lives. More importantly, though, in 1927, much of the world faced an uncertain future. Economic growth had slowed, and WWI had taken a significant toll on many people in Europe and North America. In light of that, Lindbergh's flight was more than just exciting or entertaining; it gave citizens on both continents a reason to look forward to the future and the new changes brought about by technology.

The Kidnapping of the Lindbergh Baby

Fast-forward to the evening of March 1st, 1932. About an hour and half after having put their 20-month-old son to bed, the child's nurse, Betty Gow, discovered the child missing. When Lindbergh got to the baby's bedroom, he found the window open and a ransom note on the sill in a white envelope. Lindbergh immediately searched the area around the house but found no clues.

Those are the initial facts of the case, but what unfolded in the months following are a series of strange events, unusual theories, and a cast of odd characters that ultimately led nowhere. For two months, the crime occupied the public's full attention, until the child's body was found in the woods about four miles from the Lindbergh home in May of that year. The coroner ruled the death a homicide, the result of massive head trauma, and reported that it was very likely that the child had been killed shortly after being taken from his room.

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