Jafsie at the Belmore: Lindbergh Kidnapping Figure Charms Tauntonians
By William F. Hanna
At just before 1:30 in the morning on Saturday, January 5, 1935, two men approached the registration desk at the Belmore Hotel, on Weir Street in Taunton. The younger of the two was Ralph E. Hacker, of Fort Lee, New Jersey and his appearance in the city would have brought no special notice. His companion, however, was his father-in-law and one of the most famous men in America. He signed the guest register as “John F. Condon, of the Bronx, N. Y. C.,” but wanting to let people know exactly who he was, underneath his signature he had written “Jafsie.” That name alone would have identified him to most of the American public.
Although Condon gave instructions to the hotel deskman that he was not to be disturbed, he surely knew — and expected — that even as he slept word of his arrival would spread like wildfire throughout Taunton and vicinity. For almost three years he had worked mightily to keep his name before the press and public, and the next few days promised to broadcast his celebrity to the farthest reaches of the American landscape.
It all began on the evening of March 1, 1932, when Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., the 20-month old son of the Lone Eagle, the world’s most famous aviator, was kidnapped from the family’s secluded home outside Hopewell, New Jersey. A crudely written ransom note was found in the nursery demanding $50,000. News of the crime spread quickly and within hours the Lindbergh kidnapping brought front page headlines around the world. Charles Lindbergh insisted that, for the sake of the child’s safe return, law enforcement agencies should remain in the background as he negotiated his son’s release.
Enter John F. Condon, a 71-year old semi-retired schoolteacher from the Bronx. Formerly principal of P.S. #12, Condon was a well-known gadabout as he held forth on the streets of the borough. He enjoyed writing patriotic verse and his submissions were often published in the local newspaper. Always cheerful and loquacious — a “village character,” as The New York Times called him — one of his favorite pastimes was stopping strangers on the street to challenge them with math problems that he had devised.
The patriotic Condon saw the Lindbergh kidnapping as not only an affront to an American hero but also as an attack on the nation. Determined to join the battle, he published a letter in The Bronx Home News offering $1,000 of his own money if the kidnapper would turn the child over to any Catholic priest. As a harbinger of what was to come, Condon promised the world that, “I stand ready in person at my own expense to go anywhere, alone on land or water, to give the kidnaper [sic] the extra money, and promise never to utter his or her name to anyone.”
Condon’s notice appeared in the newspaper on March 8, 1932, and as unbelievable as it seemed, the next day he received a letter from the purported kidnapper approving him as an intermediary with the Lindbergh family. Condon took the letter down to Hopewell, and Charles Lindbergh also agreed to that arrangement. Condon said later that Lindbergh came up with a name based on the phonetic pronunciation of Condon’s initials, J.F.C., and from that moment onward, the elderly schoolteacher became “Jafsie.”
No doubt Dr. Condon was a well-meaning old gentleman committed to helping a man whom he idolized, but Jafsie would also prove to be a self-aggrandizing oddball, a tireless publicity hound willing to twist or embellish even the smallest event if it kept his name in the headlines. While he played a central role during the early stages of the Lindbergh drama, his shifting, over-wrought, and sometimes self-contradictory accounts of his participation would frustrate law enforcement officials. In some quarters they would also cast suspicion on Condon.
Over the next two months Condon acted as go-between for Lindbergh and the kidnapper(s). On the evening of March 11, he met with a man he called “John” in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. In one of many highly suspect accounts of the meeting, Condon claimed that despite the darkness he had clearly seen the man’s face and would have no problem identifying him, or his foreign-accented voice, again. Three weeks later, on April 2, Lindbergh drove Condon to another Bronx cemetery, St. Raymond’s, and waited in the car as Jafsie handed “Cemetery John” a box containing $50,000. In return Condon received a note stating that the child could be found on a boat located in the waters between Horseneck Beach and Gay Head, off the coast of Massachusetts. Lindbergh rented a seaplane and he and Condon spent two days unsuccessfully searching for the boat.
On May 12, 1932, ten weeks after the kidnapping, the body of Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. was found in a hastily dug grave not far from his home. Instead of stepping back from the tragedy, Condon was unwilling to leave the limelight. Over the next two years he regularly publicized his sometimes bizarre attempts to find and identify “John,” and newspapermen found in Jafsie an ever-ready source of facts, conjecture and self-congratulatory fantasy. During that time, as discrepancies in his story were exposed, he assumed the status of martyrdom: a selfless warrior willing to suffer unjust persecution in search of the truth.
On September 19, 1934 authorities arrested Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant living in the Bronx, for the murder of the Lindbergh baby. In anticipation of the so-called “trial of the century,” Condon spent considerable time in the Berkshires preparing for his debut as a witness for the prosecution. While Jafsie may have been eager to mount the witness stand, police and prosecutors feared that Hauptmann’s lawyer would shred Condon’s testimony, so they searched for a strategy to minimize the damage. The fact that Hauptmann had unsuccessfully challenged Condon to take a lie-detector test was lost on no one. The trial opened in Flemington, New Jersey on January 2, 1935, and that is what brought the irrepressible Jafsie to Taunton.
In 1936, after the Hauptmann trial had ended, Condon published a book, Jafsie Tells All,” describing his many vital contributions to the Lindbergh case. Here is how he introduced himself:
“So casually that none of us realized then its terrific portent, did John F. Condon, educator, retire from the Lindbergh case to be replaced by the ‘Man of Mystery’ — Jafsie.”
When the “Man of Mystery” awakened in the Belmore Hotel on Saturday morning, January 5, 1935, the people of Taunton were waiting for him. Less than twenty-four hours earlier, Charles A. Lindbergh had testified that it was Hauptmann’s voice he had heard while waiting in the car outside St. Raymond’s Cemetery as Condon handed over the ransom money. A reporter from the Gazette arrived at the Belmore wanting an exclusive interview and Jafsie was happy to oblige, and even happier when other newspapermen joined them shortly afterward. Regardless of Lindbergh’s testimony, Jafsie was not about to be upstaged and steadfastly refused to say whether he would also identify Hauptmann as Cemetery John. “I desire, if I may, to hold my opinion on identification. I make this statement which I have made before, hoping that I will not be misquoted as I have been on previous occasions.” “Give the trial a break,” said Condon. “I will do anything for the United States Government and the State of New Jersey in the case.” And as for the defense attorney’s promise that he would destroy Jafsie on the witness stand, Condon laughed and said, “even my time-honored friend, Jack Dempsey, couldn’t do that.” Finally, swinging into a grandiloquence rarely heard within the halls of the Belmore, Jafsie intoned, “I fear not man nor tribunal, for I have done no wrong.”
Asked why he was in Taunton and where he and Hacker were headed after leaving the city, Condon would only say, “I cannot tell where I am going next. I am now awaiting a message, either by telephone or telegraph, and will be ready at a moment’s notice to go.” In fact, he and Hacker were traveling from the Berkshires down to Flemington, N.J., where he would testify sometime in the upcoming week. If what he said was true, he may have been awaiting word on what arrangements had been made for his arrival.
Outside the Belmore a swarming crowd waited to catch a glimpse of Condon. Hundreds of people followed him across Weir Street and the lucky ones made it inside the Transfer restaurant, where Condon and Hacker had taken a table. Much to his apparent delight, Jafsie was mobbed. The Boston Globe reported that he “signed his name to hundreds of menus, calendars, cards, books, and almost everything which was offered up to him by the eager curio seekers. At noon he had been signing his autograph for more than one hour, and was still hard at it.” The Gazette writer said that “Dr. Condon showed a patience that was remarkable. He had a kind word and smile for everyone and answered all questions put to him in a straightforward manner, despite the fact that the eagerness of his interviewers caused his meal to cool before he could eat it and he was forced, time and time again, to stop between bites to pose for photographers.” The fact that he was asked the same questions again and again appeared not to bother him in the slightest. “Do what you want to me,” repeated Condon, “but give the trial a fair break.”
Two encounters between young Tauntonians and their famous visitor took special notice in the press. When William Lambert, a Taunton High School sophomore, approached Condon for an autograph, the old man told him that one day he might be ashamed that he had sought an autograph from Jafsie. “I don’t think I will,” replied the boy, and the Gazette reporter noticed that “that brought forth a beaming smile on the face of Dr. Condon.” Later, Condon stumped another youth with one of his math problems. When the boy came up with an incorrect answer, Condon drew laughs by telling him that while he’d never hire him as his bookkeeper, he shouldn’t feel badly because just about everybody he asked got that problem wrong.
After a long public lunch, it was time for the visit — the Gazette called it a “goodwill tour” — to end, and in mid-afternoon Condon and Hacker left the city. For the benefit of the curious, both the Gazette and the Globe provided not only a description of Hacker’s Buick sedan, but also the numbers on the car’s New Jersey registration plates.
Dr. Condon arrived in Trenton on Sunday, January 6, and on the following Wednesday, under oath, he identified Bruno Richard Hauptmann as Cemetery John. Coming as it did just days after Lindbergh’s positive identification, Jafsie’s testimony was something of an anti-climax; the Lone Eagle’s word would have been enough. At the end of a trial that remains highly controversial to this day, Hauptmann was found guilty and executed by the State of New Jersey on April 3, 1936.
Even then Condon couldn’t let Jafsie go. After writing his sensationalized account of the case, he took to the stage as part of a performance where he lectured on the activities of the Justice Department and the Lindbergh case. Intense criticism and charges of exploitation finally drove him into his final retirement. He died on January 2, 1945 at age 84.
Today, although the building still stands, all vestiges of the Transfer restaurant are gone. Across Weir Street, though, and among those of a certain age, the Belmore Hotel can still evoke images of its better days. Having fallen into hard times after World War II, it finished as a rooming house, and now its upper floors stand empty. It is all that remains of the day Jafsie charmed Taunton.