Saturday, November 28, 2009
Harold G. Hoffman: laughing all the way to the bank
Late in the evening on October 17, 1935, Bruno Hauptmann received a surprise visit in his prison cell. Eight days before, the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals had affirmed the conviction of the Bronx carpenter and German immigrant in the "Crime of the Century." Sentenced to die, Hauptmann must have been reassured to see that his visitor was someone who could help save him: Harold Giles Hoffman, the Republican Governor of New Jersey. For over an hour, Hauptmann talked with the Governor and maintained his innocence in the crime: the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr., the infant son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, from his East Amwell home in 1932 and the child's subsequent murder.
Hoffman's belated involvement in the case has gained more attention than the indisputably criminal actions he admitted to later in his life. Hoffman had won the 1934 gubernatorial election, becoming the youngest governor of the state at 38 years old, and arrived in the office in the midst of Hauptmann's trial. As governor, he did not have the sole authority to grant clemency to condemned prisoners. Rather, the state had an eight-member court of pardons consisting of the governor and seven judges; a majority vote was needed to approve a pardon, and the governor had to be included in that bloc for it to go forward. When his meeting with Hauptmann became public in December of 1935, Hoffman said he was seeking to encourage the other members of the court to visit Hauptmann as well as part of their considerations regarding further action in the matter.
Hoffman also announced that Ellis Parker, a Burlington County detective who had been put on the case by the previous governor, Democrat A. Harry Moore, would be taking another look at the evidence. Parker was of the opinion that Hauptmann was innocent, but Hoffman claimed to have a different opinion. He said that while the courts had already determined that Hauptmann was guilty of the kidnap-murder, he did not believe the crime could have been carried out by only one person. At the same time, Hoffman levied criticism against key figures in the case. He charged that police superintendent H. Norman Schwarzkopf had mishandled the original investigation, while attorney general David T. Wilentz conducted a biased prosecution. On December 22 of 1935, the same day Hauptmann appealed for clemency to the court of pardons, Lindbergh and his family secretly left the country to make a home in England. The decision was probably motivated mostly by threats made against Lindbergh's other son, but the Associated Press reported that friends of the family were also dismayed by Hoffman's visit to Hauptmann and statements suggesting that the entire drama had not been unraveled. As far as Lindbergh was concerned, Hauptmann's conviction should have closed the case.
While the Lindbergh case has spurred plenty of arguments and theories about whether justice was done and Hauptmann was the person to blame, Hoffman's actions on behalf of such a notorious character soon made him extremely unpopular. When he granted Hauptmann a 30-day reprieve from the electric chair in January of 1936, there were cries for his impeachment. Hoffman defended the action, saying he "share[d] with hundreds of our people the doubt as to the value of the evidence that placed [Hauptmann] in the Lindbergh nursery on the night of the crime." At the end of month, he ordered the state police to reopen investigation, saying there was "abundant evidence that other persons participated in the crime."
An even stranger twist occurred when the pardons court received copies of a confession signed by Paul H. Wendel, a disbarred Trenton lawyer. Wendel later denied confessing to the kidnap-murder, saying it had been extracted by torture. In addition, he claimed Parker had encouraged him to sign the document because it would lead to a financial windfall and Hoffman would ensure that he would escape punishment. Hoffman denied having any knowledge of Wendel's confession, but later admitted that he'd been informed about it. Time reported that Hoffman also fought to reduce Hauptmann's sentence to life imprisonment during a closed session, but by spring of 1936 Hoffman had said no more help would be forthcoming. On April 3, Hauptmann was executed.
The governor's actions raised questions as to whether he was simply playing politics with the infamous case. It was suggested that his criticism of Schwartzkopf aimed to replace the Republican police commissioner with one of his own appointees, while also trying to discredit the Democratic attorney general. In doing so, critics posited, Hoffman would have been able to elevate his own standing in the Republican Party and make a strong bid for Vice President at the 1936 Republican National Convention. If his actions had led to Hauptmann being found innocent or another perpetrator being arrested, he may well have been hailed as a hero.
Instead, Hoffman was blasted in the press and by members of the state government. A normally mundane selection process for four New Jersey delegates-at-large to the Republican National Convention was followed closely when former congressman Franklin William Fort challenged Hoffman for one of the spaces. With the selection process taking place not long after Hauptmann's execution, Fort charged that Hoffman was receiving support from Jersey City mayor and Democratic boss Frank Hague. However, Fort focused most of his attention on Hoffman's handling of the Hauptmann matter. "No man has done more in my memory to attempt to break down the fundamental American respect for the power and dignity of our courts of justice," he declared.
Hoffman was able to defeat Fort to become a delegate, but received the lowest number of votes of the four people selected, dashing any hopes of getting onto a national ticket. The whole affair had a few notable epilogues. Attending a formal dinner opening for the National Exhibition of American Art in New York City, Hoffman didn't much like whatever Hearst reporter Lou Wedemar was saying about the governor's political future; Hoffman responded by cold-clocking the man, whom he outweighed by 80 pounds. Hoffman later wrote a series of articles on the case for Liberty magazine; among the assertions he made was that the corpse that was found was not positively identified as Lindbergh's son. In 1985, a total of 23,633 documents related to the case, including the Lindberghs' original statements to police, were found in the garage of Hoffman's former home; Hoffman had taken them for review in his own investigation and never brought them back. The discovery prompted Hauptmann's widow to sue the state for wrongful death, arguing that the documents revealed such miscarriages of justice as handwriting experts changing their opinion on whether Hauptmann had written a ransom note after talking to police and an autopsy performed by an intoxicated coroner. State officials denied the claim, saying that the documents actually reinforced Hauptmann's conviction.
Born in South Amboy, New Jersey in February of 1896, Hoffman began working as a sports reporter when he was only 12 years old. He kept up the job through his graduation from the South Amboy High School in 1913, eventually becoming sports editor for the Perth Amboy Evening Times and freelancer for the New York Times. After serving with the Army in World War I and attaining the rank of captain, Hoffman returned to his home state to become the treasurer of the South Amboy Trust Company. He later became vice-president of the bank and remained active with the organization until 1942. Hoffman also dabbled in real estate, helping found the Hoffman-Lehrer Real Estate Corporation and serving as director of the Investor Building and Loan Association.
Hoffman's first entry into politics came in 1920, only one year after he began working with the South Amboy Trust Company, when he was chosen to be the city's treasurer. He left the post five years and two terms in the New Jersey house of assembly later, when he was chosen to be mayor of South Amboy. Hoffman also worked as a secretary to Morgan F. Larson, future governor of the state, when Larson was president of the state senate. After being elected to the House of Representatives in 1926 and 1928, Hoffman was appointed motor vehicle commissioner of New Jersey in a 59-16 vote of the state legislature. The decision came in February of 1930, and Hoffman did double duty as a congressman and commissioner until his term in the national office expired in 1931.
As motor vehicle commissioner, Hoffman became an early opponent of drunk driving. In August of 1930, he told the magistrate judges in the state to end the practices of suspending sentences for driving while intoxicated cases and allowing such offenders to pay their fines on an installment plan. Hoffman held the post until he was elected governor of New Jersey in 1934. In this race, he easily won the Republican nomination, gathering more votes than the other three contestants combined, and defeated Democrat William L. Dill (the former motor vehicle commissioner) in the general election. As governor, Hoffman remained concerned about traffic safety. In December of 1935, in the midst of the controversy over his involvement in the Hauptmann case, Hoffman wrote an article entitled "Death After Dark." He said 20,000 of the 36,000 motor vehicle accidents in the prior year had occurred at night, with drivers going too fast and having too slow of a reaction time. "As a nation, we have failed to grasp the fact that as the sun goes down, so must our speed," he said. "We are simply driving too fast for our eyes."
Hoffman was a large, jovial man who loved to play the clown. He was not above dressing up in comically oversize pants or rigging up office telephones to spray unsuspecting callers with water. Over the course of his career, he put together a collection of hundreds of lucky elephant statues. Hoffman's temper could sometimes get the better of him, though. In addition to the reporter he punched out, he once tussled with a former prizefighter in Trenton.
Hoffman's intervention in the Hauptmann case largely overshadowed his other actions during his four years in office, but his other major initiative also proved unpopular. With the Great Depression still hitting the country hard, half a million residents were putting a heavy stress on the state relief program. In order to keep the program funded, Hoffman proposed a two percent tax increase on retail sales. The tax was pushed through the legislature, but proved unpopular with the majority of the Republican Party. The conservative Clean Government Group charged that support for the bill had been purchased, with 20 Hague Democrats in the legislature voting in favor of the measure after the governor promised Hague hundreds of patronage jobs. After only 117 days, the tax was overturned. The only other instance in which Hoffman received major attention during his time as governor was a near-death experience on the Fourth of July in 1937. While reviewing a deep-sea fishing fleet, an explosion in the engine room set fire to his yacht. Hoffman and the other 27 passengers were rescued by the Coast Guard.
New Jersey law prevented Hoffman from running for a second term, so in the waning days of his administration he created the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Commission, whose friendly commissioners ushered him in as executive director. He tried again for the GOP nomination for governor in 1940, without success. He continued to serve as the unemployment commissioner until June of 1942, when he was granted military leave to return to the Army. He served overseas as a major in the Transportation Corps, and was discharged four years later as a colonel. Even during the war, Hoffman couldn't escape some of the old charges against him. In 1943, while in Trenton, he admitted that he had recommended friends for state jobs while governor, but did not consider that there had been any wrongdoing because he had not broken any laws to do so.
After returning from his service, Hoffman tried unsuccessfully for the 1946 gubernatorial nomination and resumed his post as executive director of the unemployment commission. He was later appointed by Republican Governor Alfred E. Driscoll to be director of the newly established Division of Employment Services. In the first hint of Hoffman's future troubles, there were suspicions in 1949 that a brokerage firm Hoffman had recommended had profited unfairly from bond sales to the state. He also admitted to seeking the political support of racketeer Longie Zwillman during the 1946 primaries.
In March of 1954, Democratic Governor Robert Meyner suspended Hoffman due to the discovery of financial irregularities within his department. As the investigation proceeded, it found that Hoffman had rigged bids to benefit friends, signed illegal contracts overpaying for state office space, and other errors suggesting embezzlement. In May, Hoffman gave a letter to his daughter, Ada, containing instructions to not open it until after his death. The timing was fortuitous; Hoffman passed away the next month after suffering a heart attack while in New York City.
When Ada opened the letter, she was so upset about its contents that she ended up destroying it. Before doing so, however, she had shown it to two of her father's friends, including attorney Harry Green, who urged her to reconstruct it and make it public. Ada did so, giving as a reason the assertion that Meyner and the Democratic administration had broken their promise to treat the case quietly after Hoffman's death and were "dancing on his grave." While Ada's entire recollection is only as accurate as her memory, she fired back that Hoffman had accused Meyner of complicity in the same rental-purchasing agreement with which her father had been associated.
More serious, however, was Hoffman's deathbed admission that he had stolen state funds throughout his career. He wrote that he went into debt after his 1926 congressional campaign when future Senator Hamilton Fish Kean reneged on a promise to pay off $17,000 in expenses and only gave him $2,500. With other costs mounting from keeping houses in New Jersey and the capital (and, as some have suggested, maintaining a lifestyle including lavish parties and bootleg liquor), Hoffman began drawing on inactive accounts at the South Amboy Trust Company. To cover those shortages, he had stolen $300,000 in state funds. Further investigation determined that Hoffman had elaborately juggled $15,801,197 between different state funds to make sure that theft wasn't noticeable. Hoffman said that a state official, deceased by that time, had discovered the wrongdoing and extorted $150,000 in exchange for keeping quiet; he maintained that but for the blackmail, he would have been able to repay the debt.
Hoffman declared, rather falsely, that no one had been hurt as a result of his theft of taxpayer money. He also said the awarding of jobs to friends was the result of "an almost uncontrollable urge to help other people." He urged Ada not to let her son enter the field of politics. "It is a lousy game," Hoffman complained. "In order to be elected, you must necessarily accept favors from a large number of people. If you attempt to repay them after being elected to office, it becomes wrongdoing. If you don't, you are an ingrate." Ada also recalled that the letter had a personal apology to his family. "It is a sad heritage I leave to Mother, to Hope, and to you," he said, "but I pray it may somewhat be softened by the knowledge that I do love you all so much."
Investigators confirmed the theft and also revealed lesser instances of misconduct. Hoffman was accused of depositing $3,427,000 without interest into the Trenton Trust Company, a bank run by a friend, an action that allowed the bank to earn $300,000 in five years; the bank returned the favor by putting $150,000 into a non-interest account for Hoffman at the South Amboy Trust Company. It was also alleged that Hoffman awarded one state employee $1,000 for overtime he never performed and unfairly gave 50 companies favorably low unemployment insurance rates.
Hoffman was beyond the reach of the law, but the scandal resulted in four of his aides being suspended and a fifth one resigning. His family promised to repay the stolen money, though it is unclear how successful they were in this venture. One year after the scandal, the state sued the South Amboy Trust Company for the stolen $300,000 plus interest; the suit was settled in 1958 for $176,000. As a more lasting result, the embezzlement resulted in stricter audits on state agencies to prevent such a crime from happening again.
Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, The New Jersey State Library, "Hoffman Elected To Succeed Dill" in the New York Times on Feb. 5 1930, "Hoffman Will Hold Two Public Posts" in the New York Times on Mar. 29 1930, "Asks Drastic Curb On Drunk Driving" in the New York Times on Aug. 27 1930, "Governor Signs Repeal Soon After Passage By Legislature" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Oct. 26 1935, "Noted Sleuth Says Bruno Is Innocent" in the Evening Independent on Dec. 6 1935, "Death After Dark" in the Brownsville Times on Dec. 12 1935, "Hauptmann Denies 'Doubt Of Guilt'" in the New York Times on Dec. 19 1935, "Kidnap Threats Make Lindbergh Go To England" in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on Dec. 23 1935, "Jersey Court Unique Body" in the Bend Bulletin on Dec. 23 1935, "Reprieve Hint False, Bruno Told In Cell" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Dec. 27 1935, "Crime: Hoffman To Hauptmann" in Time on Jan. 27 1936, "Gov. Hoffman Orders Police To Resume Probe Of Evidence In Lindbergh Kidnaping Case" in the Daily Illini on Jan. 31 1936, "Kidnaping Probe Meets Turndown By Legislature" in the Evening Independent on Apr. 7 1936, "Political Notes: The Hoffman Case" in Time on Apr. 13 1936, "New Jersey: Hoffman v. Fort" in Time on Jun. 1 1936, "People" in Time on Jul. 12 1937, "Hoffman Defends Patronage Action" in the New York Times on Dec. 22 1943, "Hoffman To Direct UCC" in the New York Times on Jun. 8 1946, "Hoffman Defends Record In Office" in the Eugene Register-Guard on Jun. 25 1954, "A Death Divulges A Life Of Deception" in Life on Jun. 28 1954, "Joker's Heritage" in Time on Jun. 28 1954, "Millions Juggled In Hoffman Theft" in the New York Times on Jul. 30 1954, "Jersey Sues Bank On Hoffman Fund" in the New York Times on Feb. 11 1955, "Jersey Settles Hoffman Claim" in the New York Times on Jul. 3 1958, "Wife Says Man 'Framed' In Lindbergh Case" in the Eugene Register-Guard on Oct. 23 1985, Encyclopedia of New Jersey edited by Maxine N. Lurie and Marc Mappen, Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels by Jon Blackwell, The Lindbergh Case by Jim Fisher, New Jersey: A History by Thomas J. Fleming