The best-known pilot in the world both in his lifetime and in the annals of history, Charles Lindbergh started out as a barnstormer in a World War I surplus biplane he bought while working as an airline mechanic in Montana.
The postwar years saw a great deal of public fascination with flight and with pilots, as the war had put the airplane in the spotlight. Lindbergh came to fame in 1927 when he won the $25,000 prize offered eight years earlier by French businessman Raymond Orteig for making the first nonstop flight from New York City to Paris, a 34-hour flight without rest.
Lindbergh was received as a hero, bringing still more respect and attention to aviation while demonstrating the spirit of individualism of which Americans were so enamored. In an age of celebrity, when writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald spent much of their time on magazine covers, Lindbergh was a star, which made his 20-month-old son Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., a prime target for kidnapping.
For two months and 10 days, the world followed the course of the investigation: The baby disappeared sometime between nine and 10 at night, and a note demanding $50,000 in small bills was found outside the nursery window.
Four colonels participated in the investigation, liaisons were appointed to speak to the leaders of organized crime, and President Herbert Hoover himself was notified within hours of the kidnapping. Eventually, a baby's body was found five miles from the Lindbergh home; two years later German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann was found with some of the marked ransom money, arrested, and eventually executed.
To this day, the evidence convicting Hauptmann of murder remains scant, and there is no forensic evidence that the baby was Charles, Jr.; though Lindbergh identified the remains, animals had left so little recognizable that medical examiners were unable to even determine the child's sex.
The Lindberghs became more reclusive following the kidnapping, avoiding the public eye. Lindbergh supported isolationism in the years leading up to World War II and was widely suspected of Nazi sympathies, which led President Franklin Roosevelt to ban him from military service. Nevertheless, though Lindbergh believed in the superiority of some races over others, he condemned the Nazis' treatment of Jews and spoke in support of African-American rights.
Lindbergh died in Hawaii in 1974 after a quiet retirement. The Spirit of Saint Louis, the custom-built Ryan aircraft he used for his famous transatlantic flight, was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1928 and remains on display in the National Air and Space Museum in the main atrium—a position of honor shared by the first supersonic craft and the first privately funded spacecraft.