Eighty-five years ago, 20-month-old Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., was kidnapped from Highfields, in East Amwell, the home of famed transatlantic pilot Charles Lindbergh, Sr. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The date was March 1, 1932.
The kidnapping made headlines in Hopewell and quickly spread nationwide. This is not a story about the kidnapping, but rather a story of how my family became entwined with the Lindberghs’ plight all those years ago. This is the story of my grandmother, Elizabeth Ferraro, and her involvement in the Lindbergh case.
Luigi Ferraro was an immigrant from Calabria, in southern Italy, who traveled here on the S.S. Madonna in 1913. He was a hardworking man who came to America looking for a better life, a place to start and raise a family, and a place to call home.
He loved his new homeland and was proud to share a birthday with our great nation: the 4th of July. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty and took on any sort of work America would give him. Little is known about his life in Italy before he left. When it came up, he would become sad and upset.
He likely had a vegetable garden. He was a self-taught man who couldn’t read or write, but he picked up new skills with ease. After his arrival, he worked for nearly 10 years as a lumberjack; several years in a West Virginia coal mine; and a few more years in New York working on the subways before finally settling in to Hawley, Pennsylvania.
Margaret Elsie Munzel was an immigrant from Apolda, in central Germany. She came here on the S.S. Mount Clinton on her 17th birthday in 1923. She was young and full of dreams of the great opportunities this new land could bring her. Her family settled in Hawley as well. She did beautiful seamstress work, using skills her grandmother Emilie Munzel had passed down to her, and often made her own clothing. Her uncle, A. Maxwell Munzel, would later open a knitting company known as Genuine Munzel Knit, manufacturing sweaters for universities and colleges around the country. Margaret spent summers with another German family in town learning how to come up with delightful culinary creations. She loved her new land and had lots of fun with her family frolicking in the sun in the summers and sledding in the winters.
Luigi would eventually become neighbors with Margaret and her family, living around the corner from them in Hawley. After a fire damaged his home, Luigi ended up renting a room from Margaret’s father Oskar. There was an instant attraction between Margaret and Luigi and they would spend hours walking down the dirt lanes near their house talking and getting to know each other. They talked about traveling and seeing the rest of this great new land that was now their home.
Luigi had dreams of a simpler life, perhaps living on a farm off the land. Margaret, or “Gretta” as he lovingly called her, was all too happy to oblige him. She told him how she would love to grow a little field of flowers if they ever had a farm. Her favorite color was blue, and she was quite fond of forget-me-nots and blue hydrangeas.
Deeply in love, they decided to head off to see the world and build a life together. On a whim they went out to California, where they lived for a while. In California, Gretta discovered she was pregnant. The couple was overjoyed. They lived in California for several months before deciding to come back east. Luigi had realized the arid climate and sandy soil in California was not ideal to growing the type of garden he had hoped, and Gretta wanted to have her family closer to help with the baby.
Luigi stayed in California to sell off their property while Gretta traveled on a train back home to Hawley to have her baby. She made it as far as Harrisburg before she had to disembark and go to a hospital to have the baby, and on June 17, 1931, my grandmother, Elizabeth Margaret, was born. She had big blue eyes, light hair and a fair complexion. Luigi joined them a couple weeks later, elated to meet his new blue-eyed baby girl.
The young family settled in Pennington shortly after Elizabeth’s birth. They lived on Burd Street for a time while Luigi looked for work. He walked over to the nearby Trap Rock Industries one Friday and they hired him on the spot as a stone cutter. Eager to start earning, he went back to work a half day on Friday.
In the first hour of his first day on the job, a piece of a hammer broke off and flew into his right eye, rendering him blind in that eye. He never went back to work for Trap Rock. This was a tough blow for Luigi, who was used to being the bread winner and his family’s protector. The injury was painful, and it took him some time to recover. The eye had to be removed, and he was forced to learn how to get along in the world with only one eye.
He spoke with an insurance agent, who suggested he apply for workman’s compensation claim. His insurance company later awarded him a settlement check of $1,300, and with that, Luigi and Gretta purchased their 10-acre dream farm on Poor Farm Road, near Woosamonsa Road.
The new farm was the perfect place to settle in and grow their future. They raised cattle, housed chickens, and had two horses. Luigi relied on his logging skills to provide paying customers with firewood, using his horses and buggy to deliver the wood. Luigi was very protective over Gretta and didn’t want her doing any hard labor on the farm. She spent her days tending to little Elizabeth, pumping water from their well to wash their clothes, and cooking and canning their food. Farm work seemed to reinvigorate Luigi’s soul and help him recover. He allowed himself to reconnect to the nature of all living things.
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Elizabeth grew strong quickly on the farm. By spring the following year, she was walking. Her mother made all of her clothing. She was a curious child, always trying to get in with the chickens to play. She loved to accompany her father while he milked the cows. She had beautiful golden corkscrew curls that framed her face. Hearing her laugh and seeing her eyes twinkle was Luigi’s great joy.
On a cold morning in April 1932, authorities who had been thwarted in their efforts to locate Charles Jr. decided to run down a lead called in by a Hopewell resident who claimed to have seen the Lindbergh child on a farm. Elizabeth was nearly a year younger than Charles Jr., who was 20 months old at the time he disappeared from the Lindbergh home, but she had an uncanny resemblance to the missing boy. Someone driving by the farm one day might have seen Elizabeth playing on the farm and called in an anonymous tip to police, thinking that she might be the famous missing child.
That morning, Luigi had just finished milking the cows, and Gretta and Elizabeth had collected the day’s eggs. Luigi was about to set out for a long day of preparing the soil for the spring planting when they noticed a police car driving down their dirt lane. Two state troopers greeted them at their farmhouse.
The officers seemed nice enough at first. But after they suggested that the couple could be harboring the missing Lindbergh baby, Luigi became thoroughly agitated with the accusation. He knew his sweet beautiful Elizabeth belonged to him, and he would do anything to prove it. Unfortunately, the couple was unable to produce Elizabeth’s birth certificate upon request, and the tension mounted.
The couple pleaded with the authorities. The baby they were looking for was a boy and that Elizabeth was a girl. This was not convincing the officers, who, looking just at Elizabeth’s face, were unable to determine the baby’s sex. Margaret had no choice but to remove Elizabeth’s diaper and show them the biological proof. Convinced that my grandmother was not the missing Lindbergh boy, the troopers left the farm, apologizing for the confusion.
In later years, the Ferraros would get together with their favorite neighbors, William and Minnie Schnell, to reminisce about the incident. The story became a little more lighthearted after the scare was over.
Vince Lauricella is a descendant of the DiCoccos, who bought the farm from the Schnells in the 1950’s. He recalls members of his family telling versions of the story from time to time.
“There was some level of suspicion surrounding a Ferraro child who would have been around the same age as the Lindbergh baby,” Lauricella wrote in an email. “Apparently, the Ferraro child had a fair complexion that, to some, may have seemed odd coming from (someone of) Italian heritage. I believe there was some thought that the Ferraro child could have been in reality the kidnapped Lindbergh baby.”
On May 12, a renewed search of the area near the Lindbergh mansion turned up the baby’s body. He had been killed the night of the kidnapping and was found less than a mile from home. In a sensational trial, Richard Hauptmann was found guilty of the crimes and later executed. The heartbroken Lindberghs ended up donating the home to charity and moving away.
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Luigi and Gretta went on to have three more girls, all with beautiful blue eyes and curly golden locks. The family lived on the farm for several years, though without a vehicle, it was difficult to get into town when they needed various supplies and impossible to get the girls to school when they were old enough.
Luigi was offered an incredible opportunity from a local statesman named Charles P. Messick, who owned a 40-acre farm in town. He agreed to let the family live in his farm house as long as they managed the livestock. The land is now the home of the Pennington Quality Market Shopping Center.
On the new farm there were cattle, steer, horses, chickens, pigs, ducks and a bull that the girls named “Billy.” They also had a vegetable garden with corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, asparagus, peppers, radishes, lettuce and onions. In spring, they had a huge strawberry field alongside Route 31. Luigi sold the ripe berries for 25 cents a quart.
The Ferraros maintained the farm for several years. The girls went to a K-4 school in Pennington called Pennington Primary, and Margaret began working at the Pennington School as a housekeeper. The girls proved to be a huge help on the farm. Elizabeth and her sister Hildegard would help their father mending fences, replacing fence posts and many other odd jobs around the farm. Their younger sister Martha’s favorite job around the farm was walking the cattle into the pasture. The cattle were kept near what is now the Pennington Golf Center, and she would walk them under the Route 31 bridge to a vacant field for them to graze. Their youngest daughter, Doris, loved running down the rolling green hills to greet her sisters as they came home from school.
Elizabeth would later help her mother working at the Pennington School. They enjoyed meeting and making friends with many of the students from all around the U.S. and the world. Elizabeth recalled each year when the students would go home for their summer break they would leave her and her mother fabrics for them to take home and make clothing and quilts with.
In the early 1940’s, the U.S. entered into WWII. The Ferraro sisters lived very close to the railroad tracks. In those days when they heard the trains approaching, the girls would all race down the hill to greet the Red Cross trains full of soldiers heading back from the war. They would gather up their hand held American Flags that they collected during town parades and wave them furiously while smiling at the soldiers and thanking them for their heroism. It gave them such pride to encourage our American heroes.
When my grandmother was a senior in high school, the family moved to Hightstown, where Luigi and Gretta worked for Diamond Brothers Upholstery. Luigi worked doing maintenance in the factory while Gretta worked on stitching the piecework for couches and chairs. Elizabeth and her sisters finished school and began to meet husbands and move out. In February 1960, Luigi retired at the age of 65 and the couple bought a small home in Winter Park, Florida. Luigi had a little orange orchard which he took every opportunity to show off to his grandchildren. He loved to teach them all how to cultivate vegetation and exactly just how to harvest it. In total they lived to enjoy 11 grandchildren and meet 13 of their 19 great grandchildren — I was one of the first — before their passing in 1982.
Two of their daughters, Hilda and Doris, along with one of their granddaughters, Sandra, went on to own and run their own farms. Elizabeth had an amazing garden and helped on her sisters farms as much as she could. All four women were wonderful cooks, as well. I remember as a child the fragrant aromas of fresh baked goodies mixed with sweet bouquets of newly picked flowers everywhere.
Elizabeth went on to live in Hightstown with her husband Edmund Bunting. They had two children. My uncle Keith was their first child and my mother, Margaret, was born a few years later. Their son Keith had 4 daughters just like Margaret and Luigi. My mother had two children, myself and my brother Robbie.
My grandmother loved to cook, sew, and garden among other things. She showed me the beauty of life in her own unique way. When I was young, she pointed out the mystique a fern had by closing up at bedtime and uncurling its leaves each morning to greet the day. She took every opportunity to teach me how to cook and even sew at a young age. She used to make the most beautiful Barbie clothes form my dolls. She was always fashionable and told stories that would leave you in stitches. When she got together with her sisters, they were a force that you couldn’t resist, smiling and laughing along with.
Elizabeth passed away too young in 1985 (only 52 years old). I was very young still and never had the chance to know her as an adult. I feel as though she made every effort to instill in me, even at a young age, an appreciation and love of family, to take pride and joy in the things I cultivate and to love nature and all things created by God. I wish I’d had more time to learn from her, but I make sure to keep her memory alive by telling my children about her as much as I can.
Sometimes, when I am outside in my own garden with the sun on my back and the soil in my hands, I can almost feel them as the breeze dances through my hair. I’m comforted in knowing that my history in America began right here in Hopewell, with Luigi, Gretta and Elizabeth.
Jennifer DiDonato is a vice president of the Bear Tavern Elementary School PTO. She lives in Titusville with her husband Peter, a member of the Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education, and their children, Nadia and Peter.