The macabre story of Vladimir Messer

Did he kidnap the Lindbergh baby?


All eyes were on Martha’s Vineyard in the spring of 1932. Charles Lindbergh Jr., 20-month-old son of the famed transatlantic pilot, had been kidnapped in what would be called the “crime of the century.” After a $50,000 ransom was paid, the kidnappers gave instructions to look for the child on a boat named Nellie off the coast of the Vineyard. A frantic search followed.

Rumors flew. Mysterious seaplanes were seen circling the Island. Flares were spotted off the coast, and an automobile on South Beach was witnessed flashing signals to an unidentified vessel offshore. Mysterious coded radio transmissions were reported. Newspapers across the country even reported George Bailey’s week-old story that a heavily bearded stranger had bought baby food at his Edgartown drug store.

Then a black leather bag containing men’s clothing was discovered by trout fishermen near Roaring Brook in Chilmark. All identifying marks had been cut or removed from the clothes, and tickets to the Paramount Theatre in New York and the Hudson Steamship Co. were found within. Police concluded the bag must have been thrown from an airplane. Several days later, a leather billfold was found in the same area, stamped with the name “V.V. Messer.” Police regarded it as a possible clue in the kidnapping case. Two weeks passed.

Then three boys playing near the old brickyard found a human foot. Sydney Harris of North Road, who was away at college at the time, recalled the story in a 1995 interview with Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. “They found a man’s leg,” said Harris, “a decomposed leg, on the wall down there in the brickyard.”

State Policeman Richard Cleary and Chief Edward Flaherty of Tisbury led a search party, and more body parts were discovered, scattered over a 100-yard area, together with the remains of four dry cell batteries. An explosion had torn up both sides of the gully through which Roaring Brook flows, and made a deep crater on the bank. Medical examiner P.C. Cosgrove declared the victim’s death to be caused by high explosives. The man had been bound with dynamite, which was detonated with the batteries.

Harris immediately connected it to an incident the previous September, as he was preparing to catch the boat to go to college. He told Lee, “We got up early in the morning and we heard an explosion. And my mother says, ‘I think somebody blew up the brick chimney down there.’ So I went down there to the brickyard. The chimney was all right. I walked down to the beach and saw where a boat had been pulled up and there was tracks all over the beach. And when I got back I noticed that my pants were all covered with blood. And my mother says, ‘What have you got on there?’ I said, ‘I don’t know what it is.’ She said, ‘It looks like blood.’ And anyway I had to change my clothes, and I went down and took the boat and went up to Cambridge.”

By virtue of the found wallet, the dead man was soon identified as Vladimir Victor Messer of New York City, a 55-year-old engineer and inventor, and a native of St. Petersburg, Russia. He had been registered with the Missing Persons Bureau since the previous August. The son of Admiral Vladimir P. Messer, commander of the Second Baltic Division of the Russian Imperial Navy, and his Finnish wife, Baroness Anna Johanson, Messer was a man of means. He patented at least 15 inventions — everything from a power transmission to a tire trimmer (for Goodyear), to a device for raising sunken vessels. He traveled extensively for business, taking international trips nearly annually to far-flung destinations in Argentina, Cuba, Japan, and Europe. He had opened a 4,000-square-foot experimental rubber factory on Long Island in 1923.

His wife reported that he was depressed at the time of his disappearance. He was having trouble finding financial backing, she said, to market his new invention that scrubbed and dried floors at the same time. Another paper reported that the couple were estranged. (He had been married once before, and had a grown daughter, Vera, although both were long back in Russia.) Three months after he disappeared, his wife again contacted the police to request that the investigation to find Messer be ended. She explained that before he vanished, he declared that if he were to commit suicide, he would do it in such a way that his body would never be found.

Vineyarders invented a different story: “They said that he was a hijacker,” said Harris, “And he stopped one of the rumrunners and stole the money. And he must have had it buried there by the brook. And they caught him and took him back there and blew him up …They said that he worked in an ammunition factory in Russia.”

Meanwhile, the Lindbergh kidnapping case shifted gears about two weeks later, when the child’s long-dead body was discovered in the woods less than five miles from the Lindbergh family home in New Jersey. The Vineyard was spared the ongoing national scrutiny, for now.”Anyway,” said Harris, “that summer when I came down, I could pick up teeth and bones. I had a whole cereal box of bones and stuff. And you could see the veins dried up and hanging on the bushes, and that’s why when I walked through them [the previous September], I got blood all over.”

Vladimir Messer was also a playwright. In 1914 he wrote and copyrighted a one-act play, titled “Enigma.” It was a comedy.