Every day the news is filled with stories of murder. Ever since Cain killed his brother Abel, murder seems to be a regular human activity. No matter what we do, we have a hard time reversing the trend.
But the murder of young Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in Chicago in 1924 may be the most senseless of them all. Richard and Nathan were the teenage sons of two of Chicago’s most prosperous and prominent Jewish families. Leopold’s father had built up the largest shipping company operating on the Great Lakes, carrying, and Loeb’s father was vice-president of Sears, Roebuck. But these were not well-adjusted kids. Leopold was small and studious and not very sociable. Loeb, a very attractive charmer, became Leopold’s idol; Leopold became Loeb’s virtual slave. They were entangled not only in a powerful psychological relationship, but in a physical, homosexual relationship. They were each extraordinarily important to each other.
And they were bored. They knew they were special – pampered, wealthy, looked after. But they needed adventure and crime seemed just the thing – at first petty thefts, then larger thefts, then planning the perfect crime – a kidnapping, a collection of ransom money, and a murder, all planned and carried out in such a way that it would be impossible for them to be caught. They knew they could carry it off, because they were brilliant and they were special.
They were about 19 years old, and were law students at the University of Chicago. They did not fear for their future or future careers, because there was no way they would be caught. The crime was planned out carefully. They would grab a young boy off the street, they would take him to a wild life area south of Chicago near the Indiana border, murder him and dispose of his body at a place in a culvert where flowing water would assist the disintegration of the body and make identification impossible. They would call the victim’s parents, tell them their child was alive, demand ransom, set up a way to pay the ransom, using a series of instructions and a drop off a moving train, that would be impossible to trace. Life, except for the victim, would go on. No problem.
But who would the victim be? It apparently didn’t matter and the day they set out to commit the crime, they did not know who it would be until they saw 14 year old Bobby Franks walking home. Franks also was the son of a wealthy South Chicago Jewish family. But there was more. Franks was Loeb’s second cousin. They were friends. They had played tennis the day before. Because the victim’s identity did not matter, this was, to Loeb, a positive; there would be no problem getting young Franks to come into their car. (The car, by the way, they rented under an assumed name, making sure that Loeb’s car, which they normally used, was in the garage being repaired that day.)
The murder itself went off without a hitch. Franks got into the car with a promise of a ride home. The two older boys bludgeoned him to death (it was important that both of them took an equal role in the crime), and they stuck his body in the culvert. They called the Franks home and made the ransom demand. But they were not as smart as they thought they were. The body was discovered within a day, a pair of tortoise shell glasses found near the body. Not ordinary tortoise shell glasses, but a special kind, sold by only one store in Chicago. The store had only sold three pairs of those glasses, one to Nathan Leopold. Things unraveled quickly. Someone had seen the pair in the rented car. The typewriter on which the ransom note was typed (and which the pair had earlier stolen from a fraternity house in Ann Arbor) was located. Leopold and Loeb were arrested and charged with kidnapping and murder.
In these pre-Miranda days, the boys admitted that they had committed the crime. Then lawyers were brought in, including famed Clarence Darrow. The confessions were withdrawn. Trial was set. Darrow and the other lawyers worked to come up with a story that would give the boys a chance to beat the charge (which could result in the death penalty, something the families wanted to avoid at all costs) on the basis of an insanity plea. Darrow decided that it would not work – they clearly knew right from wrong (the legal standard). At the trial, their not-guilty pleas were changed to “guilty”. The only hearing would be to determine the sentence, and it was the job of Darrow and his co-counsel to make sure it was life imprisonment (which would carry the possibility of eventual parole) and not death, and to provide evidence of mitigation.
The hearings went for several weeks. Fact witnesses. Character witnesses. Expert witnesses. Objections to witnesses (all overruled by the judge). At the end of the hearing, the Chicago judge discounted all of the mitigating evidence. Everyone in the courtroom thought that the two defendants were to be hung. But the judge surprised his listeners and announced a sentence of life imprisonment, based it appeared not on mitigating circumstances, but on the age of the defendants, both under 21, the age then of majority.
They wound up in federal prison in Joliet, Illinois. About ten years after they entered prison, Loeb was killed by a fellow prisoner whom he was trying to blackmail in return for sex. Leopold lived on and became a model prisoner, a student, and an inside prison administrator, a teacher, a librarian and a willing subject for medical experimentation. In 1958, thirty three years after entering prison, Leopold was let out on parole. He found it impossible to return to Chicago and wanted to have a completely fresh start. He moved to Puerto Rico, where he was hired by a Christian non-profit which was working in the hills southwest of San Juan and, surprising perhaps everyone, he met a widow from Baltimore and married, living a quiet and productive life until 1971, when he died of a heart attack (he had diabetes) at the age of 66.
Leopold was clearly a rehabilitated man, who ascribed everything he did at a young age to his immaturity. About Loeb, we will never know. Perhaps he too would have pulled himself together, perhaps not. Bobby Franks, we know about only too well, and we know how deeply this tragedy affected all three of their families. I am not sure there is a lesson here to be learned; perhaps there is, perhaps not. But the murder was as senseless as a murder can be.
I have read several books over the years, and seen at least one theatrical performance, about the Bobby Franks case. But most recently, I read Simon Baatz’s “For the Thrill of It”, published in 2008. A very readable and well organized account of the crime and the participants, as well as of the attorneys involved (Darrow and others), and the forces influencing society in Chicago in the 1920s, other crimes and precedents. It was interesting to me that, at least in Baaltz’ account, the fact that both of the perpetrators (and the victim) were Jewish seemed relatively unimportant in the bigger scheme of things. While you might expect that this would lead to a lot of public anti-semitism, there does not seem to have been any (unless Baaltz is suppressing that part of the story). To me, that is also very interesting.