Roaring: Trial Of The Century

On The Leopold And Loeb Trial From 1920s America

In May 1924, Flora Franks, the wife of highly respected and wealthy Chicago watch manufacturer Jacob Franks, received a call from a stranger at 10:30 in the evening. He had a terrifying message for her. He knew where Mrs. Franks’ missing 14-year-old son Bobby was. The boy had vanished that evening and by then she had started to really worry.

“This is Mr. Johnson,” the stranger on the other line had said. “Of course you know by this time that your boy has been kidnapped. We have him and you need not worry; he is safe. But don’t try to trace this call or to find me. We must have money. We will let you know tomorrow what we want. We are kidnappers and we mean business. If you refuse us what we want, or try to report us to the police, we will kill the boy. Goodbye.”

The caller was wrong on two occasions. For one, this was the first time Mrs. Franks had ever realized her son had been kidnapped. She reportedly fainted in hysterics after he had hung up, and then informed her husband as he returned home from work about the situation. They contacted the police immediately. They promised to secretly tap the phones and keep the case out of the public. The next morning, a typed ransom note had arrived…

Dear Sir,

As you no doubt know by this time, your son has been kidnapped. Allow us to assure you that he is at present well and safe. You need fear no physical harm for him provided you live up carefully to the following instructions and such others as you will receive by future communications. Should you, however, disobey any of our instructions, even slightly, his death will be the penalty.

As a final word of warnings — this is a strictly commercial proposition, and we are prepared to put our threat into execution should we have reasonable grounds to believe that you have committed an infraction of the above instructions. However, should you carefully follow out our instructions to the letter, we can assure you that your son will be safely returned to you within six hours of our receipt of the money.

Yours truly,

George Johnson

The Franks went into action, working with the police to make sure the kidnappers would not sniff out their involvement, and following the ransom instructions as they continued to come in. They even stopped tracing the calls at one point to play it safe. After all, Mr. Franks was said to believe the letter showed the mind of a reasonable man he could work with to get his son back. Detectives, on the other hand, were astonished by what was obviously a well-educated individual behind this crime.

At one point, Mr. Franks was in the middle of following ransom instructions to deliver the money, and felt he was getting closer and closer to getting his son back, but ended up forgetting an important street name and panicked. The drama was playing out, each side hoping that the intelligent mastermind behind this was being patient with them and would not harm the boy. Eventually however the ruse of the kidnapping for a ransom would be found out.

Because as this drama was playing out in the wealthy suburbs of Chicago, a passerby all the way in Hammond, Indiana, discovered a body — the body of the young Bobby Franks, acid poured over his face and his body gruesomely defiled. This was the second occasion that “Mr. Johnson” had been wrong about when he called Mrs. Franks that evening in 1924. The boy had been murdered after all, his body dumped in a ditch in an entirely other state. The crime had clearly been committed before the call had ever been placed.

The only evidence found that could be important were a pair of peculiar eyeglasses at the crime scene.

Instantly, suspicions fell on the young boy’s teachers. The police interrogated them, and roughly at that. The victims were wealthy rich folks after all, high society people who were too important to have such a tragedy occur to them.

But those eyeglasses, those peculiar set of rims, ended up being the thing that would break the case open. They had been horn-rimmed with a very special hinge that had only three copies made from this particular manufacturer. They had to track the owner of these eyeglasses down, which meant learning about the only three who owned this type.

Meanwhile, as the mysterious murder of Bobby Franks continued to dominate the local headlines, everyone seemed to have a take or theory on what had happened. Among them was a young man, not yet 20, Nathan Leopold. A highly intelligent and accomplished ornithologist, he had even taken part in an expedition that discovered a new species of bird. A film of said expedition is still view-able to this day; you can see him in it.

He was willing to talk to detectives about his own theories and once he even had the gall to comment, “If I were to murder anybody, it would be just such a cocky little son of a bitch as Bobby Franks.” Leopold’s best friend, Richard Loeb, had happened to be Franks’ second cousin, and detectives wondered if there was a link there given Leopold’s flippant comment. To their pleasant surprise, they discovered that the person who owned the glasses found at the crime scene — was Nathan Leopold himself.

Leopold was taken into custody for questioning. He came up with the excuse that he had lost the pair of glasses when he tripped. He was asked to re-enact the incident; he could not, no matter how many times he tried to. His alibi for the night? He was out with his best friend, Richard Loeb, prowling for young women as young rich boys do, of course. This meant Loeb had to be questioned as well; he had been roped into this now.

Loeb backed up the alibi, explaining they had driven around in Leopold’s car and picked up two women, and he was open about the fact they just wanted to have a one-night-stand with them. But once it was clear they weren’t “those type of gals,” they dropped them off and called it a night. That was it.

The problems with the alibi were two major factors. One, Leopold's father had sent their chauffeur to the police, in an act that ironically was meant to help his son, to reveal Leopold’s car had been in the garage for fixing. The other? It was becoming clear these two young men were more than just best friends — they were, in fact, lovers, so there was no way they were trying to pick up women.

The police were now convinced that these two highly intelligent young men, members of wealthy and respected families in each’s own right, had committed the heinous crime. They worked on the two some more, and finally Loeb cracked. Leopold followed. The case had been solved.

These two young men had been best friends and then eventually lovers years before they had chosen to kill Bobby Franks. Both came to believe in the ideas promoted by Friedrich Nietzsche on the concept of a “Superman.” This thinking lead them to believe they were superior to most everyday human beings, and that gave them the leg up to commit any crime they wished and use anyone for their gain. Leopold had even once cockily written to Loeb, “A superman … is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.”

Their twisted partnership started with innocent pranks, which then escalated to cheating at card games. This was then escalated to robbery, and then even arson. Together the two had made an evil pairing, getting away with small and mildly serious crimes, and no one being the wiser that these two well-educated and well-to-do young men were behind such a crime spree. Soon enough, the idea of committing what was termed by them “the perfect murder” became a goal of theirs.

They spent seven months planning everything. How would they abduct their victim? How would they end their victim’s life? How would they dispose of the body? How would they go about throwing the police off with the ruse of a ransom? They meticulously strategized the whole gruesome affair. After prowling for possible victims, mostly younger boys, they targeted Loeb’s cousin, Bobby Franks.

They lured him into a rented car, one of them driving and the other in back of the car waiting to strike at Bobby as he sat in the passenger seat. Neither man would ever admit who was in what position, or who dealt the killing blow, but one of them eventually attacked Franks with a chisel. As the other drove on towards their planned dumping spot, Franks was murdered in the car with blows to the head and strangulation.

They poured acid over him to attempt to make it harder to identify the body, and then desecrated the rest of it for who knows what sickening reason. They dumped the body out of state, in a ditch. They were sure it’d take forever for it to be found. They burned their bloody clothes, and then changed. They celebrated over hot dogs with the knowledge (or so they thought) they’d never be caught. Then began the ransom ruse that night.

But those eyeglasses, the ones that belonged to Leopold, the one who considered himself a “Superhuman” who was so superior that common law for normal men didn’t pertain to him, had sunk them. Had he not left the glasses there, had this young little rich punk with a god complex not made such a blunder, they may have gotten away with it.

When confronted about a motive, they simply explained they wanted to know about “The thrill of the kill.” Leopold even stated, “It is just as easy to justify such a death as it is to justify an entomologist killing a beetle on a pin.”

Their confession left no doubt to their guilt, but now the next stage was set, the trial. And by now, the local headlines on this case had become national headlines. Suddenly, this trial had become the major news item of the day, maybe only eclipsed by the 1924 presidential election covered in the previous chapter; and reporters were ready to get their tickets to “The Trial of the Century.”

“I have a hanging case!” declared the chief prosecutor, Cook County State's Attorney Robert E. Crowe. This would be what this trial would be all about, whether the two killers would hang.

Crowe had been a self-made man, publicly schooled, working hard towards a Yale education. He made his name as a tough prosecutor, even filing charges against a former legal associate of his who was running a ponzi scheme. In 1916, with the backing of Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson, he became a circuit judge. After three years as a tough “hang em’ high” sort of judge, he was elected to his position that allowed him to prosecute the two young men who had killed Bobby Franks.

Crowe was a rising star in Chicago politics — only in his mid-40s by 1924 — he was hoping to make a name for himself with this case. He wanted to make this his launching pad to higher office. Maybe become the next mayor? Hell, maybe even the governorship was in play with the publicity he’d get from this. He was confident this would be an open and shut case.

In desperation for their sons’ welfare, Leopold’s and Loeb’s parents reached out to a man who would see this case as his chance to fight against the death penalty — Clarence Darrow.

Darrow had made his bones as the defense attorney for “the little guy,” going to bat for progressive causes and serving a leader of the ACLU during his time. He was not comfortable defending such miscreants, but he loathed the death penalty enough to take the case up. He told everyone he knew just as much.

Darrow jumped into action, knowing the odds he faced. He had the boys plea guilty for the murder, and then asked for a judge, not a jury, to decide the sentencing. Darrow’s strategy was that there would be no reason to mess around debating the obvious guilt of the two, and that he liked his chances trying to convince one man over a whole panel of people who may have vengeance on their mind.

The trial was a sensation in the press, with two young boys’ lives on the line because of the even younger life they had taken. A prosecutor who had a political career to fight for, a defense attorney with an idea to promote. In the end, it came down to the closing statements.

Darrow made one final impassioned 12-hour-long plea for the boys’ lives. The incredibly long speech, whether you agree with his views or not on the matter, is an incredible piece of mastery of the English language. Darrow’s conviction oozed out to the point that even the judge was seen holding back a tear or two…

“I do not know how much salvage there is in these two boys. I hate to say it in their presence, but what is there to look forward to? I do not know but what your Honor would be merciful to them, but not merciful to civilization, and not merciful if you tied a rope around their necks and let them die; merciful to them, but not merciful to civilization, and not merciful to those who would be left behind. To spend the balance of their days in prison is mighty little to look forward to, if anything. Is it anything? They may have the hope that as the years roll around they might be released. I do not know. I do not know. I will be honest with this court as I have tried to be from the beginning. I know that these boys are not fit to be at large. I believe they will not be until they pass through the next stage of life, at 45 or 50. Whether they will then, I cannot tell. I am sure of this; that I will not be here to help them. So far as I am concerned, it is over.”

The judge eventually believed that the young age of the boys was their saving grace. He was not comfortable putting such young men to death, so he sentenced them to life in prison instead. Leopold and Loeb were spared the hangman’s noose.

Darrow had won, Crowe had not. They politely shook hands at the end of the trial. Darrow went on to be involved in the legendary court case known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in which he did battle with the legendary Williams Jennings Bryan on the right to teach the theory of evolution in school. Crowe himself didn’t continue his rise in politics, forever linked to the biggest case of his career, the one he uncharacteristically lost.

Loeb would die in prison a little more than a decade after the murder, ironically murdered by a prison inmate. Leopold, who was amazingly allowed to be in the same prison as his partner in crime, was able to be there by his bedside as he passed away from his injuries.

Leopold would go on to write a controversial book, putting most of the blame on Loeb. Neither man ever would fess up to who did what in their part of the crime, so they blamed each other for the worst parts. Leopold was controversially given parole in 1958. He moved to Puerto Rico and married. He died a little more than a decade later from a sudden heart attack in his mid-60s.

In today’s age of true crime fascination, of serial killer memorabilia, of the crime novels and films we give our money to; you can point to this incredible and disturbing case as one of the earlier forms of our obsession with such things. Before the trials of Casey Anthony and O.J Simpson, we had the trial of Leopold and Loeb, “The Trial of the Century.”




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Luis A. Mendez

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