May 21, 1924, Chicago: Jacob Franks, a wealthy watch manufacturer, arrived at the Chicago police station to report his 14-year-old son, Bobby Franks, had been kidnapped. He hadn’t come home from school that afternoon, so his mother, Flora, called all his friends. But he was not with any of them.
Then someone calling himself George Johnson called them. He told them their son had been kidnapped and that they would be given instructions.
After taking his statement, the police decided to wait with the Franks family for the promised instructions, hoping they would offer some kind of lead.
The next contact the Franks received was a type-written letter instructing them to obtain $10,000 by noon that day. The bills were to be old, unmarked, placed in a cigar box and wrapped in paper. They were told that a cab would be sent for Jacob to take him to a drugstore where he would then receive further instructions.
Jacob hurried to withdraw the money and package it as instructed. As promised, a Yellow Cab arrived to pick him up. But before he could get into the cab, he was stopped. Someone from the morgue called; they had Bobby’s body.
A mill worker had been walking home after the night shift early that morning. While walking near Wolf Lake, some 25 miles south of the city, he saw something white in a culvert and went to see what it was.
It was the nude body of a boy. The coroner would later catalog his extensive injuries: multiple gashes and blunt-force trauma all over his head, suffocation, and strange copper stains on his face and genitals.
He had been found only with a pair of glasses nearby. Thinking they were his, the coroner put them on Bobby when his relative came to identify the body. But the thing was, Bobby didn’t wear glasses.
The Franks were devastated. The police were perplexed. Why would kidnappers kill Bobby before the Franks could give them the ransom? Something didn’t add up.
So police turned to what little evidence they had. There were the glasses — since they weren’t Bobby’s, they could well have been his killer’s. There was also the ransom note and its hand-addressed envelope.
The ransom note was well written; it had no spelling or grammar errors, and the writer used more sophisticated vocabulary. Clearly, the writer was well educated. So police began questioning Bobby’s classmates at the elite prep school he attended, trying to find out if there was a teacher or administrator who might be suspicious. Every rumor was chased down.
Meanwhile, a journalist decided to question Bobby’s classmates as well — but from a different angle. He wanted to know when they had last seen Bobby. And he hit paydirt: on the day of the kidnapping, one of his classmates had been walking home from school, about a block behind Bobby. The boy said he looked away for a moment, and when he looked back, Bobby was gone, and a grey sedan was pulling away.
But without a description of the driver or a license number, this lead was little help. And the detectives’ interrogation into the possibility of one of Bobby’s teachers kidnapping him wasn’t bearing any fruit either.
The Clue the Whole Case Hinged On
However, the eyeglasses would prove to be a crucial piece of evidence. The prescription was common enough, but the frames were not. They had a certain kind of hinge that had only been sold to three people in the Chicago area. One was a man who had been out of the country for weeks. The other was a woman with a rock-solid alibi. The last was a young man named Nathan Leopold.
Police didn’t believe Leopold could have anything to do with such a brutal crime. His father, who had made his fortune in manufacturing, was quite wealthy; his worth was estimated at $4 million. They also lived in the same exclusive neighborhood — Kenwood, on the south side of Chicago — as the Franks.
Besides his sterling pedigree, Leopold himself was an exceptional young man — he’d graduated high school when he was 15 and was now attending the law school at the University of Chicago. He was a published ornithologist and spoke 11 languages. Surely such an intelligent, wealthy young man couldn’t be involved in such a crime. But they questioned him anyway.
Leopold told police that on the night of the murder, he and his friend Richard Loeb had been driving around in his car, a red Willys, drinking and having a good time. They had picked up some women and fooled around, but when the women didn’t want to have sex with them, the boys dropped them off and went on their way.
As for his glasses being at the scene of the crime, Leopold explained that he often led birding trips to that area, and so the glasses must have fallen out of his pocket some time earlier.
While he was being questioned, police searched his bedroom. In his things, they found the same kind of typewriter used to type the ransom letter. And they found another very interesting letter: a love letter written to Loeb.
So state’s attorney Robert Crowe brought Loeb in for questioning.
Leopold and Loeb had met four years earlier, in the summer of 1920. Loeb had been 15 and had just finished his freshman year at the University of Chicago. Leopold, only six months older, was about to start his freshman year there.
On the surface, the two couldn’t have been more different. Loeb was popular, charismatic, and good looking. Leopold had a more dark, intense air about him, an aloof know-it-all who didn’t make friends easily.
Yet there was much more they had in common. Both were sons of wealth; Loeb’s father was the vice president of Sears and Roebuck, worth around $10 million. Both were prodigies; like Leopold, Loeb had graduated from high school early, at age 14. And they had both grown up in Kenwood, only blocks apart, surrounded by privilege and given everything they could want.
At the station, Loeb repeated the story Leopold had told the police. But Crowe was suspicious. The letter found in Leopold’s desk indicated the two were lovers. Why would two homosexuals be out looking to have sex with women? So Crowe kept interrogating the two, in separate rooms, late into the night.
At one point, Leopold’s driver arrived at the station with the young man’s pajamas. While dropping them off, he told police he had information that proved that Leopold couldn’t have been at the scene of the crime. His Willys, you see, had been in the garage having repairs done the whole day.
Now the boys’ story was unravelling fast.
During their interrogation, handwriting analysts compared Leopold’s letter to the handwritten address on the ransom note. He declared them a match.
The Perfect Crime
Faced with so much evidence against them, Loeb confessed. Once he knew Loeb had cracked, Leopold did too — though their stories would differ in one key aspect.
The two boys explained that they had been on a crime spree for quite some time. Their first crime was relatively small and harmless — a scam to cheat at cards. But Loeb, a true-crime fan who poured over detective pulps and newspapers, wanted more.
At Loeb’s urging, the two began committing ever more serious crimes. They broke into Leopold’s fraternity house and burglarized it. They got away with less than $80 in cash, some penknives, a camera, and an Underwood typewriter — the same typewriter they would use to write the ransom note.
From there, they escalated to stealing cars and arson. After each crime, Loeb would become very aroused, and the two would have sex.
Leopold, who always accompanied Loeb, was less motivated by the thrill of the crimes than by his growing infatuation with Loeb. And Loeb liked having an adoring follower. So the two made a pact: Leopold would continue to accompany Loeb on his crimes, and in exchange, Loeb would agree to have sex with him.
Meanwhile Leopold was also coming under the influence of another man: Friederich Neitzsche. He was particularly drawn to Neitzsche’s idea of an “ubermensch,” a kind of “superman” who is above the law and morality in general. Leopold was convinced, and convinced Loeb, that they were these supermen.
Yet their crimes weren’t being noticed by the press. Thirsty for attention, Loeb wanted to commit a crime that couldn’t be ignored. What was the worst crime anyone could think of? The kidnapping and murder of a child. Because of their superior intellect, they reasoned, they would get away with it.
So they started planning what they thought would be “the perfect crime” seven months before the murder. They purchased a metal chisel and hydrochloric acid, and wrote a ransom note on the stolen typewriter.
On the day of the murder, they rented a grey sedan under a false name. They then went cruising for a victim. After several hours, they spotted Bobby Franks walking home from school.
Bobby was actually Loeb’s cousin; he lived just across the street and the two had often played tennis together. So it was easy for Loeb to lure him into the car with a tale of a new tennis racket he wanted to show the boy.
Here is where the two confessions diverge. Loeb claimed he was driving and Leopold was in the back seat; Leopold claimed the opposite. However, witness statements place Leopold behind the wheel and Loeb in the back seat.
Once Bobby had gotten into the passenger seat, Loeb grabbed him from behind and dragged him into the back seat. There, he beat the young boy with the metal chisel and stuffed a rag in his mouth, suffocating him.
Then they waited for nightfall, passing the time by playing cards.
Once it was dark, the two drove to Wolf Lake with Bobby’s body in the floorboard. They stopped along the way to get something to eat.
There, they stripped Bobby naked and poured hydrochloric acid on his face and genitals in an attempt to conceal his identity. They then stuffed his body into a partially hidden culvert, where Leopold unknowingly dropped his glasses.
They later burned Bobby’s clothing and attempted to clean the blood out of the car’s upholstery.
But because Bobby’s body had been found, their ransom scheme fell apart.
As the two confessed their crimes, they took police — followed by a caravan of journalists — to each of the scenes, from the hardware store where they bought the chisel to the culvert where they hid the body. They seemed almost proud of their plan, as though they were boasting.
Their only motive, they explained, was for the thrill of it. They wanted to see what it was like to kill another human being.
When asked how he felt about murdering Bobby, Leopold likened it to an entomologist pinning a beetle on a tray.
The Trial of the Century
After the two had confessed, Loeb’s family hired the famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Knowing there was little chance of an acquittal, they begged Darrow not to let their son hang. They agreed to pay him as much as he asked, which ended up being about $70,000, or $1 million in today’s money.
Darrow, for his part, was eager to take the case. He was a staunch opponent of the death penalty, and such a high-profile case would be the perfect platform to challenge it.
At their arraignment, Leopold and Loeb pled not guilty, giving Darrow time to prepare his strategy. When they stood trial in August of 1924, Darrow changed their pleas to guilty. His plan was not to try and get an acquittal, but to go straight to the sentencing hearing, where he would make his case for life in prison, rather than death.
The trial — the sentencing hearing, really — was a media sensation. It was the third case in history to be called “the trial of the century.” Reporters crowded into the empty jury box and the gallery was full of spectators. People waited in crowds outside the courthouse.
As would be expected in such a cruel case, the usual moralizers weighed in, blaming the boys’ depravity on the usual suspects: too much education and not enough “moral instruction,” overly permissive parenting, the immorality of modern culture, jazz music.
In the courtroom, Crowe presented more than 80 witnesses over the course of seven days. His strategy was to show that the boys had committed a cold-blooded, premeditated, brutal murder of a child — a crime clearly deserving the death penalty.
While these witnesses testified, Leopold and Loeb showed no emotion — other than occasionally snickering.
Darrow did nothing to deny or challenge Crowe’s strategy. When his turn came, he called on various experts in the emerging fields of psychology to attest that the boys were emotionally “stunted” due to parental neglect. One alienist (now known as a psychiatrist) testified that Leopold had confessed that he had been sexually molested by his governess when he was 12 years old.
After two and a half weeks, Darrow made his closing remarks to packed crowds in the courtroom. He spoke for three days, making the case that mercy was more important than vengeance, and that it was no longer acceptable to a civilized society to impose the death penalty on people so young (the age of majority at the time was 21).
At the end of his remarks, he had brought the courtroom to tears. Chicago’s bookies put odds at 3–1 against Leopold and Loeb getting a death sentence.
It worked. When the judge returned after 12 days of deliberation, he gave the two each a life sentence plus 99 years. He based his decision not on any of the expert testimony, but on the boys’ youth.
The two were initially sent to Joliet Prison, then, later, to Statesville Penitentiary. They were both described as model prisoners.
On Jan. 28, 1936, Loeb was attacked by another inmate, James Day. He was slashed with a straight razor in a shower room, sustaining more than 50 wounds, including defensive wounds to his hands and arms. His throat had been slashed from behind. He died soon after in the prison hospital.
Day claimed that Loeb had attempted to sexually assault him — despite his having no wounds. Newspapers praised Day and published his account uncritically. He was later acquitted of Loeb’s murder.
Leopold, however, went on being a model prisoner. He helped to make significant improvements to the conditions at Stateville, including reorganizing the prison library, updating the education system, and teaching other prisoners. He volunteered in the prison hospital , and in 1944, he even volunteered for the Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study. In this study, he was injected with malaria pathogens and then subjected to multiple experimental treatments.
He wrote an autobiography, Life Plus 99 Years, which was published in 1958. It expressly omitted any information about his early life or the crime for which he was convicted.
He was paroled that same year, and a religious order hired him as a medical technician at its hospital in Puerto Rico. While there, he married, earned a Master’s degree, and became a teacher and researcher. He continued his love of ornithology, traveling throughout the island to observe its birds. In 1963, he published another book: Checklist of Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
He died Aug. 29, 1971, from complications from diabetes. He was 66.