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They called it the Crime of the Century.
When 14-year-old Robert (Bobby) Franks failed to return home for dinner on May 2 1, 1924, his family became worried enough to begin combing the neighbourhood for him. Bobby Franks was a student at the exclusive Harvard School in Chicago, Illinois and the family lived in the upper-class Hyde Park area of the city. As the family later learned, Bobby had last been seen at the Harvard School playground where he had umpired a baseball game earlier in the day. All that anyone could report after left the school was that he was walking in the direction of his house when he disappeared. Becoming increasingly frantic, the Franks family even had the school custodian check the school building to see if he had been locked inside.
Things became even more nightmarish for the Franks when Bobby’s mother received a telephone call at 10:30 that evening. The voice on the phone identified himself as “George Johnson” and told her that their son had been kidnapped and that they were to wait for further instructions. The next day, the family received a special delivery letter that had been mailed from the Hyde Park post office. The letter, which was later published in many newspapers, read as follows:
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 not fear any physical harm for him providing 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.
The letter went on to order the family not to notify the police or any private agency. A ransom of $10,000 was demanded with careful directions about how the ransom should be provided ($2000 in $20 bills, $8000 in $50 bills). The Franks were also told to wait for further instructions on how the ransom would be delivered.
Bobby Franks’ father was prepared to follow the instructions to the letter including taking a taxi to a drugstore on 63rd street. Tragically, before he had a chance to leave, the police called with news that the body of a 14-year-old boy had been found by some workmen just south of Chicago. The naked body was just inside a culvert and had been disfigured by hydrochloric acid applied to the face and body. A coroner determined that he had been strangled and had also received blows to the head using a blunt instrument. A pair of glasses were also found by the body. Since Bobby did not wear glasses, the Franks sent Bobby’s uncle to identify the body while the parents prepared to follow George Johnson’s instructions. The uncle identified the body as being Bobby Franks.
The mystery of who killed Bobby Franks dominated Chicago newspapers. Since Bobby’s family was fairly wealthy, the gruesome details of his kidnapping and murder sparked enormous public interest. After all, if a wealthy child could be abducted off the streets, was any child safe? The Chicago Herald and Examiner even offered a contest with a prize for the best theory of who committed the murder. The newspaper received more than 3,000 entries during the first three days of the contest alone from readers across the United States.
In the meantime, police investigators focused on two teachers from Bobby Franks' school. They were held for a week and subjected to gruelling cross-examination to force them to confess. The seven-day ordeal was ended by a judge's order when police failed to turn up any hard evidence (one of the teachers later successfully sued). The first real break in the case came when the spectacles found at the crime scene were traced to 19-year-old Nathan Leopold.
Known as "Babe" to his friends, Nathan Leopold was part of the same wealthy Hyde Park community as Bobby Frank. His father was a millionaire manufacturer and shipping magnate and Nathan was certainly brilliant in his own right. Not only was his IQ too high to measure but he had graduated from the University of Chicago at the age of 18. Already enrolled in law school, he had been planning to transfer to Harvard Law School in another semester.
When questioned about why his spectacles had been found at the scene, Leopold insisted that he must have lost them while birdwatching. As for his whereabouts on the day of the murder, he insisted that he had been with his friend Richard Loeb and that they had gone out with two girls that they met.
Richard Loeb seemed to be an even more implausible suspect than Nathan Leopold. His family was even wealthier (Loeb's father was vice-president of Sears, Roebuck and Company) and, while not as briliant as Leopold, was still the youngest-ever graduate of the University of Michigan and far more handsome and charismatic than Leopold. At the time of the murder, he was enrolled in a program for gifted students at the University of Chicago. He was also a distant cousin of Bobby Frank and had even offered his own theory about the crime to the newspapers. Loeb confirmed the alibi that Leopold provided though police were suspicious thaat his version of that day's events was exactly the same - almost word for word in fact.
Due to their family wealth, Loeb and Leopold were treated far more leniently than the two teachers were. As police investigated, they discovered that the typewritten ransom notes from George Johnson matched the typewriter that he used for his college assignments. As well, the Loeb family chauffeur told police that he had been working on Richard Loeb's car on the day of the murder so he and Leopold could not have taken it out as they had claimed.
With the evidence presented, Nathan Leopold eventually cracked and confessed to the kidnapping although he insisted that it was Leopold who had killed Bobby Franks. Richard Loeb, on the other hand, confessed to the kidnapping but accused Loeb of the actual murder. In their confession, both young men admitted that their motive was to commit the "perfect, detection-defying crime" and they even confessed to other crimes that had gone unsolved up to that time. Though they planned the kidnapping down to the smallest detail, the only thing they left up to chance was the actual identity of the victim. Bobby Franks had picked at random.
Prior to the kidnapping, they worked out every detail including how to dispose of the body. They had also made plans for having the ransom delivered to a pre-selected location which they would have followed if the body had not been discovered first. The money was never important to them since this was a thrill killing rather than a crime for profit.
The arrest of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, along with details of their confession released to the newspapers, stunned the nation. Although Leopold was seen as the ringleader given his superior intelligence, their casual attitude towards the killing and Leopold's statement that killing Bobby Franks was as easy as "sticking a pin through the back of a beetle" led to widespread demands that both men be executed for their crime. The case also had a strange public fascination with women flocking to the prison and courthouse hoping to catch a glimpse of the handsome Richard Loeb.
Adding to the notoriety over the killing came the news that the Loeb and Leopold families had hired eminent trial lawyer Clarence Darrow to lead the defense team. As both sides began preparing, newpapers already began preparing from what would be a sensational trial.
To be continued
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