By Peter J. Spalding
The biggest scandal of 1920's Chicago unfolded innocuously at first, when 14-year-old Bobby Franks missed his family dinner.
It was a Wednesday evening, May 21, 1924. Bobby had just umpired a ballgame down the street from his Ellis Avenue home, and no one seemed to have seen him since. Bobby's father Jacob sensed that something was wrong; but even as he started calling Bobby's friends, he could hardly have imagined what was about to happen.
Chicago, of course, was no stranger to scandal. The month before, Al Capone had taken over Cicero's city government in the bloodiest election Illinois had ever seen, and Capone's brother Frank had been killed in the process. Jazz and drink were everywhere, as were gambling, prostitution, and a slew of other vices. Girls' hemlines were rising, and their hairstyles were shortening, both of which sent older generations into a tizzy.
When Bobby disappeared, the city was just wrapping up its sensational "jazz killer" trial. A young married woman had shot a man in her bedroom. Initially she said the dead man was a burglar, but then she admitted they'd been having an affair. In quick succession she hired a fast-talking lawyer, faked a pregnancy, and claimed self-defense, all of which would eventually get her acquitted. A prominent Tribune reporter, Maurine Dallas Watkins, would later use the scandal as the basis for her play Chicago.
Before long though, Bobby's disappearance would overshadow everything else in the news. The Franks family was wealthy, well-connected, and lived in one of the safest neighborhoods in town. It seemed inconceivable that anything bad could have happened. But within a few hours, Bobby's mother got a call saying her son had been kidnapped. The ransom note came the next morning, and its words were chillingly calm and collected:
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 to 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 kidnapper went on to demand $10,000 in cash. He said further instructions would come by phone that afternoon. Then he said:
As a final word of warning, this is an extremely 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 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.
The note had clearly been written by a well-spoken, well-educated criminal. But at that moment, the family's only focus was on getting Bobby back. Jacob Franks drove to his bank and withdrew hundreds of $20 and $50 bills. The kidnappers sent him a cab and told him to drive to a drugstore, where they would call him with more instructions. But before the cab could go anywhere, Bobby's uncle Edwin Greshan called with bad news.
Bobby, it turned out, was already dead. His corpse had been found near Wolf Lake that morning, and Greshan had just identified him.
With that, the whole scheme unraveled. All thoughts of the ransom disappeared, and the police embarked on a citywide manhunt. The press jumped on the story, portraying it as a senseless tragedy, a high-stakes heist, a heinous crime, and a perplexing mystery, all rolled into one. The Chicago Tribune offered a $5,000 reward for an exclusive scoop. The Herald and Examiner matched the offer and threw in an extra $50 for whomever could come up with the best theory for what might have happened.
"Police call the crime the strangest and most baffling homicide in Chicago's history," the Associated Press reported.
The truth was even stranger than the papers had thought. A week later, the killers turned up under the Franks family's nose-- and they turned out to be the most unlikely murderers imaginable.
Leopold, Jr., and Richard Loeb, seemed like model citizens. They were both accomplished child prodigies who had entered college when most of their peers were just starting high school. In May 1924, they were 19 and 18 years old, respectively, and were graduate students at the University of Chicago. Leopold had been accepted into Harvard Law School and was set to transfer that fall.
Their pedigree was impeccable too. Leopold's father was the heir to a shipping fortune as well as a self-made businessman in his own right, while his mother came from a prominent banking family. Loeb's father was one of the top executives who had turned Sears, Roebuck, and Company into a mail-order juggernaut.
So when Leopold and Loeb were arrested for Bobby Franks's murder, the news struck the city-- and in fact the whole country-- like a thunderclap.
The Chicago papers pushed all other news aside. The Tribune, for example, devoted almost its entire front section to the case. Even hundreds of miles away, the New York Times splashed the headline across its front page: "TWO RICH STUDENTS CONFESS TO KILLING FRANKS BOY IN CAR." The Los Angeles Times ran a breathless "EXCLUSIVE DISPATCH" detailing the confessions. Hundreds of other papers ran similar pieces.
"For some reason," Leopold would later say to his parole board, "back in 1924, the newspapers found in [our] particular case apparently something that would sell, something that would interest the public, whether it was youth, the position of our families, the fact that we were college students, a combination of these things, I really don't know."
In truth, though, Leopold and Loeb invited all that attention. They took to the spotlight like natural celebrities: they read all their own press clippings, they made sure to look good on camera, and they knew just what to say to push reporters' buttons. On June 1-- a day after their confessions-- they showed the police how they'd committed the murder, and they let the press come along on a tour of the crime scenes. Along the way, the boys spouted off plenty of sound bites.
"This thing will be the making of me," Loeb said as the motorcade made its way through the city. "I'll spend a few years in jail and I'll be released. I'll come out to a new life. I'll go to work and I'll work hard and I'll amount to something, have a career."
Leopold seemed downright proud of his crime. "There was nothing flamboyant in that [ransom] letter," he said. "It was concise and well phrased. It instilled terror. And it certainly impelled action." He went on to tell the Tribune that "we even rehearsed the kidnapping at least three times, carrying it through in all the details, lacking only the boy we were to kidnap and kill."
"My mother wouldn't believe me," Loeb complained. "I told her it was true, but she wouldn't believe me. What hurts is that she won't believe. Even now I'm sure she doesn't think I did it. That hurts-- a mother's faith, the disgrace to the family."
The most infamous quote of all came from Leopold: "It was just an experiment. It is as easy for us to justify as an entomologist in impaling a beetle on a pin."
That was the part that upset the public the most, because Leopold and Loeb had no real motive or explanation for what they'd done. They had killed Bobby Franks for no particular reason, and they didn't seem the slightest bit ashamed.
Even the ransom was just incidental. The boys were so rich that they didn't need $10,000, nor did they have any real use for it. Leopold admitted that spending the money would've aroused suspicion, so he had planned to "hide it away, either in a safety deposit box or some other safe place, for a year, and then spend it very carefully." He later said that "the money consideration only came in afterwards, and never was important.... The money was a part of our objective, as was also the commission of the crime; but that was not the exact motive, but that came afterwards."
At least legally speaking, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. Leopold and Loeb had both confessed, and aside from a few minor details, their stories checked out. The physical evidence and the witnesses all told the same tale. The only question seemed to be how quickly the boys would be hanged.
But there the story took another unexpected turn. The most well-respected but controversial attorney in America had agreed to take on the case. Clarence Darrow felt the boys were being tried in the papers when they needed to be tried in court; and he was determined to fix that.
Darrow would not disappoint. Over the next few weeks, he would turn the story of Leopold and Loeb on its ear.
NEXT Time: The Strange Case of Leopold and Loeb: Part 2
Peter J. Spalding likes to write. He has recently completed a screenplay based on the facts of the Franks murder. He is also the author of 1871: A Novel of the Great Fire, two stage plays and five additional screenplays. In addition, Spalding maintains a popular blog, "Finding the Write Words."
Leopold and Loeb (Chicago History Online)
See also: Chicago Daily News photos; Leopold and Loeb
Above photos provided by the author.