On an afternoon in May 1924, the sons of two of Chicago’s wealthiest and most illustrious families drove to the Harvard School for boys in Kenwood and kidnapped a young boy named Bobby Franks. Their plan was to carry out the “perfect murder”... a scheme so devious that only two men of superior intellect, such as their own, could accomplish. These two men were Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. They were the privileged heirs of well-known Chicago families who had embarked on a life of crime for fun and for the pure thrill of it. There were also a pair of sexual deviants who considered themselves to be brilliant -- a claim that would later lead to their downfall.

When captured, the case became known as "the trial of the century".

Nathan Leopold had been born in 1904 and from an early age had a number of homosexual encounters, culminating in a relationship with Richard Loeb. He was an excellent student with a genius IQ and was only 18 when he graduated from the University of Chicago. Like many future killers, his family life was totally empty and devoid of control. His mother had died when he was young and his father gave him little attention.

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Richard Loeb was the son of the Vice President of Sears and Roebuck and while he was as wealthy as his friend, Loeb was merely a clever young man and far from brilliant. What he lost in intelligence, he more than made up for in arrogance however. He fancied himself a master criminal detective but his dream was to commit the perfect crime. With his more docile companion, Leopold, Loeb began developing what he believed to be the perfect scheme. He also constantly searched for ways to control others. Not long after the two became friends, Leopold attempted to initiate a sexual relationship with Loeb. At first, he spurned the other’s advances but then offered a compromise. He would engage in sex with Leopold, but only under the condition that the other boy begin a career in crime with him. Leopold agreed and they signed a formal pact to that affect.

Over the course of the next four years, they committed robbery, vandalism, arson and petty theft, but this was not enough for Loeb. He dreamed of something bigger. A murder, he convinced his friend, would be their greatest intellectual challenge.

They worked out a plan during the next seven months. For a victim, they chose a 14 year old boy named Bobby Franks. He was the son of the millionaire Jacob Franks, and a distant cousin of Loeb. They were already acquainted with the boy and he went happily with them on that May afternoon. They drove him to within a few blocks of the Franks residence in Hyde Park then suddenly grabbed him, stuffed a gag in his mouth and smashed his skull four times with a chisel. He fell to the floor and bled to death in the car.

When the brief bit of excitement was over, Leopold and Loeb casually drove away, stopped for lunch and then ended up near a culvert along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. After dunking the boy’s head underwater to make sure that he was dead, they poured acid on his face (so that he would be hard to identify) then stuffed his body into a drainpipe.

After this, they drove to Leopold’s home, where they spent the afternoon and evening drinking and playing cards. Around midnight, they telephoned the Franks’ home and told Mr. Franks that he could soon expect a ransom demand for the return of his son. They typed out a letter on a stolen typewriter and mailed it to Franks, intent on continuing their twisted “game”. However, by the time the letter arrived, workmen had already stumbled upon the body of Bobby Franks.

Bobby Franks as he looked around the time of his murder

Despite their “mental prowess” and “high intelligence”, Leopold and Loeb were quickly caught. Leopold had dropped his eyeglasses near the spot where the body had been hidden and police had (cleverly) traced the prescription back to him. They also traced the ransom note to a typewriter that Leopold had “borrowed” from his fraternity house the year before.

(Left) The typed ransom latter that Leopold and Loeb sent to Bobby Franks' parents. The ransom note was discovered to have been typed on a machine that Leopold had stolen from his fraternity house. The police quickly traced the note back to the killers.

The police search the water for clues near where Bobby's body was discovered.

After questioning, Loeb broke first. Leopold’s confession came soon after. The people of Chicago, and the rest of the nation, were stunned and soon people were crying for the blood of the two killers. It was fully expected that the two would receive a death sentence for the callous and cold-blooded crime. Then, in stepped Clarence Darrow.

America’s most famous defense attorney had been hired by the parent’s of the two young killers. For $100,000 he had taken the case and agreed to seek the best possible verdict that he could, which in this case was life in prison. Darrow would have less trouble with the case than he would with his clients, who constantly clowned around and hammed it up in the courtroom. The newspaper photographers frequently snapped photos of them smirking and laughing in court and the public, already turned against them, became even more hostile toward the “poor little rich boys”.

Darrow was fighting an uphill battle but he brought out every trick in the book and used shameless tactics in the case. He declared the boys to be insane. Leopold, he said, was a dangerous schizophrenic. They weren’t criminals, he railed, they just couldn’t help themselves! After this weighty proclamation, Darrow actually began to weep. The trial became a landmark (and some say a bad one) in criminal law. He then began to describe a detailed description of what would happen to the men as they were hanged, providing a graphic image of bodily functions and physical pain. Darrow turned to the prosecutor and invited him to perform the execution.

Darrow‘s horrifying description had a marked effect on the courtroom and especially on the defendants. Loeb was observed to shudder and Leopold got so hysterical that he had to be taken out of the courtroom. Darrow then wept for the defendants, wept for Bobby Franks.... and then wept for defendants and victims everywhere.

The crowded courtroom during the trial. Leopold & Loeb can be seen in the center, just to left of the judge's lampshade. Clarence Darrow is standing just to the right of the judge's head.

The master manipulator won the case. The defendants were given life in prison for Bobby Frank’s murder and an additional 99 years for his kidnapping. Ironically, after all of that, Darrow only managed to get $40,000 of his fee from his tight-fisted clients. He only managed to get that after threatening to sue them.

Leopold and Loeb were sent to the state prison in Joliet and officials there were ridiculed by the public and the press for the special treatment they received. Obviously, money was changing hands as each enjoyed a private cell, books, a desk, a filing cabinet and even pet birds. They also showered away from the other prisoners and took their meals (which were prepared to order) in the officer’s lounge. They were also allowed any number of unsupervised visitors and were allowed to keep their own gardens.

In January 1936 though, Loeb was murdered by another prisoner who claimed that he had killed the other man because he had tried to make homosexual advances toward him. The attacker slashed Loeb 56 times in the back with a homemade knife and left him to bleed to death in the shower room. The killer's claims inspired rumors that Loeb was a brutal prison rapist, but this was not the case. In fact, the murder had been committed because the other prisoner felt shortchanged because Loeb had not given him as many cigarettes as he had given to some of the other prisoners.

Leopold lived on in prison for many years and was said to have made many adjustments to his character and some would even say had rehabilitated completely. Even so, appeals for his parole were turned down three times. Finally, in 1958, his fourth appeal was pleaded by the poet Carl Sandburg, who even went as far as to offer Leopold a room in his own home. Finally, in March of that year, he was released. He went on to write a book about his experiences called LIFE PLUS 99 YEARS and moved to Puerto Rico. There, he worked among the poor, married a widow and died in 1971.

Although ghosts of violent murder have often been believed to walk the earth, the spirit of Bobby Franks has always rested in peace, perhaps because his killers were brought to justice. There is one spirit believed to linger from this case however... that of master lawyer Clarence Darrow.

Reports tell of instances where the ghost of Darrow has been seen along the back steps of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The apparition is reported dressed in a suit, hat and overcoat and bears a striking resemblance to the attorney. The figure is reported to stand and stare out across the water before disappearing. Why his ghost walks is unknown... although perhaps the infamously agnostic attorney simply refuses to go on to the other side, a place that he didn’t believe in anyway!

The Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood that was scarred by the murder of Bobby Franks is much changed from 1924. The residence of Nathan Leopold at 4754 South Greenwood Avenue was destroyed and the property was subdivided. The Loeb mansion at 5017 South Ellis Avenue was torn down in the 1970’s. The Franks homes at 5052 South Ellis remains today, although it is deteriorated from its state in the 1920’s and shows signs of neglect.

The Clarence Darrow Memorial Bridge crosses the Jackson Park Lagoon near the Museum of Science and Industry and here, his ghost has frequently been reported.


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