The ‘Crime of the Century,’ 100 years later

On May 21, 1924, Bobby Franks hesitated when a car pulled alongside him and he was offered him a ride home from school.

He was a 14-year-old student at the Harvard School for Boys at 4731 S. Ellis Ave., in the posh Kenwood neighborhood. Franks lived at 5052 S. Ellis.

“He said, no, he would just as soon walk, so I told him I would like to talk to him about a tennis racket, so he got in the car,” Richard Loeb said in his subsequent confession.

Franks had reason to believe it was OK to accept the offer. He was a second cousin of Loeb and lived just across the street. They often played tennis on the Loeb estate’s court.

Nathan Leopold would be questioned when Franks’ corpse was found, released, and then called back for a second interview. At that point, someone else would demand a lawyer. But Leopold was convinced he could outsmart the cops and had reason to think so.

He was 19 and had studied 15 languages, claiming to be fluent in five. The previous October, in Boston, he presented a paper on the Kirtland’s Warbler, and showed footage he shot of the elusive songbird at the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

But his encore performance for the Cook County state’s attorney was disastrous. He inadvertently put himself at the scene of the crime. It was the fatal error in Leopold and Loeb’s blueprint for a perfect crime.

When Franks got into the car, Loeb subsequently recalled: “Leopold reached his arm around young Franks, grabbed his mouth and hit him with a chisel. He began to bleed and wasn’t entirely unconscious. He was moaning.”

That evening, Franks’ father got a ransom demand as part of what newspapers quickly ballyhooed as “The Crime of the Century.”

Among the reporters was Maurine Watkins, who wrote a play that inspired the smash-hit musical “Chicago.”

“ ‘Loeb’ as the name of a murderer falls strangely on Chicago ears,” Watkins wrote in the Tribune when Loeb and Leopold were arrested. “For the people of that name are written in the book of Chicago history as builders, and leaders in philanthropy, charity and educational movements.”

Loeb’s father was a lawyer by trade, Watkins noted. “His personal fortune has been estimated as high $10,000,000,” she wrote. He was vice president of Sears Roebuck & Co. His son was the youngest student ever to graduate from the University of Michigan.

“When he came home last June, his father proud of the boy’s brilliant scholastic record built a nine hole golf course in the ‘back yard’ of 5017 Ellis Ave.,” Watkins noted.

“ ‘Why these boys could have had all the money in the world!” Watkins quoted Loeb’s best friend as saying. “Why would they do that?’ ”

Their motivation was purportedly philosophical. Leopold had read Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” and was mesmerized by his conception of the “ubermensch,” a higher order of mankind.

“The true man wants two things: Danger and play,” Nietzsche wrote.

From that, Leopold concluded that committing an unsolvable crime would somehow make him an ubermensch. He tutored Loeb in that theory.

“A superman,” Leopold, wrote to Loeb “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.”

According to a psychiatrist who examined Loeb after his arrest: “It seemed necessary in his fantasies that he be the ‘master criminal mind’ and have a small group, possibly one associate, who looked up to him.”

Loeb suggested they practice on his former fraternity house.

Loeb told the psychiatrist that the he and Leopold went to Ann Arbor armed with revolvers in case they were discovered in the Zeta Beta Tau house.

“But the door was unlocked and nobody paid any attention to them. They went through the clothes on the second floor as planned. They picked up about $74, several watches, many knives, a typewriter, many fountain pens, several Eversharp pencils, but no stick pins. They got nervous hearing sounds in the house.”

On their ride back to Chicago, they decided to go for a big-time exploit.

After killing Franks, Leopold thought the performance so perfect he helped the cops hoping to find him.

But he and Loeb had driven Franks’ body to the Edgar Woods Forest Preserve near 118th Street and adjacent to Wolf Lake. En route they stopped at a restaurant and bought a pair of hot dogs and root beers.

After dark, they pulled off the road near the Pennsylvania Railroad’s tracks and a culvert.

“We dragged the body out of the car, put the body in the road and carried it over to the culvert,” Loeb recalled in his confession. “Leopold carried the feet, I carried the head. We deposited the body near the culvert, and undressed the body completely.”

The day after Franks’ murder, Tony Minke, a pump operator at the nearby American Maize Co., discovered a body. His incoherent screaming attracted railroad workers on a passing handcar. Because his Polish was better than his English, Minke was questioned via an interpreter at the trial.

The railroad workers called the police, and the body was taken to a funeral parlor at 13300 S. Houston Ave. A pair of eyeglasses found at the scene, thought to belong to the victim, were put on the body by a police officer, Anthony Stepaniak.

The Franks’ family was asked to see if the body might be the young Franks. Bobby Franks’ uncle drove the boy’s father, and told him to wait in the car. But Joseph Franks followed Edward Gresham into the funeral parlor

“Bobby never wore glasses,” he exclaimed.

Three days later, Leopold was summoned to the 18th District police station because its commander knew Leopold gave bird-watching classes in the forest preserve.

Leopold gave Chicago police Capt. Thomas Wolf his class lists, said the glasses weren’t his, and was sent on his way.

Meanwhile, the cops learned that the glasses found in the forest preserve had a unique hinge. Almer Coe Optical found a bill of sale showing Leopold had bought a pair.

The state’s attorney summoned Leopold and asked what he did on the day of the murder. The psychiatrist who later examined him said: “He had the most brilliant mind I ever came in contact with.” During one of their sessions, Dr Hall happened to mention “brain localization.” .

“Darned if Leopold didn’t roll it off his tongue as if he, not I had crammed on it,” Dr Hall said.

So Leopold replied that he and Loeb had gone for a ride in Leopold’s car.

Leopold was also asked about a portable typewriter that he and four other students had used when studying for final exams. One produced his notes, which matched the typeface instructions the Franks received for paying a $10,000 ransom.

Leopold said he’d gotten rid of the Underwood typewriter, and cops went to his home to check it out.

The Underwood typewriter wasn’t there, but the family’s chauffeur, Sven Englund, was.

Englund said Leopold’s car was in the family’s garage until at least 10:30 that night. The next morning, he saw Loeb and Leopold washing the interior of a Willys-Knight rented car outside the garage and offered to help. “They said ‘No, we have merely spilled some red wine on here last night.’”

They were wiping Bobby Franks’ blood off the rental car.

Loeb was told what the chauffeur said.

“My God! Is that right?” he exclaimed. “Yes, that’s right,” the Cook County state’s attorney replied. “Let me see you alone,” Loeb said.”

He asked for a phone and said: “Yes, mother it’s true. It’s true.”

Loeb and Leopold gave signed confessions. Each was asked who hit Franks with the chisel.

“Nathan Leopold Jr.,” Loeb said.

“Richard Loeb,” Leopold said.

Cook County States Attorney Robert E. Crowe made his intentions clear: “We have a hanging case and are ready to go to the jury today.”

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