May 21, 1924
I was walking home from school with some friends when a car pulled up beside us. There was a man I didn’t know at the wheel, and my cousin Dickie was calling to me from the back seat.
He wanted to talk about a new tennis racket, and offered me a ride home.
I almost didn’t get in the car.
If I’d known Cousin Dickie meant to kill me, I wouldn’t have.
Until it was eclipsed, some eight years later, by the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, the Bobby Franks case was America’s most notorious child murder. On that May day in 1924, Bobby Franks, the son of a wealthy Chicago businessman, was only fourteen.
His killers–Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb–were, respectively, eighteen and seventeen.
Leopold and Loeb were, we would say, spoilt rich kids. When it came crunch time, their “attorney for the damned”, the great Clarence Darrow, would make much of their backgrounds: showered with money rather than love, emotionally stunted, and way too much of their education unsupervised.
They were disciples of Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman philosophy, devoutly believing that they were smarter than the whole world around them. And, being smarter than all the world, believing that the rules that bind mere mortals didn’t apply to them, and with criminal tendencies to boot, they decided they would commit the perfect kidnapping and murder.
They made careful plans: they obtained a rental car, stole a typewriter on which to write a ransom note to Bobby Franks’ father, bought a chisel as a weapon and hydrochloric acid to blur their victim’s identity.
Initially, they planned to kidnap and kill Dickie Loeb’s kid brother, but gave that up when they realized it would be hard to collect the ransom–a mere ten thousand dollars, they asked for–right there under the Loebs’ noses.
They ended up choosing Bobby Franks, who was a distant cousin of Loeb’s, more or less at random.
I got into the front seat beside the man I didn’t know. Cousin Dickie called him “Babe”. We drove off.
A few minutes later, it was all over. Cousin Dickie hit me four times in the head, from behind, with some heavy hard instrument.
I bled out and died there in the front seat.
Can’t say for sure, but the last words I heard may have been Babe’s: Oh, God, I didn’t know it would be like this!
Leopold and Loeb took the body, eventually, to a culvert on 118th Street, near some railroad tracks. They stripped the corpse, poured hydrochloric acid on the face, then thrust it into the culvert.
Babe Leopold never noticed that he dropped his glasses.
And neither of them noticed that Bobby’s foot was sticking out from the culvert.
They went off and left me there, naked and my face obliterated by the acid. They didn’t think I’d be found right away.
They were wrong; I was found within twenty-four hours.
The murderous pair had been busy during those twenty-four hours. They had called the Franks house, using the alias George Johnson, and told Bobby’s mother her son had been kidnapped, but was safe; a ransom note would follow. They got rid of Bobby’s clothes and schoolbooks. They tried, as best they might, to wash the bloodstains out of the rental car. They even tried to establish an alibi, inventing two girls named May and Edna with whom they said they spent the evening.
It all went awry, of course. The Leopolds’ chauffeur caught them washing the car, and would later testify that said car had never left the garage that night, so they couldn’t have picked up the elusive May and Edna.
Worse yet, just about the time that the ransom note was being delivered–the clever Dickie had left it in a streetcar, where it was found and quickly, but not quickly enough, forwarded–to Jacob Franks, a railroad maintenance man found Bobby’s body.
Nearby, the police found a telltale pair of glasses.
I knew who my killer and his accomplice were, and within ten days, so did everybody else.
The glasses were an extremely rare pair; only three people in the Chicago area had glasses with such frames. One of those three was Nathan Leopold.
The chisel, the typewriter–all the paraphernalia of a murderous plot gone wrong were found, and within ten days, Leopold and Loeb were arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping.
America was howling for their blood.
Dickie Loeb’s family promptly disowned him. His father, his health, never especially robust, undermined by stress, was dead of a heart attack within two months of his son’s arrest.
It was up to Babe Leopold’s father to find someone willing to represent his son and his partner in crime.
They say Mr. Leopold went on bended knee to the one man who might have a chance to save his son’s, and Cousin Dickie’s, necks: Clarence Darrow, the Attorney for the Damned.
He offered Darrow a million dollars to save their lives.
A hundred times the value they placed on mine.
Darrow knew he couldn’t get the pair off scotfree. The best he could do was to get them prison sentences. Therefore, he opted for a bench trial, instead of putting his clients before a jury; he pled them guilty; he opted to present them as emotionally stunted, unloved, and twisted by that lack; and, he declared, he would, while the court was trying Leopold and Loeb, put capital punishment itself on trial.
I had been laid to rest in Rosehill Cemetery, where my family had a crypt. But already, as the trial of my killers began, there were whispers that I wasn’t resting well.
And he wasn’t. Bobby Franks’ spirit was beginning a long vigil.
Ater a thirty-three day trial before Judge John R. Caverly, Darrow won his case. His summation is quoted to this day, generally out of both literal and historical context:
I am pleading for the future. . .I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men, when we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth living and that mercy is the highest attribute of man. . .
He won. Judge Caverly, while acknowledging the power of Darrow’s eloquence, said that he based the decision on the boys’ ages and the fact that Illinois had never executed anyone so young as them.
He handed down sentences of life imprisonment plus ninety-nine years for murder and kidnapping. Neither of the two was ever to be paroled, and they were to serve their sentences at Joliet, Illinois’ most notorious prison. And, he emphasized, they were to be kept apart for the rest of their lives.
Money talks, though, although not always to those to whom it’s owed; Clarence Darrow never received the full million Leopold’s father promised him–he got thirty thousand dollars, with a snide remark to the effect that Darrow should pay him for the privilege of distinguishing himself in this notorious case.
Dickie and Babe, meanwhile, although initially estranged from one another, patched up their differences and lived in luxury at Joliet: expensively furnished cells, meals cooked to their specifications (which they ate in a staff lounge), booze, drugs–the money bought them all. Leopold, an enthusiastic gardener, had his own garden plot, which the two visited frequently.
And still, Bobby Franks walked and played in Rosehill Cemetery: a young boy was repeatedly seen playing in the area of the Franks crypt. When he was approached, he would vanish.
Though they took my life, they had theirs, and their lives tethered me to earth.
I had a long wait ahead of me.
Dickie Loeb was killed in prison twelve years into his sentence, slashed to death in a shower in 1936.
Clarence Darrow died in 1938.
And then there was one. I held no grudge against Mr. Darrow, but Babe Leopold was still alive.
Despite Judge Caverly’s instructions, Nathan “Babe” Leopold was paroled in 1958, his cause taken up by, among others, the poet Carl Sandberg. Babe had been a model prisoner.
He moved to Puerto Rico, wrote a book called Life Plus 99, married a widowed florist, and worked as a lab technician.
And still, I waited.
Nathan Leopold died in 1971 of a heart attack. He was sixty-six years old.
And only then could I, forever fourteen, rest at last. The last tether holding me to earth was broken.
In Chicago, so they say, Bobby Franks haunted Rosehill Cemetery for forty-seven years. Since Nathan Leopold’s death, there have been no more reports of his spirit.
Jay Robert Nash, Bloodletters and Badmen, 1995 edition.
Crimes of the 20th Century: A Chronology. 1991
Richard T. Crowe and Carol Mercado, Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural, 2000 (Richard Crowe, incidentally, has a connection to the Leopold-Loeb case and the murder of Bobby Franks; a relative of his, Robert E. Crowe, was the prosecutor at the bench trial.)
Purely as an exercise in style, I’ve written the story of Bobby Franks’ ghost in the manner of an episode of the Investigation Discovery Channel series Stolen Voices, Buried Secrets. Y’all decide if I succeeded or not. 🙂
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