"Everybody is a potential murder . . ."
One afternoon in the spring of 1924, two youths drew up in front of the Harvard
School for Boys in the Chicago suburb of South Side Kenwood. They had been
plotting the "perfect murder" for seven months. They had no particular victim
in mind until little Bobby Franks, a neighbor of theirs, came by. He seemed an
excellent candidate. He held Dickie Loeb and Nathan Leopold in awe. Loeb, eighteen, the University of Michigan's
youngest graduate, was doing post-graduate work at the University of Chicago. Leopold, nineteen, Phi Beta Kappa, had a B.S. from Chicago and was studying law there now. They were cum laude all the way. Bobby Franks was always flattered when they talked to him. He hopped into the car.
It was the beginning of the big horror saga of the Lawless
Decade. It would turn the nation's insides.
Leopold and Loeb took their fourteen-year-old admirer within a few blocks of his home in Hyde Park and then stuffed a gag in his mouth and crashed a heavy cold chisel against his skull four times. Then they drove idly over to the marshy wasteland
and carried his still-warm body to a culvert alongside the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. They
held his head under some swamp water for a while to make sure he was dead, then poured hydrochloric acid on his face to make identification hard. Then they wedged the body, all but the feet, into a drain pipe.
After that, they drove to a restaurant and got some sandwiches.
Their labors, however casual and unhurried, had made them hungry. That night the two intellectual prodigies sipped liquor and played cards at Leopold's home until midnight, but took time to call Jacob Franks and inform him that his son had been kidnapped. They told Franks, a wealthy retired pawnbroker, that he would receive mailed instructions as to how to get the boy backand for how much.
Franks notified the police.
Detectives called him back at noon the next dayMay 22. Two workmen taking a shortcut through a culvert had found the body of a boy; the police wanted Franks to come and look at it. Franks said no, he had heard from the kidnappers. Bobby was fine and was about to be returned for $10,000$2,000 in "old twenties" and $8,000 in "old fifties." But later, tortured by anxiety, Franks sent his brother-in-law to the Hegewisch Morgue and heard the horrible truth.
There was no shortage of clues in the "perfect murder."
Leopold, son of a millionaire lake transport executive, had dropped his glasses during the burial scene without bothering to recover them. It took the police eight days, but they found the oculist who made them. Leopold denied the glasses were his but the empty case betrayed him. Then he said he must have lost them in the culvert weeks ago, while studying bird life there. But it had rained hard for days before the murder and the glasses were, spotless.
That didn't shake Leopold. "He was a nice little boy," he said airily. "What motive did I have for killing him? I didn't need the money; my father is rich. Whenever I want money all I have to do is ask him for it. And I earn money myself teaching ornithology." Besides, he had an alibi for May 21.He said he and Dickie Loeb were out in his car all afternoon. He said they got a bottle of gin and picked up two girls"May" & "Edna"and went joy-riding. Loeb, son of a vice-president of Sears, Roebuck & Co., told the same story. But the Leopold chauffeur said Nathan's Willys-Knight never left the garage on May 21. And while all
this was going on two cub reporters on the Chicago Daily News, Jim Mulroy and Al Goldstein, were checking samples of Leopold's typing against a ransom note Bobby Franks' father had received. The type seemed to match; Leopold's Underwood portable, found in a lagoon later, would bear this out.
The handsome, well-mannered Loeb, a self-styled amateur criminologist, cracked first. He had offered detectives some theories on the murder early in the investigation, before his arrest; now he told them all about it. It was only a lark, really; he and Babe wanted to see what turmoil a "perfect murder" would create in a city like Chicago. Lord knows they didn't dislike Bobby Franks; he seemed like a nice kid. But Loeb was critical of Leopold, whom he called "Babe." He said he never approved of Babe's perverted sex habits.
Leopold, a small, round-shouldered boy with bulging eyes, said Loeb was a Superman type and had made him his slave. He said Dickie planned the murder.
Darrow for the Defense
"A man who lives, not by what he loves but what he hates, is a sick man."
The families sent for Clarence Darrow. He was sixty-eight and very tired, but he didn't like capital punishment. He had saved 104 men from the death penalty. He would save two boys now and then quit.
There was no need to prove anything against the twisted killers of Bobby Franks, but the State of Illinois put each and every gruesome fact into the record in endless array as the newspapers screamed the eye-for-an-eye theme. Clarence Darrow countered with a small battalion of alienists, psychiatrists and neurologists, and for thirty-three days the nation heard all about the wondrous, inexplicable ways
of the billion-cell labyrinth we call the brain. Darrow's best witness wasn't even in the courtroom during those hot summer days; his real star was Freud. Darrow did not argue that the honor students before the bar didn't know right from wrong; he argued that they didn't know what they were doing because they were sick in their brilliant heads.
But Darrow didn't plead insanity. He pleaded mental illness.
It was something new in courtroom spectacles, another trail-blazer for the New Era. The human brain was on trial in Chicago and some fancy words got in the papers. Darrow offered evidence that Leopold was a paranoiac with a severe manic drive, and Loeb a dangerous schizophrenic. The lawyer made much of the fact that a governess forcibly introduced Leopold to sex when he was fourteen and a
chauffeur performed the same disservice for Loeb. He noted that they had supernormal intelligences, but emotionally weren't past the
age of seven. He noted that Loeb existed in a world of fantasy, alternately imagining himself a frontiersman in pioneer days or the master criminal of our times. He said the boys didn't make sense: just for kicks, they cheated at bridge, broke automobile windows, fired an abandoned building, and looted fraternity houses when they had all the money they could use.
Darrow talked for two days. He talked about fathers and sons. He quoted from A.E. Housman's "A Shropshire Lad":
The night my father got me
his mind was not on me;
He did not play his fancy
to muse if it should be
the son you see.
"No one knows what will be the fate of the child he begets," Darrow told the court. "This weary world goes on begetting . . . and all of it is blind from beginning to end. I don't know what it was that made these boys do this mad act, but I know there is no reason for it. I know they did not beget themselves . . . We are all helpless . . . But when you are pitying the father and the mother of poor Bobby Franks, what about the fathers and mothers of all the boys and all the girls who tread a dangerous maze in darkness from birth to death? . . . I am sorry for all fathers and all mothers. The mother who looks into the blue eyes of her little baby cannot help musing of the end of the child, whether it will be crowned with the greatest promises that mind can imagineor whether he will meet death upon the scaffold. All she can do is to rear him with love and with care, to watch over him tenderly, and to meet life with hope and trust and confidence, and to leave the rest with fate."
Darrow argued that the scaffold was not the answer to the ills that beset Loeb and Leopold or the others like them in all the cities and towns everywhere.
"Do you think you can cure the hatreds and the maladjustments of the world by hanging them?" he asked. "You simply show your ignorance and your hate when you say it. You may heal and cure hatred with love and understanding, but you can only add fuel to the flames with cruelty and hating."
Here Darrow wept.
The defendants had sat impassively through the horror of the State's presentation and through the moving rhetoric of the masterful advocate pleading for their lives. At times they had seemed bored, but now Darrow got to them. He said he could think of a scene even more macabre than the one in the culvert"I can think of taking two boys . . . irresponsible, weak, diseased . . . penning them in a cell, checking off the days, the hours and the minutes, until they be taken out and hanged."
Dickie Loeb shuddered. Babe Leopold got hysterical and had to be taken out of the courtroom. When the boy came back Darrow returned to his theme:
"Wouldn't it be a glorious day for Chicago, wouldn't it be a glorious triumph for the State's Attorney, wouldn't it be a glorious triumph for justice in this land, wouldn't it be a glorious illustration of Christianity, and kindness and charity? I can picture them awakened in the gray light of morning, furnished a suit of clothes by the State, led to the scaffold, and fitting tight, black caps down over their heads, stood on a trap door, the hangman pressing a spring, so that it gives way under them;
I can see them fall through spaceandstopped by rope around their necks."
John R. Caverly, Chief Justice of the Criminal Court of Cook County, had a hard decision to make. He had heard the case himself, without a jury. He had heard the murder of Bobby Franks described as the most heinous in Illinois' History. He had heard the Battle of the Head Shrinkersa most puzzling thing because the State's witnesses, equally qualified, countered every point made by the defense's learned experts. He knew the agony of the parents on both sides. He knew what passions had boiled up; his bailiffs had to break up near-riots outside the courtroom as the people battled for seats. He could sense what they were there for. Should he call for the hangman?
The sentence came in two parts:
For the murder of Bobby Franks, life.
For kidnapping the boy, ninety-nine years.