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100 Years Ago, Leopold and Loeb Killed Bobby Franks

1924 Chicago was no stranger to crime. The year started with Jenny Plarr being shot to death by two intoxicated police officers. Then, there was the well-publicized shooting when the chauffeur of silent screen star Mabel Normand shot millionaire Courtland Dines with Normand’s pistol. Folks devoured the story of Warren Lincoln, a local lawyer who murdered and dismembered his wife and brother-in-law and then watched their bodies burn in a greenhouse furnace debating whether this was a calculated murder or the acts of someone incapable of knowing right from wrong. Prohibition was in full force which only meant more profit for outlaws like Johnny Torrio and his right hand man, Al Capone.

The headlines on April 1, 1924 described a shootout where police killed Al’s older brother, Frank. He had a lavish funeral on April 4. The night before, Beulah Annan shot and killed Harry Kalstadt, the man with whom she was having an affair. Despite the tens of thousands of dollars of flowers on Frank’s grave, Beulah’s pretty face then took over the newspapers. The case was expedited and she was acquitted of murder on May 25, 1924. You may know Beulah better as the character she inspired, Roxie Hart. Let’s just say the Chicago Crime Commission was busy.

By the time the jury declared Beulah not guilty, a new story gripped Chicago, the murder of Bobby Franks on May 21, 1924. This 14-year-old boy was bludgeoned and suffocated and left in a culvert by his cousin, Richard Loeb and Loeb’s bestie Nathan Leopold. Leopold, apparently quite brilliant, and Loeb, smart but less academic, came from well-to-do families and had every advantage in life. Yet, they enjoyed the thrill of committing crimes and were disappointed that none of their escapades even made the news. They killed Bobby because they wanted to commit the “perfect crime”. It did not turn out the way they planned.

The story is well known by now, one hundred years after the fact. After police discovered a very identifiable pair of glasses left near the body of Bobby Franks, their story unraveled and both 19-year-old Nathan Leopold and 18-year-old  Richard Loeb confessed to the murder. The only question for the jury was whether they should face the death penalty or live out their lives in prison. This was an enormous question, particularly in this well publicized case as multiple prejudices were likely to come into play. The victim was an undeniably innocent child. The defendants were well-off, Jewish, possibly gay, and remorseless for their crime.

The prosecutor was Robert Crowe. His argument included assorted homophobic rants, suggestions that Loeb wanted to kill Leopold as well as Franks, the idea that defense counsel pleaded with the heart and not the mind while arguing that the age of the defendants should not matter in regard to capital punishment. Indeed, he declared, “…many a boy 18 years of age lies beneath the poppies in Flanders fields who died to defend the laws of this country. We had no compunction when we did that; why should we have any compunction when we take the lives of men 19 years of age who want to tear down and destroy the laws that these brave boys died to preserve?

For the defendants, the esteemed Clarence Darrow carried the day. He reminded the court that if these boys were to hang, the gruesome details would be carried in every newspaper only serving to harden the hearts of people across the nation. He argued that the only reason these defendants are begging for their lives after admitting guilt was because the parents had money and could hire a lawyer to plead their case. Darrow reminded the judge that this was not a plea to a jury of 12 who easily could sentence these young men to die. Instead, the judge alone bore the burden of the sentence. He spoke of childhood and philosophy and the senselessness of the crime itself, but also of the mothers of the defendants and the high cost of the death penalty on all of society.

The judge to whom he argued was the same man who changed the court system in Chicago to develop a juvenile court. Way before the brain scans and social science research would bear this out, he understood that young minds were not fully developed and that youthful offenders – no matter how incomprehensible the crime – were not the same as adult offenders. Indeed, Judge Caverly’s decision to sentence Leopold and Loeb to life for the murder of Bobby Franks plus 99 years for his kidnapping rested almost completely on the ages of the defendants.

Clarence Darrow – champion of the downtrodden and lifelong opponent of capital punishment- earned his fee and his place in history. Even as Chicago was embroiled in an endless series of crime and violence – the case everyone talked about was the one where the men who killed a child did not face the scaffold.

And, so began the lengthy – seemingly endless sentences of Leopold and Loeb. During the time they served, Leopold and Loeb – Nathan and Dick – expanded the prison school system and advanced learning among the inmates. Nevertheless, another inmate, James Day, killed Richard in 1936. Day was acquitted.

The great Clarence Darrow, the man whose heart could not abide the death penalty for anyone, died of heart failure in 1938 at the age of 80. Judge Caverly followed in 1939 at the age of 78.

Leopold, the brilliant student detoured on his way to Harvard Law School when he killed Bobby Franks, reorganized the prison library, taught other inmates and volunteered in the prison hospital. He wrote a memoir which was published in 1958. At the age of 78, Robert Crowe died that year before it became a New York Times bestseller.  Shortly thereafter, Leopold was granted parole.

He was permitted to accept a position as a medical technician in Puerto Rico. There, he married, earned a Master’s Degree, taught classes, worked in urban renewal, and studied the disease of leprosy at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine. He also became an expert on the birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. His heart gave out at the age of 66 in 1971.

The murder of Bobby Franks 100 years ago stopped Chicago in its tracks. It was senseless and brutal just like the murders of young people today. And just like the families of crime victims today, his family sought to create a legacy. Bobby’s father died just a few years after his son in 1928. He had wealth and left a large sum (roughly $1.8m in today’s dollars) for a memorial. Bobby’s mother and brother broke ground on a boy’s club dedicated to Bobby’s memory in 1930. It still stands and serves the youth of Chicago as the CYC Sidney Epstein Youth Center.

Courts are still echoing Clarence Darrow’s incredible summation – youth under the age of 18 are no longer subject to the death penalty in states that allow for capital punishment. More and more states are abolishing the barbaric punishment altogether. Further, states like Massachusetts are frowning upon life without the possibility of parole for younger offenders even if they were prosecuted as adults.

Yet, the world is still unhinged. There are still senseless wars where beautiful young people die needlessly. There are still crime syndicates that wreak havoc on entire communities. There are still thrill seekers who kill just to watch someone die. There are still prosecutors who seek harsher penalties than they need to. There are still mobs who want criminal defendants to be subject to the harshest penalty the law will allow, and then some. Thankfully, there are still defense attorneys who will humanize their clients and explain why they should be offered the opportunity to live and, perhaps like Nathan Leopold, seek repentance through the remainder of their lives.

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