Saturday, September 26, 2009
In general, I’m not much interested in serial murderers or “thrill” killers. But you can’t have a website about the history of crime in Chicago without some mention of Nathan Leopold, one half of the famous Leopold and Loeb duo, whose atrocious murder of 14-year old neighbor Robert Franks in 1924 captured the morbid fascination of newspaper readers throughout the world. Leopold, son of a shipping and paper magnate, lived in the mansion at 4754 S. Greenwood Ave., in the South Kenwood neighborhood.
After the Great Fire, the Kenwood neighborhood became home to many of the city’s business and cultural elite, desirable for its proximity to the Loop, the meatpacking district (the Armours and Swifts were residents), and the University of Chicago. The home at 4754 S. Greenwood was built in 1886 by Charles B. Van Kirk, one of the founders of the Chicago Board of Trade. After World War I, Kenwood’s tree-lined boulevards became especially attractive to wealthy Chicago Jews, including Nathan F. Leopold, Sr. Leopold, Sr.'s parents, Samuel and Babette, had emigrated to the U.S. from Germany after the failed revolution of 1848 in that country, settling first in Michigan, where Nathan was born. After the Civil War, the Leopold family moved to Chicago, and young Nathan Leopold, Sr. went into the business of organizing the burgeoning shipping business through the Great Lakes. He first found success as a principal founder of the firm Leopold & Austrian, but he later started several other businesses, including the Manitou Shipping Company and a copper mining interest in Michigan. Later, he became a major player in paper mills as well, forming the Fiber Can Corporation, and operating a paper mill at suburban Morris, Illinois.
Leopold was active in the community, serving as president of the Young Mens’ Hebrew Association in Chicago, forerunner of the modern Jewish Community Center organization. In 1892, he married into one of the city’s wealthiest Jewish families, taking Florence Foreman as his wife. Foreman’s father, Gerhart, was a Chicago pioneer, and one of the city’s earliest bankers; her sister later became Mrs. Julius Rosenwald. The Leopolds had three children: Foreman, Samuel, and Nathan, Jr.
Nathan F. Leopold, Jr., was born in 1904, and was early recognized for intellectual brilliance, as well as his cruel mind. Fascinated by birds throughout his life, Leopold’s nurse was horrified by the callousness the boy showed towards birds, killing them for specimens in his collection. Ironically nicknamed “babe” by his family and friends, no expenditure was spared in the young scholar’s education, and after high school, he attended the nearby University of Chicago and the University of Michigan, becoming the youngest graduate in the history of the U of C at age 19 in 1923. In the fall of 1923, Leopold re-enrolled at the University, seeking a degree from the Law School.
It was in November of that year that he began plotting a perfect murder with friend Richard “Dickie” Loeb, another child savant who had graduated at the University of Michigan the previous year at age 18, and was then enrolled in a masters’ degree program in History at the University of Chicago. Years of speculation by researchers about whether Leopold or Loeb originally hatched the murder plan have never turned definitive, but Leopold’s cruelty and lack of conscience, and Loeb’s fascination with crime and detective stories mean it easily could have been either. Both were students of epicurean and nihilist philosophies, with Leopold a master of medieval erotic literature and an avowed atheist.
In any case, for adventure and thrills, the two first hatched a plan to kidnap the son of a wealthy Chicago family for ransom, puzzling for months over the question of how to collect the ransom without capture. Finally, they pieced together a complex and daring plan. The father of the kidnapped boy would be directed by taxicab to a 63rd street drug store, where he would receive a telephone call telling him to immediately catch a southbound train from the nearby station, presumably before police could be notified. On the train, he was to find a note telling him to throw the bag containing the money from the train at a certain point between two stations, where Leopold and Loeb would be waiting to receive the loot.
The kidnapping and murder itself were no less carefully planned. Leopold planned to rent an automobile, by which the victim would be spirited away. However, then as now, rental service companies demanded reliable credit before allowing a borrower the keys. Leopold filled out an application at the car rental company under a false name (“Martin D. Ballard”), and indicated employment with a certain Mr. Mason, giving a work telephone number associated with a local lunch counter. When the rental company checked on the number, Loeb jumped out of his seat at the restaurant and picked up the phone before the waitress could reach it, confirming that he was “Mr. Mason,” and yes, Mr. Ballard certainly did work for him – and was one of his best employees.
With the maroon-colored Willys-Knight car, purposely chosen as the same model as Leopold’s own vehicle, in their possession, Leopold and Loeb agreed on an alibi if questioned. The two agreed that after classes on Wednesday, May 21, 1924, they would say they went to the north end of Lincoln Park to look for a particular bird Leopold was hunting, a heron-gull. Their story would continue with the two drinking gin and wine in the park, with the younger Loeb becoming mildly drunk. Since Loeb’s family disapproved of alcohol, the two would claim they went to dinner at a Kenwood tavern, the Cocoanut Grove, at 53rd and Ellis Ave., afterwards cruising around Washington Park, picking up two girls they met and taking them to the Jackson Park golf course. Eventually, they would claim, the two returned to Leopold’s home on Greenwood at 11:00 p.m., with Loeb returning home at 2:00 a.m. after his family was asleep, to sleep off the day’s drinking.
With their story straight, Leopold and Loeb drove around the neighborhood on the afternoon of the 21st, looking for a victim. At the Harvard School, a private primary school for wealthy children on Ellis Ave., just around the corner from Leopold's home, Loeb spotted a family friend, 14-year old Robert “Bobby” Franks, who had been umpiring a youth baseball game at the school’s sporting field. Loeb and Franks were not close friends, but they had frequently played tennis together, so Franks came over to the car at once when Loeb called to him, “Hello, Bob! Come in a minute, I want to ask you about a tennis racket.”
Bobby Franks entered the car, sealing his doom. Later at trial, Loeb would claim that he was driving while Leopold delivered the fateful blow to the victim in the back seat; Leopold claimed the opposite, and it was never determined who actually killed Franks. In any case, a taped-up chisel blow to the head rendered Franks unconscious just minutes after he got in the car, and a gag placed in his mouth quickly suffocated him. Leopold and Loeb drove around for around four hours afterwards, waiting for dusk, then dumped Franks’ body in what was then a sparsely-populated prairie and lagoon area, near the Pennsylvania railroad tracks at 119th Street.
The two then returned to Kenwood, parking the car near Leopold’s house, and burned their blood-stained clothes in Loeb’s basement. They played cards until late that night.
The next day, they telephoned the Franks home, making a ransom demand for $10,000, and also had a ransom note delivered, which had been prepared before the kidnapping and addressed on the way home from the murder. On the phone, Leopold, referring to himself as “George Johnson,” threatened to kill the boy if the Franks family contacted police. Of course, Bobby Franks was already dead, and the family did in fact contact police, but the police chose not to file a formal report immediately in order to keep the supposed kidnappers in the dark while detectives followed up leads.
Thus, without a police report of the kidnapping, when Franks’ body was discovered by a railroad worker the day after the killing, he was not immediately identified. The unidentified boy was found naked except for his eyeglasses, strewn a few feet away in the mud, and one stocking. The railroad man who found him placed the glasses back on his face and called for backup in moving him to the morgue.
Meanwhile, at the Franks home, the murdered boy’s father was waiting at his home for the taxicab Leopold and Loeb had arranged to take him to the drug store near the train station, from which he would depart and throw the ransom money out of the window. Just before the taxi arrived, however, word came by telephone: Bobby Franks had been identified as the likely identity of a boy's body found near the railroad tracks. Instead of following the ransom note’s demands, the Franks family drove to the morgue, where they sadly confirmed that it was, in fact, their boy. Just one thing was wrong: whose eyeglasses were those? Bobby Franks had perfect eyesight and never wore glasses.
Hence, the famous clue that would finally break the case.
Leopold had dropped the glasses, which he wore only rarely, at the crime scene, and hadn’t noticed it until later. The police found the optician who had sold the glasses, Almer Coe & Co., and asked them to search their sales records, a task which was simplified by the fact that this particular pair employed a rare type of hinge, produced only by the Bobrow Optical Company in Brooklyn, New York. This fact narrowed the list of suspects to just three in the Chicago area, one of whom was Nathan F. Leopold, Jr., of 4754 S. Greenwood Ave., just a few blocks from the Franks home. The attention of the police, which had initially focused on various teachers at the Harvard School where Franks attended, and a suspicious druggist who had recently attempted suicide, turned completely to Leopold.
In the early morning of May 30, 1924, Leopold was brought into State Attorney Robert Crowe’s office for interrogation by Crowe and Chief of Detectives Michael Hughes. Questioned about the location where the body was found, Leopold answered confidently, “Yes, I have been there fifty times. You see, I am interested in ornithology [study of birds]. I frequently go there with classes and with companions.”
Shown the glasses, he denied they belonged to him, but admitted he owned a similar pair. Detectives were even then searching his home, where they found an empty Almer Coe & Co. glasses case, but no spectacles. Confronted with this evidence, State’s Attorney Crowe asked Leopold whether it was possible he had lost his glasses at the scene of the crime.
“I told you I had been there frequently. I believe I was there either the Friday or the Saturday just before the murder. I might have dropped them on that occasion,” replied Leopold.
But had the glasses lain in the dirt for a week, as Leopold claimed, they would have been covered with dirt and streaked with rain, when in fact they were found completely clean. Next, Crowe showed Leopold the ransom note, which had been published in the newspapers during the past week. “This letter was written by an educated man. Do you think that you could have written such a letter?”
“Yes, I could easily duplicate it, if I couldn’t write a better one. There is one mistake in the letter. The word kidnapping is spelled kidnaping. I noticed it at the time.” Likely, Leopold had purposely misspelled the word to mislead investigators.
Police detectives searched Leopold’s home, and found his typewriter, but it was not of the sort that was used to create the note. Leopold confidently repeated the alibi he and Loeb had agreed upon, describing their travels to Lincoln Park to look for birds, the drinking, the girls they met in Washington Park, and so on. When questioned, Loeb first claimed he was too drunk to remember the events of the day, but eventually foggily repeated a story similar to Leopold's. The police began to believe that Leopold was in fact innocent, the victim of an unusual and coincidental set of circumstances. During 30 hours of questioning, Leopold held court with detectives and reporters, demonstrating his superior intellect on any subject proposed. Claiming that his heroes were Oscar Wilde, Nietzsche, and Epicurus, he was asked, “What about Socrates?” “I never thought a lot of that old bird,” Leopold rakishly replied.
Police very nearly released him. Finally, however, someone thought to question the Leopolds’ chauffeur, Sven Englund, who lived in the family’s garage. When asked about Leopold’s maroon Willys-Knight, Englund indicated that it had been in the garage all day. Englund’s wife confirmed seeing it at home – and thus, not in Lincoln Park, not at the Cocoanut Grove Inn, not cruising around with two boy geniuses and their new girlfriends, and not at the Jackson Park golf course. When confronted with Englund’s statement, Loeb was the first to crack. He demanded to speak with Crowe and District Attorney John Sbarbaro, and began confessing the true story of the murder.
When told that Loeb was confessing, Leopold realized the jig was up and admitted his role in the killing. In a chilling statement related later to reporters, the young nihilist told one officer, “If I’d have only known that Loeb was preaching [confessing], if I’d known that I would have killed myself there in my room. Do you recall when I was standing at my desk? I had my hand on my gun. But before I killed myself I’d have put a few policemen out of the way. Yes, I’d have got you.”
Over the next two days, while housed in separate rooms at the Windermere Hotel on 56th and Hyde Park Blvd. (which still stands next door to my former dormitory, the Broadview), Leopold and Loeb led detectives around the south side of Chicago, pointing out precisely where they had disposed of Franks’ clothes, as well as the typewriter used in the ransom note, a second machine owned by Leopold, which he had dumped into the Jackson Park lagoon after the murder. A few days later, divers would find the typewriter, essentially closing the case on the two killers.
An early notion to plead not guilty on defense of insanity was quickly rejected by their counsel, world-famous attorney Clarence Darrow (who had defended the indefensible in Chicago before). The boys were too intelligent for anyone to believe they didn’t understand the difference between right and wrong, the M'Naughten Rule standard for insanity accepted in Illinois. Instead, Darrow convinced the boys and their families to plead guilty, and try to avoid the death penalty. A hearing before a judge began in late August, 1924, and concluded on September 10. Primarily on the basis of their age, the judge in the case denied the state’s motion to impose the death penalty, instead imposing sentence of life plus 99 years on each. Both were assigned to Joliet penitentiary.
Loeb, initially the more popular in prison, and the less aloof of the two, was murdered in the shower room in 1936 by a fellow prisoner who claimed Loeb had made homosexual advances toward him. Leopold served a minimum required third of his sentence and was released in 1958, living the rest of his life as a hospital worker in Puerto Rico, where he died in 1971.
The story of the two brilliant young murderers who killed for adventure and pleasure was irresistible to newspaper publishers throughout the world. Typical of the editorials was the Tribune, which asked rhetorically, “Were they bored by a life which left them nothing to be desired, no obstacles to overcome, no goal to attain? Were they jaded by the jazz-life of gin and girls, so that they needed so terrible a thing as murder to give them new thrills?”
The publicity was obviously difficult to handle for the families involved; curiosity-seekers gawked at them in front of their homes at all hours. After the trial, in October, 1924, Nathan Leopold, Sr., sold the home at 4754 Greenwood and moved to Lakeview, living on Roscoe St., near Belmont Harbor, where he died in 1929. His two other sons, Foreman and Samuel, changed their names to “Lebold,” continuing their father’s business and community interests until their retirements in the 1960s.
The Leopold mansion was destroyed in the late 1960s. The large home pictured at the top of this post was built on the site, but the photo below shows the home as it looked in the 1920s.