Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bobby Franks' Home

Robert Franks, the 14-year old victim in the “Crime of the Century,” lived here at 5052 S. Ellis at the time of his kidnapping and murder on May 21, 1924.

Franks’ father, Jacob M. Franks, was a retired industrialist, formerly president of the Rockford Watch Company, with its factory in Rockford, 90 miles northwest of Chicago, and had at one time served as president of the Chicago Public Library. Married in 1906, his wife Flora gave birth to a daughter, Josephine, late that year, followed by Robert, known as “Bobby”, in 1909, and Jacob, Jr., known as “Jack”, in 1913.

(Pictured: Jacob M. Franks, father of Bobby Franks)

In those days, as today, the South Kenwood neighborhood was a neighborhood of elites, “the Lake Forest of the South Side”, where large and stately mansions lined the avenues that led south to John D. Rockefeller’s University of Chicago. Kenwood was particularly a magnet for wealthy Chicago Jews; The Franks family was of Jewish extract, although Mrs. Franks had lately taken an interest in Christian Science. North of 47th street were to be found the more modest homes of the servants who worked in South Kenwood, and in the 1960s and 1970s, North Kenwood would deteriorate into one of the city’s poorest and most blighted districts, while South Kenwood largely retained its stature as a home for the gentility, in part due to the vigorous policing and political efforts of the University.

But in May, 1924, Jacob Franks, his wife, Flora, and their three children, lived in peace at their large home, which towered over the corner of Ellis and 51st Street, also known as Hyde Park Blvd. The trouble started on Wednesday, May 21, 1924. Bobby Franks, then 14, was a small, thin boy, but active in sports, and on that afternoon, he had volunteered to serve as an umpire at a baseball game among his schoolmates at the all-boys Harvard School, located on Ellis, north of 48th street.

(pictured: The Franks Home at 5052 S. Ellis, at it appeared in 1924)

Around 5:15 p.m., Bobby Franks left the baseball game and began walking the three blocks south to his home. About the time he reached 49th street, he was hailed by a friend, Richard Loeb, who was sitting in a car with Nathan Leopold. Loeb, a frequent tennis partner for Bobby Franks, called out to him, asking him to get in the car so they could talk about a certain racquet Loeb was interested in.

It was the wrong place, and the wrong time, for Bobby Franks. Leopold and Loeb, who had been planning to kidnap and murder a neighborhood boy since the previous year, hadn’t settled on a particular victim until Bobby Franks walked by their car that afternoon. Within minutes, Franks was dead, suffocated and traumatized by sharp blows to the head.

(Pictured: Bobby Franks at age 14)

When he didn’t arrive home for dinner, Jacob and Flora Franks became worried. They had scolded Bobby before for coming home after 5:00 p.m. At 9:00, Mr. Franks called a close friend, former state senator and Chicago corporate counsel Samuel Ettelson, and the two walked back to the Harvard School, and finding a window open, searched the classrooms thoroughly for the boy.

While they were gone, Mrs. Franks fretted at home. Around 10:30 p.m., the telephone rang, and she picked it up.
“This is Mr. Johnson. Of course you know by this time that your boy has been kidnapped. We have him and you need not worry; he is safe. But don’t try to trace this call or to find me. We must have money. We will let you know tomorrow what we want. We are kidnappers and we mean business. If you refuse us what we want or try to report us to the police we will kill the boy. Good-by.”

Mrs. Franks dropped the telephone and fainted, and lay unrevived until her husband returned home. “Mr. Johnson”, of course, was Leopold, and Franks had been dead for hours by the time he called, his body thrown into a ditch in a remote area off Burley Ave., north of 122nd Street, between Lake Calumet and Wolf Lake.

Believing now that their boy had been kidnapped, but was still alive, the Franks, along with family friend Ettleson, discussed their options until late in the evening. At 2:00 a.m., Mr. Franks and Ettleson decided to approach the police for help. Ettleson was close friends with Chief of Detectives Michael Hughes, and expected to find him when the two men arrived at the Detective Bureau. But Hughes was out that evening, and in his place they found Acting Lieutenant Robert Welling. Franks told Liet. Welling about the situation, but swore him to secrecy until the morning, afraid that a police report would lead to publicity, which would cause the kidnappers to harm Bobby. Ettleson also got in touch with the telephone company, and asked them to trace all future calls placed to the Franks’ home.

At 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, a worker for the American Maize Company was walking near the Pennsylvania railroad tracks and spotted the body of Bobby Franks half sunk into a culvert. With his fellow employees, they dragged the body onto dry land, and called for police from the East Side station. Since Welling had filed no police report, the East Side officers had no inkling that a boy from Kenwood matching the physical stature of their victim had been kidnapped. Instead, they assumed the boy they found was likely an accidental drowning. They searched the area around the scene, finding a single sock and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses they assumed belonged to the boy, and had all transported to the morgue.

Back in Kenwood at around the same time, a special delivery letter from “Mr. Johnson” arrived at 5052 S. Ellis, hand-addressed to Mr. Jacob Franks. Highly unusual among ransom notes for its lucidity and clear prose, it was obviously the work of a lettered mind:
Dear Sir:
As you no doubt know by this time, your son has been kidnapped. Allow us to assure you that he is at present well and safe. You need fear no physical harm for him provided you live up carefully to the following instructions and such others as you will receive by future communications. Should you, however, disobey any of our instructions, even slightly, his death will be the penalty.
1. For obvious reasons, make absolutely no attempt to communicate with either the police authorities or any private agency. Should you already have communicated with the police, allow them to continue their investigations, but do not mention this letter.
2. Secure before noon today ten thousand dollars ($10,000). This money must be composed entirely of OLD BILLS of the following denominations:$2,000 in twenty dollar bills.$8,000 in fifty dollar bills.The money must be old. Any attempt to include new or marked bills will render the entire venture futile.
3. The money should be placed in a large cigar box, or if this is impossible in a heavy cardboard box, SECURELY closed and wrapped in white paper. The wrapping paper should be sealed at all openings with sealing wax.
4. Have the money with you prepared as directed above and remain at home after 1 o’clock p.m. See that the telephone is not in use.
You will receive a future communication instructing you as to your future course.
As a final word of warnings – this is a strictly commercial proposition, and we are prepared to put our threat into execution should we have reasonable grounds to believe that you have committed an infraction of the above instructions. However, should you carefully follow out our instructions to the letter, we can assure you that your son will be safely returned to you within six hours of our receipt of the money.
Yours truly,
George Johnson
(Pictured: Hand-lettered envelope in which ransom note arrived)

Believing he had only to follow the directions in the letter to recover his boy, Jacob Franks set out for the bank immediately. The writer of the letter certainly seemed like a rational man. Franks insisted there be no mistakes in following the orders he had been given, no opportunities for the kidnappers to harm Bobby. When Ettleson told him he had received word that telephone operators were gossiping about the tracing hold on his phone, Franks called off the tracing. No publicity was to get in the way of the ransom payment.

At 1:00, Jacob Franks sat by the telephone, waiting for the next call. Time dragged until 3:15, when the phone finally rang, and “Mr. Johnson” indicated that a Yellow cab would soon arrive at the Franks home, and Mr. Franks was to enter the cab, with the money, and order the driver to take him to the drug store at the corner of 63rd St. and University Ave. There he would receive another call.

Leopold’s plan was to call Franks at the drug store, and tell him to immediately board a south-bound train from the nearby South Shore line. On the train was a note indicating the money should be thrown from the train at a certain point where Leopold and Loeb would be waiting to collect it. It was a cinematic, but practically perfect, plan.

When the cab arrived at his home a few minutes later, Mr. Franks rushed out with the money. Entering the car, he asked the driver to take him, as quickly as possible, to the drug store at the corner of 63rd St. and – where? Was it Kimbark Ave.? Woodlawn Ave., maybe? He couldn’t remember. Panicked, Mr. Franks ran back inside his home to find the pad where he had written the kidnappers’ instructions. Just then, the telephone rang. It was his brother-in-law, Edwin Gresham. News about the dead boy found in the culvert on the far south side had made its way back to Lieut. Welling, who immediately saw the implication, and Gresham had been asked to go to the morgue to check whether it was Bobby. It was, of course, and just then he called the Franks residence with the terrible news. The cab driver was sent away. At the drug store, Leopold called twice, asking whether Jacob Franks had arrived, before realizing the scheme wasn’t going to work.

The police, now investigating a murder, immediately turned their attention to the teachers at the Harvard School. Then, as now, male teachers were seen with some suspicion, and the writer of the ransom note was clearly well-educated. The police questioned students at the school. “Instructor Mitchell, the English teacher, is he…friendly with you? Does he ever put his arm around you? Do you ever feel odd around him?”

The police brought in for questioning three teachers at the school, and their names were printed in the paper, ruining their reputations. Reporters at the stationhouse yelled pointed questions, pointedly asking each if they had girlfriends or wives. Walter Wilson, math teacher at the school, was grilled especially closely. The previous year, he had taken Bobby and his brother Jack with him for a trip to Riverview Park in Dolton, and owing to a missed train, hadn’t gotten them back home until 1:00 a.m. Asked whether he had a sweetheart, he replied “No, I don’t know any young ladies around Chicago”. The Tribune reported ominously, “He was attired in a bathrobe and appeared nervous.”

The police continued to focus their attention on Bobby’s teachers until the big break in the case. When shown the horn-rimmed glasses, found near the body and assumed to be Bobby’s, Jacob Franks indicated that his son had perfect vision and never wore glasses. Through a tedious process, detectives learned that the hinges on this particular pair of Almer Coe & Co. spectacles, were quite unusual, and only three such pairs had been sold in Chicago. Coincidentally, one of those pairs belonged to Nathan Leopold, who lived in North Kenwood, just around the block from the Franks home.

Under intense interrogation, Leopold stood up well, but Loeb finally cracked when the pair’s alibi was contradicted by a reliable witness. Once Loeb admitted the crime, Leopold did too, knowing that the key to avoiding the noose was to paint Loeb as the brains of the operation. Both pled guilty to the murder of Bobby Franks, and with the help of superstar attorney Clarence Darrow, both narrowly escaped the death penalty in favor of life sentences.

Shortly after the verdict, Jacob Franks moved his family out of the home at 5052 S. Ellis Ave. Besides a desire to leave the place where they were constantly reminded of their lost son, ghoulish tourists took photographs and knocked on the door at all times. The home was sold and the family moved into a large suite at the luxurious Drake Hotel on N. Michigan Ave.

(Pictured: Franks home auction notice from September, 1924)

Jacob Franks died in 1928, and Flora remarried Albert Louer, a Chicago attorney, in 1933, remaining at the Drake Hotel until her death in 1937. At the time of his death in 1928, Jacob Franks’ estate was worth $6 million, and in his will he bequeathed $1,000 annuities to 15 nieces and nephews, plus a large sum to his wife, with the remainder going to his children. The Great Depression took a toll on the estate’s investments, however, and in 1938, when Jack Franks died suddenly, only $1 million was left in the estate. After paying off the promised annuities, the remainder, divided between Jack’s estate and his sister Josephine, was practically nothing. Jack Franks’ will bequeathed his share to a charitable foundation in his name, but Josephine, now married with the surname of Glaser, sued to have the money transferred to her, and won the suit.
The home at 5052 S. Ellis Ave. was bought from the Franks for $60,000 by Joseph Trinz, a theater magnate and principal at Lubliner & Trinz, which operated 27 Chicago area houses (including the famous Biograph Theater). Upon his death in 1926, just two years after purchasing the home, it was again sold to Harry Manaster, president of the meat-packing firm Manaster & Bros. The Manaster family moved in 1936, and the home was renovated for use as a school.
Through the 1940s and early 1950s, the Ffoulkes School for Boys and Girls held classes between Kindergarten and High School. By 1959, the old building had become the DeLena Day School, which began as a nursery and grew to offer classes through 8th grade. The DeLena School remained open until December, 1991. Since then, the building has remained empty. The 7,000-square foot mansion was sold by the De Lena School at auction in 2008 for $484,000, a strikingly low price for the neighborhood, but indicative of its decay. The building is currently in a serious state of disrepair, with overgrown landscaping and crumbling steps.


Aesha said...

The books I've read - at least the most recent one, For The Thrill of It, by Simon Baatz - indicate that there were four Franks children: Josephine, Jack, Bobby and Jacob Jr.

Kendall said...

Thanks for the note.

You may be right about that. The newspaper coverage at the time indicated three children, but it did seem like there were multiple "Jacks" referred to in some later articles. I'll look into it further.

Pat said...

I have read about this crime for years and was (also) surprised by the sudden revelation in recent books that there were four, not three, Franks children.

It is my personal belief that "Jack" and "Jacob Jr.," are one and the same. That the order of the children were: Josephine, Jacob Jr., (Jack) and Bobby.

Can anybody confirm what is the correct information?

Anonymous said...

The 1920 census confirms only three Franks children at the time with Bobby listed as the youngest. The 1928 obituary of Jacob Franks lists only his wife, daughter, and son Jack as survivors. The 1930 census lists only Mrs. Franks and Jack living at the Drake hotel, Jack turning 22that year and Josephine having married the prior year.

I don't know what this author was smoking, but there was no third Franks son. Just Bobby and his older brother and sister.

cialis online said...

I've been hearing teardown for a while now. It was, when I first came to the neighborhood, a short-lived daycare center, but has been vacant for quite a while, and is in pretty bad shape. Thanks to it having been a daycare, it's not zoned residential I don't think, so it's a good bet that the land is worth considerably more than the house.

Anonymous said...

Be sure to drive by the property now! Foster Design Build was just awarded contract to renovate the entire home. Construction starts in less than a month. They have allready started setting up the exterior of the project.

I also heard the renovation is going to be on HGTV!

atilley said...

Baatz' book is incorrect as to the number of Franks children. According to both the 1910 and 1920 Federal Census, there were only three Franks children: Josephine, Jacob Jr (aka Jack) and Robert (Bobby).

Anonymous said...

Only 3 children. A fact!

Anonymous said...

5 children.

Josephine, Jacob Jr (aka Jack), Timmy, The Beaver and Robert (Bobby)

Lyndia Black said...

I drive by Bobby's home from time to time and I often think about him. There is a large construction company doing work on the home. Several years ago, a couple bought the place and was suppose to make it into 4 condos. It appears that is not going to be the case. It looks like it may be a home again.

Brian Warren said...

They still haven't finished construction.

Lyndia Black said...

I know that haven't finished. The trailer is out there and you can see plastic over the windows and lights on inside. There is a tall fence around the home. The garage has beautiful wooden doors on them. It is still a gorgeous structure.

George V said...

Went by the house today on a sunny Friday and it appears work has ceased on the property. Work fence around property starting to fall down. Looks like the new owners have run out of money. Bobby's school, Harvard school,down the street now condominiums.

Anonymous said...

There were only three children; Jack died in his 20s. Josephine was my grandmother, the only one of the siblings to have a long life. And, no, she never wanted to speak of this.

Anonymous said...

In response to Anonymous, the grandchild of Josephine Franks Glaser: I did a significant amount of research on this case, writing my high school thesis on this crime, back in the early 1990s. At the time, I visited the Franks' family vault in Rosehill Cemetery and noted that Josephine was not accounted for. Furthermore, it looked as though a spot had been reserved for an additional family member. I'm sorry to dredge up difficult memories, but may I ask when your grandmother passed away? Back in the early 90s, it appeared that Josephine might still have been alive.

Anonymous said...

Josephine Franks Glaser Lederer died October 20, 2007 according to another website.

Nancy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nancy said...

seller search
for sale original signed yearbooks from the Harvard School for boys
dates 1917 and 1920
many powerful chicago people as youths. Inclusive of Franks, Leopold and members of their families. A great piece of Chicago history.

Lyndia Black said...

It looks like somebody is working on the Frank's home again. The lights are on again and I see people going in and out. The man that I spoke with said it is going to be an apartment building, but he did not speak English that well. There was another man across the street taking pictures of the home.
Every time I drive by, I think about little Bobby.

Victoria said...

This is a great article on the update of the construction plans. I was in the house when Foster Design was working on it. At the time it was set to be two HUGE side by side condos. There are some original elements in tact that will hopefully be saved and they were having windows custom built to meet the architectural commission's requirements. it will be an amazing property once it is done! The garage alone is stunning. I vaguely recall maybe there is a coach house that will go with one of the units?

Anonymous said...

I am the grandson of Henry L. Newhouse, the architect who designed the Franks Home at 5052 Ellis Avenue in 1910.

Here is an interesting article from the Chicago Tribune, dated Dec. 25, 1910 (Page 8):
ELLIS AVENUE: Record has been made of the conveyance by Albert H. Loeb to Jacob Franks of the property at the northwest corner of Ellis Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard, fronting 70 feet with a depth of 200 feet. Mr. Franks is now erecting upon the property a handsome residence after plans by Architect Henry L. Newhouse, which will cost about $ 60,000.

Anonymous said...

Grandson of Henry L. Newhouse Again:

Here are some of the contractors on the original building of the Jacob Franks Home:
Mason: J. Jullewsky, 5845 Drexel Blvd; Carpentry: Olson Bros, 6501 S. Peoria St;
Iron Work: Union Foundry Works, 164 Dearborn St; Plumbing: F. J. Fruin, 4440 Wabash Ave; Steam Heating: L. H. Prentice & Co, 24 Sherman St.

musings said...

I believe this article states that the murder victim, Bobby Franks, was a "friend" of his neighbor Richard Loeb. I have just seen the story on American Experience at PBS, and it is clearly stated by one of the experts that Bobby Franks was Richard Loeb's second cousin, that the families knew each other well. I think this puts another wrinkle in the story. When the prosecutor sought the death penalty, the family of the victim adamantly refused to accept that. I do not know what background there was to this relationship, and I think that in some ways it may have been left out from many accounts simply not to imply that the families had some other problems internally. No, the story is always told as a straight murder without motive, except "to commit the perfect crime." Had anyone implied the family connection might have been significant, perhaps a modern viewer would think about the intrafamily killings of mobsters and wonder if there wasn't something else going on.

It all goes to show that when even a simple set of facts is presented, there are questions and ripples which persist, and even vary in each period of history that views them.

Anonymous said...

The PBS documentary mentioned (2nd cousin) Richard Loeb lived across the street from the Franks on South Ellis Ave. True or False? If true, what was the Loeb address? (And) is the Loeb home still on site? In addition, did any of the Loeb, and/or Leopold families attend Bobby's funeral? I read somewhere, some of the Loeb/Leopold family members, changed their sir-names after the murder/ that true? Are there any more Loeb/Leopold family members living? Did Leopold have any children after he was released from prison? Whatever happen to Leopold wife in Puerto Rico? Thank you.

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Anonymous said...

I attended DeLena Day School for Kindergarten and part of first grade. It's part of my childhood memories. I'm a graduate of Loyola University, earning a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Education. I am now 65 years old. I am a total Chicagoan!!!

Horseman said...

The Chicago History Museum put on a good exhibit on the crime 15-20 years ago. The exhibits might still be there: the note, the typewriter, the Almer Coe glasses with the unusual articulated bridge hinge. Also interesting is the text of Clarence Darrow's defense plea. It is excerpted in one of Paul Angle's books, if I recall. I also recall asking an old Chicagoan in 1985 why the murder was such a big deal. He said the Franks and Loebs in the 1920s were a bit like the Pritzkers and Wexlers of the 1980s. The analogy isn't perfect of course but it helps explain the spirit of how the story mesmerized the public.

Horseman said...

I should add that my grandfather was one of the many newspapermen present at the trial. It was in the courthouse (still standing though the interiors are completely renovated for office spaces) on Hubbard Street & Dearborn. A lot of the courtroom testimony focused on psychological profiling and the dynamics between Loeb & Leopold which were considered sordid by the court and off-limits to reporters. I've read that William Randolph Hearst tried to get involved by inviting Sigmund Freud to come over from Europe to perform a full psychological analysis on the boys but he declined citing bad health. That would have made for a journalistic circus that even O.J. couldn't top.

Horseman said...

The facts of this story are certainly bizarre. I'm amazed that anyone would ever have found the body let alone so soon after the murder. The murder scene photographs show how completely deserted the culvert location was.
L&L must have cursed the heavens for their infinite bad luck that somebody found Bobby Franks. But beyond the facts, and the hoopla about commiting a 'perfect murder' and all that rubbish, is what I believe is most disturbing about this crime. It is that two young men, old enough to know better, very well educated, extremely intelligent, and in Chicago's 1% economically, could have done something so utterly unnecessary and heartless. It's like a Shakespeare play which generally focuses on the tragic flaws of individuals at the top of society. With L&L you have two guys trying to impress each other, thinking they were better than everyone else, and things got out of hand. It's hard to say where you draw the line between sociopathic behavior and two guys who behaved like schmucks and got what they deserved.

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Unknown said...


I worked in criminal investigation for 21 years and believe the motive behind the kidnapping and murder was very likely sex assault. Even with substantial evidence it is nearly impossible during interrogation sessions to get someone to admit to a sexual assault of a child. It is quite possible that the reason acid was poured onto his genitals was to obliterate any visual evidence of some type of sex assault. More motives than simply "to get away with murder" should be seriously explored.