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.
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.
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.
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
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.