Wednesday, May 21, 2008

May 21

On this date in 1924, two exceptionally gifted college graduates smothered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in the back seat of a rental car in Chicago. The two young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, killed Franks in order to bear out their hypothesis that they could get away with committing the “perfect crime.” After luring Franks into their car and beating him with a chisel, Leopold and Loeb suffocated the boy with a coat and abandoned his body at Wolf Lake, which straddled the Illinois-Indiana border, fifteen miles southeast of the city.

Nathan Leopold, writing in his autobiography (Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years), explained how he and Loeb disposed of Franks’ body:
We had previously removed the shoes, trousers and stockings of the boy, leaving the shoes and the belt by the side of the road concealed in the grass. Having arrived at our destination we placed the body in the robe, carried it to the culvert where it was found. Here we completed the disrobing, then in an attempt to render identification more difficult we poured hydrochloric acid over the face and body. Then we placed the body into the drain pipe and pushed it as far as we could.
While they were attempting to conceal Franks’ remains, however, a pair of glasses slipped from Leopold’s coat pocket. The glasses were traced back to their owner, who confessed and pinned blame for the murder on his companion. Loeb, for his part, blamed Leopold for the crime.

The case of Leopold and Loeb became one of the enduring historical contributions of the 1920s. After initially entering pleas of ‘not guilty” by reason of insanity, the two young men -- following the advice of their attorney Clarence Darrow -- pled guilty and watched for an entire month as Judge John R. Caverly determined their fate. More than one hundred witnesses appeared during the sentencing hearing, which concluded with a twelve-hour summation from Darrow, who spent much of his time attacking the very use of capital punishment in a “civilized” society.

During his address to the judge, Darrow argued that the Great War had numbed the sensitivities of the entire nation, including the accused.
We read of killing one hundred thousand men in a day. We read about it and rejoiced in it -- if it was the other fellows who were killed. We were fed on flesh and drank blood. Even down to the prattling babe. I need not tell your honor this, because you know; I need not tell you how many upright, honorable young boys have come into this court charged with murder, some saved and some sent to their death, boys who fought in this war and learned to place a cheap value on human life. You know it and I know it. These boys were brought up in it. The tales of death were in their homes, their playgrounds, their schools; they were in the newspapers that they read; it was a part of the common frenzy -- what was a life? It was nothing. It was the least sacred thing in existence and these boys were trained to this cruelty.
Judge Caverly spared the lives of Leopold and Loeb, sentencing them each to life in prison for the murder of Bobby Franks and 99 years each for Franks’ kidnapping.

Richard Loeb died twelve years later in prison, his throat slashed in the shower by a fellow inmate. Nathan Leopold was paroled in 1958 and spent the rest of his life in Puerto Rico, where he died of a heart attack in 1971.