“It was just an experiment. It is as easy for us to justify as an entomologist in impaling a beetle on a pin.”
~Nathan Leopold discussing the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, 1924
Hoosier Tony Minke hurried along the shore of Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana, on a May evening in 1924, hoping he’d get to the repair shop early enough so that his wristwatch could get repaired that day, despite the long walk from his home in Roby, Indiana, (a now non-existent neighborhood to the west of Hammond) to downtown Hammond.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something large stuffed into the culvert of the drainage ditch beneath the path, but didn’t think much of it. His wristwatch, a pricey item in 1924, weighed heavily on his mind.
But soon the afterimage caught up with his mind. His footsteps slowed and then halted. Something about whatever was stuffed in that culvert unsettled him. His stomach sank. He turned on the path and slowly made his way back, creeping to the weedy edge and peering down into the ditch.
When he saw the shrouded shape shoved haphazardly between the brick walls of the culvert, he turned and ran to find the nearest police officer. It would be a long time before he remembered to fix his wristwatch.
The body belonged to 14-year-old Bobby Franks, the son of a wealthy Chicago businessman who had gone missing earlier that day. Police removed the body and recoiled at how the criminal or criminals had attempted to disguise its identity.
Hydrochloric acid had been poured on the boy’s face, abdomen and genitals in an attempt to conceal the victim’s identity. Cause of death had been asphyxiation, with a bunched rag discovered deep in the boy’s throat. The boy had likely been knocked unconscious by sharp blows to the head with a chisel. Police and then press swarmed over Wolf Lake, searching for evidence.
Evidence didn’t take long to find. A pair of eyeglasses had been found with the body, accidentally left there by a perpetrator. Although the eyeglasses were nothing unusual, the custom-made hinge on the glasses was very unique; only three pairs had ever been made.
In a short time, police tracked down Nathan Leopold, one of the owners of that unique hinge. The articulate young man insisted he had lost the glasses while bird-watching by Wolf Lake. He enjoyed talking to detectives, even telling one,”If I were to murder anybody, it would be just such a cocky little son of a bitch as Bobby Franks.”
Soon police discovered that Bobby Franks was no stranger to Nathan Leopold. In fact, Franks was second cousin to Leopold’s closest friend Richard Loeb and had spent several afternoons at Loeb’s house. Once detectives started interrogating this friend, Loeb quickly confessed to the crime.
But simple murder, even in 1924, wasn’t enough to dominate headlines for weeks or months, and certainly wasn’t enough to become labeled “The Crime of the Century”. It was the motive behind the murder of Bobby Franks, and the chilling calculation involved in the planning, killing, and concealment of that body found at Indiana’s Wolf Lake which would both horrify and fascinate Americans, inspiring televisions shows, novels and movies even to this day.
These two young men, both possessing uncanny intelligence and potential, murdered young Bobby Franks just because they “could”. Leopold and Loeb possessed genius-level intellect, with Loeb speaking five languages and already in law school, despite only being 20.
Loeb had been the University of Michigan’s youngest graduate…at 17. Both had studied and worshipped the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the German philosopher’s notion that the “Superman” (an Ubermensch) is “…exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.”
Thus the two self-proclaimed “Supermen” began a series of petty crimes, including burglary and theft, hoping to attract media attention, and absolutely positive their blinding intellect could easily evade detection. Despite conducting these perfect crimes, no newspaper picked up their story, and they realized they had to up the ante.
The numbing immorality of the crime notwithstanding, the murder of Bobby Franks was a hybrid crime of both brilliant cunning AND brilliant stupidity.
They had the foresight to rent a vehicle in which to commit the murder, but allowed blood stains to spatter the upholstery. They sent a fake ransom note to the victim’s family, only to pen it as eloquently as a thank you note for a tea party.
They deposited Bobby Franks well outside Chicago, but, unbelievably, stuck the body into a culvert along a well-worn path on Indiana’s Wolf Lake, easily visible to a passerby like Tom Minke…and also left behind a pair of distinctive glasses.
The trial quickly became a circus of circuses, with reporters latching on and flooding newspapers with every possible detail of the crime, including the inspiration by Nietzsche’s questionable philosophy (which would soon inspire a young German corporal on the other side of the Atlantic), their Jewish ethnicity, their possible homosexuality, and, most of all, their complete lack of remorse for the crime.
Despite their confession and cold-blooded actions, they were spared the death penalty by the defense of famed attorney Clarence Darrow. Darrow had no sympathy for the two young men, but only took up their defense for his long-established opposition to the death penalty, and his unshaking belief that any criminal, no matter how guilty, deserved a real defense. Darrow’s closing speech, arguing that hanging Leopold and Loeb would do nothing but add more bodies to the tragedy, is now considered among the greatest courtroom speeches of all time:
“Will it do society any good or make your life safer, or any human being’s life safer, if it should be handled down from generation to generation, that this boy, their kin, died upon the scaffold?”