Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Greatest Sin

When I was a kid, my father and I would stay up late and watch old movies together. One of the movies we watched was Compulsion, starring Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell as two young guys who attempt, unsuccessfully, to pull off the perfect crime-- kidnapping and murdering a young boy and collecting a ransom from the family. Bradford Dillman's character is super-creepy, frequently referring to his mother as "Mumsy."

The movie was a lightly fictionalized account of one of Chicago's most infamous murder cases, the 1924 murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. I remember my father telling me about the case. Two young guys who were rich and very intelligent-- at 18 and 19 years of age, both had already graduated college. Leopold was enrolled in the University of Chicago's law school, and Loeb was planning to enroll. They lured a neighborhood kid, Bobby Franks, into a car, where the smashed his head with a chisel until he was unconcious, then suffocated him. They dumped Franks' body into a culvert and poured hydrochloric acid on his body to make identification more difficult. They typed up and sent a ransom note, though they were later to state that their main motive was the thrill of getting away with the crime; their rich families gave them as much money as they wanted. The fancied themselves "Nietzschean supermen" who could commit a crime and get away with it.

Bobby Franks' body was found and identified, despite Leopold and Loeb's efforts to thwart it. When the police returned his remains and effects to his family, among the effects were a pair of glasses. The family told the police that Bobby Franks did not wear glasses. It occurred to Chicago Police detectives that the glasses might have belonged to the perpetrators. They consulted the Almer Coe company, which had made the glasses, and discovered that the company had sold only three pairs of glasses with that particular frame. One was sold to an old lady, another to an attorney, Jerome Frank, who had been travelling in Europe at the time of the murder. That third pair had been sold to Nathan Leopold. Leopold was brought in for questioning, and then Loeb. The "Nietzschean supermen" quickly broke down and then tried to finger the other perpetrator as the murderer. They were, they told the police, going to demonstrate their intellectual superiority to the world with their crime.

Interestingly, Jerome Frank would have one more brief moment of fame in the 1950's, when, as a federal appellate judge, he denied the last appeal of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenburg

The boys' families hired "Attorney For the Damned" Clarence Darrow to defend the boys. Darrow concentrated not on exonnerating the boys but in saving them from the death penalty. He was successful in this. The two were convicted and sent to Joliet Prison. Loeb was murdered by another inmate in prison in 1936 and Leopold was paroled in 1958. He donated the infamous glasses to the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago Historical Museum) upon his release.

Reading up on the case this morning, I found an answer to a question I'd had for years-- why hadn't Leopold realized that the glasses were missing in the first place? I discovered that he hadn't realized that he had them with him. He'd been prescribed the glasses when he'd had headaches months before; he'd worn the glasses for a few weeks, until the headaches disappeared. He no longer wore the glasses and didn't know that they were in a pocket of the jacket he wore when he and Loeb dumped poor Bobby Franks' body in the Eggars Woods Forest Preserve.

It had never occurred to me that I might actually someday see the infamous glassses. They're in a display at the Chicago History Museum on how historians determine the authenticity of alleged historical artifacts. On Sunday, I looked with macabre fascination at this item I'd heard about as a kid and I thought about Leopold and Loeb. Their crime was especially horrifying to me-- Bobby Franks was about my own son's age. It occurred to me, though, that in the end, Leopold and Loeb's greatest sin might not have even been murder-- it may well have been their hubris, thinking that they were smarter than everybody else, and thinking that they could completely control their own fates.


vikkitikkitavi said...

Orson Welles is so good in that movie!

Beth said...

I've always enjoyed that movie. I knew the basics of the Leopold and Loeb story — but you tell it so much better!

The Idea Of Progress said...

Great historical post. A number of movies have been made based on this case (you don't mention that Leopold and Loeb were also lovers, which adds an interesting slant to everything). Rope by Alfred Hitchcock and Swoon by...Tom Kalin (thanks imdb!).

I had no idea that this happened here (I always thought NY for some reason) and that I could see the glasses.

I need to head down to the museum.

Skylers Dad said...

Wow, that is pretty interesting JY. I had never heard of that story before.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

What a fascinating story. I had never heard of all this before. I should check out that movie.

Splotchy said...

Nice post.

If you asked me, I'd still say murder was their greatest sin, though I wouldn't necessarily object to prosecuting rich people's hubris as a crime.

Anonymous said...

The arrogance you mention reminds me of the film The Rope.

Monica said...

Hyde park was the home of many many famous chicago murders... yep, i grew up there. i LOVE chicago history! (not to say i love murder... i hope it didn't seem like i was saying that...)

Monica said...

oh...and word to splotchy. hell yeah.