Nearly a century ago, Chicago’s most infamous murder took place on the tiny South Side Kenwood neighborhood. Two teenagers who had grown up there grabbed a young neighbor and killed him, just for fun. The May 1924 crime – and the trial later that summer – grabbed headlines and sparked parental concern across the country.
Now, a compelling new book about the case has been published, and its target audience is in the same age bracket as 14-year-old victim Bobby Franks, as well as the perpetrators.
Candace Fleming, author of “Murder Among Friends: How Leopold and Loeb Tried to Commit the Perfect Crime” (Anne Schwartz Books/Random House, $19.99) and many award-winning children’s books, grew up in Michigan City and has lived in suburban Chicago for 30 years. She’s been fascinated with crime ever since she heard about it in middle school, so she figured today’s teenagers might be intrigued as well.
“Part of what I do is lure them into something they’re listening to anyway. Look at the popularity of true crime podcasts right now. Or if you go to TikTok, you’ll see the Menendez brothers have a huge following. And there is certainly a parallel between them and Leopold and Loeb – the question of why the hell would these privileged boys do this?
She adapted the story for teenage readers in various ways: “I cut out all the salacious details that had no direct connection to the crime or court case. For example, we know the details of Leopold and Loeb’s sexual encounters from psychiatric notes. Since none of this, however, sheds light on the “why” or “how” of the events, I have chosen not to include them. Teenagers don’t need to know these details to understand what this story is really about.
“Also, I chose not to recreate the murder itself. I had the material to do it, but it was ‘too close’ for my teenage audience, you know? It was too gruesome. At the Instead, I decided to stick to the historical record – the actual confessions of the teenagers.
In his research, Fleming made trips to Chicago’s historical archives and to the sites of various key events.
“What you realize when you walk through Kenwood is that it was an incredibly intimate murder. These young men, who were attempting to commit a crime they could get away with, continued their search about three blocks away. Bobby Franks was Richard Loeb’s second cousin, and he had the terrible luck of walking the short distance to school when Loeb and Nathan Leopold were looking for someone to kidnap and kill.
Leopold and Loeb planned to get a ransom from their victim’s family, not because they wanted money, but because it added complexity to the scheme. However, they were unable to collect the ransom, as Franks’ body had already been discovered by someone walking through the Wolf Lake Forest Preserve.
Passionate about ornithology, Léopold had already spent a lot of time there. “They couldn’t choose anything beyond their sphere,” says Fleming. Less than a week after the murder, the two early graduates were in custody.
The Cook County Jail (demolished in 1936) and adjoining criminal court building (since converted to a private office building) attracted many teenage visitors, including members of the Chicago Cubs. “Nathan and Richard were happy to see them,” says Fleming, “and actually got some pointers on how to play baseball.”
Young women waited for Leopold and Loeb to walk across the bridge from the prison to the courthouse: “They called it the Bridge of Sighs”.
Once in the courtroom, however, defense attorney Clarence Darrow took center stage again. As Fleming says, “The sentencing hearing is the first time we grapple with many of the issues that we still face. Are teenagers executed? Are we throwing teenagers to life in prison? What do we think of capital punishment in this country anyway? Does mental illness play a role in extenuating circumstances? … Clarence Darrow’s fine plea not to execute the boys – in fact to stop capital punishment altogether – is central to this.
One of Fleming’s last research trips was to Rosehill Cemetery: “The three families are close together, as are their homes in Kenwood. At the Mausoleum of the Franks, small tokens are slipped through the screened door. It’s a poignant thing that 98 years later, people still leave Bobby with little things like pennies and Matchbox cars.