'For the Thrill of It' an account of the Leopold and Loeb case


Chicago Tribune photo (Cropped).

“This cruel vicious murder… this gruesome crime… this atrocious murder… the most cruel, cowardly, dastardly murder ever committed in the annals of American jurisprudence.” (Robert Crowe, Cook County State’s Attorney 1924/For the Thrill of It)

During the 1920s, hyperbole was par for public discourse course. Robert Crowe was personally in charge of the Leopold and Loeb case. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in May of 1924. The incident was billed as the “Crime of the Century and the “Trial of the Century”.

It still remains more shocking in Chicago’s collective memory than the Richard Speck and John Wayne Gacy cases.

To this day, Leopold and Loeb murdering Bobby Franks is as well known as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. 90 years later the case still shocks the conscience of Chicago. It was America’s first known ‘thrill killing”.

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Photo: Peter V. Bella

“For the Thrill of It,” by Simon Baatz goes into painstaking detail about the crime amid the backdrop of Chicago jurisprudence, newspapers, politics, investigations, the neighborhood of Kenwood, wealth, and Chicago history.

Mr. Baatz is an associate professor of History at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Baatz wrote a complete historical true crime thriller. There are 53 pages of sources and citations, along with 41 pages detailing the aftermath of the case and people involved.

The book also delves into the lives of very wealthy Jewish people in Chicago. Franks, Leopold, and Loeb came from wealthy families. The three families were considered among the wealthiest in Chicago.

The Leopolds, Loebs, and Franks lived in the Kenwood neighborhood, near the current home of President Obama.

“Kenwood, known as the “Lake Forest of the South Side,“ is where the great names of Chicago commerce and industry built imposing residences at the turn of the century.” (Chicago Tribune)

During the early 20th Century many wealthy and influential Jewish people moved into Kenwood. The president of Sears, Julious Rosenwald, had a mansion at 49th and Ellis. To this day, it is considered the largest single family home in Chicago (Including the 2 acre lot).

Bobby Franks father was a pawn broker and major real estate investor. The family lived in a mansion at 5052 S. Ellis. The home is still standing and being renovated.

Richard Loeb’s father was the vice president of Sears Roebuck. He was a long time friend of Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears. The Loeb family lived in a mansion at 5017 S. Ellis. The home is no longer standing.

Nathan Leopold’s father inherited the family’s major steamship business plying the Great Lakes. He created more wealth by starting box and aluminum can manufacturing companies. His wife was the daughter of a major financier, which gave Nathan influence in the banking world. The Leopold family lived in a mansion at 4754 S. Greenwood. This home is still standing, though the rest of the grounds were sold and a large home was built on them.

The Harvard School building at 4731 S. Ellis,where Bobby Franks was walking home from when abducted, is still standing. It is a condominium development. The Harvard School was established in 1865 to educate and prepare young men to attend Harvard University and other Ivy League schools. Nathan Leopold graduated from the Harvard School.

The Leopold and Loeb murder of Bobby Franks rocked the city. There were lurid theories and tales about the murder before and after the capture of Leopold and Loeb.

The case was solved through the methods of the times, rounding up the usual suspects, roughly interrogating them for days, and detectives doggedly pursuing leads alongside reporters.

Since the Franks murder was initially thought to have been sexual in nature, the usual suspects were known “homosexuals”, pedophiles, “perverts,” and “mental defectives”. Even some teachers  at the Harvard School , suspected of being pedophiles, homosexuals, or needing money, were taken in for rough interrogation.

Once Leopold and Loeb were considered suspects, the case centered on them. Unlike the usual suspects, they were treated with kid gloves.

The killers were represented by Clarence Darrow, who was hired specifically to keep them from the gallows. His 20,000 word eleven hour summation is considered a classic argument against the death penalty.

Darrow was considered the most famous criminal lawyer in the country. He was a fierce a crusader against capital punishment.

Robert Crowe was a harsh proponent of capital punishment. As a judge he had no qualms about sending murderers to the hangman.

As a prosecutor he was even more brazen.

“For the Thrill of It” is not just a crime story. It is a story about people. Real people who lived real lives. People with all their foibles and successes. People who suffered tragedy. It is the story of over indulgent parents, feckless sons, and in the case of Bobby Franks, innocent childhood taken.

It is the story about wasted genius. Both Leopold and Loeb were extremely intelligent. Richard Loeb was and still is the youngest person to graduate from the University of Michigan. At the time of the murder, he was taking graduate courses at the University of Chicago. Nathan Leopold had an IQ over 200. Richard Loeb’s IQ was 160.

In the case of the politicians, media, and attorneys on both sides, it is a story about people who glorified tragedy for their own ends.

If you like Chicago history, drama, and a good crime and trial story, “For the Thrill of It” is a book worth reading.

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