Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

My Baby is Missing!

Abduction in America

True Crime by Colin Wilson
True Crime by Colin Wilson

The word kidnapping is a variation on the term kid nabbing, a practice that originated in England when children were nabbed by entrepreneur pirates who sold them to rich tobacco plantation owners in colonial America. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that professional criminals thought of seizing a human hostage and holding him for ransom, writes crime historian Colin Wilson in True Crime. Kidnapping, which was widespread in Europe and Asia, did not become commonplace in America until the early part of the 20th century. Although, cases of child abduction existed, like the famous Charley Ross case of 1874 in Philadelphia, they were extremely rare. The Ross incident, which presumably ended with the murder of four-year-old Charley (his body was never found), received nationwide publicity and inspired the nations first kidnapping law. Pennsylvania passed legislation, which defined kidnapping and set the penalty at 25 years solitary confinement and a $100,000 fine. But it wasnt until 1924, when two wealthy, privileged college students kidnapped a 14-year-old in Chicago that America awakened to the growing threat of child abduction.

Loeb (l) and Leopold
Loeb (l) and Leopold

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, both sons of millionaires and entrenched in haute society, were brilliant, rich and self-absorbed. Leopold was extremely intelligent and his I.Q. was measured at nearly 200. At 18, he became the youngest graduate of the University of Chicago and he spoke nine languages. His youth was spent in the cradle of wealth and his parents provided for his every need. Nathan had the money to buy virtually anything he desired and not surprisingly became a spoiled egotist, a snob who displayed a condescending attitude to everyone but Richard Loeb, his constant companion and some say, his homosexual lover. Loeb was also a highly intelligent student, well liked with an outgoing personality. Loeb had a passionate interest in crime and deviant behavior. He spent a great deal of his time devising elaborate criminal schemes in which he would outwit the best detectives in the country. He saw himself as a master criminal with a superior intellect who could do anything and get away with it. Leopold and Loeb together planned, what they saw as the perfect crime.

Bobby Franks
Bobby Franks

They kidnapped fourteen year old Bobby Franks, also the son of a millionaire, and immediately killed him by stabbing the boy in the back of his head. They disposed of his body by burying it inside a drainage culvert and covering it with hydrochloric acid. The same day, Leopold and Loeb sent a ransom note to the Franks family demanding $10,000 signing the note, George Johnson. Of course, neither Leopold or Loeb needed the money. It was just a ruse to throw off investigators. But the ransom was never delivered. The body of Bobby Franks was quickly found and identified. A massive manhunt began, the largest in Chicagos history, to find the killers of the Franks boy.

Unable to resist the temptation, Loeb, ever the aspiring detective, joined in the manhunt himself. He accompanied police during searches, assisted in answering phones and helped to gather witnesses. He volunteered his own speculation about the crime and offered his opinions on everything from the murder weapon to the type of person who would commit such a horrendous crime. Police grew suspicious of Loeb but said nothing. Investigators then found several pieces of crucial evidence including the murder weapon, a metal chisel. Near the culvert where Bobby Franks was buried, police discovered a single pair of prescription glasses. These glasses were traced to the company that manufactured them the year before. Only three pairs were sold with that type of frame. One pair was sold to Nathan Leopold.

When confronted with this evidence and the typewriter used to write the ransom note, both suspects later confessed. In a sensational trial held in Chicago during the summer of 1924, Leopold and Loeb were found guilty of the murder of Bobby Franks. After an impassioned plea by famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, they were sentenced to 99 years each for the crime. Loeb was later murdered in prison by another inmate who rejected his homosexual advances. Leopold was paroled in 1958 and moved to Puerto Rico. He died there in 1971.

The abduction and murder of Bobby Franks scared the hell out of American parents. It showed that a child could be taken away from the safety of the home and killed for no apparent reason. Leopold and Loeb had committed their crime solely for the purpose of getting away with it and outsmarting the police. It was not a reassuring thought for parents. The Leopold and Loeb case was one of a series of spectacular kidnappings during the 1920s and 1930s that had American families terrified of abductions. Their fears reached almost epidemic proportions in 1927 when a savage child killer mesmerized the City of Los Angeles and dominated the headlines of newspapers across the country.

He was self-absorbed, a college dropout, a man whose life was a litany of failure and rejection. Ironically, he called himself The Fox.

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