I have grappled with murder. And I have imbibed in it. From an early age I have been both fascinated with and repelled by it. Murder has entertained me. Is that right? Or wrong? I’m not sure. Perhaps that’s because I hang out in a patch of gray with a lawn chair that is perfectly molded to my form and variables strewn carelessly around. I don’t know.
I do know that true crime occupies a more distant space inside that patch of gray for me. I keep it at arms length. That’s because there are real people involved. Someone’s life has been taken; their soul has been required of them and, as is so often the case with true crime, murder has happened as a consequence of a piece of…a human stain seeking their own morbid entertainment. When I gawk at this, I’m compelled to do it behind mirrored glasses.
It was my intention to write about the Alfred Hitchcock film Rope and another film, though not as critically acclaimed, Compulsion and even another lesser known and much more current film Swoon. I was pleased with myself and up for the challenge until I started the doing the research. That made me queasy.
Now I have a pretty strong stomach and a taste for the macabre, but these films have variables and stains in common that tragically are related to one fourteen-year-old boy. Bobby Franks.
I’m a mom. I remember when my daughters were that age. And my brother too.
There’s not a lot of information about Robert Emmanuel Franks on the internet. I was six pages into a Google search before I found out this: Franks was a brilliant student at the school. As a member of the Harvard debate team, he had argued against capital punishment. Franks’ conduct, however, worried his teachers. On his scholastic record are the notations “too self-satisfied” and “still hampered by unpleasant characteristics”.
The “Harvard” in reference here is not Harvard University but the Harvard School of Chicago–a prep school for boys endowed by Edward S. Waters a wealthy benefactor and Harvard University graduate who wished to produce candidates for his alma mater. Only the most prestigious families sent their sons to Chicago Harvard School. Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Franks fit the bill in what really mattered–dollars and cents–although the family’s social status was tarnished by Mr. Franks former occupation as pawn broker. Even his ventures into real estate speculation and watch manufacturing couldn’t completely redeem his social standing. This was in 1924, the year his youngest son “Bobby” was abducted.
There are a few pictures of Bobby Franks on the internet. One of them I used as the “featured image” to this post. It shows Bobby Franks from the waist up in what looks to be a suit and tie. It’s not. This is a cropped picture and the real deal shows a gangly teenager in an unfortunate school boy uniform; unfortunate because he is wearing nickers and long socks– and, seemingly, over-sized oxfords, consistent with his “awkward” age–not a good look then or now, in my book.
But there is another picture that is more flattering and, from what I’ve gleaned, a more accurate representation of him. In this photograph he stands on a step or possibly a curb with his father. Mr. Franks looks to be about seventy and he was, sixty-eight to be exact. Both father and son are impeccably dressed. Mr Franks sports a beautifully tailored pinstriped suit. He wears a bowler hat, a monocle eye-piece and there is a cigar between the fingers of his left hand; his right hand is grasping, gentlemanly, his son’s elbow as if he is halting him from stepping down or, perhaps, he is alerting the boy that their picture is about to be taken.
If the latter was the case, Mr. Franks was wasting his time. Here Bobby is exquisitely prepared. He also wears an expensive suit, but it’s his fedora that completes the look of unabashed teenage cockiness. A bit of a smirk creases his lips. He is handsome, but not in the way that he thinks. He’s amusingly cute. And still gangly. He’s skinny too and petite, though, from the length of his limbs and the height of his father, he most likely would have been tall. The photograph was taken a few weeks before his abduction.
Bobby Franks was walking home from Harvard School that day in late May when Nathan Leopold rolled up in a rented Willys Knight automobile. In the back seat sat Franks’ eighteen year old cousin and neighbor from across the street Richard Loeb. Loeb offered Bobby a ride.
Initially Bobby begged off. He was only a couple of blocks from home but Loeb persisted, claiming he had a new tennis racket he wanted Bobby to check out. Bobby was happy to oblige. He was an excellent junior player, often challenging his cousin to long rounds on the Loeb’s court. And besides, it was unseasonably cold that day. He slid into the front seat beside Leopold.
The Franks household was in a frantic uproar when they would have otherwise been eating dinner. Bobby hadn’t made it home. The family knew Bobby was supposed to umpire a baseball game after school so initially they weren’t worried, but something was clearly wrong. The Franks made a point of eating together whenever possible and though Bobby could be aggravating and self centered, like 99.9 percent of teenagers, it wasn’t like him to make his mother worry to this extreme. Older siblings Jack and Josephine scoured the neighborhood, while Mrs. Franks phoned the headmaster of Harvard School. Mr. Franks left to search the school. It was only three blocks down the street.
While Mr. Franks was away, Mrs. Franks received a phone call from Nathan Leopold. He said his name was George Johnson. He said he had kidnapped Robert Franks and there would be further instruction in regards to a ransom coming soon.
At the time of the phone call Bobby Franks was lying in culvert. Acid had been poured on his face, his belly and genitalia in an attempt to hide his identity. He had undergone abdominal surgery and there was a distinctive scar; and although Mr. and Mrs. Franks, both Jewish, had converted to Christian Science before Bobby was born, he was circumcised.
It takes a lot of strength to snuff out a life–if you don’t use a gun. That’s what murderers say. Unfortunately I’ve read a lot of accounts. I’m not going to quote them.
The good Lord gave us the will, yes, the instinct to survive. That is what I believe. I’ve witnessed this will personally during my late mother’s long and heroic battle with a very severe form of cancer. I’ve witnessed it with my husband as he struggled for life after a botched kidney surgery perforated his bowel.
He won. I’m grateful.
Bobby Franks fought hard too. He had youth on his side and though he was small, he was fit and had the strength of an athlete. His cousin was surprised.
Richard Loeb used a chisel to bludgeon Bobby from behind. He reached over the front seat suddenly while making small talk and covered the boy’s mouth, at the same time striking the back of his skull as hard as he could. Immediately afterwards he hit him again, only this time he used more leverage, bringing the chisel down even harder. But Bobby was still conscious. Still struggling.
During the struggle Bobby managed to twist himself around, flaying and kicking, so that he faced Loeb eye to eye. Twice more Loeb bludgeoned him. Bobby’s forehead caved in. Blood splattered and spewed all over the car seats, spattering Loeb’s pants. But Bobbie wasn’t dead.
Now Loeb began to panic. How could this shrimp still be alive? Frantically he grabbed Bobby under the arms and pulled him over the seat. Then he shoved a rag as far down the dying boy’s throat as he possibly could and held it there.
The thrashing gradually subsided. Finally Bobby stopped breathing.
Three paragraphs. That’s the content of Bobby Franks’ life on the internet, at least from what I was able to find and I’m a pretty good searcher.
Whereas it takes considerable effort to piece together a truthful, personal and informative portrait of Franks from fragmented excerpts here and there, there is a whole treasure trove of information about, and an entire cottage industry of entertainment devoted to, his killers. Consider this:
In addition to the films Rope (1948), Compulsion (1959) and Swoon (1992) there are at least three plays, five novels and four films dedicated to Leopold and Loeb. In some of these pieces Bobby Franks isn’t mentioned by name and in Rope he isn’t mentioned at all; the victim is an adult male whom the killers, clearly based on Leopold and Loeb, strangle and then conceal the body in a chest on which they serve horderves.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. This inequity is not a revelation to me. Nor is the irony–hypocrisy would be a better word for it–that I am raising the issue of the glorification of murder and, hence, murderers on the very site that I bill as a celebration of thrillers, noire and dark comedy, all of which promote homicide as spectacle and, at least to some extent, objectify and dehumanize the victim(s). I am well aware, as I should be. And no, I will not be shutting down my site or revising it either. It is what it is. And I am who I am. For better or worse. But this isn’t about me. And it’s not about them either.
Bobby Franks was fourteen years old when he was bludgeoned to death by someone he trusted and had known all his life. He was the youngest child of a sixty-eight-year-old father and a forty-two-year-old mother. He was spoiled. Some of his friends and family members described him as a bit of a smart-aleck. He was a decent athlete; smart, but no genius. Like his friends at the exclusive Harvard School, he was a rich. He lived in one of the finest neighborhoods in all of Chicago. He liked expensive clothes and girls. His parents and siblings loved him. He was well liked. Eight of his friends served as pallbearers at his funeral.
He was good looking kid.