It wasn’t America’s worst murder, even at the time. The June 1912 massacre of six members of the Moore family and their two houseguests, all of them bludgeoned to death as they slept in Villisca, Iowa, was arguably worse. That case was never solved, though a recent book, The Man from the Train (2017), names a plausible suspect. And worse than that was in 1893, when the physician and amateur hotelier H. H. Holmes built a jerry-rigged murder castle in Chicago in which he killed and cremated potentially dozens of women—a case that inspired that staple of used-book sales, The Devil in the White City (2003). Or maybe the worst was in 1892, when Lizzie Borden, from Falls River, Massachusetts, was tried and acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with an axe. In 1924, the murder of the fourteen-year-old Robert “Bobby” Franks should have seemed mild by comparison.
What was most shocking about Franks’s murder, of course, was who killed him: two young University of Chicago students named Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Both came from wealthy families. Leopold’s father was a prominent businessman; Loeb’s was an attorney and vice president of Sears, Roebuck. The families’ combined fortunes would now total more than a hundred fifty million dollars, adjusted for inflation. From today’s vantage, the boys seem like prototypes for a figure that has since become cliché: the intellectual, nihilistic, remorseless killer who has a hailstone where his heart should be—sociopaths, in other words, real-world precursors of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho or Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. When asked to identify the “original nucleus” of the idea to kill Bobby Franks, Leopold mentioned the “pure love of excitement, or the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different.” Read More