May 21, 2015

It Happened on May 21st

Leopold and Loeb "Thrill Kill" Bobby Franks, 1924

Loeb (left) and Leopold (right)  in 1924
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two young men from privileged backgrounds who decided to commit the "perfect crime." They were both intelligent individuals and Leopold was somewhat of a prodigy. He had begun talking at four months of age and was reported to have an IQ of 210. He had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Michigan and had just entered the law program at the University of Chicago. Loeb had also graduated from the University of Michigan -- the youngest graduate they had ever had in the history department -- and was also entering the University of Chicago. Loeb was the leader of the two, holding a charismatic appeal for Leopold. At the time of their crime Leopold was 19 and Loeb was 18.

The two young men decided it would be a fine test of their mental abilities to kidnap a young boy and hold him for ransom. In order to avoid detection, they had already decided to kill the victim. They did not decide ahead of time on who the victim would be, just that it needed to be someone they were acquainted with so that it would be easy to lure him into the car.

Bobby Franks with his father
The victim ended up being 14-year old Bobby Franks. He was a neighbor (and a second cousin) of Loeb's, and willingly got into their vehicle, a car they had specially rented for the occasion. Franks was struck on the head with a chisel and then hidden under some blankets. Franks died, either as a result of the blow or by suffocation.

They drove the body to a remote area and dumped it in a culvert, pouring hydrochloric acid over the face and genitals. They called the Franks and told them their son had been kidnapped and then mailed the ransom note. They burned the clothes they had been wearing and cleaned the car before returning it to the rental agency. They then spent the evening playing cards.

The next morning, before Franks could leave with the ransom payment, the police called to notify him that they had found Bobby's remains.

For such an intelligent pair, they made a great many mistakes. A pair of eyeglasses was found near the body, containing an unusual hinge mechanism. Only three people in the Chicago area had purchased such a hinge; one of them was Leopold. They sent an elegantly worded ransom note, indicative of someone with a good education. And they hadn't even worked out an alibi.

Leopold told authorities that he had been out on a double date with Loeb, but couldn't furnish many details about the girls. Loeb said that the two had separated early in the evening. Eventually Loeb switched to Leopold's story, unfortunately for him. The pair claimed that they had been out in Leopold's car -- which Leopold's chauffeur had been repairing that night. They had also been seen in the rental car minutes before the kidnapping.

Eventually the two confessed, Loeb confessing first. He claimed that Leopold had struck the actual death blow. Leopold claimed that Loeb had done it.

Clarence Darrow was the defense attorney.
Sparing no expense, the family hired Clarence Darrow, a famous opponent to the death penalty, to represent the boys at trial. Leopold and Loeb did not help their own case much: they gave numerous newspaper interviews, and assisted the police in making the case against them. Darrow, realizing that they were almost certain to be sentenced to death if they faced a jury, pled them guilty so that they could be tried and sentenced by a single person, Cook County Circuit Judge John R. Caverly. The defense was based largely on the testimony of forensic psychologists, who argued that given the boys' psychological makeup and the combination of the two personalities, the murder was practically inevitable.

Both boys were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder and an additional 99 years for the kidnapping. The judge recommended that they never be released on parole. Richard Loeb was killed by his cellmate, James Day, in 1936. (Day emerged without a scratch and Loeb had more than 50 wounds and had apparently had his throat cut by someone standing behind him. The prison accepted Day's claim that he had acted in self defense.)

Nathan Leopold was released on parole after 33 years in prison. He moved to Puerto Rico where he worked as a lab and x-ray assistant, and died of natural causes in 1971.

Louis Slotin Fatally Irradiated, 1946

Louis Slotin
Louis Slotin was a physicist working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, when he suffered an accident that proved fatal. He was performing an experiment that created the first steps of a fission reaction. The experiment involved placing two half-spheres of beryllium around a core of plutonium. He held the top half-sphere in his left hand (through a thumb hold) while keeping the spheres separated with a metal screwdriver. The spheres were normally separated with shims; using a screwdriver was not part of the experiment protocol. There were seven other scientists watching the experiment.

The screwdriver slipped, and the upper sphere fell, which caused a sudden burst of hard radiation. Observers said there was a blue glow and a sudden wave of heat. Slotin jerked his hand upward, raising the beryllium half-sphere and dropping it on the floor, which stopped the reaction and saved the lives of the seven bystanders. He, however, had already been exposed to a radiation dose that was about four times a lethal dose. He died of radiation poisoning nine days later.

This is a simulated recreation of the fatal event.
The core of plutonium used in Slotin's fatal experiment had previously been involved in another death. On August 21, 1945 another researcher, Harry K. Daghlian accidentally dropped a brick of tungsten carbide on the core and was irradiated. He died 25 days later. The core became known as the "Demon Core" after the second accident. Its final use was on the Able Detonation Test on the Bikini Atoll on July 1, 1946.

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