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Monday, 4 June 2012

Beauty and the Beasts: The Typewriter in the Leopold and Loeb Case

The Underwood 3 portable is one of the most beautiful typewriters ever made. Yet in May 1924, when this model had been on the market a mere five years, a little Underwood 3 was used for great evil.
In this photo taken on June 9, 1924, 19 days after 14-year-old Bobby Franks had been cruelly murdered in Chicago by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Illinois State Attorney Robert Crowe, left, and diver Frank P. Blair, centre, are seen with the stolen Underwood 3 portable typewriter that was used by Leopold to write the ransom note in this infamous case.
Blair had recovered the Underwood portable from a muddy Jackson Park, Chicago, lagoon. The typewriter proved "the clincher" in incriminating Leopold and Loeb.
Leopold and Loeb had stolen the Underwood 3 on November 10, 1923, during a raid on Loeb's former Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Police investigating the murder were later able to trace the typewriter back to this burglary, and to its owner Pierce H. Bitker, thus making the link between this particular machine and Loeb and Leopold.
Loeb had used pliers to take some of the keytops off Bitker’s typewriter. The pair threw a “little bundle” of keys off a bridge near a golden Statue of Liberty in Jackson Park. They then threw the Underwood, in its case, off the east side of a big stone bridge leading to the outer harbour.
After a confession made by Loeb to Assistant State Attorney John Sbarbaro and Captain William Shoemaker at 4am on May 31, 10 days after the murder, Blair was able to recover the Underwood. Here is the transcript of Loeb’s statement, typed by shorthand reporter F.A.Sheeder.
Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr  and Richard Albert Loeb were two extremely intelligent, wealthy teenage Chicago law students who on May 21, 1924, carried out a “thrill killing”, intent on committing the perfect crime. In doing so, they took the innocent life of young Robert “Bobby’ Franks, son of Chicago millionaire Jacob Franks. All three families lived in the same affluent Kenwood neighbourhood on Chicago's Southside. Loeb's father, Albert, was vice-president of Sears Roebuck.
Leopold, left, and Loeb
Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and 99 years for kidnapping. Loeb died after an razor attack from a fellow prisoner in 1936, aged 30. Loeb was accused of making a sexual advance on the prisoner who killed him, leading to Ed Lahey’s lead sentence in the Chicago Daily News: "Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition." Leopold, after 33 years in prison, was released on parole in 1958, moved to Puerto Rico and died there in 1971, aged 66.
Clarence Darrow defended the murderers and his summation in their trial is noted for its influential criticism of capital punishment and retributive, as opposed to rehabilitative, penal systems.
After Bobby Franks’ body was found, Loeb took a pair of pliers to the stolen Underwood 3, which had been used to write letters to the Franks family and the ransom note. Loeb said he “pried off the keys, just the very tips of the keys, where the imprints would show”.
The Underwood 3 was in Leopold's possession. He also  owned a Hammond Multiplex typewriter, which police had confiscated in an attempt to make a match with the ransom note.
It was two reporters, however, who learned that Leopold had at least once used a portable typewriter to write study sheets. The reporters got their hands on a couple of these sheets and compared them with the typing on the ransom note. Leopold then admitted that he may have typed on the portable, but denied owning the machine - at least that part was true! His house was searched, but the portable was not found. However, a maid, Elizabeth Sattler, told police she remembered seeing an Underwood portable typewriter in the library of the Leopold house several weeks earlier.
Elizabeth Sattler, above, gave evidence at Leopold and Loeb's trial, regarding Leopold's use of the Hammond and the Underwood typewriters. When attorney Robert Crowe asked her to identify the Underwood 3, he said it would have been in "a little better condition" when she last saw it. Leopold and Loeb apparently started smiling. Evil is as evil does. 

The caption for this image says it is part of an Leopold and Loeb exhibit at Northwestern University Library, Evanston, Illinois. "One of Leopold and Loeb's ransom notes is displayed next to an Underwood typewriter similar to the one they used to type the note". Umm ... not quite ...
At least the exhibit got the brand right. This is from Stephen Dolginoff’s 2009 musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story:


trent reker said...

i love your blog. thank you.

Dwayne F. said...

Thanks for the interesting story. The names are famous, but I had no idea they were anything but run of the mill thugs.

The Kansas City Federal Archive currently has an exhibit on gangsters and mobsters of that era. Many of the original documents on display are typewritten and have a distinct look and feel.

Adwoa said...

What a fascinating - and grim - story. Thanks for sharing. Dwayne's comment reminds me of the typewritten documents I noted in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Berlin. A different time, and a different context for typewriters.

maschinengeschrieben said...

Thrilling story. Thanks for sharing this with us!

Scott K said...

Typewriters have been a major driving element in our history - until recently. Dark moments like this are equally a part of that story.

As Adwoa has eloquently pointed out, they have often been present at mankind's worst moments; sitting as a silent witness to tragedies unfolding while often being the unwitting accomplice.

I've always wished that the old telephones and typewriters I own could tell the tales of their former lives. My scarred Remington 16. My W38 (made 1940) German telephone that I brought back from Germany myself - etc.- I'm sure many things have passed by their aged keys and microphones that would be fascinating to hear.

Nat said...

Oh my goodness!
I was just about to email you to ask if you could help with the model and make of a lovely typewriter I just got... and here you posted about it, a fascinating story of the Underwood 3 portable!
What the coincidence - thank you so much for the story!
Always love reading your blog Mr. Messenger :)

Robert Messenger said...

Hi Nat. Do a search for my post on Lee Spear Burridge and the Underwood 3, from more than a year ago. RM

Robert Messenger said...

PS: Thank you for your kind words. RM

Nat said...

Hullo hullo
Yes I had a look and it's an absolute awesome read!
Thank you so much. :)

Jean Lotus said...

That's my great grandfather Lt. Michael Ryan in the background with the haunted look and the fedora hat. He was in charge of the crew that dredged the lagoon to bring the Underwood to the surface. He was the grandfather of former Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, who was his namesake.