Voices from the Grave: A most devious plan

By Kathi Kresol 
Contributor 

The evening was warm and muggy, a July night in northern Illinois. The events that unfolded on a back road at the border of Winnebago and Ogle Counties were anything but typical, however. A dark car pulled over to drop off two men before moving on to the intersection known as Westfield Corners. Once the automobile reached the intersection, a third man exited the car and walked to the side of the road. Glancing around nervously, he bent down to place a package underneath a large blackberry bush. He hurried back to the car which then sped off.

The two men left by the side of the road were understandability nervous. They were private detectives who had been hired by a private party to apprehend anyone who retrieved the package. The two detectives made their way through the darkness to a position with a better view of the area. Their apprehension grew with each passing minute. The two men knew all too well what could happen if they failed their client.

It was July of 1924 and the whole country was aware of a recent story that very similar to the one unfolding. Just two months before on May 21, 14-year old Booby Franks had been kidnapped on his way home from school. His parents, Jacob and Flora Franks were part of the influential social elite of Chicago. They lived in the South Kenwood suburb of Chicago filled with large homes and mansions. The family became alarmed when Bobby didn’t arrive from school at his usual time. That alarm turned to absolute terror when they received a phone call from the kidnappers at around 10:30 p.m. The caller stated that they had taken Bobby and that in order to ensure his safe return, the Frank’s would need to gather a large sum of money. The caller also mentioned that further instructions would be delivered by mail.

The letter came the next morning, around the same time that a body of a young boy was discovered inside of a culvert on the city’s East Side. Bobby Franks had been ruthlessly murdered by two teenagers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

The thought of this recent crime must have played through the minds of all involved with the incidents that took place on that night of July 3, 1924. It certainly was in the thoughts of the two detectives as they waited in the muggy night for some sign of the kidnappers.

It was just before midnight when the two detectives finally spotted their quarry. They saw two men walking through the nearby field. The older of the two men glanced around to see if anyone was looking before he darted to the side of the road. He immediately went to the blackberry bush and fumbled around before obtaining the package that was there. He rejoined his partner in crime and the two men began to walk quickly down the road.

The two detectives sprang from their hiding place and quickly caught up with the two. The dark car that had dropped the detectives off now returned and the two men were forced inside.

That day had begun as a regular morning for the McCormick family. Ruth McCormick, whose husband was Sen. Joseph Medill McCormick was used to her husband’s busy schedule of traveling. The only difference was that this time his journey was to France for a family matter. His mother Katherine had taken ill and the family was concerned enough to ask Joseph to make the trip. He was on the Atlantic Ocean aboard a large ship on that Thursday morning.

Ruth was at home on their large estate, Rock River Farms in Byron. Ruth’s days were filled with the running of the farm and the couple’s three children. Ruth had risen early and was sharing breakfast with a close friend of the family, James Keely.

Ruth and Keely were discussing politics, a passion for both of them, when a letter arrived. Ruth opened the letter and though the writing was hard to decipher, she quickly realized the implications of the message. James Keely noticed the color drain from Ruth’s face and was instantly concerned.  He took the letter from her trembling hands and began to read.  

The letter threatened the McCormick’s with the kidnapping of their 8-year-old son and included a demand for money to guarantee his safety. After checking on the boy’s safety, James and Ruth discussed a strategy that would ensure the children’s safety and allow for the capture of the writer of the letter.

James arranged for private detectives and prepared a decoy package using a mixture of real and fake bills. He also decided to drop the money in the blackberry bush himself. Ruth would remain on the farm with another detective that would ensure the family’s safety.

Everything went better than hoped for and soon two men were in the custody in the county jail in Rockford. They were arrested for the attempt to extort money from the McCormick’s. George Peek, 49, and his son Clarence, 24, both worked as farm hands at a property nearby the Westfield Corner area.

Both men claimed innocence at first. The police did find evidence against the father when they searched his room where he stayed. They located a pad of paper that showed indentations from the writing done on the previous page. The indentations proved to be from the kidnapping note.

Clarence was bailed out of jail after serving fifteen days and George who pled guilty to a lesser offense was released after one hundred and nineteen days. The newspapers would claim that the men’s devious plans were thwarted by the braveness of Ruth McCormick and the near genius planning of James Kelly.

Kathi Kresol is a local author and historian who shares stories of the region’s history through her column and presentations. The schedule for her upcoming presentations can be found at hauntedrockford.com.

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