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The Tragic Tale of Leopold and Loeb: Crime and Consequence

The names Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb have become synonymous with the chilling and macabre narrative of youthful transgression in early 20th-century America. Their story, a gruesome chapter in the annals of criminal history, continues to fascinate and horrify in equal measure.

Backgrounds: Prodigies Bound for Infamy

Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. was born on November 19, 1904, in Chicago, Illinois, to a wealthy German-Jewish family. A child prodigy with an IQ reportedly over 200, Leopold was a polymath who spoke nine languages and had an insatiable curiosity for ornithology. He graduated from the University of Chicago at the age of 18 and was planning to attend Harvard Law School.

Richard Albert Loeb, born on June 11, 1905, also hailed from a privileged background. The son of a wealthy lawyer and vice president of Sears, Roebuck & Company, Loeb was an intelligent and charismatic youth. Although not as intellectually gifted as Leopold, he was exceptionally bright, graduating from the University of Michigan at 17. Loeb had a passion for crime fiction and was deeply fascinated by the criminal underworld.

The Crime: An Exercise in Nihilism

The paths of Leopold and Loeb crossed at the University of Chicago, where they formed a close and complex relationship, characterised by psychological manipulation and a mutual obsession with crime. Influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly the concept of the Übermensch (superman), they believed themselves to be superior beings, exempt from the moral constraints that governed ordinary people.

Leopold and Loeb, aged 19 and 18 respectively, conceived a plan to commit the perfect crime by kidnapping and murdering a younger adolescent. Over a period of seven months, they meticulously plotted every detail, from the method of abduction to the disposal of the body. To disguise the true nature and motive of their crime, they decided to demand a ransom. They devised a complex plan for its collection, involving a series of elaborate instructions to be communicated sequentially by phone. The final set of instructions, detailing the actual money drop, was typed using a typewriter they had stolen from a fraternity house.

Leopold (left) Loeb (right) August 1924

To carry out the murder, they purchased a chisel intended to render their victim unconscious. Additionally, they bought a length of rope to ensure that both were equally implicated in the crime. Their plan was to wrap the rope around the victim's neck and each pull on one end, thereby strangling him to death.

After an extensive search for a suitable victim, primarily on the grounds of the Harvard School for Boys in the Kenwood area where Leopold had been educated, the pair settled on Robert "Bobby" Franks, the 14-year-old son of wealthy Chicago watch manufacturer Jacob Franks. Bobby Franks was a neighbour who lived across the street from Loeb and had played tennis at the Loeb residence on several occasions.

On the afternoon of May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb set their plan into motion. Using an automobile rented by Leopold under the alias Morton D. Ballard, they offered Franks a ride as he walked home from school. Although Franks initially declined, as his home was only two blocks away, Loeb convinced him to enter the car by engaging him in a conversation about a tennis racket he had been using.

The exact sequence of events that followed remains contested, but the prevailing account suggests that Leopold drove the car while Loeb sat in the back seat with the chisel. Loeb struck Franks, who was seated in the front passenger seat, several times in the head with the chisel. He then dragged Franks into the back seat and gagged him, resulting in the boy's death.

Bobby Franks

With the body concealed on the floor of the back seat, Leopold and Loeb drove to their predetermined dumping site near Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana, 25 miles south of Chicago. After nightfall, they removed and discarded Franks' clothes and concealed the body in a culvert along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks north of the lake. By the time the two men returned to Chicago, news of Franks' disappearance had already spread. Leopold called Franks' mother, identifying himself as "George Johnson," and informed her that Franks had been kidnapped, promising that instructions for delivering the ransom would follow. After mailing the typed ransom note, burning their blood-stained clothing, and cleaning the blood stains from the rented vehicle's upholstery, they spent the remainder of the evening playing cards.

The following morning, after the Franks family received the ransom note, Leopold called again and dictated the first set of instructions for the ransom payment. However, the intricate plan quickly unraveled when a nervous family member forgot the address of the store where he was supposed to receive the next set of directions. The plan was abandoned entirely when news came that Franks' body had been found. In an effort to cover their tracks, Leopold and Loeb destroyed the typewriter and burned a car robe (lap blanket) they had used to move the body. They then resumed their lives as usual.

The ransom note

The Chicago police launched an intensive investigation, offering rewards for information. Meanwhile, both Leopold and Loeb took pleasure in discussing the murder with friends and family. Leopold conversed about the case with his professor and a female friend, jokingly suggesting he might confess and give her the reward money. Loeb assisted a few reporter friends in locating the drugstore where he and Leopold had attempted to send Jacob Franks. When asked to describe Bobby, he replied:

"If I were to murder anybody, it would be just such a cocky little son of a bitch as Bobby Franks."

Police discovered a pair of glasses near Franks' body. Although the prescription and frame were common, the glasses had an unusual hinge, purchased by only three customers in Chicago, one of whom was Leopold. When questioned, Leopold suggested that his glasses might have fallen out of his pocket during a bird-watching trip the previous weekend.

Leopold and Loeb were summoned for formal questioning on May 29. They claimed that on the night of the murder, they had picked up two women in Chicago using Leopold's car and later dropped them off near a golf course without learning their last names. However, their alibi was exposed as a fabrication when Leopold's chauffeur informed the police that he had been repairing Leopold's car at the time the men claimed to be using it. The chauffeur's wife corroborated this, stating that the car was parked in the Leopold garage on the afternoon of the murder. The destroyed typewriter was recovered from the Jackson Park Lagoon on June 7.

The first to confess was Loeb, asserting that Leopold had masterminded the entire plan and had killed Franks in the back seat while Loeb drove. Leopold's confession followed soon after, contradicting Loeb by claiming he had been the driver and Loeb the killer. Despite this discrepancy, their confessions aligned with much of the evidence in the case. The state's attorney announced both confessions on May 31.

Years later, Leopold, long after Loeb's death, recounted how he had pleaded with Loeb to confess to the murder. He quoted Loeb as saying, "Mompsie feels less terrible than she might, thinking you did it, and I'm not going to take that shred of comfort away from her." Most believed Loeb had delivered the fatal blows. However, some circumstantial evidence, including testimony from eyewitness Carl Ulvigh, who claimed to have seen Loeb driving and Leopold in the back seat shortly before the kidnapping, suggested that Leopold might have been the killer.

Both Leopold and Loeb admitted they were driven by a thrill-seeking desire and their belief in their own superiority, aspiring to commit the "perfect crime." Neither expressed eagerness for the actual killing, though Leopold admitted he was curious about how it would feel to be a murderer. He was disappointed to find that he felt no different afterward.

The Trial: A Nation Transfixed

The trial of Leopold and Loeb became a media sensation, drawing attention from across the nation. They were defended by the famous attorney Clarence Darrow, who mounted a defence not based on innocence but on a plea for mercy, highlighting their youth and potential for rehabilitation. There were rumors that Darrow was paid $1 million for his services, but in reality, he received $65,000 (equivalent to $1,200,000 in 2023). Darrow accepted the case because he was a fervent opponent of capital punishment.

Defence attorney Clarence Darrow

Darrow's fervent and eloquent plea, spanning eight hours, has been lauded as the pinnacle of his career. Within it, he articulated the notion that the methods and penalties enforced by the American justice system were devoid of humanity, while also underscoring the youth and immaturity of the accused.

This terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor. Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.
We read of killing one hundred thousand men in a day [during World War I]. We read about it and we rejoiced in it – if it was the other fellows who were killed. We were fed on flesh and drank blood. Even down to the prattling babe. I need not tell you how many upright, honorable young boys have come into this court charged with murder, some saved and some sent to their death, boys who fought in this war and learned to place a cheap value on human life. You know it and I know it. These boys were brought up in it.
It will take fifty years to wipe it out of the human heart, if ever. I know this, that after the Civil War in 1865, crimes of this sort increased, marvellously. No one needs to tell me that crime has no cause. It has as definite a cause as any other disease, and I know that out of the hatred and bitterness of the Civil War crime increased as America had never seen before. I know that Europe is going through the same experience today; I know it has followed every war; and I know it has influenced these boys so that life was not the same to them as it would have been if the world had not made red with blood.

Your Honour knows that in this very court crimes of violence have increased growing out of the war. Not necessarily by those who fought but by those that learned that blood was cheap, and human life was cheap, and if the State could take it lightly why not the boy?
Has the court any right to consider anything but these two boys? The State says that your Honor has a right to consider the welfare of the community, as you have. If the welfare of the community would be benefited by taking these lives, well and good. I think it would work evil that no one could measure. Has your Honor a right to consider the families of these defendants? I have been sorry, and I am sorry for the bereavement of Mr. and Mrs. Franks, for those broken ties that cannot be healed. All I can hope and wish is that some good may come from it all. But as compared with the families of Leopold and Loeb, the Franks are to be envied – and everyone knows it.
Here is Leopold's father – and this boy was the pride of his life. He watched him and he cared for him, he worked for him; the boy was brilliant and accomplished. He educated him, and he thought that fame and position awaited him, as it should have awaited. It is a hard thing for a father to see his life's hopes crumble into dust.
And Loeb's the same. Here are the faithful uncle and brother, who have watched here day by day, while Dickie's father and his mother are too ill to stand this terrific strain, and shall be waiting for a message which means more to them than it can mean to you or me. Shall these be taken into account in this general bereavement?
The easy thing and the popular thing to do is to hang my clients. I know it. Men and women who do not think will applaud. The cruel and thoughtless will approve. It will be easy today; but in Chicago, and reaching out over the length and breadth of the land, more and more fathers and mothers, the humane, the kind and the hopeful, who are gaining an understanding and asking questions not only about these poor boys, but about their own – these will join in no acclaim at the death of my clients.
These would ask that the shedding of blood be stopped, and that the normal feelings of man resume their sway. Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it you are making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness must grope his way through the mazes which only childhood knows. In doing it you will make it harder for unborn children. You may save them and make it easier for every child that sometime may stand where these boys stand. You will make it easier for every human being with an aspiration and a vision and a hope and a fate. I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.

The judge, though swayed by the arguments presented, clarified in his ruling that his decision was primarily grounded in precedent and the youth of the accused. Consequently, on September 10, 1924, he handed down sentences of life imprisonment for the murder and an additional 99 years for the kidnapping to both Leopold and Loeb. Tragically, just over a month later, Loeb's father passed away from heart failure.

Leopold (top) and Loeb (bottom), 1924

Life in Prison: A Tale of Contrasts

Leopold and Loeb were incarcerated at the Joliet Prison before being transferred to Stateville Penitentiary. Their prison lives took different trajectories. On January 28, 1936, Loeb was assaulted by fellow inmate James Day with a straight razor in a shower room, leading to his death shortly after in the prison hospital. Day alleged that Loeb had attempted to sexually assault him, yet Day remained unscathed while Loeb suffered over fifty wounds, including defensive ones on his arms and hands, with his throat slashed from behind. Although prison officials, including the Warden, suspected foul play, Day was acquitted by a jury in June 1936 following a brief trial.

Leopold in Stateville Penitentiary, 1931

Speculation arose regarding a potential sexual motive behind the killing. While some reports suggest that newsman Ed Lahey began his Chicago Daily News story with the lead, "Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition," there is no evidence to support the publication of this lead. Actual copies from that date provide a different account.

Leopold, on the other hand, sought redemption through service and self-improvement. He became an exemplary prisoner, organising educational programs, teaching classes, and working in the prison hospital.

Published in 1958 as part of his efforts to secure parole, Leopold's autobiography, "Life Plus 99 Years," quickly gained traction. It enjoyed a 14-week stint on the New York Times Best Seller list and garnered predominantly favorable reviews. However, some critics argued that Leopold's narrative was an attempt to whitewash his past and reshape his public image, disregarding the darker aspects of his history.

His efforts earned him parole in 1958 after 33 years in prison. Upon his release, Leopold moved to Puerto Rico, where he quietly lived out his remaining years working in social services and engaging in medical research until his death in 1971.



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