Leopold and Loeb

Leopold and Loeb

Leopold and Loeb, notorious American murderers defended by Clarence Darrow in 1924. The gregarious, dominating Richard A. Loeb (1905-1936) and the shy, submissive Nathan F. Leopold, Jr. (1904-1971) were wealthy young Chicagoans and boyhood friends who had formed a sexual relationship and begun to commit petty crimes together. Loeb, convinced of their brilliance and obsessed with committing the perfect crime, was the main architect of the kidnapping and murder. On May 21, 1924, they abducted a 14-year-old neighbor, Bobby Franks, while on his way home from school, murdered him, and hid his body in a railroad drainage culvert in rural Indiana. Returning to Chicago, the two sent Franks' mother a note demanding a $10,000 ransom, but Franks' body was soon discovered, and prescription eyeglasses found nearby were traced to Leopold. Arrested, both confessed.

Leopold and Loeb pled guilty on Darrow's advice, and the trial, held before Judge John R. Caverly, focused solely on their punishment. Much of the defense hinged on the testimony of psychiatrists, who spoke of the defendants' immaturity, obsessions, and other problems. In a lengthy, emotional, and eloquent summation, Darrow argued for their lives, citing their upbringing, youth, and other factors but most of all condemning the dealth penalty itself. Caverly sentenced Leopold and Loeb to imprisonment—life for murder, 99 years for kidnapping. Loeb was murdered by an fellow prison inmate, but Leopold was paroled in 1958, moved to Puerto Rico, married, taught, and wrote a book on ornithology.

The sensational murder and subsequent trial transfixed the public's imagination and were widely called "the crime and the trial of the century." The events came to wide attention again in the second half of the 20th cent. with the publication of a fictionalized version, Meyer Levin's bestselling novel Compulsion (1956), and the popular film that followed in 1959.

See Leopold's Life plus 99 Years (1958); M. McKernan, The Amazing Crime and Trial of Leopold and Loeb (1924); H. Higdon, The Crime of the Century (1975); S. Baatz, For the Thrill of It (2008).

Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr. (November 19 1904August 29 1971) and Richard A. Loeb (June 11 1905January 28 1936), more commonly known as "Leopold and Loeb", were two wealthy University of Chicago students who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924, and were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The duo were motivated to murder Franks by their desire to commit a perfect crime. Once apprehended, Leopold and Loeb retained Clarence Darrow as counsel for the defense. Darrow’s summation in their trial is noted for its influential criticism of capital punishment and retributive, as opposed to rehabilitative, penal systems.


Leopold, age 19 at the time of the murder, and Loeb, 18, believed themselves to be Nietzschean supermen who could commit a "perfect crime" (in this case a kidnapping and murder). Before the murder, Leopold had written to Loeb: "A superman ... is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.

The friends were exceptionally intelligent: Leopold had already completed college and was attending law school at the University of Chicago. He studied 15 languages and spoke five and was an expert ornithologist, while Loeb was the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan. Leopold planned to transfer to Harvard Law School in September, after taking a trip to Europe. Loeb planned to enter the University of Chicago Law School after taking some post-graduate courses.

Leopold, Loeb, and Franks lived in Kenwood, a wealthy Jewish neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Loeb's father, Albert, began his career as a lawyer and became the Vice President of Sears and Roebuck. Besides owning an impressive mansion in Kenwood, two blocks away from the Leopold home, the Loeb family also had a summer estate in Charlevoix, Michigan. Richard Loeb was born to a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. Franks's family, originally Jewish, had converted to Christian Science.

Leopold and Loeb met at the University of Chicago as teenagers. Leopold agreed to act as Loeb's accomplice as long as Loeb would be his lover. Beginning with petty theft, the pair committed a series of more and more serious crimes; the series culminated in murder.


Leopold and Loeb spent a few months planning the murder, working out a way to get ransom money with little risk of being caught. On Wednesday, May 21 1924, they put their plot into motion. The pair lured Franks, a neighbor and distant relative of Loeb, into a rented car. Either Loeb or Leopold first struck Franks with a chisel. Leopold or Loeb then stuffed a sock into Franks's mouth. Franks died soon thereafter.

The killers covered the body of the boy and drove to a remote area near Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana. They removed Franks's clothes and left them by the side of the road. Leopold and Loeb poured hydrochloric acid on the body to make identification more difficult. Leopold and Loeb then had dinner at a hot dog stand. After finishing their meal, they concealed the body in a culvert at the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks near 118th street, north of Wolf Lake.

After returning to Chicago, they called Franks's mother and told her that her son had been kidnapped. They mailed the ransom note to the Franks. The killers burned items of their own clothing that had been spotted with blood. They also attempted to clean the blood stains from the upholstery of their rented automobile. The two then spent the rest of the evening playing cards.

Before the family could pay the ransom, though, Tony Minke, a Polish immigrant, discovered the body. When Leopold and Loeb learned that the body had been found, they destroyed the typewriter used to write the ransom note and burned the robe used to move the body. A pair of eyeglasses were found near the body. The glasses were ordinary, except that they had a special hinge mechanism. In Chicago, only three people had purchased glasses with such a hinge mechanism, and one of those people was Nathan Leopold.

Leopold told police that he had lost the glasses that were in his pocket while bird watching. Loeb told the police that Leopold was with him the night of the murder. Leopold and Loeb's story was that they had picked up two women in Leopold's car. They dropped them off near a golf course and never learned the women's last names. Unfortunately for Leopold and Loeb, Leopold's car was being repaired by Leopold's chauffeur that same night. The chauffeur's wife also said the car was in the Leopold garage that night.

During police questioning, Leopold's and Loeb's alibis broke down. Loeb confessed first, followed by Leopold. Although their confessions were in agreement about most major facts in the case, each blamed the other for the actual killing. Most commentators believe that Loeb struck the blow that killed Franks.

The ransom was not their primary motive; each one's family gave him all the money that he needed. They admitted that they were driven by the thrill. While in jail, they basked in the public attention they received. They regaled newspaper reporters with the crime's lurid details again and again.


The trial became a media spectacle. Held at Courthouse Place, it was one of the first cases in the U.S. to be dubbed the "Trial of the Century. Loeb's family hired 67-year-old Clarence Darrow — a well-known opponent of capital punishment — to defend the men against the capital charges of murder and kidnapping. While the media expected Leopold and Loeb to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, Darrow surprised everyone by having them both plead guilty. In this way, Darrow avoided a jury trial which he believed would most certainly have resulted in a conviction and perhaps even the death penalty. Instead, he was able to make his case for his clients' lives before a single person, Cook County Circuit Court Judge John R. Caverly.

During the 12-hour hearing on the final day, Darrow gave a speech, which has been called the finest of his career. The speech included: "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."

In the end, Darrow succeeded. The judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb each to life imprisonment (for the murder), plus 99 years each (for the kidnapping).

Prison and later life

At Joliet Prison, Leopold and Loeb used their educations to teach classes in the prison school. In January 28, 1936, Loeb was attacked by fellow prisoner James E. Day with a straight razor in the prison's shower room, and died from his wounds. Day claimed afterward that Loeb had attempted to sexually assault him. This was never proven and Loeb's throat was slashed from behind. Nonetheless, an inquiry accepted Day's testimony and the prison authorities ruled that Day's attack on Loeb was made in self-defense. That inspired the newsman Ed Lahey to write in the Chicago Daily News, "Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition.

In 1944, Leopold participated in the Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study, in which he volunteered to be infected with malaria. Early in 1958, after 33 years in prison, Leopold was released on parole. While in prison he mastered 27 different languages. That year he wrote an autobiography entitled Life Plus 99 Years. Leopold moved to Puerto Rico to avoid media attention, and married a widowed florist. He was known to neighbors and co-workers at Castañer General Hospital in Castañer, Puerto Rico, where he worked as a lab and x-ray assistant, as "Nate.

At one time after his release from prison, Leopold talked about his intention to write a book entitled, Snatch for a Halo, about his life following prison. He never did so. Later, Leopold tried to block the movie Compulsion (see below) on the grounds of invasion of privacy, defamation, and making money from his life story.

He died of a diabetes-related heart attack on August 29, 1971 at the age of 66. He donated his organs.

Impact on popular culture

Leopold and Loeb have been the inspiration for many works in film, theater and fiction, such as the 1929 play Rope by Patrick Hamilton, which served as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's film of the same name. In 1956, Meyer Levin revisited the case in his novel Compulsion, a fictionalized version of the actual events in which the names of the pair were changed to "Steiner and Strauss." Three years later, the novel was made into a film of the same name. Never the Sinner, a theatrical recreation of the Leopold and Loeb trial, was written by John Logan in 1988.

Other works inspired by the case include Tom Kalin's more openly gay-themed 1992 film Swoon; Michael Haneke's 1997 Austrian film Funny Games, with an American shot-for-shot remake produced in 2008; Barbet Schroeder's Murder by Numbers (2002); and Stephen Dolginoff's 2005 off-Broadway musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story. The case has also inspired episodes of the TV crime drama Law & Order.

There are prominent references to the murders in Richard Wright's novel Native Son.



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