Leopold and Loeb

From New World Encyclopedia

Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr. (November 19, 1904 – August 30, 1971) and Richard A. Loeb (June 11, 1905 – January 28, 1936), more commonly known as Leopold and Loeb, were two wealthy teenage students who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924. Their crime was notable in being largely motivated by an apparent need to prove the duo's belief that their high intellects made them capable of committing a "perfect crime," and also for its role in the history of American thought on capital punishment. The legendary Clarence Darrow defended them, succeeding in achieving prison sentences, avoiding the death penalty.


Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were exceptionally wealthy, intelligent, and isolated teenagers who developed an intense, exclusive relationship. Finding little solace in relationships with others, they had few resources or moral guidance and determined to prove themselves by committing the perfect crime, the murder of a random person. Since Leopold was planning to move away to school, there was also a desire to somehow bind their relationship more closely through sharing this forbidden act. They left some critical evidence at the site of the murder, however, and were arrested and brought to trial.

Their defense was led by the famous Clarence Darrow, who had long been an advocate of abolishing the death penalty. He shocked almost everyone by not having them plead insanity, but guilty. He did this because there was much evidence indicating their guilt, they had confessed, and he wanted to avoid a jury trial. Public sentiment surely would have condemned them to death. Instead, with the guilty plea, the case was heard by one judge. Darrow used this case to present eloquent arguments against the death sentence itself. The length of his argument, together with his use of emotion and extraneous material, was a technique that would be impossible to use in later courts, and probably would have been less successful coming from another lawyer.


Leopold, who was 19 at the time of the murder, and Loeb, 18, believed themselves to be Nietzschean Übermensch ("supermen") who could commit a "perfect crime" (in this case a kidnapping and murder) without fear of being apprehended. An important aspect of their understanding of the "superman" idea was that they mistakenly interpreted Nietzsche to mean that the superman was exempt from normal morality, and could thus form his own moral scheme unbounded by society's restraints.

The friends were exceptionally intelligent: Leopold had already completed college and was attending law school. He spoke 15 languages and was an expert ornithologist. His I.Q. tested around 200. Loeb was the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan. His I.Q. tested around 160. The pair had worked themselves up to committing the crime for months, starting out with petty theft.

It appears that Loeb was very interested in the crime itself, and felt it was important to murder the victim to prove that they were above mundane emotions. Leopold was more interested in his friendship with Loeb and his primary motivation was to please Loeb though participating in the crime. It seems that the fact that Leopold had just returned from a family vacation to Europe and was planning to attend Harvard somewhat precipitated the crime. They wanted to somehow bond more deeply and seal it with their "perfect crime."

Richard Loeb's father, Albert Loeb, was a multimillionaire executive for Sears, Roebuck and Company and denied nothing to his son. Albert Loeb told the family secretary that "Dickie" was to have "any sum at any time without question" (Grant and Katz 1999). Leopold's father was multimillionaire retired box manufacturer. Leopold also was given any amount of money at any time for any reason, or even for no reason whatsoever. The actions of Leopold's father seemed to suggest that the rules for ordinary people did not apply to him. If the boy killed birds in the park or fish out of season, his father just paid his fines or obtained a special permit for him without comment.

They prepared for their crime by going over the route where the money was to be dropped from a train, and throwing boxes off and then looking for them to ensure that they could retrieve them. They thought a lot about what kind of victim to choose, but eventually decided that they would go to a certain area where they would be likely to find someone that one of them knew, and could lure to the rented car. Bobby Franks was in the wrong place at the wrong time.


On Wednesday, May 21, 1924, they put their plot in motion. The pair lured Franks, a neighbor of Loeb's, into a rented car. As each blamed the other ultimately, it is uncertain who was driving and who actually attacked Franks with a chisel. Although they originally planned to each pull an end of a rope, and thus both be responsible for Franks' death, it did not work out that way. After repeated blows with the chisel, they suffocated Franks. After concealing the body in a culvert under a railroad track outside of Chicago they burned the body with hydrochloric acid to make identification more difficult. It did little to disfigure the body, rather it only discolored various areas. They then mutilated the face and penis. They wanted it to seem that it was a kidnapping for ransom, and for the Franks family to believe their son was still alive. The family had enough money that a request for $10,000 in ransom was plausible.

Before the family could pay the ransom, though, Tony Minke, a Polish immigrant, found the body. Investigators saw at once that this could not be a mere kidnapping, since there would have been no reason for a kidnapper to kill the boy.

A pair of eyeglasses found with the body had a rare hinge, and was eventually traced back to Nathan Leopold. The ransom note had been typed on a typewriter that Leopold had used with his law school study group. During police questioning, Leopold's and Loeb's alibis broke down and each confessed. Although their confessions were in agreement about most major facts in the case, each blamed the other for the actual killing.

They had spent months planning the crime, working out a way to get the ransom money without risking being caught. They had thought that the body would not be discovered until long after the ransom delivery. Regardless, the ransom was not their primary motive; each one's family gave him all the money that he needed. In fact, they admitted that they were driven by the thrill. For that matter, they basked in the public attention they received while in jail; they regaled newspaper reporters with the crime's lurid details again and again.

Public reaction

The murder and subsequent trial received worldwide publicity and, driven by the newspapers of the day, the public was outraged. Within the Jewish community, no one had imagined that such shining examples of success could have committed such a crime. Both Leopold and Loeb's families were affluent, and each dapper young University of Chicago student surely had a fine future all but guaranteed for him—there was absolutely no reason to turn to crime.

Part of the public fascination was based on the perception of the crime as a Jewish crime, in which both the perpetrators and victim were perceived to be Jewish. In 1924, Chicago was consummately an ethnic city, a city where the majority of residents were immigrants or the children of immigrants, and a city in which politics, neighborhoods, and institutions often carried ethnic labels. Meyer Levin was quoted as saying that it was "a relief that the victim, too, had been Jewish" (reducing the chances of bigots using this crime to justify anti-Semitic violence). In fact, neither defendant was a practicing Jew. Loeb's mother was Catholic and his father was Jewish. Bobby Franks' parents, while ethnically Jewish, were converts to Christian Science.

Leopold and Loeb both admitted to the press that they had a homosexual relationship, and this increased the lurid aspects of the crime considerably. This was especially scandalous for that time period.

The issues of their youth and of the crime both made the death penalty a major topic of discussion.


The trial proved to be a media spectacle; 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—who had fought against capital punishment for years—to defend the boys against the capital charges of murder and kidnapping. While the media expected them 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, due to the strong public sentiment against his clients, 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.

Darrow (1924) gave a 12-hour speech, which has been called the finest of his career and is perhaps the finest argument against capital punishment ever give. The speech included such arguments as:

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.

It may be, in fact, that Darrow accepted the case because it offered a huge public platform for such a speech; he knew that his strong argument against capital punishment would be reprinted in newspapers around the world. And if he could successfully reason that such heinous murderers should not be executed, perhaps he would make other capital punishment cases more difficult to prosecute. In the end, Darrow was successful in avoiding the sentence of execution. Instead, the judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb each to life in prison (for the murder), plus 99 years each (for the kidnapping).

The judge commented that it was not for mercy, but that the state hesitated to order capital punishment on those who are so young. And that, perhaps, the life sentence would be the most intolerable.

Prison and later life

In prison, Leopold and Loeb used their educations to good purpose, teaching classes in the prison school. In January of 1936, at age 30, Loeb was attacked by fellow prisoner James 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; an inquiry accepted Day's testimony, and the prison authorities ruled that Day's attack on Loeb was self-defense. That inspired the newsman Ed Lahey (1936) to write in the Chicago Daily News, "Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition."

Early in 1958, after 33 years in prison, Leopold was released on parole. He moved to Puerto Rico to avoid media attention, and married a widowed florist. Leopold died of a heart attack in 1971 at the age of 66.


Capital punishment has remained a controversial issue. The case of Leopold and Loeb was significant in that they were young, and it is questionable if the execution of youth is appropriate. The debate surrounding youth is that usually it is argued that they did not fully understand what they were doing and could be reformed in some manner to better repay their debt to society in other ways. In this case, they did make significant contributions to the prison through providing education to prisoners, in some way repaying debt to society. Whether or not Leopold achieved better understanding of the crime though living longer remains questionable, as Leopold remained eccentric in ways that indicated very different reasoning than most people.

The method of sentencing criminals to "life sentences" that are commuted to be simply several years is also still an issue. The general rationale for release is that they have repaid their debt to society and will not cause further harm. This case shows one criminal did in fact receive life, by his untimely death in prison, but the other gained release. Such release can create distrust in the integrity of the law itself, and disrespect if a sentence is not what it is purported to be. Although Leopold gained early release and contributed to society without being harmful, his release was late in life and he was exceptionally eccentric leading one to speculate that under other circumstances he might have been harmful to others.

One instance of Leopold's eccentricity is how after his release, he tried to sue Meyer Levin for character defamation. It is especially puzzling when it is considered that the book, Compulsion, that Meyer wrote was the very vehicle that helped create public support to have him released. Such oddities create an atmosphere of distrust in Leopold's sanity, and suspicion that such a bizarre occurrence of crime could in fact be repeated as he was very far from a mentality most people could relate with. So the case remains a puzzling one, both in sentencing and in the perpetrators themselves.

The role of Nietzsche's writings in their crime is also controversial. Such misinterpretation of his concept of the "superman" is partially because the position remains ambiguous, introduced in a poetic manner in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Darrow argued that the blame should be shifted from the two boys to their teachers and the educational establishment that taught them this misinterpretation. Although the issue of moral responsibility is essential to justice, his argument was primarily based on emotion not facts.

The case is important in the study of legal strategy. It is noteworthy that Clarence Darrow chose not to engage in the areas of their sanity or their responsibility, and focused rather on whether society wanted to have the death of these criminals on its hands, and the irony of punishing the act of murder by having the state itself force another person do this wrong thing in the execution of the criminal.

This complex tragedy continues to be re-analyzed in popular culture. Some of the most notable examples are the novel Compulsion, written in 1956 by Meyer Levin who revisited the Leopold and Loeb case in this fictionalized version of the actual events. Three years later, the novel was made into a film, and the character based on Darrow was played by Orson Welles, whose speech at the film's end adapting Darrow's closing arguments was one of the longest monologues in film history. The crime was also inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope (1948, based on the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton), and Tom Kalin's more openly gay-themed Swoon. Themes from this crime have continued to inspire television, novels, and other forms of entertainment.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Darrow, Clarence. 1924. "A Plea for Mercy", American Rhetoric, 2008. Retrieved February 14, 2008.
  • Grant, Robert and Joseph Katz. 1999. The Great Trials of the Twenties. Sarpedon Publishers. ISBN 1885119526.
  • Fleischer, Richard (director). 1958. Compulsion. Film.
  • Higdon, Hal. 1999. Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252068297
  • Kalin, Tom (director). 1990. Swoon. Film.
  • Levin, Meyer. 1996. Compulsion. Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 0786703199
  • Saul, John. 2006. In the Dark of the Night. Ballantine Books. ISBN 034548701X
  • Lahey, Ed. 1936. Lahey's lead in Chicago Daily News, The Poynter Institute, 2008. Retrieved February 14, 2008.

External links

All links retrieved October 25, 2022.


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