On May 21, 1924, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two privileged young Jewish men from Chicago, aged 19 and 18, respectively, kidnapped and murdered Robert Franks, a 14-year-old neighbor of theirs, for no other reason than a shared desire to commit the “perfect crime.” In fact, their perfect crime was cracked by police almost immediately, and within 10 days both men confessed. Their subsequent trial was an event of national notoriety, both because of the bizarre nature of their undertaking and because both were represented by Clarence Darrow, the most noted defense attorney of the day.
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Both Leopold and Loeb had grown up in Kenwood, a well-off enclave on Chicago’s South Side, the same neighborhood where President Barack Obama’s family has its home today. Nathan’s father was both the head of a shipping company and a manufacturer of cans and boxes; the son, born in 1904, was so gifted that he had matriculated at the University of Chicago at age 15. His passion was ornithology, and though not yet 20, he was said to be America’s leading expert on the Kirtland warbler. Richard, born in 1905, was the son of a Sears, Roebuck and Company vice president, and he too had begun college at age 15, first at the same school as Nathan, before transferring to the University of Michigan. By 1924, both men were graduate students at the University of Chicago, Nathan in law, Richard in history.
Despite his abilities, Richard Loeb was troubled, an alcoholic and a petty thief; Nathan Leopold, on the other hand, was convinced of his intellectual superiority, and as an amateur reader of Nietzsche, believed that he was a “superman” whose abilities privileged him to be above the law. It has often been stated that the two were lovers, but there is no definitive evidence of this.
Over a period of months, the two discussed the idea of carrying out a crime so well-planned and executed that they would escape detection. They settled upon the idea of kidnapping the child of wealthy parents – although neither of them wanted for money – and murdering him, too, so that he would not be able identify them. Bobby Franks was the young man they settled upon that day because he happened to be walking home from school at the appointed hour, 5 P.M. on May 21. Loeb knew Bobby, who was both his neighbor and second cousin, and like them, Jewish and the son of a millionaire.
They lured Franks into their car, a rented Willys-Knight. One of them drove, while the other sat in the back seat, where, soon after picking up Franks, he bashed open the boy’s head with a chisel. (Later, when they confessed, each accused the other of carrying out the actual killing.) They then drove south to Indiana, where they pulled over in a marshland, removed the clothes from Bobby’s body and poured hydrochloric acid over it, so as the make identification harder. They headed back toward Chicago and deposited the body in a drainage culvert. Later, they burned the boy’s clothes in the basement of Loeb’s home.
The men immediately made contact with the Franks family, and demanded $10,000 for his return. Already by the next morning, however, police had found the body, and instructed his father, Jacob Franks not to deliver the ransom.
It was a small but crucial detail quickly led police to Leopold and Loeb. When the two were dumping Franks’ corpse, a pair of eyeglasses that Leopold had been carrying fell out of his shirt pocket, without his noticing. The frame of the glasses was held together with an unusual hinge (carrying patent number 1,342,973), and a quick investigation revealed that only three people in Chicago had glasses employing that mechanism. One of them was Nathan Leopold.
Leopold tried to claim that he had lost the glasses while bird watching, but this and the other alibis he and Loeb offered to police quickly fell apart during questioning.
The “trial of the century” got under way on July 21, 1924. Clarence Darrow, then 67, and a well-known opponent of capital punishment, set out to save his clients not from a guilty verdict – both men had confessed to the kidnapping and killing – but from execution. He had them both plead guilty, asked for trial before a judge (rather than a jury), and then undertook to prove that they were mentally ill and thus not responsible for their actions.
The Leopold and Loeb trial was one of the first in the U.S. in which both prosecution and defense trotted out expert psychiatric witnesses to testify to the defendants’ mental illness, or lack of it. The president of the American Psychiatric Association testified on behalf of Leopold and Loeb; the head of the American Neurological Association, for the prosecution.
The public was bewildered by this parade of witnesses, two teams of supposed experts, each arguing for opposite conclusions. The New York Times complained, in terms that today sound refreshingly naïve, that, “Instead of seeking truth for its own sake and with no preference as to what it turns out to be, they are supporting, and are expected to support, a predetermined purpose....That the presiding Judge is getting any help from those men toward the forming of his decision hardly is to be believed."
When Judge John Caverly announced sentencing, on September 10, 1924, he accepted the guilty plea, but because of their respective ages, ruled that the defendants should be imprisoned for 99 years each, rather than sent to the gallows. This was a victory for both young men and for their elderly attorney.
After initial incarceration at Joliet Prison, both Loeb and Leopold were sent to Stateville Penitentiary, also in Illinois. In 1936, Richard Loeb was assaulted by a fellow prisoner and stabbed to death. Nathan Leopold lived to be paroled after 33 years, in 1958. While in prison, he had been a teacher, and he also volunteered to participate in a medical study that required he be infected with malaria.
After his release, he married a widowed florist named Trude Feldman, to whom he had been introduced at a Passover seder, and moved to Puerto Rico. There he spent his time working in a hospital under the supervision of a church organization. He also published a bird-watching guide, “Checklist of Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands,” in 1963. He died of a heart attack in 1971, at the age of 66.