In the spring of 1924, two upper class University of Chicago students kidnapped and murdered a fourteen-year-old boy. The two killers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, confessed that they had done the act in order to commit the perfect crime and prove how intelligent they were. The ensuing trial was the first of several (by my count there were about seven) in the 1900s to be billed as the “trial of the century.”
On Wednesday, May 21, 1924, fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks walked home from school by himself. When a car pulled up with a familiar face inside, he thought he was going to get a ride home, turns out it was the last time anyone saw him alive. When Bobby didn’t come home for dinner, his parents began to worry and his father went to the school to find him. While he was gone, a man calling himself Mr. Johnson phoned Bobby’s mother and told her “Your son has been kidnapped. He is all right. There will be further news in the morning." The woman fainted and did not recover until her husband returned home. The next morning, the family received a letter demanding a $10,000 ransom and instructions where to leave it.
A newspaper reporter had been tipped off about the Franks kidnapping, and when he also heard about the naked body of a young boy being found near Wolf Lake, he told the Franks family about the possible connection. Soon the body was positively identified as that of Bobby Franks.
A pair of eyeglasses were found at the crime scene, but they had common frames and a common prescription, so it didn’t seem like they would be much help in finding the killer. It was determined that the writer of the ransom note must have been well educated, so the investigation initially centered on three of the teachers at Bobby’s elite school. The autopsy revealed that Bobby had wounds all over his body. There were small wounds on the right and left sides of his head, plus bleeding and bruises from a blunt instrument on Bobby's forehead. Some chemical had been poured on his face and his penis. While there was some dilation of the rectum, the coroner said that Bobby had not been sexually abused. Cause of death was determined to be suffocation, possibly by having something shoved town his throat.
On Friday, May 23, Richard Loeb, a handsome nineteen-year-old University of Chicago student and neighbor of the Franks family, decided to stage his own investigation of the case along with some of his fraternity brothers, two of whom were also reporters for the Chicago Daily News. As they were traveling around the city, one of the reporters asked Loeb if he had known the murdered boy, Loeb responded that he had, then smiled and said “If I were going to murder anybody, I would murder just such a cocky little son of a bitch as Bobby Franks.”
When police talked to the game warden for the area around Wolf Lake, they found that one frequent visitor to the area was Nathan Leopold, a nineteen-year-old bird watcher. Leopold was questioned, but the answers he gave about his bird watching expeditions were very credible and he did not arouse suspicion. A cabdriver came forward with the story of two well-dressed young men who had hired him to drive them to the home of Bobby Franks. Once there, the two men sat in the cab for several minutes, but did not get out. He then drove them to another destination.
Eight days after the murder, police discovered that the hinges on glasses they found were very unique and had only been sold on three pairs of eyeglasses in the Chicago area. One of those three pairs belonged to Nathan Leopold. Leopold was again brought in for questioning, but insisted that the glasses must have fallen out of his pocket while bird watching near the lake. When asked about where he was on the day of the murder, Leopold said that he had spent the day hanging out in Lincoln Park with his friend Richard Loeb. It also turned out that he owned the same type of typewriter that was used to make the ransom note.
When Richard Loeb was asked where he was on the day of the murder, he answered that he was out with his friend Leopold, but they had parted before dinnertime. The police were ready to let the boys go when Leopold’s chauffer came forward and said that he was repairing the car all day and there was no way the boys could have used it to drive to Lincoln Park as they had claimed. When confronted with the typewriter evidence and the hole that had been blown in their alibi, Loeb finally confessed.
The boys had put together the murder scheme as a game to challenge them intellectually. They had planned it out for months, but only decided on whom they would kill on the day of the murder. They rented a car under an assumed name, then drove to the school and selected Bobby to be their victim. Loeb knew Bobby and lured him into the car, where one of the pair hit Bobby on the head with a chisel and stuffed a rag down his throat (Leopold and Loeb each claimed that it was the other that struck the fatal blow.) They then drove the body to Wolf Lake and dumped it, thinking that it wouldn’t be found for weeks. They also planned on eventually collecting the ransom.
The nature of this crime shocked the people of the city. Both of the boys were from wealthy families and were highly intelligent. Richard Loeb was the eighteen-year-old son of a Sears Roebuck vice president and was the youngest graduate ever from the University of Michigan. Nineteen-year old Nathan Leopold was the son of a millionaire box manufacturer. He had graduated from the University of Chicago, and was accepted to attend Harvard Law School. Leopold was also attracted to the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and agreed with Nietzsche's criticism of moral codes, and believed that legal obligations did not apply to those who approached "the superman." Of course, Leopold and Loeb considered themselves supermen and counted on their wealth to get them let off.
Why, we even rehearsed the kidnapping at least three times, carrying it through in all details, lacking only the boy we were to kidnap and kill...It was just an experiment. It is as easy for us to justify as an entomologist in impaling a beetle on a pin." – Leopold
This thing will be the making of me. I'll spend a few years in jail and I'll be released. I'll come out to a new life." – Loeb.
The families of the boys hired famed attorney and orator Clarence Darrow to defend them at their trial. Darrow had the boys plead guilty because he believed that the judge assigned to the case was “a kindly and discerning man.” If the boys pled guilty, it would be up to the judge whether or not they would receive the death penalty; Darrow did not want to face a jury because the people of Chicago were screaming for death. Darrow built his case around the testimony of four psychiatrists, he even asked Sigmund Freud to come to Chicago and examine the boys, but Freud declined due to his ailing health.
The psychiatrists (or “alienists” as they were known at the time) testified that Richard Loeb had been born without a sense of guilt. He showed no remorse or compassion towards any other human being, and even admitted gleefully to the psychiatrists that he was the one who had stuck Bobby Franks on the head. The analysts presented evidence describing the defendants' emotional immaturity, obsessions with crime and Nietzschean philosophy, alcohol abuse, glandular abnormalities, and sexual longings and insecurities. Classmates and associates of Loeb came forth to show his belligerence, inappropriate laughter, lack of judgment, and childishness. Other people testified to Leopold's egocentricity and argumentative nature.
Finally, Darrow himself pled for leniency. He spoke for over two hours, savagely attacking the idea of capital punishment and painting his clients as two boys who had mental problems and “immature and diseased brains.”
Darrow’s ploy worked and the judge was unwilling to take on the burden of sentencing the boys to death all by himself. Considering the age of the defendants and the possible benefits to criminology that might come from future study of them, he decided that life in prison, not death, was the better punishment. He said that he was doing them no favor: "To the offenders, particularly of the type they are, the prolonged years of confinement may well be the severest form of retribution and expiation." Both Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in Joliet prison.
In 1936, Richard Loeb was slashed and killed with a razor in a fight with another inmate.
Nathan Leopold managed to keep intellectually active in prison. He taught in the prison school, mastered twenty-seven foreign languages, worked as an x-ray technician in the prison hospital, reorganized the prison library, volunteered to be tested with an experimental malaria vaccine, and designed a new system of prison education. In 1958, after thirty-four years in prison, Leopold was released. He eventually moved to Puerto Rico where he earned a master's degree, taught mathematics, and worked in hospitals and church missions. He was eventually married and died on August 30, 1971 at the age of 66.