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Leopold in August 1924
Leopold in August 1924

Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. (November 19, 1904 – August 29, 1971)[2] and Richard Albert Loeb (/ˈloʊb/; June 11, 1905 – January 28, 1936), usually referred to collectively as Leopold and Loeb, were two wealthy students at the University of Chicago who in May 1924 kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago. They committed the murder—characterized at the time as "the crime of the century"[3]—as a demonstration of their perceived intellectual superiority,[4] which, they thought, rendered them capable of carrying out a "perfect crime" and absolved them of responsibility for their actions.

After the two men were arrested, Loeb's family retained Clarence Darrow as lead counsel for their defense. Darrow's 12-hour-long summation at their sentencing hearing is noted for its influential criticism of capital punishment as retributive rather than transformative justice. Both young men were sentenced to life imprisonment plus 99 years. Loeb was murdered by a fellow prisoner in 1936; Leopold was released on parole in 1958.

The Franks murder has been the inspiration for several dramatic works, including Patrick Hamilton's 1929 play Rope and Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film of the same name. Later works, such as Compulsion (1959), adapted from Meyer Levin's 1957 novel; Swoon (1992); and Murder by Numbers (2002) were also based on the crime.

Early lives

Nathan Leopold was born on November 19, 1904, in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Florence (Foreman) and Nathan Leopold, a wealthy German Jewish immigrant family.[5][6] A child prodigy, he claimed to have spoken his first words at the age of four months.[5] At the time of the murder he had completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago with Phi Beta Kappa honors, and planned to begin studies at Harvard Law School after a trip to Europe.[7] He reportedly had studied 15 languages and claimed to speak five fluently,[8] and had achieved a measure of national recognition as an ornithologist.[7] He and several other ornithologists identified the Kirtland's warbler, and made astute observations about the parasitic nesting behavior of brown-headed cowbirds which threatened the warblers.[9]

Richard Loeb was born on June 11, 1905, in Chicago to the family of Anna Henrietta (née Bohnen) and Albert Henry Loeb, a wealthy lawyer and retired vice president of Sears, Roebuck & Company.[10] His father was Jewish and his mother was a Catholic.[11] Like Leopold, Loeb was exceptionally intelligent. With the encouragement of his governess he skipped several grades in school, and became the University of Michigan's youngest graduate at age 17. He was especially fond of history and was doing graduate work in the subject at the time of his murder. However, unlike Leopold, he was not overly interested in intellectual pursuits, preferring socializing, playing tennis and reading detective novels.[7][12]

Adolescence, Nietzsche, and early crimes

The two young men grew up with their respective families in the affluent Kenwood neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. The Loebs owned a summer estate, now called Castle Farms, in Charlevoix, Michigan, in addition to their mansion in Kenwood, two blocks from the Leopold home.

Though Leopold and Loeb knew each other casually while growing up, they began seeing more of each other in mid-1920,[12] and their relationship flourished at the University of Chicago, particularly after they discovered a mutual interest in crime. Leopold was particularly fascinated by Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of supermen (Übermenschen)—transcendent individuals, possessing extraordinary and unusual capabilities, whose superior intellects allowed them to rise above the laws and rules that bound the unimportant, average populace. Leopold believed that he and especially Loeb were these individuals, and as such, by his interpretation of Nietzsche's doctrines, they were not bound by any of society's normal ethics or rules.[7] In a letter to Loeb, Leopold wrote, "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."[13]

The pair began asserting their perceived immunity from normal restrictions with acts of petty theft and vandalism.[12][14] Breaking into a fraternity house at the university, they stole penknives, a camera, and a typewriter that they later used to type their ransom note. Emboldened, they progressed to a series of more serious crimes, including arson,[15] but no one seemed to notice. Disappointed with the absence of media coverage of their crimes, they decided to plan and execute a sensational "perfect crime" that would garner public attention, and confirm their self-perceived status as "supermen."[16]

Murder of Bobby Franks

Leopold (then 19 years old) and Loeb (18) settled on the kidnapping and murder of an adolescent as their perfect crime. They spent seven months planning everything from the method of abduction to disposal of the body. To obfuscate the precise nature of their crime and their motive, they decided to make a ransom demand, and devised an intricate plan for collecting it, involving a long series of complex delivery instructions to be communicated, one set at a time, by phone. They typed the final set of instructions involving the actual money drop in the form of a ransom note, using the typewriter stolen from the fraternity house. A chisel was selected as the murder weapon, and purchased.[17]

After a lengthy search for a suitable victim, mostly on the grounds of Harvard School for Boys in the Kenwood area,[18] where Loeb had been educated, they decided upon Robert "Bobby" Franks, the 14-year-old son of wealthy Chicago watch manufacturer Jacob Franks. Loeb knew Bobby Franks well; he was his second cousin, an across-the-street neighbor, and had played tennis at the Loeb residence several times.[1][19][20]

The pair put their carefully crafted plan in motion on the afternoon of May 21, 1924. Using an automobile that Leopold had rented under the name "Morton D. Ballard", they offered Franks a ride as he walked home from school. The boy refused initially, since his destination was less than two blocks away;[21] but Loeb persuaded him to enter the car to discuss a tennis racket that he had been using. The precise sequence of the events that followed remains in dispute, but a preponderance of opinion placed Leopold behind the wheel of the car, while Loeb sat in the back seat with the chisel. Loeb struck Franks, sitting in front of him in the passenger seat, several times in the head with the chisel, then dragged him into the back seat, where he was gagged and soon died.[22]

With the body on the floorboard out of view, they drove to their predetermined dumping spot near Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana, 25 miles (40 km) south of Chicago. After nightfall they removed and discarded Franks' clothes, then concealed the body in a culvert along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks north of the lake. To obscure the body's identification they poured hydrochloric acid on his face and genitals.[23]

By the time the two men returned to Chicago, word had already spread that Franks was missing. Leopold called Franks's mother, identifying himself as "George Johnson", and told her that Franks had been kidnapped; instructions for delivering the ransom would follow. After mailing the typed ransom note, burning their blood-stained clothing, and cleaning the bloodstains from the rented vehicle's upholstery as best they could, they spent the remainder of the evening playing cards.[24]

Once the Franks family received the ransom note the following morning, Leopold called a second time and dictated the first set of ransom payment instructions. The intricate plan stalled almost immediately when a nervous family member forgot the address of the store where he was supposed to receive the next set of directions; and it was abandoned entirely when word came that a man named Tony Minke had found the boy's body.[17][22] Their kidnapping ruse exposed, Leopold and Loeb destroyed the stolen typewriter and burned a car robe they had used to move the body.[17][22] Convinced that they had done everything they could to hide their tracks, they went about their lives as usual.[25]

Chicago police launched an intensive investigation; rewards were offered for information. While Loeb went about his daily routine quietly, Leopold spoke freely to police and reporters, offering theories to any who would listen. He even told one detective, "If I were to murder anybody, it would be just such a cocky little son of a bitch as Bobby Franks."[26]

Police found a pair of eyeglasses near the body. Though common in prescription and frame, they were equipped with an unusual hinge mechanism[27] purchased by only three customers in Chicago; one was Nathan Leopold.[28][12] When questioned, Leopold offered the possibility that his glasses might have dropped out of his pocket during a bird-watching trip the previous weekend.[29] The destroyed typewriter was recovered from Jackson Park Lagoon on June 7.[30][31]

The two men were summoned for formal questioning on May 29.[32] They asserted that on the night of the murder, they had picked up two women, Edna and May, in Chicago, using Leopold's car, then dropped them off sometime later near a golf course without learning their last names. Their alibi was exposed as a fabrication when Leopold's chauffeur told police that he was repairing Leopold's car that night, while the men claimed to be using it. The chauffeur's wife later confirmed that the car was parked in the Leopold garage on the night of the murder.[12][33]

Loeb confessed first.[12] He asserted that Leopold had planned everything, and had killed Franks in the back seat of the car while Loeb drove. Leopold's confession followed swiftly thereafter;[34] but he insisted that he was the driver, and Loeb the murderer. Their confessions otherwise corroborated most of the evidence in the case.[17][22] Leopold later claimed, in his book (long after Loeb was dead), that he pleaded in vain with Loeb to admit to killing Franks. "Mompsie feels less terrible than she might, thinking you did it", he quotes Loeb as saying, "and I'm not going to take that shred of comfort away from her."[35] While most observers believed that Loeb did indeed strike the fatal blows,[14] some circumstantial evidence—including testimony from eyewitness Carl Ulvigh, who said he saw Loeb driving and Leopold in the back seat minutes before the kidnapping—suggested that Leopold could have been the killer.[36]

Both admitted that they were driven by their thrill seeking, Übermensch delusions, and their aspiration to commit a "perfect crime".[7] Neither claimed to have looked forward to the killing itself, though Leopold admitted interest in learning what it would feel like to be a murderer. He was disappointed to note that he felt the same as ever.[37]


The trial of Leopold and Loeb, at Chicago's Cook County Courthouse (now Courthouse Place,) became a media spectacle, and the third—after those of Harry Thaw and Sacco and Vanzetti—to be labeled "the trial of the century."[38] Loeb's family hired Clarence Darrow, one of the most renowned criminal defense lawyers in the country, to lead the defense team. It was rumored that Darrow was paid $1 million[39] for his services, though he was actually paid $70,000.[40] Darrow took the case because he was a staunch opponent of capital punishment. While it was generally assumed that the men's defense would be based on a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, Darrow concluded that a jury trial would almost certainly end in conviction and the death penalty.[39] Thus, he elected to enter a plea of guilty, hoping to convince Cook County Circuit Court Judge John R. Caverly to impose sentences of life imprisonment.[41]

The trial (technically a sentencing hearing because of the entry of guilty pleas) ran for 32 days. The state's attorney, Robert E. Crowe, presented over a hundred witnesses documenting details of the crime. The defense presented extensive psychiatric testimony in an effort to establish mitigating circumstances, including childhood neglect in the form of absent parenting and, in Leopold's case, sexual abuse by a governess.[12][7] Darrow called a series of expert witnesses who offered a catalogue of the boys' abnormalities. One witness testified to their dysfunctional endocrine glands, another to the delusions that had led to their crime.[12]

Darrow's impassioned twelve-hour-long "masterful plea"[42] at the conclusion of the hearing has been called the finest speech of his career.[43] Its principal theme was the inhuman methods and punishments of the American justice system, and the youth and immaturity of the accused:[12][44][45]

The judge was persuaded, though according to his ruling, his decision was based on precedent and the youth of the accused; after twelve days on September 10, 1924 he sentenced both men to life imprisonment for the murder, and an additional 99 years for the kidnapping.[12][39] A little over a month later Loeb's father died of heart failure.[46]


Leopold and Loeb were initially held at Joliet Prison. Although they were kept apart as much as possible, the two managed to maintain a friendship behind bars. Leopold was later transferred to Stateville Penitentiary, and Loeb was eventually transferred there as well. Once reunited, the two expanded the current prison school system, adding a high school and junior college curriculum.[47]

On January 28, 1936, Loeb was attacked by fellow inmate James Day with a straight razor in a shower room and died soon after in the prison hospital. Day claimed that Loeb had assaulted him, though he was unharmed while Loeb sustained more than 50 wounds, including defensive wounds on his arms and hands; his throat had also been slashed from behind. News accounts suggested Loeb had propositioned Day; the authorities, perhaps embarrassed by publicity sensationalizing alleged decadent behavior in the prison, ruled that Day had been defending himself.[7][47] While some have claimed that newsman Ed Lahey wrote this clever lead for the Chicago Daily News – "Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition"[48][49] – no evidence that this lead was ever published has been found, and actual copy from that date reads otherwise.[50] Other newspapers at the time appeared to praise Day, who was later tried and acquitted of Loeb's murder.[51]

A sexual motive for the murder has been suggested. There is no evidence that Loeb was a sexual predator while in prison, but Day was later caught at least once in a sexual act with a fellow inmate.[52] In his autobiography, Life Plus 99 Years, Leopold ridiculed Day's claim that Loeb had attempted to sexually assault him. This was echoed by the prison's Catholic chaplain – a confidante of Loeb's – who said that it was more likely that Day had attacked Loeb after Loeb rebuffed his advances.[53]

Although Leopold continued with his work in prison after Loeb's death, he suffered from depression.

Leopold became a model prisoner. He reportedly mastered twelve languages—in addition to the fifteen he already spoke[8]—and made multiple significant contributions to improving conditions at Stateville Penitentiary. These included reorganizing the prison library, revamping the schooling system and teaching its students, and volunteer work in the prison hospital. In 1944, Leopold volunteered for the Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study; he was deliberately inoculated with malaria pathogens and then subjected to multiple experimental malaria treatments.[54]

In the early 1950s, author Meyer Levin, a University of Chicago classmate, requested Leopold's cooperation in writing a novel based on the Franks murder. Leopold responded that he did not wish his story told in fictionalized form, but offered Levin a chance to contribute to his own memoir, which was in progress. Levin, unhappy with that suggestion, went ahead with his book alone, despite Leopold's express objections. The novel, titled Compulsion,[55] was published in 1956. Levin portrayed Leopold (under the pseudonym Judd Steiner) as a brilliant but deeply disturbed teenager, psychologically driven to kill because of his troubled childhood and an obsession with Loeb. Leopold later wrote that reading Levin's book made him "physically sick ... More than once I had to lay the book down and wait for the nausea to subside. I felt as I suppose a man would feel if he were exposed stark-naked under a strong spotlight before a large audience."[56]

Leopold's autobiography, Life Plus 99 Years, was published in 1958.[57] In beginning his account with the immediate aftermath of the crime, he engendered widespread criticism for his deliberate refusal (expressly stated in the book) to recount his childhood, or to describe any details of the murder itself.[58] He was also accused of writing the book solely as a means of rehabilitating his public image by ignoring the dark side of his past.[59]

In 1959, Leopold sought unsuccessfully to block production of the film version of Compulsion on the grounds that Levin's book had invaded his privacy, defamed him, profited from his life story, and "intermingled fact and fiction to such an extent that they were indistinguishable."[60][61] Eventually the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against him,[62] holding that Leopold, as the confessed perpetrator of the "crime of the century" could not reasonably demonstrate that any book had injured his reputation.[59][60]

Leopold's post-prison years

After 33 years and numerous unsuccessful parole petitions, Leopold was released in March 1958.[7][8] In April he attempted to set up the Leopold Foundation, to be funded by royalties from Life Plus 99 Years, "to aid emotionally disturbed, retarded, or delinquent youths."[7][8][63] The State of Illinois voided his charter, however, on grounds that it violated the terms of his parole.[64]

The Brethren Service Commission, a Church of the Brethren affiliated program, accepted him as a medical technician at its hospital in Puerto Rico. He expressed his appreciation in an article: "To me the Brethren Service Commission offered the job, the home, and the sponsorship without which a man cannot be paroled. But it gave me so much more than that, the companionship, the acceptance, the love which would have rendered a violation of parole almost impossible."[65] He was known as "Nate" to neighbors and co-workers at Castañer General Hospital in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, where he worked as a laboratory and X-ray assistant.[60] Subsequently, Leopold moved to Santurce, Puerto Rico, and married a widowed florist.[7][8] He earned a master's degree at the University of Puerto Rico, then taught classes there; became a researcher in the social service program of Puerto Rico's department of health; worked for an urban renewal and housing agency; and did research on leprosy at the University of Puerto Rico's school of medicine.[66] He was also active in the Natural History Society of Puerto Rico, traveling throughout the island to observe its birdlife. In 1963, he published Checklist of Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.[67] While he spoke of his intention to write a book entitled Reach for a Halo, about his life following prison, he never did so.[68]

Leopold died of a diabetes-related heart attack on August 29, 1971, at the age of 66.[7][8] His corneas were donated.[7]

In popular culture

The Franks murder has inspired works of film, theatre, and fiction, including the 1929 play Rope by Patrick Hamilton, performed on BBC television in 1939,[69] and Alfred Hitchcock's film of the same name in 1948.[70] A fictionalized version of the events formed the basis of Meyer Levin's 1956 novel Compulsion and its 1959 film adaptation.[70] In 1957, two more fictionalized novels were released: Nothing but the Night by James Yaffe and Little Brother Fate by Mary-Carter Roberts.[13] Never the Sinner, John Logan's 1988 play,[71] was based on contemporary newspaper accounts of the case, and included an explicit portrayal of Leopold and Loeb's sexual relationship.[72]

Other works influenced by the case include Richard Wright's 1940 novel Native Son, the Canadian Television show Murdoch Mysteries, Tom Kalin's 1992 film Swoon, Michael Haneke's 1997 Austrian film Funny Games and the 2008 International remake, the 2002 black comedy R.S.V.P., Barbet Schroeder's Murder by Numbers (2002), Daniel Clowes's 2005 graphic novel Ice Haven, and Stephen Dolginoff's 2005 Off-Broadway musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story. In his book Murder Most Queer (2014), theater scholar Jordan Schildcrout examines changing attitudes toward homosexuality in various theatrical and cinematic representations of the Leopold and Loeb case.[73] The CW television series Riverdale features a juvenile detention center in its third season (2018) named after the notorious murderers.

See also

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