TRUE CRIME: Why were killers Leopold and Loeb spared?

Nathan Leopold, right, thrill-slayer who has served 28 years in prison for the 1924 murder of a 14-year-old boy, talks with Prof. William Byron, Northwestern University sociologist and criminologist, shortly before Leopold appeared before the parole board at Stateville Penitentiary in Joliet, Ill., Jan. 8, 1953. (AP Photo/Ed Maloney)

TRUE CRIME: Why were killers Leopold and Loeb spared?

Nathan Leopold, 19, far right, and Richard Loeb, 18, second from right, are seen during their arraignment in a Cook County courtroom with attorney Clarence Darrow, left, in July 1924. The two teenagers were convicted and sentenced to serve life plus 99 years for the murder-kidnapping of Bobby Franks in May 1924. (AP Photo)

Two wealthy University of Chicago students who lived with their families in mansions in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood were best friends interested in crime and showed signs of extraordinarily intelligence.

Richard Loeb, whose father was a lawyer and retired vice president of Sears, Roebuck & Co., graduated from the University of Michigan at age 17 and Nathan Leopold spoke at least five languages fluently and was a Phi Beta Kappa who graduated from the University of Chicago and was planning to attend Harvard Law School.

Leopold, who was the oldest of the two at 19, was the first to become fascinated with the idea proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche and his philosophical concept of superior men with capabilities so far above average that they would be exempt from ordinary laws of society. He convinced his 18-year-old friend Loeb to test the immunity-of-superiority theory and the two embarked on a series of crimes including property theft, vandalism and arson. The fact that they were not caught for these relatively petty crimes reinforced the idea that they were superior, but it also left them disappointed. When they did not get enough attention or media coverage for their misdeeds, Leopold and Loeb perversely concocted a plan to commit “the perfect crime,” and murder Bobby Franks, a 14-year-old son of a watch manufacturer who lived in the neighborhood and attended the Harvard School for Boys in the Kenwood area, the same school Loeb had attended.

The meticulous scheme involved making the murder appear to be a botched kidnapping , but the murder itself was incredibly imperfect. A chisel was chosen for the weapon, a car was rented and Franks was enticed to get into the car on his way home from school on May 21, 1924. Loeb struck Franks in the head with his chisel from behind as Leopold drove the car. Franks’ body was then moved to the back seat where the boy was gagged and died there.

Leopold and Loeb took Bobby Franks’ body to a pre-determined spot near Wolf Lake in Hammond, 25 miles from Chicago and waited for night to fall. They removed his clothes and poured hydrochloric acid on his face, genitalia and over an abdominal scar to make identification more difficult. Leopold and Loeb put their ransom plans into action the next morning via notes and telephone instructions. The recovery and identification of Bobby Franks’ body within days of the murder ended the kidnapping ruse.

An intensive investigation by Chicago police turned up the main piece of evidence -- the eyeglasses of Nathan Leopold with a distinctive mechanism sold to only three people in Chicago. The two were questioned formally on May 29. Loeb confessed, first blaming Leopold and Leopold later claimed in a book that he pleaded with Loeb to tell the truth. But the two agreed that they had committed the murder for the “thrill” of it.

The famous criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow was hired by Loeb’s family for a fee rumored to be $1 million. Darrow, who was a strong opponent of the death penalty, went against the conventional wisdom at the time and insisted on a bench trial and elected to plead guilty on the theory that he could persuade Cook County Judge John Caverly to spare their lives. The sentencing hearing lasted 32 days and the 12-hour closing argument was considered to be the greatest rhetorical speech of Darrow’s career. Darrow’s strategy worked and in September 1924, Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life in prison.

Though they were supposed to be separated, the two ended up together at Stateville Penitentiary where Loeb was murdered by another prisoner in 1936.

Leopold became a model prisoner and published an autobiography in 1958, the year he was released. Eventually Leopold moved to Puerto Rico, married and obtained a job as a medical technician at a hospital there. He had a heart attack and died there Aug. 29, 1971. He was 66.

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