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Leopold and Loeb

"The Trial of the Century"

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Murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb sitting in an office together.

American criminals Nathan Leopold Jr. (left) and Richard Loeb sit together in an office. The two men were convicted for the kidnapping and murder of Loeb's cousin, 14-year-old Bobby Franks. They were sentenced to life in prison. (June 1, 1924)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
On May 21, 1924, two brilliant, wealthy, Chicago teenagers attempted to commit the perfect crime just for the thrill of it. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb kidnapped 14-year-old Bobby Franks, bludgeoned him to death in a rented car, and then dumped Franks' body in a distant culvert.

Although they thought their plan was foolproof, Leopold and Loeb made a number of mistakes that led police right to them. The subsequent trial, featuring famous attorney Clarence Darrow, made headlines and was often referred to as "the trial of the century."

Who Were Leopold and Loeb?

Nathan Leopold was brilliant. He had an IQ of over 200 and excelled at school. By age 19, Leopold had already graduated from college and was in law school. Leopold was also fascinated with birds and was considered an accomplished ornithologist. However, despite being brilliant, Leopold was very awkward socially.

Richard Loeb was also very intelligent, but not to the same calibre as Leopold. Loeb, who had been pushed and guided by a strict governess, had also been sent to college at a young age. However, once there, Loeb did not excel; instead, he gambled and drank. Unlike Leopold, Loeb was considered very attractive and had impeccable social skills.

It was at college that Leopold and Loeb became close friends. Their relationship was both stormy and intimate. Leopold was obsessed with the attractive Loeb. Loeb, on the other hand, liked having a loyal companion on his risky adventures.

The two teenagers, who had become both friends and lovers, soon began committing small acts of theft, vandalism, and arson. Eventually, the two decided to plan and commit the "perfect crime."

Planning the Murder

It is debated as to whether it was Leopold or Loeb who first suggested they commit the "perfect crime," but most believe it was Loeb. No matter who suggested it, both boys participated in the planning of it.

The plan was simple: rent a car under an assumed name, find a wealthy victim (preferably a boy since girls were more closely watched), kill him in the car with a chisel, then dump the body in a culvert.

Even though the victim was to be killed immediately, Leopold and Loeb planned on extracting a ransom from the victim's family. The victim's family would receive a letter instructing them to pay $10,000 in "old bills," which they would later be asked to throw from a moving train.

Interestingly, Leopold and Loeb spent a lot more time on figuring out how to retrieve the ransom than on who their victim was to be. After considering a number of specific people to be their victim, including their own fathers, Leopold and Loeb decided to leave the choice of victim up to chance and circumstance.

The Murder

On May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb were ready to put their plan into action. After renting a Willys-Knight automobile and covering its license plate, Leopold and Loeb needed a victim. Around 5 o'clock, Leopold and Loeb spotted 14-year-old Bobby Franks, who was walking home from school.

Loeb, who knew Bobby Franks because he was both a neighbor and a distant cousin, lured Franks into the car by asking Franks to discuss a new tennis racket (Franks loved to play tennis). Once Franks had climbed into the front seat of the car, the car took off.

Within minutes, Franks was struck several times in the head with a chisel, dragged from the front seat into the back, and then had a cloth shoved down his throat. Laying limply on the floor of the back seat, covered with a rug, Franks died from suffocation.

(It is believed that Leopold was driving and Loeb was in the back seat and was thus the actual killer, but this remains uncertain.)

Dumping the Body

As Franks lay dying or dead in the backseat, Leopold and Loeb drove toward a hidden culvert in the marshlands near Wolf Lake, a location known to Leopold because of his birding expeditions.

On the way, Leopold and Loeb stopped twice. Once to strip Franks' body of clothing and another time to buy dinner. Once it was dark, Leopold and Loeb found the culvert, shoved Franks' body inside the drainage pipe and poured hydrochloric acid on Franks' face and genitals to obscure the body's identity.

On their way home, Leopold and Loeb stopped to call the Franks' home that night to tell the family that Bobby had been kidnapped. They also mailed the ransom letter.

They thought they had committed the perfect murder. Little did they know that by the morning, Bobby Franks' body had already been discovered and the police were quickly on the way to discovering his murderers.

Mistakes and Arrest

Despite having spent at least six months planning this "perfect crime," Leopold and Loeb made a lot of mistakes. The first of which was the disposal of the body.

Leopold and Loeb thought that the culvert would keep the body hidden until it had been reduced to a skeleton. However, on that dark night, Leopold and Loeb didn't realize that they had placed Franks' body with the feet sticking out of the drainage pipe. The following morning, the body was discovered and quickly identified.

With the body found, the police now had a location to start searching.

Near the culvert, the police found a pair of glasses, which turned out to be specific enough to be traced back to Leopold. When confronted about the glasses, Leopold explained that the glasses must have fallen out of his jacket when he fell during a birding excavation. Although Leopold's explanation was plausible, the police continued to look into Leopold's whereabouts. Leopold said he had spent the day with Loeb.

It didn't take long for Leopold and Loeb's alibis to break down. It was discovered that Leopold's car, which they had said they had driven around all day in, had been actually been at home all day. Leopold's chauffeur had been fixing it.

On May 31, just ten days after the murder, both 18-year-old Loeb and 19-year-old Leopold confessed to the murder.

Leopold and Loeb's Trial

The young age of the victim, the brutality of the crime, the wealth of the participants, and the confessions, all made this murder front page news. With the public decidedly against the boys and an extremely large amount of evidence tying the boys to the murder, it was almost certain that Leopold and Loeb were going to receive the death penalty.

Fearing for his nephew's life, Loeb's uncle went to famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow and begged him to take the case. Darrow was not asked to free the boys, for they were surely guilty; instead, Darrow was asked to save the boys' lives by getting them life sentences rather than the death penalty.

Darrow, a long-time advocate against the death penalty, took the case.

On July 21, 1924, the trial against Leopold and Loeb began. Most people thought Darrow would plead them not guilty by reason of insanity, but in a surprising last minute twist, Darrow had them plead guilty.

With Leopold and Loeb pleading guilty, the trial would no longer require a jury because it would become a sentencing trial. Darrow believed that it would be harder for one man to live with the decision to hang Leopold and Loeb than it would be for twelve who would share the decision. The fate of Leopold and Loeb was to rest solely with Judge John R. Caverly.

The prosecution had over 80 witnesses that presented the cold blooded murder in all its gory details. The defense focused on psychology, especially the boys' upbringing.

On August 22, 1924, Clarence Darrow gave his final summation. It lasted approximately two hours and is considered one of the best speeches of his life.

After listening to all the evidence presented and thinking carefully on the matter, Judge Caverly announced his decision on September 19, 1924. Judge Caverly sentenced Leopold and Loeb to jail for 99 years for kidnapping and for the rest of their natural lives for murder. He also recommended that they never be eligible for parole.

The Deaths of Leopold and Loeb

Leopold and Loeb were originally separated, but by 1931 they were again close. In 1932, Leopold and Loeb opened a school in the prison to teach other prisoners.

On January 28, 1936, Loeb was attacked in the shower by his cellmate. He was slashed over 50 times with a straight razor and died of his wounds.

Leopold stayed in prison and wrote an autobiography, Life Plus 99 Years. He was paroled in March of 1958 and moved to Puerto Rico, where he married in 1961.

Leopold died on August 30, 1971 from a heart attack.

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