Leopold and Loeb’s Criminal Minds

In defense of murderers Leopold and Loeb, attorney Clarence Darrow thwarted a nation’s call for vengeance

The Defendants
Nathan Leopold (left) and his lover Richard Loeb confessed that they had kidnapped and murdered Bobby Franks solely for the thrill of the experience. (Underwood & Underwood/ Corbis)
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Nathan Leopold was in a bad mood. That evening, on November 10, 1923, he had agreed to drive with his friend and lover, Richard Loeb, from Chicago to the University of Michigan—a journey of six hours—to burglarize Loeb's former fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau. But they had managed to steal only $80 in loose change, a few watches, some penknives and a typewriter. It had been a big effort for very little reward and now, on the journey back to Chicago, Leopold was querulous and argumentative. He complained bitterly that their relationship was too one-sided: he always joined Loeb in his escapades, yet Loeb held him at arm's length.

Eventually Loeb managed to quiet Leopold's complaints with reassurances of his affection and loyalty. And as they continued to drive along the country roads in the direction of Chicago, Loeb started to talk about his idea to carry out the perfect crime. They had committed several burglaries together, and they had set fires on a couple of occasions, but none of their misdeeds had been reported in the newspapers. Loeb wanted to commit a crime that would set all of Chicago talking. What could be more sensational than the kidnapping and murder of a child? If they demanded a ransom from the parents, so much the better. It would be a difficult and complex task to obtain the ransom without being caught. To kidnap a child would be an act of daring—and no one, Loeb proclaimed, would ever know who had accomplished it.

Leopold and Loeb had met in the summer of 1920. Both boys had grown up in Kenwood, an exclusive Jewish neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Leopold was a brilliant student who matriculated at the University of Chicago at the age of 15. He also earned distinction as an amateur ornithologist, publishing two papers in The Auk, the leading ornithological journal in the United States. His family was wealthy and well connected. His father was an astute businessman who had inherited a shipping company and had made a second fortune in aluminum can and paper box manufacturing. In 1924, Leopold, 19, was studying law at the University of Chicago; everyone expected that his career would be one of distinction and honor.

Richard Loeb, 18, also came from a wealthy family. His father, the vice president of Sears, Roebuck & Company, possessed an estimated fortune of $10 million. The third son in a family of four boys, Loeb had distinguished himself early, graduating from University High School at the age of 14 and matriculating later the same year at the University of Chicago. His experience as a student at the university, however, was not a happy one. Loeb's classmates were several years older and he earned only mediocre grades. At the end of his sophomore year, he transferred to the University of Michigan, where he remained a lackluster student who spent more time playing cards and reading dime novels than sitting in the classroom. And he became an alcoholic during his years at Ann Arbor. Nevertheless he managed to graduate from Michigan, and in 1924 he was back in Chicago, taking graduate courses in history at the university.

The two teenagers had renewed their friendship upon Loeb's return to Chicago in the fall of 1923. They seemed to have little in common—Loeb was gregarious and extroverted; Leopold misanthropic and aloof—yet they soon became intimate companions. And the more Leopold learned about Loeb, the stronger his attraction for the other boy. Loeb was impossibly good-looking: slender but well built, tall, with brown-blond hair, humorous eyes and a sudden attractive smile; and he had an easy, open charm. That Loeb would often indulge in purposeless, destructive behavior—stealing cars, setting fires and smashing storefront windows—did nothing to diminish Leopold's desire for Loeb's companionship.

Loeb loved to play a dangerous game, and he sought always to raise the stakes. His vandalism was a source of intense exhilaration. It pleased him also that he could rely on Leopold to accompany him on his escapades; a companion whose admiration reinforced Loeb's self-image as a master criminal. True, Leopold was annoyingly egotistical. He had an irritating habit of bragging about his supposed accomplishments, and it quickly became tiresome to listen to Leopold's empty, untrue boast that he could speak 15 languages. Leopold also had a tedious obsession with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. He would talk endlessly about the mythical superman who, because he was a superman, stood outside the law, beyond any moral code that might constrain the actions of ordinary men. Even murder, Leopold claimed, was an acceptable act for a superman to commit if the deed gave him pleasure. Morality did not apply in such a case.

Leopold had no objection to Loeb's plan to kidnap a child. They spent long hours together that winter, discussing the crime and planning its details. They decided upon a $10,000 ransom, but how would they obtain it? After much debate they came up with a plan they thought foolproof: they would direct the victim's father to throw a packet containing the money from the train that traveled south of Chicago along the elevated tracks west of Lake Michigan. They would be waiting below in a car; as soon as the ransom hit the ground, they would scoop it up and make good their escape.

On the afternoon of May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb drove their rental car slowly around the streets of the South Side of Chicago, looking for a possible victim. At 5 o'clock, after driving around Kenwood for two hours, they were ready to abandon the kidnapping for another day. But as Leopold drove north along Ellis Avenue, Loeb, sitting in the rear passenger seat, suddenly saw his cousin, Bobby Franks, walking south on the opposite side of the road. Bobby's father, Loeb knew, was a wealthy businessman who would be able to pay the ransom. He tapped Leopold on the shoulder to indicate they had found their victim.

Leopold turned the car in a circle, driving slowly down Ellis Avenue, gradually pulling alongside Bobby.

"Hey, Bob," Loeb shouted from the rear window. The boy turned slightly to see the Willys-Knight stop by the curb. Loeb leaned forward, into the front passenger seat, to open the front door.

"Hello, Bob. I'll give you a ride."

The boy shook his head—he was almost home.

"No, I can walk."

"Come on in the car; I want to talk to you about the tennis racket you had yesterday. I want to get one for my brother."

Bobby had moved closer now. He was standing by the side of the car. Loeb looked at him through the open window. Bobby was so close....Loeb could have grabbed him and pulled him inside, but he continued talking, hoping to persuade the boy to climb into the front seat.


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