Sunday, August 29, 2010

Deathday: Nathan Leopold 1904-1971 Child Killer

Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr. (November 19, 1904 – August 29, 1971) and Richard Albert Loeb (June 11, 1905 – January 28, 1936), more commonly known as "Leopold and Loeb," were two wealthy University of Chicago students who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924, and were sentenced to life imprisonment.[1]

The duo were motivated to murder Franks by their desire to commit a perfect crime. Once apprehended, Leopold and Loeb retained Clarence Darrow as counsel for the defense. Darrow’s summation in their trial is noted for its influential criticism of capital punishment and retributive, as opposed to rehabilitative, penal systems.

Leopold and Loeb have been the inspiration for many works in film, theater and fiction, such as the 1929 play Rope by Patrick Hamilton, and Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film of the same name.


Leopold, age 19 at the time of the murder, and Loeb, 18, believed themselves to be Nietzschean supermen who could commit a "perfect crime" (in this case a kidnapping and murder).[2] Before the murder, Leopold had written to Loeb: "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."[3]

The two were exceptionally intelligent. Nathan Leopold was an intellectual prodigy who spoke his first words at the age of four months; he reportedly had an IQ of 200.[4] Leopold had already completed college, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and was attending law school at the University of Chicago.[2] He claimed to have studied 15 languages though he spoke only four,[5] and was an expert ornithologist. Loeb was the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan, and planned to enter the University of Chicago Law School after taking some post-graduate courses.[2] Leopold planned to transfer to Harvard Law School in September, after taking a trip to Europe.

Leopold, Loeb and Franks lived in Kenwood, which was at the time a wealthy Jewish neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Loeb's father, Albert, began his career as a lawyer and became the vice president of Sears and Roebuck. Besides owning an impressive mansion in Kenwood, two blocks from the Leopold home, the Loeb family had a summer estate in Charlevoix, Michigan.

Leopold and Loeb met at the University of Chicago as teenagers. Leopold agreed to act as Loeb's accomplice.[6] Beginning with petty theft, the pair committed a series of more and more serious crimes, culminating in the murder.[2]


Leopold and Loeb spent seven months planning the murder, working out a way to get ransom money with little or no risk of being caught.[7] On Wednesday, May 21, 1924, they put their plot into motion. The pair finally decided upon Bobby Franks (above with his father), a neighbor and extended relative of Loeb. They lured him into the passenger seat of their rented car, while one of them drove, and the other one, armed with the murder weapon, sat in the back. Either Loeb or Leopold first struck Franks with a chisel.[8] Leopold or Loeb then stuffed a sock into his mouth, and Franks died soon thereafter.

Contrary to the rumor that the victim had been sexually assaulted by his killers, Judge Caverly would later state in his judgment that conclusive evidence convinced him that no abuse of that nature had been committed.[9]

The killers covered the body and drove to a remote area near Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana. They removed Franks' clothes and left them at the side of the road. Leopold and Loeb poured hydrochloric acid[10] on the body to make identification more difficult. They then had dinner at a hot dog stand. After finishing their meal, they concealed the body in a culvert at the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks near 118th street, north of Wolf Lake.

After returning to Chicago, they called Franks' mother and said her son had been kidnapped. They mailed the ransom note to the Frankses. The killers burned items of their own clothing that had been spotted with blood. They also attempted to clean blood stains from the upholstery of their rented automobile. The two then spent the rest of the evening playing cards.

Before the Frankses could pay the ransom, Tony Minke, a Polish immigrant, discovered the body.[7][8] When Leopold and Loeb learned that the body had been found, they destroyed the typewriter used to write the ransom note and burned the robe used to move the body.[7][8]

However, Detective Hugh Patrick Byrne while searching for evidence discovered a pair of eyeglasses found near the body, unremarkable except for a unique hinge mechanism. In Chicago, only three people had purchased glasses with such a mechanism, one of whom was Nathan Leopold.[11]

Upon being questioned, Leopold told police he had lost the glasses while birdwatching.[12] Loeb told the police that Leopold was with him the night of the murder. Leopold and Loeb claimed they had picked up two women in Leopold's car and had dropped them off near a golf course, never learning their last names. Unfortunately for Leopold and Loeb, Leopold's car was being repaired by his chauffeur that night. The chauffeur's wife also said the car was in the Leopold garage that night.

During police questioning, Leopold's and Loeb's alibis fell apart. Loeb confessed first, followed by Leopold.[13] Although their confessions corroborated most of the facts in the case, each blamed the other for the actual killing.[7][8] Most commentators believe that Loeb struck the blow that killed Franks.[6] However, which of the two actually wielded the weapon that killed Franks would never be known. Alienists at the trial, impressed by Leopold's genius, would agree that Loeb had struck the fatal blow. However, the circumstantial evidence in the case, including eye-witness testimony by Carl Ulvigh who saw Loeb driving with Leopold in the back seat minutes before the kidnapping, would indicate Leopold had been the killer.[14]

The ransom was not their primary motive; the young men's families provided them all the money that they needed. Both had admitted that they were driven by the thrill of the kill, and the desire to commit the "perfect crime."[2] While in jail, they basked in the public attention they received and regaled newspaper reporters with the crime's lurid details again and again.


The trial became a media spectacle. Held at Courthouse Place, it was one of the first cases in the U.S. to be dubbed the "Trial of the Century."[15] Loeb's family hired 67-year-old Clarence Darrow — a well-known opponent of capital punishment — to defend the men against the capital charges of murder and kidnapping.[16] While the media expected Leopold and Loeb to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, Darrow surprised everyone by having them both plead guilty. In this way, Darrow avoided a jury trial which he believed would most certainly have resulted in a conviction and perhaps even the death penalty.[16] Instead, he was able to make his case for his clients' lives before a single person, Cook County Circuit Court Judge John R. Caverly.

During the 12-hour hearing on the final day, Darrow gave a speech, which has been called the finest of his career. The speech included: "this terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor … Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? … it is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university."[17]

In the end, Darrow succeeded. The judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb each to life imprisonment (for the murder), plus 99 years each (for the kidnapping).[16] This was mainly on the grounds that, being under 21, Leopold and Loeb were legal minors.

The outcome of this trial has had repercussions to this day, as Darrow popularized the notion that a defendant might not be guilty of his crime because of his inherited traits — to use Darrow's term, Leopold and Loeb were "broken machines." [18]

Prison and later life

Initially held at Joliet Prison, they were later transferred to Stateville Penitentiary, where Leopold and Loeb used their educations to teach classes in the prison school.[19]

On January 28, 1936, Loeb (below) was attacked by fellow prisoner James E. Day with a straight razor in a shower room, and died from his wounds.[2][19] Day claimed afterward that Loeb had attempted to sexually assault him. Day emerged without a scratch, while Loeb sustained more than 50 wounds from the attack, including numerous self-defense wounds on his arms and hands. Loeb's throat had also been slashed from behind.[20] Nevertheless, an inquiry accepted Day's testimony. The prison authorities, embarrassed by publicity sensationalizing alleged decadent behavior in the prison[21], ruled that Day's attack on Loeb was in self-defense.[2][19] According to one widely reported account, newsman Ed Lahey wrote this lead for the Chicago Daily News: "Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition."[22][23]

The actual motive for Loeb's murder was apparently over money. Both Leopold and Loeb had been receiving generous allowances from their families, enough to purchase tobacco and various other items for their cellmates and friends. After the warden reduced all prisoner allowances to only a few dollars per month, Day, a former cellmate of Loeb's, continued to demand the gifts he had been accustomed to receiving, which Loeb could no longer afford.[24]

There is no evidence that Richard Loeb was a sexual predator while in prison, however, Loeb's murderer was later caught on at least one occasion sodomizing a fellow inmate[25] as well as numerous other infractions. In his book "Life Plus 99 Years" Leopold referred to Day's claims that Loeb had attempted to sexually assault him as ridiculous and laughable. This is echoed in an interview with the Catholic chaplain at the prison, Father Eligius Weir, who had been a personal confidante of Richard Loeb. Weir stated that James Day had been the sexual predator, and had gone after Loeb because Loeb refused to have sexual relations with him.[26]

In 1944, Leopold (above) participated in the Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study, in which he volunteered to be infected with malaria.[27] Early in 1958, after 33 years in prison, Leopold was released on parole.[2][5]

That year he wrote an autobiography entitled Life Plus 99 Years.[2][5][28] Leopold moved to Puerto Rico to avoid media attention, and married a widowed florist.[2][5] He was known as "Nate" to neighbors and co-workers at Castañer General Hospital in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, where he worked as a lab and x-ray assistant.[29]

At one time after his release from prison, Leopold talked about his intention to write a book entitled, Snatch for a Halo, about his life following prison. He never did so. Later, Leopold tried to block the movie Compulsion on the grounds of invasion of privacy, defamation, and making money from his life story.[29]

He died of a diabetes-related heart attack on August 29, 1971 at the age of 66.[2][5] His corneas were donated.[2]

Impact on popular culture

Leopold and Loeb have been the inspiration for many works in film, theater and fiction, such as the 1929 play Rope by Patrick Hamilton, which served as the basis for a BBC television performance of this play in 1939,[30] and Alfred Hitchcock's film of the same name in 1948. In 1956, Meyer Levin revisited the case in his novel Compulsion, a fictionalized version of the actual events in which the names of the pair were changed to "Steiner and Strauss." Three years later, the novel was made into a film of the same name. Never the Sinner, a theatrical recreation of the Leopold and Loeb trial, was written by John Logan in 1988.

Other works inspired by the case include Tom Kalin's more openly gay-themed 1992 film Swoon; Michael Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games, with an American shot-for-shot remake produced in 2008; 1997's Kiss the Girls based on the 1995 bestselling novel of the same name by American writer James Patterson; Barbet Schroeder's Murder by Numbers (2002); and Stephen Dolginoff's 2005 off-Broadway musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story; and various TV episodes (including on Law and Order).

Nathan Leopold, Jr. is featured as a character in Nicky Silver's off-Broadway comedy The Agony & The Agony, despite the play's being set in 2006.

The Leopold and Loeb case is a theme in Daniel Clowes' 2005 graphic novel Ice Haven, which includes a short story about the criminal duo, as well as references to the incident in other stories.


1.^ Homicide in Chicago 1924 Leopold and Loeb Retrieved 26 March 2008.
2.^ The Leopold and Loeb Trial:A Brief Account by Douglas O. Linder. 1997. Retrieved 11 April 2007.
3.^ Simon Baatz, For the Thrill of It. New York: Harper, 2008.
4.^ The Biography Channel "Notorious Crime Profiles: Leopold and Loeb, Partners in Crime", Retrieved 5 January 2009.
5.^ Crime Library - "Freedom" by Marilyn Bardsley. Crime Library - Courtroom Television Network, LLC. Retrieved 11 April 2007.
6.^ Leopold and Loeb's Perfect Crime by Denise Noe. Retrieved 4 November 2007.
7.^ Statement of Nathan F. Leopold Northwestern University Retrieved 30 October 2007.
8.^ Statement of Richard Loeb Northwestern University Retrieved 30 October 2007.
9.^ Leopold, Loeb and The Crime of the Century, pg 265
10.^ Crime Library – Enter Clarence Darrow. Retrieved 26 March 2008.
11.^ The Glasses: The Key Link to Leopold and Loeb UMKC Law. Retrieved 11 April 2007.
12.^ Chicago Daily News, 2 June 1924
13.^ Chicago Daily News, 10 September 1924, pg.3
14.^ Leopold, Loeb and The Crime of the Century, by Hal Higdon, pg 319
15.^ JURIST - The Trial of Leopold and Loeb, Prof. Douglas Linder. Retrieved 1 November 2007.
16.^ Gilbert Geis and Leigh B. Bienen, Crimes of the Century (Boston, 1998).
17.^ John Thomas Scopes, World's greatest court trial. Cincinnati : National Book Co., 1925, pp. 178-179, 182.
18.^ Richard K. Gaither, "From Darwin to Darrow," Cleveland: Simon and Shuster, 1984, p. 227
19.^ Life and Death In Prison by Marilyn Bardsley. Crime Library - Courtroom Television Network, LLC. Retrieved 11 April 2007.
20.^ Leopold, Loeb and The Crime of the Century by Hal Higdon, pg 295
21.^ Leopold, Loeb and The Crime of the Century, pg 301
22.^ Dr. Ink (August 23, 2002). "Ask Dr. Ink". Poynter Online.
23.^ Murray, Jesse George (1965). The madhouse on Madison Street,. Follett Pub. Co. p. 344.
24.^ Leopold, Loeb and The Crime of the Century by Hal Higdon, pg 292
25.^ Leopold, Loeb and The Crime of the Century, pg 302
26.^ Leopold, Loeb and The Crime of the Century, pg 293
27.^ Leopold, Nathan F., Jr. Life Plus 99 Years. Lowe and Brydone (Printers) Limited, 1958.
28.^ Life Plus 99 Years. Intro. By Erle Stanley Gardner, by Leopold, Nathan Freudenthal. Publisher: Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1958.
29.^ e-mailed comment at


Leopold, Nathan F. Life plus 99 Years, 1958 (Introduction by Erle Stanley Gardner)
Baatz, Simon. For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb and the Murder that Shocked Chicago (HarperCollins, 2008).
Baatz, Simon. "Criminal Minds," Smithsonian Magazine 39 (August 2008): 70-79.
Higdon, Hal. Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century, University of Illinois Press, 1999. (originally published in 1975) ISBN 0-252-06829-7
Kalin, Tom (director), Swoon. Film, 1990
Levin, Meyer. Compulsion, Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1996. (originally published in 1956). ISBN 0-7867-0319-9
Logan, John (author), Never the Sinner (play), Samuel French, Inc., 1987
Saul, John (author). In the Dark of the Night, 2006 ISBN 0-345-48701-X
Dolginoff, Stephen (author/composer). Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story (musical, published by Dramatists Play Service) ISBN 0-8222-2102-0
Galluzzo, Mark Anthony (director). R.S.V.P. Film, 2002
Vonnegut, Kurt (author). "Jailbird" (page 171) Published by Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence ISBN 0-440-05449-4
The Sopranos (Season 1, Episode 7) TV series distributed by HBO Pictures
"Yesterday" (Season 1, Episode 18), Law and Order: Criminal Intent. By Rene Balcer and Theresa Rebeck. Performed by Vincent D'Onofrio, Kathryn Erbe, Jamey Sheridan, Courtney B. Vance, Jim True-Frost, Danton Stone. NBC. WNBC, New York City. 14 April 2002

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