Intellectual Thrill Killers
A New Crime Library Find
The last post featured instructions for mining content from the Crime Library and gave links to three favorite articles from the discontinued but accessible website. This week, I’d like to concentrate on a fourth Crime Library gem, Leopold and Loeb.
Ninty years before affluenza, the trial of these privilaged 19-year-old murderers captivated the public.
Richard Loeb and Nathan Lepold both finished high school by age 15 and came from fabulously wealthy families. Loeb’s father was a lawyer and Sears Roebuck executive, and Leopold’s owned a box-manufacturing businesses.
As sometimes happens when you have teenagers with high IQs and few responsibilities, Leopold and Loeb latched onto the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. The two decided that they fit the German philosopher’s definition of infallible supermen unfettered by conventional morality.
To prove it, in 1924, Leopold and Loeb plotted to carry out a murder with impunity. They kidnapped Bobby Franks, 14, a cousin of Loeb’s who lived in Kenwood, the same Chicago neighborhood of mansions that the duo called home.
They suffocated Bobby and secreted his body in a culvert, then sent a note to his parents soliciting $10,000 in exchange for his safe return. (Leopold and Loeb didn’t need the money; the demand was part of their game.)
But Bobby’s body was discovered and identified before the Franks paid any ransom. The killers had left one of his limbs protruding from the culvert. Investigators traced a pair of eyeglasses accidentally dropped at the scene to Leopold.
At first, Leopold and Loeb tried out some phony alibis, most notably that they had picked up a couple of girls (it was the Roaring Twenties, after all) and were cruising around with them at the time of the murder.
Then the two suspects cracked, admitted to the crime, and shocked the world by explaining the methodology and reasoning behind it.
Newspaper readers feasted on the story of Loeb, who received a monthly allowance of $250 and had tennis courts in his backyard, and Leopold, who had a chauffer and, despite his young age, was an authority on ornithology.
Loeb’s parents engaged Clarence Darrow to defend their son, and he persuaded the jury that the teenagers were undeserving of capital punishment. A snippet from Darrow’s closing statement:
“It was the senseless act of immature and diseased children, as it was; a senseless act of children, wandering around in the dark and moved by some motion, that we still perhaps have not the knowledge or the insight into life to thoroughly understand.”
Both received life sentences. Loeb promptly died at the hands of a fellow inmate in Stateville Prison in Joliet, Ill., but Leopold got out alive after 33 years.
Writer Marilyn Bardsley’s 25-page Crime Library piece on Leopold and Loeb is a nice read and includes many vintage photos of the cast of characters as well as accoutrements such as the Hammond Multiplex typewriter used to compose the ransom note. — RR