Leopold and Loeb

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.

Loeb (left) was considered the handsome, confident half of the pair, while Leopold was described as socially awkward

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.

The killers lured Bobby Franks into their rental vehicle by telling him they wanted to talk about tennis

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.”

After his release, Leopold was law-abiding. He wrote an autobiography, “Life Plus 99 Years

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

4 thoughts on “Leopold and Loeb”

  1. Great article. Some negative behaviors can be examined by studying the rare deviant of yesteryear, to better understand the more pervasive moral decline of now. Sadly, the moral of the story may be that privilege is bad, and so is hardship. Perhaps there is hope in the middle class.

  2. I remember reading about this case, which was then and still is considered notorious — for the depravity of the murder and the fact that it involved privileged killers. For me, it also points to the disconnect between many young people who are estranged from their fellows. It also serves as a precautionary warning against the inward focus of those youngsters enraptured by social media and the isolation from other human beings that it encourages. Let’s hope not.

  3. The worst of the worst. University of Chicago boys. My wife (Chicago-born) has long been fascinated with this strange, heinous crime. Thanks for the post, Rebecca !

  4. Thanks for the well-written post about this disturbing story. I agree with Bruce’s comment that both privilege and hardship have the capacity to warp a human psyche, as do ideas that may seem like academic exercises but produce monstrous behavior when carried out to their logical conclusion. Every human being is broken at some level; the X factor that produces sociopathic killers will likely always remain a mystery.

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