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Richard Loeb

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Richard Loeb

Nathan Leopold
ca. 1924
Born Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr.
(1904-11-19)November 19, 1904
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Died August 29, 1971(1971-08-29) (aged 66)
Puerto Rico
Cause of death Heart attack
Religion Jewish
Criminal charge Murder, Kidnapping
Criminal penalty Life imprisonment
Criminal status Deceased
Richard Loeb
ca. 1924
Born Richard Albert Loeb
(1905-06-11)June 11, 1905
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Died January 28, 1936(1936-01-28) (aged 30)
Joliet, Illinois, United States
Cause of death Knife attack
Religion Jewish
Criminal charge Murder, Kidnapping
Criminal penalty Life imprisonment
Criminal status Deceased

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 law students who kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Robert "Bobby" Franks in 1924 in Chicago.[1]

The duo was 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 as retributive, rather than a rehabilitative penal system. Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life imprisonment. Loeb was killed by a fellow prisoner in 1936; Leopold was released on parole in 1958.

Leopold and Loeb have been the inspiration for several 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.

Early lives

Nathan Leopold was born on November 19, 1904 in Chicago, Illinois, to a wealthy immigrant Jewish family from Germany.[2] Richard Loeb was born on June 11, 1905, in Chicago, Illinois to a family of a wealthy Jewish lawyer, a vice president of Sears.[3] Both Leopold and Loeb were exceptionally intelligent.[3] Leopold was a child prodigy who spoke his first words at the age of four months;[2] he reportedly had an intelligence quotient of 210,[4] though this is not directly comparable to scores on modern IQ tests.[5] Leopold had already completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and was attending law school at the University of Chicago.[6] He claimed to have been able to speak 27 languages fluently,[7] and was an expert ornithologist.[8] Leopold planned to transfer to Harvard Law School in September after taking a trip to Europe. 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 postgraduate courses.[6]

The Leopold, Loeb, and Franks families lived in the affluent Kenwood neighborhood on Chicago's Southside some six miles south of downtown. 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, Castle Farms, in Charlevoix, Michigan.

Leopold and Loeb met at the University of Chicago as teenagers. Leopold agreed to act as Loeb's accomplice.[9] Beginning with petty theft, the pair committed a series of more and more serious crimes, culminating in the murder.[6]

Leopold was 19 years old at the time of the murder, and Loeb was 18. They believed themselves to be Nietzschean supermen (Übermensch) who could commit a "perfect crime" (in this case, a kidnapping and murder).[6] 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."[10]

Murder of Robert Franks

Leopold and Loeb spent seven months planning the murder, the disposal of the body, and the method of receiving ransom money with little or no risk of being caught.[11] They put their plot into motion on Wednesday, May 21, 1924. After a search, the pair finally decided upon Robert "Bobby" Franks, the son of Chicago millionaire Jacob Franks. Future Hollywood producer Armand Deutsch, the then 11-year-old grandson of Julius Rosenwald later claimed he might have been the intended victim of Loeb or Leopold. However on the day of the murder he was picked up by his family's chauffeur after school because he had a prior dental appointment.[12][13]

As Franks was walking home from the Harvard School For Boys (closed 1962) in the Kenwood Area, Chicago,[14] the 14-year-old boy—who was both the neighbor and second cousin of Richard Loeb—was lured into the passenger seat of their rented car. With Franks in the vehicle, one of them drove and the other one sat in the back armed with a chisel. It is not known who struck the first blow with the murder weapon.[15] During the attack, a sock was stuffed into the schoolboy's mouth, and he died soon after. Contrary to rumors that Franks had been sexually assaulted, the trial judge would later state that conclusive evidence convinced him that no such abuse had been committed.[16]

The killers covered the body and drove to a remote area near Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana. They removed Franks's clothes and left them at the side of the road. Leopold and Loeb poured hydrochloric acid[17] 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's mother and said her son had been kidnapped. They mailed the ransom note to the Franks family. The killers burned their clothing spotted with blood. They also attempted to clean bloodstains from the upholstery of their rented automobile. The two then spent the rest of the evening playing cards.

Before the Franks family could pay the ransom, Tony Minke, a Polish immigrant, discovered the body.[11][15] 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.[11][15]

However, Detective Hugh Patrick Byrne, while searching for evidence, discovered a pair of eyeglasses near the body, unremarkable except for an unusual hinge mechanism (patent 1,342,973[18]). In Chicago, only three people had purchased glasses with such a mechanism, one of whom was Nathan Leopold.[19] (Leopold's glasses are now in the Chicago History Museum.[20])

Upon being questioned, Leopold told police he had lost the glasses while birdwatching.[21] 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. Leopold's car, however, was being repaired by his chauffeur and the chauffeur's wife confirmed that the car had been in the Leopold garage that night.

During police questioning, Leopold's and Loeb's alibis fell apart. Loeb confessed first, followed by Leopold.[22] Although their confessions corroborated most of the facts in the case, each blamed the other for the actual killing.[11][15] Most commentators believe that Loeb struck the blow that killed Franks.[9] However, which of the two actually wielded the weapon that killed Franks would never be known. Psychiatrists at the trial, impressed by Leopold's intelligence, agreed that Loeb had struck the fatal blow. Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidence in the case, including eyewitness testimony by Carl Ulvigh (who saw Loeb driving with Leopold in the back seat minutes before the kidnapping), indicated that Leopold may have been the killer.[23]

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".[6]


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".[24] Loeb's family hired 67-year-old Clarence Darrow—a well-known opponent of capital punishment—to defend the teenagers against the capital charges of murder and kidnapping.[25] While the media expected Leopold and Loeb to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, Darrow advised his clients to plead guilty, avoiding a trial by jury, which Darrow believed would most certainly have resulted in a conviction and perhaps even the death penalty.[25] The case was heard by Cook County Circuit Court Judge John R. Caverly.

During the 12-hour hearing on the final day, Darrow gave a speech that has been called the finest of his career.[26] The speech included the following: "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."[27]

In the end, Darrow succeeded. The judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb each to life imprisonment for the murder and 99 years each for the kidnapping.[25] This was mainly on the grounds that, being under 21, Leopold and Loeb were legal minors.

Prison and later life

Initially held at Joliet Prison, Leopold and Loeb were later transferred to Stateville Penitentiary, where they taught classes in the prison school.[28]

On January 28, 1936, Loeb was attacked by fellow prisoner James E. Day with a straight razor in a shower room and died from his wounds.[6][28] 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.[29] Nevertheless, an inquiry accepted Day's testimony. The prison authorities, embarrassed by publicity sensationalizing alleged decadent behavior in the prison,[30] ruled that Day's attack on Loeb was in self-defense.[6][28] 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."[31][32]

The actual motive for Loeb's murder was apparently 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.[33]

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 engaging a fellow inmate sexually[34] as well as committing numerous other infractions. In an autobiography entitled 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 confidant 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.[35]

In 1944, Leopold participated in the Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study, in which he volunteered to be infected with malaria.[36] Early in 1958, after 33 years in prison, Leopold was released on parole.[6][7] In April of that year, he set up the Leopold foundation "to aid emotionally disturbed, retarded, or delinquent youths"[37] which would be funded by the royalties from his book, Life Plus 99 Years.[6][7][38] But in July, the State of Illinois voided his charter for the organization, saying it violated the terms of his parole.[39]

Leopold moved to Puerto Rico to avoid media attention and married a widowed florist.[6][7] On many occasions he expressed his appreciation for the willingness of the Brethren Service Commission, a Church of the Brethren affiliated program, to accept him upon his parole as a medical technician at its hospital in Puerto Rico. He wrote in an article, "To me the Brethren Service Commission offered the job, the home, and the sponsorship without which a man cannot be paroled. But it gave me so much more than that, the companionship, the acceptance, the love which would have rendered a violation of parole almost impossible." [40] He was known as "Nate" to neighbors and co-workers at Castañer General Hospital in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, where he worked as a laboratory and x-ray assistant.[41] During this period he was active in the Natural History Society of Puerto Rico, traveling throughout the island to observe its birdlife. In 1963 he published the Checklist of Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

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.[41]

He died of a diabetes-related heart attack on August 29, 1971, at the age of 66.[6][7] His corneas were donated.[6]

In popular culture

Leopold and Loeb have been the inspiration for several works in film, theater, and fiction, such as the 1929 play Rope by Patrick Hamilton, which was performed on BBC television in 1939[42] and served as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's film of the same name in 1948.[43] Fictionalised versions of the events were also included in Meyer Levin's 1956 novel Compulsion and its 1959 film adaptation.[43] Never the Sinner, John Logan's 1988 play [44] (subsequently revised for its 1995 Chicago production) was based on contemporary newspaper accounts and made explicit a homosexual relationship between the two killers.[45]

The case served as inspiration for numerous works, including Richard Wright's 1940 novel Native Son, Tom Kalin's 1992 film Swoon, Michael Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games (and an American shot-for-shot remake in 2008); Barbet Schroeder's Murder by Numbers (2002); Stephen Dolginoff's 2005 Off-Broadway musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story; and various TV episodes (including on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit).

The character of Don Draper makes a passing reference to Leopold and Loeb in an episode of Mad Men.

In the Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall, the following exchange takes place between a couple in bed:

Alvy Singer: I think there's too much burden placed on the orgasm to make up for empty areas in life.

Pam: Who said that?

Alvy: I don't know. I think it may have been Leopold and Loeb.

The case was referenced in a newspaper article at the beginning of the Boardwalk Empire episode entitled "William Wilson" which originally aired on October 20, 2013 on HBO.[46]



External links

Chicago portal
Illinois portal
Biography portal
Crime portal
  • Leopold and Loeb Trial Home Page by Douglas Linder. Famous American Trials — Illinois v. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School. 1997. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  • Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Crime of the 20th Century by Marilyn Bardsley. Crime Library — Courtroom Television Network, LLC. Retrieved April 11, 2007.
  • Northwestern University Archives
  • - main site/CD ordering
  • Review quotes from York Theatre Company
  • Harold S. Hulbert Papers from Northwestern University Archives, Evanston, Illinois
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