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True crime. Casually done.

Leopold and Loeb: The ‘Genius’ Killers

It’s no secret that plenty of murderers make a big deal out of their own intelligence; it’s a trademark characteristic of sociopaths. They think themselves above the petty morality of us mere mortals. But honestly, I think the trope of the genius killer is overused, so much so that any old idiot with a smug smile and a murder conviction gets the label. 

With that in mind, I’d like to introduce today’s case: one of the most famous crimes in the history of Chicago, which chilled the city to the bone back in the 1920s. High on a cocktail of trust fund wealth, nihilistic philosophy, and the promise of mass media attention, two young men set out to commit what they believed would be the perfect crime.

When the story broke of two book-smart rich kids trying to prove their intellectual superiority over the police, press, and… well, everyone, really… the case was cemented in the American consciousness for decades after. 

According to some, the perpetrators had a decent claim to the title of criminal geniuses, but in reality, their execution was anything but flawless. Perhaps this deadly duo weren’t quite as clever as they always thought. Let me give you the facts, and we’ll see if you agree. 

Without further ado, here is the story of Leopold and Loeb, the ‘genius’ killers…

The Crime

On May 21st 1924, fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks was walking home from playing baseball with his friends, through the affluent neighborhood of Kenwood, on Chicago’s south side. This wasn’t the sort of place where parents worried about their kids walking home alone; only wealthy people stayed here, predominantly familiar faces from the Jewish community. The crime which plagued the rest of the city in the 1920s tended not to cross over into this particular postcode. 

Bobby Franks by NFLJ 
is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Young Bobby was one such wealthy resident — son to a watch manufacturer named Jacob Franks. He was well known and well liked around the area; a keen young sportsman with a love of tennis. His parents waited at home that day to ask him about the game, but dinnertime came round, and Bobby still wasn’t home.

The clock ticked on, and by the evening their confusion had given way to fear. They spread word that Bobby hadn’t made it home that day. They asked around the neighborhood in the hopes that he might have gone off to have dinner with a teammate, but no such luck. Nobody had seen him since he left the baseball field after school.

Eventually, Bobby’s mother received a phone call with news of her son — the exact kind of news that she and her husband had been dreading. The man on the other end of the line went by the name of George Johnson. He had kidnapped their son.

Ransom note

Johnson instructed the terrified mother to await instructions on how to deliver the $10,000 ransom which would secure Bobby’s safety (roughly $150,000 in today’s money). Sure enough, after a sleepless night, the next morning a typewritten message arrived in the post, accompanied by another call with the first set of instructions. 

This set Bobby’s father off on an anxious treasure hunt, which was intended to send him to a string of locations and dead drops. But unfortunately, the whole thing ran into a brick wall pretty early on. The stress of the situation caused Bobby’s father to forget the address of the store which Johnson had given over the phone — he couldn’t receive the next part of the instructions.

Before his wife could give him a slap around his head for his forgetfulness, however, the whole treasure hunt was called off. Apparently it had all been in vain from the get-go; Bobby was dead. His body had been hastily abandoned in a railway culvert in Hammond, Indiana. His clothes were missing, and he had acid burns over his face and body. The apparent cause of death was severe bludgeoning to the head.

This front-page news sent a shockwave through Chicago — a city which was no stranger to murder, but rarely saw the violent death of a wealthy suburban teen. The pressure was on for  investigators to find the culprits, a task which would turn out to be far easier than anyone first thought…

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How They Solved It

See, while combing through the area around the culvert and stream, the detectives found something which was distinctly out of place way out in the countryside: a pair of circular horn-rimmed spectacles by the side of the stream. Admittedly, knowing the prescription of the perp doesn’t exactly narrow things down much, but luckily these were no ordinary glasses.

spectacles

They had a unique type of spring fitted onto them, meaning the police could trace them right back to the Chicago optometrist who had sold them: Almer Coe. This was a total bullseye, because according to the shop records, Coe had only ever sold three pairs of these glasses.

Two of the short-sighted suspects were ruled out immediately, leaving just one possible owner. His name was Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr., another resident of Kenwood, and the son of a wealthy industrialist. Regardless, he didn’t seem like the killing type: a bookish law student with a seemingly bright future ahead of him. It was extremely unlikely they had found their man.

When the police confronted 19-year-old Leopold, he explained that he must have dropped his glasses when out birdwatching the week before. If you think that sounds like something he made up on the spot, I would encourage you to trust your instincts. 

It was enough to satisfy the detectives at first, but they still had to follow up on the lead. And although the glasses could be explained away, the letters could not. See, Leopold was a keen academic. When the authorities searched his home, they were able to run comparisons between pieces he had written on his typewriter, and the ransom note sent to the Franks’ home. The machine itself was missing, but experts need only look at the printed characters themselves to confirm a match.

Sure enough, Leopold’s documents were a match for the ransom note — a fact made clear by the defective t and f on the machine used to type them. Leopold was well and truly done for, but the police already suspected that he hadn’t carried out the whole thing alone. See, Leopold was inseparable from another local teen who happened to be a direct neighbor of Bobby Franks. 

This was 18-year-old Richard Albert Loeb, the more charismatic and sporty half of this despicable duo. Witnesses attested to the fact that the two had been together on the days when the crime was committed, meaning it was likely a joint endeavor.

The police brought them both in for questioning, and when presented with the overwhelming evidence, both Leopold and Loeb confessed to everything. Their statements were extensive, with a boastful tone that showcased just how proud the two of them were of their master plan, even though it had gone down like the Hindenburg (ten years before that was even a thing).

So there you have it: one of the quickest and tidiest investigations you’re ever likely to hear about on this show. Case closed, see you next time!

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Their Past

Actually, hold on a minute — wait — I can’t let you go just yet. The actual crime and investigation are just a fraction of the whole story here. Until we can understand why this case is still so infamous, we’re going to have to take a deep dive into some pretty dark corners of human psychology, and American old-money culture.

Let’s begin with the young men themselves. Why, when both of them had the world laid out at their feet, had they decided to kill a child? It wasn’t for money; both Leopold and Loeb already had more than they would ever need. So was it part of some horrible family feud? No, Loeb’s family were friendly with the Franks — they were second cousins, in fact.

The reality is that the only motives behind this killing were thrill seeking, and a grisly statement of moral superiority. See, Leopold and Loeb were by all accounts gifted young men. The former had started university at just 15 years old, and had already had several pieces published in the US’ top ornithology journal (yes ladies, ornithology). 

Likewise, at age 17 Loeb had become the University of Michigan’s youngest graduate. He was enrolled at the University of Chicago graduate school, studying history, at the time of the crime. Now, have you ever met someone who skipped grades in school and went to university early? I don’t mean to generalize, but they tend to mention it quite a bit; that sort of thing can give kids a major complex. 

Such was the case with Leo and Loeb — they had it bad. Leopold was especially interested in the idea of the Übermensch, a term coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, and overused by millions of the most obnoxious college students ever since. In English, it’s usually translated to “supermen” (but not the spandex-wearing type). 

As with all big ideas, the meaning is up for interpretation, but for the purposes of this show all you need to know is how Leopold took it. He was obsessed with the idea that certain people, by virtue  of their superior intellect, were above the morality of ordinary humanity. His obsession was so great that he came to believe he and his buddy were prime examples of this kind of superior being. 

He heaped the majority of his adoration on Loeb. Loeb was the better looking of the two, most socially successful, and spent more time enjoying a life of leisure than actually studying. The geekier Leopold on the other hand, rocked a monobrow to rival Frida Kahlo, and had struggled to fit in during his teens. His social awkwardness and frequent intellectual boasting made it difficult to relate to others. Who knew?

Hmm, so a guy with delusions of grandeur uses Friedrich Nietzsche to justify horrible violence. Hold on, I swear I’ve seen this one before… Never mind, it’ll come to me.

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Anyway, when these two insufferable teens buddied up, the stage was set for a violent descent into narcissism which would eventually leave one young man dead, and two behind bars. Leo and Loeb had been acquaintances growing up, but in their late teens the two of them became partners in crime — quite literally.

It was Loeb who started it. His apparent boredom with his comfortable existence had already led him to dip his toes into petty crime a few times. By his point, he fancied himself as something of a criminal mastermind, even though he had just smashed a few shop windows. Hardly Al Capone stuff.

It’s thought that Leopold originally got on board with Loeb’s criminal pursuits because of a strong romantic attraction. They entered into an unstable arrangement in which Leopold would act as Loeb’s criminal sidekick in exchange for sexual rewards. 

Among their more noteworthy crimes were several acts of petty arson, vandalism, and burglary. For example, in November 1923, the pair drove to the University of Michigan to raid the frat house which Loeb had once belonged to. Their haul was underwhelming, but included a certain typewriter with a couple of broken keys, which Leopold claimed for himself.

It was on the drive back to Chicago afterwards, that Loeb revealed his plan for their biggest crime yet — one which would finally register in the newspapers and make them the talk of Chicago.  He charmed Leopold with a story of the perfect murder, committed by two young geniuses whose incredible intellects would ensure they could never, ever be caught. 

Well, you already know how that worked out…

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Confessions: the Plan

But regardless, let’s humor the boy geniuses for now. Ignore the fact that the crime was incredibly shoddily executed, and have a listen to them gloat about how exactly they planned to get away with it. Their confessions were taken by the Chicago PD on May 31st, and as I said before, they were not shy on the details. We even know how much the murder weapon cost — 75 cents, in case you were wondering. 

If you’re interested in seeking out the original copies, you can find scans online provided by Midwestern University. I’m warning you though, they both feature unashamed descriptions of every detail of the crime which might make your stomach turn. Instead, let me summarize the events for you.

Both statements revealed much the same story: the pair had discussed for months the best way to carry out a murder which would prove entirely unsolvable. Loeb was an avid reader of detective novels, and reckoned that gave him a greater insight into how to plan a crime. It’s the same reason I reckon I’d make a pretty good super spy — don’t mean to brag, but I’ve seen Goldfinger three times.

To get things started, Leopold and Loeb invented false identities for themselves, and then planned every detail from the spot they would dump the body to the vehicle they would use to transport it. Their plan was so extensive that it was set into motion a full month before any blood would be shed. On the 20th of April, Leopold visited a Rent-a-Car shop in downtown Chicago. Using the name Morton D Ballard, he introduced himself as a traveling salesman and asked to rent a vehicle.

By way of identification, he provided a bank book which matched the fake name.  The pair had got this by depositing $100 into a new account that morning. Meanwhile, Loeb checked into a hotel called The Morrison under the same name.The imaginary Mr Ballard had had a busy day indeed. When he arrived at the hotel, there was even some mail waiting for him, sent by the pair in the days prior.

Getting the car was the toughest part though; the rental car operator asked for the standard three references. Leopold complained that he was only in the city for a short while, so could only provide one: Mr Louis Mason. The worker called the number for Mr Mason, which was actually connected to a drug store payphone, where Loeb was posted patiently.

After securing the car at 11am, the duo drove around for a few hours before returning it at 4pm. The rental operator told Mr Ballard that his registration card would be sent to his hotel over the next few days. When Loeb returned to the hotel to check for it, however, he found that the briefcase he had left in the room was now missing. 

Apparently a suspicious maid had reported that nobody was actually staying in the room at all. When the hotel staff opened the briefcase, they would have found it filled with old magazines. That’s not exactly a crime, but it would have drawn the sort of attention you don’t need when gearing up for murder, so they never went back.

Regardless, they had all the pieces set up, even without the registration card. Fast forward to the day before the crime: the 20th of May. Driving in Leopold’s red sports car, the two visited a hardware store to buy rope, and another for a chisel. Further down the street, they hit up a couple of drug stores to collect some hydrochloric acid. Apparently pharmacists were a lot more chill about over-the-counter acid back in the day.

With all the materials in hand, they went back to Leopold’s to prepare. Loeb wrapped tape around the sharp end of the chisel, creating a makeshift club out of the handle side. They ripped up pieces of fabric to make a gag, and Leopold typed up a ransom note:

“Dear Sir: you no doubt know by this time that your son has been kidnapped. Please follow our instructions carefully and nothing will happen to him. If you don’t follow our instructions to the letter, you will never see your son again.

1 — Do not communicate with the police; if you have already done so, please do not mention this letter.

2 — Go down to the bank and get $10,000 in old bills. Be sure that the bills are old. Any new or marked bills will be noticed. Get $2,000 in twenty dollar bills, and $8,000 in fifty dollar bills.

3 — Be home by one o’ clock. Do not let the phone be used.”

Importantly, he didn’t add any address alongside this very specific set of instructions. See, the two hadn’t decided on exactly who they would be kidnapping just yet, so they would have to fill it in after the fact. All Leopold and Loeb knew was that their victim had to be a child (because these übermensch were total cowards) and they had to be wealthy. 

That was a key requirement, as the ransom note was intended to throw police off the trail. If these two rich young men — whose families would be worth about $150,000,000 combined nowadays — could make money look like the motive, then the police would surely not think to look among high society for the culprits. 

In reality, there was no material motive at all. The thrill of ending a life, and the ego trip of watching the police and media fail to solve it, were the only rewards they really wanted. And sickeningly, for a short while, they were able to get both. I should warn you, the part coming up is very violent, and very uncomfortable.

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Confessions: the Crime

On the morning of May 21st 1924, the two young men met outside the university, where Leopold had just finished class for the day. They drove his car to the rental office, where Mr Ballard — now a familiar and verified face — had no problems renting a car for the second time.

With one of them behind the wheel of each car, they stopped into a diner for lunch, before dumping the red sports car back at Leopold’s place. It was still early afternoon, so they decided to head down to the park and wait. As Loeb put it, they wanted to wait for the schools to finish “before starting any operations.”

The particular school they were focussed on was the Harvard Boys’ School where they had both studied prior. At 2:15pm, they drove over there, all the while looking out for an opportunity. Leopold waited in an alleyway while Loeb went to scout out the school grounds. He later told the police:

“I waited in the car there while Dick [that’s Loeb] went through the alley to a place where he could either command a view of the Harvard School, or if he saw any likely-looking children he could start playing with them.”

See what I mean about some parts of the interviews being extremely uncomfortable? As part of his creepy reconnaissance, Loeb chatted with the teacher responsible for looking after the kids as they left the school, as well as a young boy called John Levinson who was getting ready to head out.

Out front of the school, he bumped into his own little brother. That’s right: Loeb’s own sibling went to he school, and even that didn’t make him stop and reconsider what he was about to do. After chatting for a while, he was called back over to the car. As Loeb told the investigators, “there were some children playing on Ingleside Avenue that [Leopold] thought may be potential prospects.”

After observing several groups of kids, they set their sights once again on John Levinson, who they spotted playing on a patch of waste ground. Struggling to get a good look, they returned to Leopold’s house to grab a pair of birdwatching binoculars. 

They were so set on ending that kid’s life, that Loeb even went to a drug store to check the phone book, hoping to ambush him on his walk home once they learned his address. Not long after they returned though, Levinson ran off. The would-be killers were deflated at their lack of progress, and the boy was totally unaware of how incredibly close he came to death that day. 

One who was not so lucky, however, was Bobby Franks. They happened across him by the side of the road, and instantly decided that the plan was back on. Franks was an easy target on account of the fact he knew Loeb, and would be easy to coerce into a kidnapping. On top of that, they knew his father was very wealthy.

So Leopold pulled up alongside Bobby, and Loeb spoke to him through the backseat window. He offered him a ride, which Bobby politely declined seeing as he was only about 5 minutes from home. A persistent Loeb changed his tune, instead saying he wanted to chat to him about a tennis racket, which was enough to draw sport-loving Bobby in.

With the unwitting victim in the passenger seat, Leopold drove off again. At the first opportunity, Loeb grabbed his weapon — the chisel. He leaned forward to cover Bobby’s mouth, and brought the handle smashing down onto the back of the boy’s skull.

Bobby struggled as he was struck in the head three more times, spinning around to face his attacker and crying out all the while. Even after four hits, Bobby continued to groan — something which Loeb hadn’t anticipated. The reality of ending a life was far less clean-cut than in his detective novels.

So he dragged the victim to the back seat, forced a rag into his mouth, and taped it shut. It was like that, that Bobby Franks slowly passed away in the back seat of the car. Leopold claimed in his confession that the victim “died instantly of suffocation shortly thereafter.” Which is an inherently nonsensical sentence…

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At first the two killers had given conflicting accounts of who actually killed Bobby, with each blaming the other. However, their stories converged once more after that. They told of how the body was covered with a blanket while they proceeded onwards to Indiana, a total journey of around 25 miles. 

They stopped along the way to throw Bobby’s shoes into a bush, removing his trousers and socks, and putting them back in the car. Now all that was left to do was to wait until dark. They cruised around the countryside, and stopped in at a sandwich shop for dinner and root beers. It was as if they didn’t have the body of a kid sitting in their car at all.

Once twilight came, they travelled onwards to the dumping point they had chosen weeks before. Originally they had planned to kill their victim with an ether-soaked rag once there, but he was already dead long before they arrived.

At the site, they removed the rest of Bobby’s clothes, and poured the hydrochloric acid on his face in an attempt to cover up his identity. Some reports mention the same was done to his genitals, as the fact he was circumcised could help the police identify the victim as Jewish, although neither culprit mentioned this in his confession.

They then pushed him headfirst into the railway culvert, leaving half the body clearly visible. Leopold attempted to shove it further inside with his foot. We can take a little bit of satisfaction out of the image of a pair of horn-rimmed glasses slipping out of his pocket as he did so.

Meanwhile, Loeb went off to wash his hands on the other side of the tracks, then they set off homeward. This was at about 9pm, and on the way they stopped at a drugstore to check the address of their victim. Leopold called his parents to let them know he’d be late.

It was he who, on returning to Chicago, called the Franks household under the George Johnson alias. This was to be the start of an elaborate hunt which would distract the attention of the family and investigators, and satisfy the killers’ craving for mystery novel drama.

It’s pretty clear that Loeb’s noir-novel filled imagination played a big part in cooking up this part of the plan. I mean, the final step was for the father to toss an envelope containing the $10,000 from a moving train near Lake Michigan, with the two waiting in a car to collect it. Thankfully the family were spared taking part in that futile little game — although that’s not much consolation given the circumstances. 

After Leo and Loeb put things in motion by mailing the ransom note, they turned their attention to the blood stains in the rental car. They cleaned it up as much as possible, burned the clothes in Loeb’s furnace, then headed over to Leopold’s house to hang out with his family as if nothing had happened, waiting for their elaborate scheme to unfold.

But as we know, the whole thing fell apart faster than a house of cards in a hurricane. It didn’t start off terribly; the note arrived at the Franks household. But there were a few other pieces to set up before they could topple the dominoes that would lead to the $10,000.

First, the car — it was still very clearly bloodstained. While the pair tried to scrub it clean in Leopold’s garage, his chauffeur came down to offer a hand. They were able to send him off with a story about spilling red wine. We’ve all been there right? Cruising around drinking pinot noir straight from the bottle, until some idiot breaks in front of you. In the end, the majority of the visible staining could be removed, despite the close call.

After that, they drove downtown with a series of typewritten notes that would direct the treasure hunt. They tried to tape one inside a trash can, but it wouldn’t hold, so instead they went straight to the train station. Loeb disguised himself in a hat, glasses and black overcoat. He bought a ticket to Philadelphia, solely for the purpose of hiding a note on the train.

It instructed Mr Franks to move to the back of the train, and watch until he saw a red brick factory with the name Champion painted on the side. After waiting a few seconds, he was to toss the boxed up cash as far eastward as possible.

While Loeb planted this final instruction, Leopold was setting the whole convoluted sequence in motion. He called a taxi to the Franks house, then called them to direct the father to a certain downtown drug store, where he would receive another call on a payphone. Honestly, it seems like a completely unnecessary step when they already had him on the phone at that very moment, but I guess I’m just not a ‘criminal genius’.

It was around that point, at 2:30 in the afternoon, that the duo had the first inclination that maybe they weren’t so good at this crime business either. Driving past a news stand, they caught sight of a front page headline: “BOY’S BODY FOUND IN SWAMP”. It had been less than 24 hours since they disposed of the body, and already it had been found.

Regardless, Leopold demanded they keep on with the whole charade. They tried calling the drug store, but as we already know poor Mr Franks had forgotten the address. His pain at thinking he let down his son was cut off by a deeper pain — the police identified the body that afternoon.

For Leopold and Loeb, it meant their little game was over. They decided to just return the car and head home. Loeb’s chauffeur told him about the murder when he arrived, and the pair’s anxiety started to build. They began discussing what to do if questioned, and set about destroying the last of the evidence.

The typewriter was tossed into the harbor, and its bar heads scattered into a river in the park. The blanket, they doused in gasoline and burned in an alleyway. But there was one key piece of evidence they couldn’t destroy: in the newspaper they saw that the police had found a distinctive pair of glasses near the body, and the the heat was really on.

Now our two narrative threads have tied neatly together, and we understand exactly how this horrible crime took place — every detestable little detail. Awful — horrible — yes. But, could you really call this the perfect crime?

Objectively no. In fact, the whole thing displays about as much genius as your average corner shop robbery. I don’t mean to crass, but surely if two huge intellects plan the crime of the century for months, they come up with a better method than smacking someone with a chisel. And all of that planning, only for Leopold to drop his glasses — undone by the same Achilles heel as Velma from Scooby Doo.

Add to that the blood all over the rental car, cleaning the car at their own home, the shoddy concealment of the body, and the amount of people the two revealed their faces to while scoping out the school, and you hardly have a portrait of two master criminals.

Could it be that these two weren’t really geniuses at all, but just a couple of bumbling sadists with good school report cards? I mean, there’s a reason why crime shows don’t usually feature a diabolical ornithologist as the villain; murder and birdwatching are two distinct fields with very different skillsets.

At the end of the day, Leopold and Loeb were way out of their depth: just two garden-variety narcissists living out delusions of grandeur…

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Media Sensation 

Well, that’s my take on the story anyway. The media at the time, however, spun plenty of different yarns about what might have caused this horrible crime to take place. This was the early days of truly mass media, when radios had just started finding their way into millions of American households. 

Everyone had an opinion, and an agenda to push with it. The airwaves and papers were filled with all kinds of speculation. For example, some ran with the idea that the crime was an inescapable result of the new culture of libertinism which had swept over the American youth. Churches, synagogues, and traditional values were having a hard time competing against jazz bars and casual sex (I can’t imagine why).

Evangelist Billy Sunday was one proponent. He railed against the “moral miasma” of the youth of the day, and their “infidel minds”. Likewise, an unnamed individual referred to only as a ‘Jewish spokesman’ wrote in the Chicago Tribune that rich Jewish parents were to blame, for letting their children grow up spoiled and without any values. And of course, once news of the sexual dynamic between the two culprits came to light, this was taken as evidence of moral corruption.

Now, remember this was the 1920s; plenty of folks were on the lookout for chances to bash rich Jewish people, gay people, and atheism. I will not be participating in any of that, because I haven’t lost my mind. My aim is to give you a sense of the kind of media frenzy which was whipped up around this case; the idea of the American dream itself was being put to the test. After all, two of its model families had produced offspring no better than all the poor folk rotting in prison. 

Various academics were rallied to try to explain the whole thing. Psychologists attached significance to the fact that Leopold had apparently been sexually abused by his governess (that’s ‘nanny’, for our UK listeners). There were even graphics published in the papers featuring analyses of Leopold and Loeb’s skull shapes. 

Why is that important? Well, there’s a now-defunct pseudoscience called phrenology which claimed that it was possible to determine a person’s psychological character just by looking at the shape of their head. I’ll give a quick rundown of Leopold’s for any phrenology fans listening in:

The slope of his brow meant he lacked “benevolent power”. The tops of his ears revealed a “destructive instinct”. His lips were… “sensuous”. I think maybe that phrenologist needed to go take a cold shower…

The Trial

Against this backdrop of media sensationalism, the Cook County state attorney was tasked with achieving the harshest punishment possible for Leopold and Loeb. This was Robert Crowe, a Republican Party man with mayoral aspirations. He saw his shot to gain the goodwill of the public with a swift death penalty ruling. He was pretty confident he could pull it off. In fact, Crowe told the papers this was potentially “the most complete case ever presented to a grand or petit jury”. 

When the defense counsel for Leopold and Loeb was revealed, however, Crowe surely wished he had dialed down the bravado. This was Clarence Darrow — a legendary name in American legal circles, and one likely to ring some bells even for the casual true crime listener. Darrow and Crowe had gone head to head before, on a corruption case featuring a senior Republican, with Darrow ultimately coming out on top.

The trial, which started in July, was all set up to be a major courtroom drama of the kind which the American public eats right up to this day. Local radio station WGN even considered setting up mics in the courthouse to broadcast the whole thing live, but decided that it would be in poor taste. Fast forward 70 years and the whole nation would be gawking at the OJ trial, popcorn in hand. I’ll let you decide which setup is better.

But unlike in the OJ trial, nobody even considered exoneration as an option. I mean, the two killers had each given confessions over 30 pages long, and were openly proud of what they had done. No lawyer on earth could spin that into a “not guilty”. For Clarence Darrow, the bar was set much lower. Success here meant only one thing: avoiding the death penalty. 

Of course, when it came time to enter a plea, both Leopold and Loeb admitted their guilt. This allowed them to completely bypass a trial by jury, which would have massively swung things in the state’s favor. Instead, Darrow only needed to appeal to the judge himself. 

All he had to do was convince the judge that Leopold and Loeb suffered from mental health problems — rather than full blown insanity — which would be enough to win life in prison. So both sides rolled out psychiatrists to give conflicting explanations for the same evidence, which caused a backlash against the field in the papers. 

The defense played every card in their hand, even arguing that the pressures of being from a wealthy family had caused the two teens to act out against their life of privilege. Man, being rich must be so, so tough.

They painted a picture of both men as fantasists: Leopold as a self-aggrandizing servant, desperate to worship and serve Loeb, while Loeb imagined himself a criminal genius, with need of someone to applaud him. As evidence, one of the psychological profilers quoted a conversation he had with Loeb. When asked what he thought of the possibility of death by hanging, the killer said “Well, it’s too bad a fellow won’t be able to read about it in the newspapers.”

All of these narratives and counter-narratives were woven over a grueling 33-day trial, which came to a head with a twelve-hour closing argument from Darrow. His speech became a definitive aspect of not only the trial, but his entire career. In it, he gave an impassioned argument against the death penalty in principle. 

Invoking all kinds of fresh science from the decades prior, he eloquently argued that if it’s in human nature — or an individual’s own nature — to commit crime, then they can’t rightly be held fully responsible in the traditional moral sense, making the death penalty barbaric.

It’s an interesting question to consider. If we accept that inescapable factors like insanity result in diminished responsibility, can that be extended to more basic parts of human or individual nature? Hmm, I think that question might be taking us a little far away from The Casual Criminalist and towards The Hardcore Criminologist, so I’ll just leave it for you to consider.

At any rate, the closing speech was a home run. Leopold and Loeb — the child killers — were sentenced to life in prison, plus 99 years for kidnapping. They had dodged the noose, and Robert Crowe was left to stomp his hat in frustration. Later that day, he railed against the judge in the press, and was quoted as saying: 

“[Leopold and Loeb] had the reputation of being… degenerates of the worst type. […] .It is unfortunate for the welfare of the community that they were not sentenced to death.”

The two degenerates on the other hand, seemed quite pleased with the result. They were allowed to shake Darrow’s hand before being carted off to Northern Illinois Penitentiary, where I’m sure their Nietzsche quotes won them both a lot of friends. 

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Wrap-up

That about brings us to the end of the story of Leopold and Loeb, so I’d like to ask, was this ‘the crime of the century’ which the newspapers tried to sell it as? Honestly, without the money and status involved, I doubt it would even be considered particularly noteworthy. Robert Crowe put it pretty well in his own closing argument, when he said:

Take away their money, and what happens? The same thing that has happened to all the other men who have been tried in this building, who had no money. […] Clarence Darrow once said that a poor man on trial here was disposed of in fifteen minutes, but if he was rich and committed the same crime and he got a good lawyer, his trial would last twenty-one days. Well, they got three lawyers and it has lasted just a little bit longer.

When someone without the privileged life enjoyed by Leopold and Loeb kills someone, they’re tarred as a natural criminal by default. But add in a touch of wealth, and suddenly the killers are given a platform to preach their philosophical justifications. If that fact alone doesn’t make you sick, have a listen to this. In a newspaper interview during the trial, Leopold told a reporter: 

A thirst for knowledge is highly commendable, no matter what extreme pain or injury it may inflict upon others. A 6-year-old-boy is justified in pulling the wings from a fly, if by doing so he learns that without wings the fly is helpless.

I’m pretty sure most of us were able to figure that out without any practical experimentation, even with our puny intellects — but that’s besides the point. All he’s describing are the same basic impulses as every garden variety sadist, just with added pretentiousness. All this talk of psychology and philosophy just dressed up one simple fact: these two men were child murderers. 

And without any remorse to stop them, where might their murderous line of logic have taken them if they weren’t caught? I can’t say for sure, but what I can tell you is where they ended up. 

_________________________________________

In January of 1936, Loeb fell foul of another prisoner named James Day, who was serving a bid for grand larceny. Day ambushed Loeb in the prison showers, slashing and stabbing him until he lay bleeding out on the floor. He died of 50 wounds, including a slashed throat, at just 30 years old. It didn’t take kryptonite to kill this self-appointed Superman, a simple shank did the job.

As for Leopold, he outlived his partner by quite a few decades. In 1958, he was granted parole, partly due to the advocacy of the poet Carl Sandburg (who was apparently willing to overlook the whole child murder thing). He started a new life down in Puerto Rico, refusing to engage with the countless requests for interviews from US journalists. He married a fellow expat, gained a degree in social care, and went on to work in leprosy research and nature writing until his death in 1971.

Two very different outcomes which appeal to two very different kinds of criminal justice: retribution vs reformation. If you don’t know which side you believe in yet, try this little experiment: which result made you less furious? There, you have your answer.

Dismembered Appendices

1. Despite the lawyer winning one of the most unlikely victories of his entire career, Leopold’s father was apparently unhappy with Clarence Darrow’s work, and refused to pay for his services. It’s unclear what he was hoping for. I mean, if your son kills a kid and brags about it, anything short of the maximum sentence has to be considered lenient!  

2. One quirk of rich people crime is that the world of musical theater pays a lot more attention. In 2005, a musical called Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story premiered in New York to positive reviews. If the idea of listening to a chipper number in which a child murderer tries to entice a kid to get into his car sounds unsettling to you, steer well clear…
3. In 1958, Leopold was given a further platform with the release of his autobiography Life Plus 99 Years. It was seen as part of his attempt to polish his image and gain parole. Another book on the case by Meyer Levin, named Compulsion, was to be made into a film one year later, and Leopold tried to stop it on the grounds it damaged his reputation. The judge on the case essentially said: “You, the proud child murderer, have no reputation left to damage. Goodbye.”

Credits

Richard Loeb by German Federal Archive is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Nathan Leopold by German Federal Archive is licensed under CC-BY-SA

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