A Brief History
On May 21, 1924, a pair of well to do college students from the University of Chicago kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy, just for the thrill of committing murder and getting away with it. They did not get away with it!
Richard Albert Loeb was the son of a wealthy lawyer that had been a vice president of Sears, a highly intelligent lad that skipped several grades in school, graduating from the University of Michigan at the age of 17. Despite his intellect, Richard was described as lazy and obsessed with crime and detective novels.
Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr. was perhaps even smarter, supposedly boasting an IQ of 210! A year older than Loeb, Nathan had already graduated from Chicago and was prominent as an ornithologist despite his youth. Nathan spoke 5 languages fluently and had studied 10 other languages.
These 2 rich creeps were cruising through life so easily that they were somewhat bored. Barely acquainted before attending Chicago for post grad studies, they became friends and were obsessed with crime and with the Nietzsche concept of Ubermenschen (supermen). Obviously, they saw themselves as “supermen” and others as Untermenschen (sub-humans). These 2 deluded youths went on a crime spree to assert their “superiority,” stealing things and committing acts of vandalism, hoping to generate public outcry at how clever these unknown criminals were. The desired publicity failed to materialize, and the 2 youths (18 and 19 at this time) dreamed up a grander scheme to show their intellectual superiority over the rest of us. Leopold and Loeb spent 7 months planning the “perfect crime” that would generate vast amounts of publicity and baffle authorities. Kidnapping and killing a boy was decided to be the spectacular crime they needed.
The deadly pair chose 14 year old Bobby Franks, himself the son of rich people and living right across the street from his second cousin, Loeb. On May 21, 1924, the murderers rented a car under a false name, picking up the unsuspecting boy as he walked home from school. Loeb slammed a chisel, specially purchased for the murder, several times into the back of Bobby’s head, pulling the victim into the back seat and gagging him. Franks quickly died and the plotters drove 25 miles to Wolf’s Lake, Indiana, where they stripped off Franks’s clothes, hid him in a culvert, and poured acid over him to confuse his identity, including his genitalia to hide the fact Franks was circumcised. Leopold and Loeb drove back to Chicago, cleaned up the car, and called in a bogus ransom demand to Franks’s family, then sending ransom delivery instructions by mail.
The fake ransom went astray when the body of Franks was found, so the murderers merely went about their normal life as if nothing had happened. The “perfect” crime became unraveled when Leopold’s eyeglasses were found near Franks’ body, a type sold to only 3 people in Chicago, one of which was Leopold. The typewriter used to type the ransom note was also discovered, even though the boys had tried to destroy it. The alibi offered by Leopold and Loeb was that they were out picking up girls the night of the murder, when in fact Leopold’s car was being repaired that day and night, destroying the alibi.
The 2 murderers were without a reasonable alibi, and confessed to the horrible crime. They told of their desire to commit the “perfect crime” and that they had killed for the thrill of it. They also told of their belief in the Ubermensch theory and referred to the murder as “an experiment.”
Pleading the boys “guilty” in court, defense lawyer supreme Clarence Darrow (paid $70,000 for the job) argued in sentencing to save the lives of Leopold and Loeb, orating against the death penalty. The judge went along with Darrow’s arguments, and sentenced the pair to life in prison plus 99 years.
Leopold and Loeb took their airs of superiority to prison with them, alienating the other prisoners. Given plenty of money to spend in prison by their families, this jail wealth was curtailed when their “allowance” was cut to $5 a week. On January 28, 1936, Loeb was murdered in the prison shower by another inmate with a razor.
Leopold learned a further 12 languages while in prison (in addition to the 15 he knew from before), writing his own autobiography in 1958, Life Plus 99 Years. In March of 1958 Leopold was released, having served 33 years in jail. He moved to Puerto Rico and died of a heart attack in 1971 at the age of 66.
With only 1 murder involved, you may question how so many called this “The Crime of the Century,” but it was the publicity about the seeming contradiction of 2 such highly intelligent rich kids committing such a heinous act, and the publicity of having the foremost defense lawyer in the country making an epic plea for their lives that generated the publicity, though not exactly the way Leopold and Loeb had planned!
Question for students (and subscribers): What other crimes by spoiled rich kids strike you as worthy of comparison with the Leopold and Loeb plot? Please share your ideas in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Higdon, Hal. Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century. University of Illinois Press, 1999.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Nathan Leopold Junior and Richard Loeb, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. This image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project.
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