Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, Jr., now universally known as Leopold and Loeb, believed themselves to be so clever, respectable, and talented as to be able to commit the perfect crime without fear of punishment. On Wednesday, May 21, 1924, they set out to prove it.
Leopold and Loeb, each 19 years of age, lured 14-year-old Bobby Franks, a distant relative of Loeb's, into a car, where they suffocated him, perhaps after bludgeoning him with a chisel. After dumping the body outside of Chicago, they did their best to make it seem that a kidnapping for ransom had taken place: The Franks family had enough money so that a request for $10,000 in ransom was plausible.
Before the family could assemble the ransom, though, railway workers found the body. Investigators saw at once that this couldn't be a simple kidnapping, since there would have been no reason for a kidnapper to kill Bobby Franks.
A pair of eyeglasses found with the body were eventually traced back to Nathan Leopold. The ransom note had been typed on a typewriter that Leopold had used with his law-student study group. During police questioning, Leopold and Loeb's alibi broke down and each confessed. Although their confessions were in agreement about most major facts in the case, each blamed the other for the actual murder.
They had spent months planning the crime, working out a way to get the ransom money without risking being caught. They had thought, of course, that the body wouldn't be discovered until long after the ransom delivery. But the ransom wasn't their primary motive; either one's family gave them all the money they needed. In fact, they admitted that they were driven by the thrill. For that matter, they were still thrilled by the attention even while in jail; they regaled newspaper reporters with the lurid details again and again.
The public, driven by the newspapers of the day, were outraged. In the Jewish community, no one had imagined that such shining examples of success could have done such a thing. Both of Leopold and Loeb's families were quite well-off, and each dapper young student at the University of Chicago surely had had a fine future ahead of him; there had been no need to turn to crime. Meyer Levin spoke for many in the sizable Jewish community when he said that it was "a relief that the victim, too, had been Jewish."
Loeb's family hired 67-year-old Clarence Darrow, who had fought against capital punishment for years, to defend the boys. When everyone expected them to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, Darrow surprised everyone by having them both plead guilty. In this way, he avoided a jury trial which, due to the strong public sentiment, would certainly have resulted in a pair of hangings. Instead, he was able to argue before a single judge, pleading for the lives of his clients.
Darrow gave a two-hour speech which has justifiably been called the finest of his career. It may be, in fact, that he took the case in order to be able to make such a speech, since he knew that his strong argument against capital punishment would be reprinted in newspapers around the world. And if he could show that such heinous murderers should go free, perhaps he would make other capital punishment cases more difficult to prosecute.
In the end, the judge sentenced each of Leopold and Loeb to a sentence of life in prison for the murder and 99 years for the kidnapping.
In prison, Leopold and Loeb used their education to good purpose, teaching other prisoners and showing signs of becoming rehabilitated. But early in 1936, Loeb's cellmate attacked him with a straight razor, and he died at age 32 from his wounds.
Early in 1958, after 33 years in prison, Leopold was released on parole. He moved to Puerto Rico to avoid attention from the press. In 1971, at age 66, he died of a heart attack. Darrow focuses his attention on the past rather than on the future.