The crime that captured national attention in 1924 began as a fantasy in the mind
of eighteen-year old Richard Loeb, the handsome and privileged son of a retired Jewish
Sears Roebuck vice president. Loeb was obsessed with crime. Despite his high intelligence
and standing as the youngest graduate ever of the University of Michigan, Loeb read
mostly detective stories. He read about crime, he planned crimes, and he committed
crimes, although none until 1924 were crimes involving physical harm to a person.
For Loeb, crime became a sort of game; he wanted to commit the perfect crime just
to prove that it could be done.
Loeb's nineteen-year old partner in crime was his homosexual lover, another young
Jew named Nathan Leopold. Leopold was interested in ornithology, philosophy, and
especially, Richard Loeb. Like Loeb, Leopold was a child of wealth and opportunity,
the son of a millionaire box manufacturer. At the time of their crime, the brilliant
Leopold was a law student at the University of Chicago and was planning to begin
studies at Harvard Law School after a family trip to Europe in the summer. Leopold
already had achieved recognition as the nation's leading authority on the Kirtland
warbler, an endangered songbird, and frequently lectured on the subjects of his ornithological
Loeb and Leopold had an intense and stormy relationship. At one time Leopold contemplated
killing Loeb over a perceived breach of confidentiality. This relationship, described
by Darrow as "weird and almost impossible," led the two boys to do together what
they almost certainly would never have done apart: commit murder.
Murder was a necessary element in their plan to commit the perfect crime. The two
teenagers spent hours discussing and refining a plan that included kidnapping the
child of a wealthy parents, demanding a ransom, and collecting the ransom after it
was thrown off a moving train as it passed a designated point. Neither Loeb nor Leopold
relished the idea of murdering their kidnap victim, but they thought it critical
to minimizing their likelihood of being identified as the kidnappers.
Motives are often unclear, and they are in this trial. The defense's claim was that
the boys were insane. The prosecution came up with a much more pragmatic and probable
theory: that ransom money was needed to pay off their gambling debts incurred at
local speakeasies and clubs in Prohibition-era Chicago. There was also the buggery
factor: Leopold later wrote that "Loeb's friendship was necessary to me—terribly
necessary" and that his motive, "to the extent that I had one, was to please Dick."
For Loeb, the crime was more an escape from the ordinary; an interesting intellectual
The victim of the two young Jews turned out to be an acquaintance of the two boys,
another Jewish child named Bobby Franks. Franks was simply in the wrong place at
the wrong time.
On May 21, 1924 at about five o'clock in the afternoon, Bobby Franks was walking
home from school when a gray Winton automobile pulled up near him. Loeb asked Franks
to come over to the car, asked him to get in the car to discuss a tennis racquet,
then drove off with him.
At some point during the next several hours the twelve year-old was brutally stabbed
to death with a chisel. Though most evidence points to Loeb as the actual killer,
there is some dispute about this, as there is over the time of the killing. Medical
examination revealed that Franks was first sodomized, and then killed later. In yet
another example of the way the crime was soft-pedaled by the media, this fact was
never mentioned in court and was only discovered years later when researchers actually
uncovered and read the autopsy report. It may be significant that in his long and
self-serving autobiography after his release from prison, Nathan Leopold absolutely
refused to discuss the crime itself or reveal any new facts about who did what and
After the murder Leopold and Loeb drove their rented car to a marshland near the
Indiana line, where they poured hydrochloric acid over Franks' naked body to make
identification more difficult, then stuffed the body in a concrete drainage culvert.
The boys returned to the Loeb home where they burned Franks' clothing in a basement
That evening Mrs. Franks received a phone call from Leopold, who identified himself
as "George Johnson." Leopold told Franks that her boy had been kidnapped, but was
unharmed, and that she should expect a ransom note soon. The next morning the Franks
family received a special delivery letter asking that they immediately secure $10,000
in old, unmarked bills and telling them to expect further instructions that afternoon.
Leopold ("George Johnson") called Jacob Franks, Bobby 's father, at three o'clock
to tell him a taxi cab was about to arrive at his home and that he should take it
to a specified drugstore in South Chicago . Just as Franks headed out to the Yellow
Cab, a second call came, this one from the police, spoiling hope that the perfect
crime would be executed. The body of Bobby Franks had been identified; a laborer
happened to see a flash of what turned out to be a foot through the shrubbery covering
the open culvert where the body had been placed.
Ransom Note Sent to Franks
There would have been no arrests and no trial but for what the prosecutor called
"the hand of God at work in this case." A pair of horn-rimmed glasses were discovered
with the body of Bobby Franks. The glasses, belonging to Nathan Leopold, had slipped
out of his pocket as he struggled to hide the body. They had an unusual hinge and
could be traced to a single Chicago optometrist, who had written only three such
prescriptions, including the one to Leopold.
When questioned about the glasses, Leopold said that he must have lost them on one
of his frequent birding expeditions. He was asked by an investigator to demonstrate
how the glasses might have fallen out of his pockets, but failed after a series of
purposeful trips to dislodge the glasses from his coat.
Questioning became more intense. Leopold said that he spent the twenty-first of May
picking up girls in his car with Loeb and driving out to Lincoln Park. Loeb, when
questioned separately, confirmed Leopold's alibi. Prosecutors were on the verge of
releasing the two suspects when two additional pieces of evidence surfaced.
First, typewritten notes taken from a member of Leopold's law school study group
were found to match the type from the ransom note, despite the fact that an earlier
search of the Leopold home turned up a typewriter with unmatching type. Then came
a statement from the Leopold family chauffeur, made in the hope of establishing Nathan's
innocence, that spelled his doom. He said he was certain that the Leopold car had
not left the garage on the day of the murder.
Loeb confessed first, then Leopold. Their confessions differed only on the point
of who did the actual killing, with each pointing the finger at the other. Leopold
later pleaded with Loeb to admit to killing Franks but, according to Leopold, Loeb
said, "Mompsie feels less terrible than she might, thinking you did it and I'm not
going to take that shred of comfort away from her."
The Loeb and Leopold families hired Clarence Darrow and Benjamin Bachrach to represent
the two boys. It was Darrow's decision to change the boys' initial pleas to the charges
of murder and kidnapping from "not guilty" (suggesting a traditional insanity defense)
to "guilty." Officially, this decision was made to prevent the state from getting
two opportunities to get a death sentence. Unofficially, it was taken to prevent
the prosecution from presenting evidence of the two killers' buggery both of one
another and their victim, which would have gotten them sent to the gallows for sure.
Bear in mind that this was 1924. Jews were not yet immune from the law as they would
become in our own time, and homosexuality was regarded with horror and simply never
even spoken of.
With "not guilty" pleas, the state had planned to try the boys first on one of the
two charges, both of which carried the death penalty in Illinois , and if it failed
to win a hanging on the first charge, try again on the second. The guilty plea also
meant that the sentencing decision would be made by a judge, not by a jury. Darrow's
decision to plead the boys guilty undoubtedly was based in part on his belief that
the judge who would hear their case, John R. Caverly, was a "kindly and discerning"
man. Of course, the defendants being wealthy Jews and this being Chicago in the 1920s,
Darrow could also have based his trust on the likelihood that the fix was in.
The problem was that rumors of buggery had leaked out as well as the horrifying details
of Bobby Franks' murder, and public opinion was seemingly unanimous in calling for
death. Darrow did not want to face a jury.
The defense hoped to build its case against death around the testimony of four psychiatrists,
called "alienists" at the time. The best talent psychiatric talent 1924 had to offer
was sought out by both sides to examine the defendants. Even the Jewish "Father of
Psychoanalysis," Sigmund Freud, was asked to come to Chicago for the trial, but his
poor health at the time prevented the visit. The prosecution argued that psychiatric
testimony was only admissible if the defendants claimed insanity, while the defense
argued strenuously that evidence of mental disease should be considered as a mitigating
factor in consideration of the sentence. In the most critical ruling of the trial,
Judge Caverly decided against the state's objection, and allowed the psychiatric
evidence to be introduced. This decision, which was considered then and now to be
legally unsound, has always been cited as one of the warning signs that Caverly may
have been bribed.
The trial (technically a hearing, rather than a trial, because of the entry of guilty
pleas) of Leopold and Loeb lasted just over one month. The defense presented extensive
psychiatric evidence describing the defendants' emotional immaturity, obsessions
with crime and nihilistic philosophy, alcohol abuse, glandular abnormalities, and
insecurities. Lay witnesses, classmates and associates of Loeb, were offered to prove
his belligerence, inappropriate laughter, lack of judgment, and childishness. Other
lay witness testified as to Leopold's egocentricity and argumentative nature. The
state offered in rebuttal psychiatrists who saw normal emotional responses in the
boys and no physical basis for a finding of mental abnormality.
On August 22, 1924, Clarence Darrow began his summation for the defense in a "courtroom
jammed to suffocation, with hundreds of men and women rioting in the corridors outside."
For over twelve hours Darrow babbled on and on and on. In pleading for Loeb's life
Darrow argued that the Devil made him do it, or in this case, Mother Nature made
him do it. "Nature is strong and she is pitiless. She works in mysterious ways, and
we are her victims. We have not much to do with it ourselves. Nature takes this
job in hand, and we only play our parts. In the words of old Omar Khayyam, we are
only Impotent pieces in the game He plays Upon this checkerboard of nights and days,
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays, And one by one back in the closet
lays. What had this boy had to do with it? He was not his own father; he was not
his own mother ... All of this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with
governesses and wealth. He did not make himself. And yet he is to be compelled to
In pleading that Leopold be spared, Darrow said, "Tell me that you can visit the
wrath of fate and chance and life and eternity upon a nineteen- year-old boy!" Etcetera,
etcetera, etcetera, yadda yadda yadda. The fact the Judge Caverly sat there and listened
to twelve whole hours of this specious waffle is in the view of many another sign
that he was bought off. No modern judge would tolerate this kind of filibuster.
Two weeks later Caverly announced his decision. He called the murder "a crime of
singular atrocity." Caverly said that his "judgment cannot be affected" by the causes
of crime and that it was "beyond the province of this court" to "predicate ultimate
responsibility for human acts." Nonetheless, Caverly said that "the consideration
of the age of the defendants" and the possible benefits to criminology that might
come from future study of them persuaded him that life in prison, not death, was
the better punishment. He said that he was doing them no favor: "To the offenders,
particularly of the type they are, the prolonged years of confinement may well be
the severest form of retribution and expiation."
Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were moved to the Joliet penitentiary. In 1936, Loeb
was slashed and killed with a razor in a shower room fight with James Day, another
inmate whom he was attempting to rape. (One newspaper wag stated that Loeb had committed
a grave grammatical error, when he “ended a sentence with a proposition.”) Leopold
rushed to the prison hospital to be at his old friend's bedside as he died. Day claimed,
apparently truthfully, that he was resisting Loeb's sexual advances, and he was acquitted
by a jury.
In 1958, after thirty-four years of confinement, Leopold was released from prison.
To escape the publicity accompanying the release of Compulsion, a movie based on
the 1924 crime (and which Leopold and his lawyer, Elmer Gertz, challenged in a lawsuit
as an invasion of privacy), Leopold migrated to Puerto Rico. He earned a master's
degree, taught mathematics, and worked in hospitals and church missions. He wrote
a book entitled The Birds of Puerto Rico. Despite saying in a 1960 interview that
he was still deeply in love with Richard Loeb, he married. Leopold died following
ten days of hospitalization on August 30, 1971.
In 1953, Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Brown Heady, a pair of Gentile alcoholics, kidnapped
twelve year-old Bobby Greelease and murdered him in Missouri. They were convicted
after a short trial and executed in the gas chamber three weeks later. No Clarence
Darrow came to their defense. But then, they weren't rich, spoiled young Jews.