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Leopold and Loeb

Crime Files
Leopold and Loeb

Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. was born on 19 November 1904 in Chicago, Illinois, into a wealthy family of immigrant German Jews, who had made a freight & transport-related fortune since their arrival in the United States. Reportedly a child prodigy, with an IQ of 210, Leopold spoke his first words aged just 4 months old, and amazed a succession of nannies and governesses with his intellectual precocity.

Leopold’s intelligence set him apart from his contemporaries, and the boy had difficulty making friends when he started school, a trait that continued throughout his education, made more difficult by his own superior attitude, in relation to both his family’s wealth and his own intelligence. When the family moved to the exclusive Chicago neighbourhood of Kenwood, he was transferred to the private Harvard School, and his educational development was even more rapid. It was at this time that he met Richard Loeb, although it wasn’t until he entered the University of Chicago, as a freshman in September 1920, before his sixteenth birthday, that they became what he referred to as ‘firm friends’.

Richard Albert Loeb was six months younger than Leopold, born on 11 June 1905, and also born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, to a wealthy Jewish lawyer, who went on to become a senior executive with the department store company, Sears and Roebuck. He was similarly raised by a succession of nannies, and was also extremely intelligent (although not on the same level as Leopold), and skipped several grades at school, thanks mostly to a rather strict disciplinarian nanny, called Emily Struthers.

Here the similarity ended, however: whether as a result of rebellion at the repressive educational regime, or some deep-seated psychological flaw, Loeb showed distinct ‘Jekyll/Hyde’ characteristics from an early age. He was outwardly an affable, popular child, but also showed a more sinister side to his personality, become an accomplished thief early on and, whilst recognising that lying was wrong, readily resorted to elaborate fabrications when caught out. He developed an elaborate fantasy life, which cast him at its centre, as a master criminal, and his interests evolved from minor family theft to shoplifting, vandalism and arson. Leopold would later describe him as ‘amoral’ rather than ‘immoral’: he simply didn’t see why he shouldn’t have anything he wanted, and would go to any lengths to satisfy his desires. Despite both boys having enjoyed over-indulged and privileged upbringings, it appeared that Leopold was capable of recognising these advantages; Loeb saw them as his absolute right.

Loeb was admitted to the University of Chicago in October 1919, aged fourteen, as a result of skipping numerous grades, and it was here that the friendship with Leopold began to develop, who arrived there a year later: they were both considerably younger than their University contemporaries. While Leopold was a genuine prodigy, mastering a dozen languages, and an excellent student, Loeb was more a product of his nanny’s ruthless tutelage, and his studies floundered when she was no longer there to assist him.

But Leopold and Loeb were an excellent match psychologically: the brilliant, but socially inept, Leopold was enthralled by the handsome and vivacious Loeb; and Loeb found an excellent alter ego for his fantasy world in which he was supreme. Psychiatrists later described it as a ‘master-slave’ relationship, with mutual acquiescence, although it was far more complicated than the term implied.By the summer of 1921 they were inseparable, and it is likely that they had already begun a sexual relationship, although both boys were fairly evasive about this aspect of their relationship, not surprising in the 1920s. The Loebs owned a vast estate in Charlevoix, Michigan, in addition to an elaborate Chicago mansion, complete with tennis courts and swimming pool, and the boys went to work on the estate during their summer vacation.

Loeb’s father had built him his own boathouse, complete with boat, which they used to explore Lake Michigan. It was here that their sexual affair became known: an employee of the estate, called Buchman, witnessed Loeb climbing into Leopold’s bed one night: given his domineering personality, it seems likely that Loeb controlled all aspects of their relationship. In later years, there was evidence of Loeb having persuaded Leopold into various criminal acts, through the promise of sexual favours.

There have been various accounts of the events which unfolded following their discovery: Buchman later claimed that Loeb & Leopold tried to drown him, by capsizing Loeb’s boat, while Buchman was on-board, but this was not raised at their later murder trial. Had it been introduced, it might have thrown some light on their murderous tendencies, almost three years before the case that saw them tried for the murder of teenager Bobby Franks.When they returned to school for the new academic year, Buchman had spread the word about the pair’s affair, and Loeb was only admitted to a fraternity, at the University of Michigan, on the intervention of his brother Allen, to whom Buchman had also written. Allen was forced to intercede with the fraternity and vouch for any ‘misunderstanding’, but the condition for Loeb’s admission was that he sever all ties with Leopold. Despite this, they remained in contact, but had to be careful not to be seen out alone together. Leopold transferred back to the University of Chicago, and graduated with honours in March 1923. Loeb remained at the University of Michigan, where he barely graduated, in June 1923: his only distinction being that he was the youngest graduate in the University's history.

With both now back in Chicago, and the rumours about their affair safely left in Michigan, they again became inseparable, as each pursued post-graduate studies at the University of Chicago whilst again living at home: Leopold studied law, with a view to attending Harvard Law School, whilst Loeb studied history.

Loeb continued to embroil Leopold in a number of different criminal pursuits, using the promise of sexual favours as an enticement, and became increasingly obsessed with the development and commission of ‘the perfect crime’.


Born Richard Loeb - 11 June 1905 Nathan Leopold - 19 November 1904The Victim 21 May 1924 - Bobby Franks, 14Arrested 31 May 1924Trial 21 July 1924Convicted 19 September 1924Died Richard Loeb - 28 January 1936 Nathan Leopold - 30 August 1971

The Aftermath

Both Leopold and Loeb were transferred from Cook County jail to Joliet Penitentiary on 11 September 1924. Authorities initially separated them, by transferring Leopold to Statesville Prison, but they were eventually reunited at Joliet in 1931. Leopold continued his language studies, and the pair devised a plan to open a school for prisoners in 1932, which would ensure that they were kept together thereafter.On 28 January 1936, Loeb’s cellmate, James Day, viciously attacked Loeb in the shower block, slashing him 58 times with a straight razor. He claimed that Loeb had made sexual advances to him, and was cleared of murder in the subsequent enquiry. Faithful to the end, Leopold was allowed to attend to Loeb immediately after his death, and spent considerable time washing the blood from his dead friend’s body. When his body was taken away Leopold said: “I felt like half of me was dead.”Devastated by the death, Leopold continued his studies, and then began to make attempts to cultivate the press, in order to rehabilitate his image, playing on the hypnotic hold that Loeb had exercised over him, with a view to securing parole. His plea for parole in 1953 was unsuccessful, but he persevered and was finally released in March 1958. He fled to Puerto Rico, to avoid the press, where he taught mathematics at the University of Puerto Rico, and also published an ornithological book.In 1961, he married a widowed American social worker named Trudi de Queveda, although a framed picture of Loeb always retained pride of place in their home. The rare interviews that he granted made it clear that his friend retained a profound influence over his life, even from beyond the grave.On 30 August 1971, Leopold died of a diabetes-related heart attack, at home in Puerto Rico.

The Crimes

By November 1923, Leopold and Loeb had explored and discarded a number of criminal scenarios, which they felt would test their intellectual skills. They decided that a kidnapping of a wealthy young boy for ransom would provide the greatest challenge; especially the skill and planning that would be required in retrieving the ransom without being caught. Loeb maintained that the killing of the kidnap victim was essential to preserve their anonymity, Leopold was less sanguine about this element of the plan but, as usual, went along with Loeb’s demands: his infatuation with his friend was undiminished.After an extensive amount of research, they decided on a complicated plan that involved sending the victim’s father to a pre-arranged place, where they would call him and demand that he board a specific train, with very little notice, to reduce the possibility of police being able to follow. Once on the train, a hidden note would inform him exactly where to throw the ransom money from the train, where the pair would be waiting to retrieve it, before making good their escape.Despite the depth of planning, they decided that the victim would be a purely random choice: there was no shortage of wealthy victims in their own neighbourhood and they merely required that the victim be known to one of them, in order to ensure that he could be lured into their car with ease. As they planned to kill the victim immediately, there would be no problem with later identification. Leopold was a keen ornithologist, and was familiar with an area called Wolf Lake, where he had discovered a secluded culvert suitable for dumping the body: in addition to it being a relatively isolated area, it would avoid the necessity of digging a grave.On 21 May 1924 they put their plan into action, collecting a rental car, obscuring its number plates and then driving to their old alma mater, the Harvard School, in search of a convenient victim who met their prerequisites. They considered and rejected a number of candidates, until 14-year old Bobby Franks emerged. A neighbour of the Loebs, who often played tennis on the Loeb’s courts, he met the wealth and familiarity criteria, and his fate was sealed.Lured into the car, he was hit over the head with a chisel by Loeb and then gagged, before being hidden under some blankets on the back seat of the car. It is unclear whether he died immediately from the blow, or later from suffocation. They stopped briefly on the trip to Wolf Lake, to strip the boy and discard his clothing, as well as calling the Franks’ family home to tell them to await a ransom demand. When they arrived at Wolf Lake they took the now-dead boy out of the car, and poured acid on his face & genitals, apparently to delay his identification (his circumcision would have identified him as Jewish). A later post-mortem indicated that Bobby Franks’ rectum had been dilated, but there were no signs of overt sexual activity, the development of forensic science being then in its infancy.After depositing Franks’ body in the culvert, they returned to Kenwood, meticulously cleaned the hire car, disposed of their own clothes and the chisel, and prepared the ransom note, which demanded $10,000 in used notes, to be prepared for delivery by Bobby Franks’ father the next day, to a destination that would be revealed in a phone call. The note was signed George Johnson.The next morning they called Jacob Franks with an instruction that he should take a taxi, which the pair had pre-arranged, to a drugstore where they would call with further instructions, namely to board the designated train for the final drop. Unbeknownst to Leopold & Loeb, Franks had contacted the police, and Bobby Franks’ body was found and identified far sooner than they expected: as Jacob Franks was about to leave to deliver the ransom, he received a call confirming that a body of a young boy, found near Wolf Lake, was that of his son.When Leopold and Loeb tried calling Franks at the drugstore, as arranged, and received no reply, they realised that their meticulously planned ‘perfect murder’ had gone awry, although at that stage they had no idea exactly what had caused its failure.Given the wealth and social standing of the victim’s family, not to mention their political connections, the case was front-page news from the outset. Several rewards for information were offered, and a large contingent of local authorities was assigned to investigate the case.

The Trial

Leopold and Loeb did nothing to assist their defence; both gave extensive interviews to the press about their plans, following the publication of their confessions in the newspapers on 5 June 1924, and even assisted the police in amassing irrefutable evidence against them. Always protected by their family’s wealth, neither seemed to appreciate the gravity of their condition. Prior to the trial, whilst in jail, they enjoyed a comfortable existence, with food and drink brought in from restaurants, and news stories abounded of million dollar sums paid by the family to secure Darrow’s services.Given the evidence against them, Darrow took the decision to plead both defendants guilty to the charges, rather than the expected not guilty by reason of insanity, in order to avoid a jury trial that would almost certainly result in their execution. Darrow thereby engineered a trial before a single judge, Judge Caverly, which began on 21 July 1924.Darrow trounced the prosecution’s assertion that the crime was motivated by money, and shrewdly blocked their attempts to introduce any additional evidence: the defendants had, after all, pleaded guilty.Building the defence case, he made extensive use of the testimony of forensic psychiatrists, known in those days as ‘alienists’, to impress upon the judge the unique psychological natures of each defendant, and how the combination of the popular, dominant Loeb, and the submissive, but brilliant, Leopold, led almost inevitably to the creation of the monster that viewed murder as an academic exercise. Both defendants fascinated the psychiatrists with what they termed their ‘king/slave’ relationship, and Leopold, especially, seemed to enjoy the exploratory sessions, providing a large body of testimony that Darrow used skilfully, playing upon their youth in mitigation of the death penalty. Professional psychiatric opinion determined that Loeb, in all likelihood, was the instigator of both the murder plot and the fatal blow to Bobby Franks.The speeches made by Darrow during the case were considered the finest of his long and distinguished career, and his impassioned defence produced the best result that could be hoped for, given the circumstances: on 24 September 1924 Leopold and Loeb each received a life sentence from Judge Caverly for the murder, rather than the dreaded death penalty, and an additional 99 years each for the kidnapping. The judge further urged that parole should never be granted. Even the parents of Bobby Franks were persuaded from the pursuit of the death penalty, which they had initially advocated in the press.

The Arrest

The ransom note had been drafted in elegant English, using a portable typewriter, indicating a high level of education in its composer. A pair of horn-rimmed spectacles was found near the body in the culvert, which were eventually traced back to Leopold. Police treated Leopold with the deference that might be expected, given the family’s wealth and social prominence, and interviewed him at a local hotel on 29 May, rather than taking him into police custody, where his questioning would certainly be reported in the press. They initially accepted his story, that he had lost the glasses whilst bird watching the week before; he was an unlikely suspect as the motive for the kidnapping was clearly money, and Leopold’s family had no shortage of that.He was asked about his whereabouts on the night of the murder, and claimed that he and Loeb had been out with dates, but could provide no details about the girls. When a search of his room turned up some questionable gay literature, he admitted ownership, but strenuously denied that he and Loeb were intimate. They also confiscated Leopold’s typewriter, which proved not to be a match to the ransom note. A family employee, however, remembered that they had seen Leopold with a portable typewriter, which seemed to have vanished.Leopold did not realise that Loeb was also being interrogated, in another room in the same hotel. Their stories did not agree: Loeb claimed that they had parted company in the early evening. However, during the long interrogation, Leopold managed to get a message to Loeb to square their stories, and police became inclined to believe them, although they continued to dig for further evidence that might incriminate the pair. This came via the Loeb family chauffeur, in an interview on 31 May: he was certain that Loeb’s car had been in the garage the entire evening of the 14 May. Loeb and Leopold’s story had them driving around in it, on the fictitious double date.Faced with this evidence, Loeb broke first, admitting the murder, but claiming that Leopold had been the driving force behind the plan, and that he had struck the fatal blow on Franks. A consensus built up around the idea of the handsome Loeb having been influenced by the less popular, but brilliant, Leopold: the ‘evil genius’. Faced with Loeb’s confession, Leopold also capitulated, but claimed that the murder was Loeb’s idea, and that he had killed Franks.Newspapers were dominated by the confessions, and the wealthy Jewish community of Chicago were aghast. The wider public, goaded by the press with its intimations of perversions amongst the pampered elite, demanded swift retribution. The Loeb family, desperate to spare their son from the gallows whatever the cost, engaged Clarence Darrow, the foremost criminal defence lawyer in the country at the time, to represent the pair at trial. Darrow was publicly passionate about his abhorrence of the death penalty.