Richard Loeb born 11 June 1905 (d. 1936)
Richard A. Loeb [pictured left] and Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr., more commonly known as Leopold and Loeb, were two wealthy University of Chicago students who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924, and received sentences of life in prison.
Their crime was notable in being largely motivated by an apparent need to prove the duo's belief that their high intellects made them capable of committing a perfect crime, and also for its role in the history of American thought on capital punishment.
Leopold, who was 19 at the time of the murder, and Loeb, 18, believed themselves to be Nietzschean supermen who could commit a 'perfect crime' (in this case a kidnapping and murder) without fear of being apprehended.
The friends were exceptionally intelligent: Leopold had already completed college and was attending law school at the University of Chicago. He spoke five languages and was an expert ornithologist, while Loeb was the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan. Leopold planned to transfer to Harvard Law School in September, after taking a trip to Europe. Loeb planned to enter the University of Chicago Law School after taking some post graduate courses.
Both Leopold and Loeb lived in the wealthy Jewish neighborhood of Kenwood, Chicago. Loeb's father, Albert, began his career as a lawyer and became the Vice President of Sears and Roebuck. Besides owning an impressive mansion in Kenwood, two blocks away from the Leopold home, the Loeb family also had a summer estate in Charlevoix, Michigan.
The pair had worked themselves up to committing the crime for months, starting out with petty theft.
On Wednesday, May 21, 1924, they put their plot in motion. The pair lured Franks, a neighbour and distant relative of Loeb's, into a rented car. Loeb first struck Franks with a chisel. Leopold and Loeb then suffocated Franks. After concealing the body in a culvert under a railroad track outside of Chicago - the body was burned with acid to make identification more difficult — they did their best to make it seem that a kidnapping for ransom had taken place; the Franks family had enough money that a request for $10,000 in ransom was plausible.
Before the family could pay the ransom, though, the body was found. Investigators saw at once that this could not be a mere kidnapping, since there would have been no reason for a kidnapper to kill Franks.
A pair of eyeglasses found with the body was eventually traced back to Nathan Leopold. The ransom note had been typed on a typewriter that Leopold had used with his law school study group. During police questioning, Leopold's and Loeb's alibis 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 killing.
They had spent months planning the crime, working out a way to get the ransom money without risking being caught. They had thought that the body would not be discovered until long after the ransom delivery. Regardless, the ransom was not their primary motive. In fact, they admitted that they were driven by the thrill. For that matter, they basked in the public attention they received while in jail; they regaled newspaper reporters with the crime's lurid details again and again.
The murder and subsequent trial received worldwide publicity, and part of the fascination was based on public perception of the crime as a 'Jewish' crime. In 1924, Chicago was consummately an ethnic city, where the majority of residents were immigrants or the children of immigrants, and in which politics, neighbourhoods, and institutions often carried ethnic labels. Neither defendant was a practising Jew. Loeb's mother was Catholic and his father was Jewish. Bobby Franks' parents, while ethnically Jewish, were converts to Christian Science.
Leopold and Loeb both admitted to the press that they had a sexual relationship, and this increased the lurid (for that time) aspects of the crime considerably.
The trial [Loeb pictured left] proved to be a media spectacle; it was one of the first cases in the USA to be dubbed the 'Trial of the Century'. Loeb's family hired 67-year-old Clarence Darrow — who had fought against capital punishment for years — to defend the boys against the capital charges of murder and kidnapping. While the media expected them to plead not guilty (by reason of insanity), Darrow surprised everyone by having them both plead guilty. In this way, Darrow avoided a jury trial which, due to the strong public sentiment against his clients, would most certainly have resulted in a conviction and perhaps even the death penalty. Instead, he was able to make his case for his clients' lives before a single person, Cook County Circuit Court Judge John R. Caverly.
Darrow gave a twelve-hour speech, which has been called the finest of his career. The speech included: "this terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor … Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? … it is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university."
It may be, in fact, that Darrow accepted the case because it offered a huge public platform for such a speech; he knew that his strong argument against capital punishment would be reprinted in newspapers around the world. And if he could successfully reason that such heinous murderers should not be executed, perhaps he would make other capital punishment cases more difficult to prosecute. In the end, Darrow succeeded; the judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb each to life in prison (for the murder), plus 99 years each (for the kidnapping).
In prison (the Illinois State Penitentiary), Leopold and Loeb used their educations to good purpose, teaching classes in the prison school. In January of 1936, at age 30, Loeb was attacked by fellow prisoner James Day with a straight razor in the prison's shower room, and died from his wounds. Day claimed afterwards that Loeb had attempted to sexually assault him; an inquiry accepted Day's testimony, and the prison authorities ruled that Day's attack on Loeb was self-defence.
The story of the Leopold and Loeb case has become ingrained in popular culture and is often used or referred to in film and television. The crime was also inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope , and Tom Kalin's more openly gay-themed Swoon (1992) as well as Murder by Numbers (2002), the 1985 play Never The Sinner by John Logan, and the off-Broadway musical Thrill Me by Stephen Dolginoff.
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