Nathan Leopold (far left) and Richard Loeb (far right) with
Clarence Darrow (center) in court.
THE JEWISH HISTORY SERIES - Lesson #1
The Crime of the Century (1924)
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.
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
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 passion.
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 exercise.
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
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 to whom.
After the murder Leopold and Loeb drove their rented car to a marshland near
line, where they poured hydrochloric acid over Franks's 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 fire.
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.
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 the shrubbery covering the open culvert
where the body had been placed.
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
optometrist, who had written only three such prescriptions, including the one
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 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
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
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 of the two killers's 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.
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
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 pay."
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
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 Greenlease 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.