May 21, 1924: Leopold and Loeb Murder Bobby Franks



WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


On May 21, 1924, 2 wealthy college students named Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb, who were referred to as Leopold and Loeb, decided to kidnap and murder a 14-year-old kid in attempt to demonstrate their intellectual superiority by committing the "perfect crime".


But, despite believing their superior intellect would help them get away with it, the 2 men were arrested and sentenced to life in prison, plus 99 years. Loeb was murdered in prison in 1936, and Leopold was released on parole in 1958.

ABOUT THE KILLERS (1)


Nathan Leopold was born in 1904 in Chicago, Illinois, into a wealthy German Jewish immigrant family. He was a child prodigy who spoke his first words at 4 months old. He had completed his undergraduate degree with honors at the University of Chicago and planned to go to Harvard Law after a trip to Europe. He was weirdly into birds and had received national recognition as an ornithologist and claimed to speak 5 languages fluently.


Richard Loeb was also born in Chicago to a wealthy family. His father was a lawyer and used to be the Vice President of Sears, Roebuck and Company. He was super smart and skipped a bunch of grades, becoming the University of Michigan's youngest graduate at the age of 17. He was really into history and was doing graduate work on the subject. Though Leopold essentially built his life around his intellect, Loeb wasn't as interested, and preferred to socialize, play sports and read detective novels.


The 2 grew up in the same affluent neighborhood, but only knew each other casually. In the mid 1920s, however, they began spending more time with one another when the were both at the University of Chicago. Leopold was super into Nietzche's concept of "supermen", who's superior intellect allowed them to be above the law. He was convinced that he and Loeb were these transcendent individuals, and thus they were not bound by any rules or laws and not liable for anything they did. He was also kind of obsessed with Loeb.


Because they believed they were above the law, they started stealing and vandalizing. They broke into a fraternity house and stole items and even got into arson. But the media was not picking up on their series of crimes, and they were becoming frustrated. So, they did what any reasonable person would: They planned to execute a murder that would garner public attention and confirm they were "supermen". Great plan.

THE "PERFECT CRIME" (1)


The pair, 19 and 18 years old at the time, spent SEVEN MONTHS planning everything. They planned the abduction, murder, and disposal of the body. They made a ransom demand and a plan for collecting it. They selected and purchased a chisel as the murder weapon. They searched on the grounds of Harvard School for Boys for their perfect victim, ultimately deciding on a well-educated, wealthy 14-year-old named Bobby Franks. He was Loeb's second cousin who lived across the street from him and had come over to play tennis many times before.


With everything planned and all loose ends tied up, they set their plan into motion. They rented a car under a false name on May 21, 1924 and offered the young boy a ride home. Because he was so close, he refused the ride, but Loeb lured him into the car by talking about a new tennis racket he had been using.


Though it is not 100% clear what happened next, the basic premise is that Loeb hit the boy several times in the head and chest with the chisel, dragged him to the backseat, gagged, and eventually, he died. They drove to their predetermined dumping spot. Once nightfall came, they removed and discarded of his clothes and poured hydrochloric acid on his face and genitals to disguise his identity.


Word had already spread that the child was missing by the time they got back from dumping the body 25 miles, and a state, away. Leopold called Franks's mother under a false identity, telling her he had been kidnapped and ransom delivery instructions would follow the call. The pair mailed the note, burned their blood-stained clothes, cleaned the rental car, and played cards for the rest of the night.


The next morning, the intricate ransom drop had been activated, but was abandoned when his body was found. Unfazed, Leopold and Loeb went on with life as usual. During the investigation, Loeb kept his head down and went about his routine, but Leopold tried to insert himself into the investigation, offering theories even telling one detective that if he were going to murder someone, it would be Bobby Franks.


The police got a lucky break: they found a pair of glasses by the victim's body. Though the frames and prescriptions were too common to narrow it down, they were fitted in a way that only 3 customers had purchased. One of those customers was Leopold. He offered that they might have fallen during a bird-watching trip the previous weekend. But their story started to unravel when the typewriter used to type the ransom note was found.


Both men were picked up for questioning on May 29, but they claimed an alibi: On the night of the murder, they had taken Leopold's car to pick up 2 women. But it was exposed as a lie when it was determined that Leopold's car was being repaired that night.

THE CONFESSION, TRIAL, AND DEATHS OF THE KILLERS (1)


Loeb confessed first, but of course, said that Leopold planned everything and that it was he who killed the boy while Loeb just drove. Leopold confessed after, but claimed he was the driver and Loeb the killer. Most of the evidence points to Loeb delivering the fatal blows, but an eyewitness testimony put Leopold in the backseat of the car before the kidnapping, so there is no way to know. They both maintained the other did it the entire time.


They both admitted they were driven by their beliefs that they were superhuman, and wanted to commit the perfect crime. Neither of them claimed that they actually wanted to kill, but just wanted to commit any perfect crime. However, Leopold did admit he had interest in learning what it would feel like to be a murderer, but was disappointed that he felt the same as before.


The trial was "the trial of the century" and a massive media spectacle. Clarence Darrow, one of the most renowned criminal defense attorneys in the U.S., took the case. But he didn't believe a jury would believe they were insane, and thought a not guilty by reason of insanity defense would land them on death row. He advised a guilty plea that would impose a life sentence rather than the death penalty.


The sentencing took 32 days. Over 100 witnesses took the stand to document the sordid details of the crime, while the defense presented witnesses to establish childhood neglect and sexual abuse that lead to the pair's ultimate decision to murder. The defense attorney stated, "Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzche'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". Oh, okay, so all of the other kids who learned about this philosophy also killed a young boy? No? Okay.


Despite an insanely long speech from Darrow, the judge ultimately decided on life sentences with an additional 99 years for each of them.


They were kept apart in prison as much as possible, but managed to maintain a friendship behind bars. Leopold was transferred, ending their friendship for a short period of time, but Loeb was transferred soon after. In their new prison, they expanded the prison school system to include high school and junior college curriculum.


Loeb was killed by a fellow inmate on January 28, 1936 in the shower room. His killer claimed he had been assaulted by Loeb, though he was unharmed while Loeb sustained over 50 slash wounds. Ultimately, it was decided that his killer acted in self defense, though there is a lot of question surrounding that ruling. Leopold does not believe Loeb would have propositioned his killer for sex or assaulted him, and nor did Loeb's confidant and the prison's Catholic chaplain, who believed that Loeb was killed for rejecting his killer's sexual advances.


Leopold continued to work while in prison, but suffered depression after Loeb's death. He was a model prisoner and made many significant contributions to the conditions at the prison, including reorganizing the library, revamping the school system, and working in the prison hospital. He even volunteered to be inoculated with malaria to help with experimental treatments.


He was approached in the 1950s to help with a fictional novel based on the murders, but he refused, wanting to instead publish a non-fiction memoir. The author went ahead without his permission. Meyer Levin published the novel Compulsion about a man who was brilliant, disturbed and obsessed with a childhood friend. Leopold said that the book made him physically ill to read.


Leopold published his own book, Life Plus 99 Years in 1958. The next year, he tried to block to the production of the Compulsion film, but he lost the ruling, as it was tough to say a book damaged your reputation when you are an actual murderer.


After 33 years in prison, Leopold was release don parole in 1958. He tried to set up a foundation to help "emotionally disturbed, retarded or delinquent youths", but it was voided as it violated his parole. He was accepted as a medical technician in Puerto Rico, where he felt accepted and loved. He married a widowed florist. He earned a master's degree from the University of Puerto Rico and taught classes there, ultimately becoming a researcher in their department of health. He worked for an urban renewal and housing agency, did research on leprosy, and was active in the Natural History Society of Puerto Rico, traveling to observe its bird life. He published Checklist of Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in 1963.


Leopold died of a diabetes-related heart attack at the age of 66 on August 29, 1971. It does not appear that he committed any other crimes between his release and death.


This story is super strange because it seems like both of them wanted to commit a crime, but neither of them really wanted to commit a murder. Does it make you a worse person when you really want to kill someone and do, or when you kill someone when you don't even really want to?


Both boys were extremely intelligent, wealthy, and had bright futures ahead of them. And sure, they both believed they were intellectually superior and were probably assholes that nobody could stand being around, but murderers? Most serial killers kill simply because they must. They want to, they like to, and they can't stop. These men planned this murder out as if it were a hit-for-hire. They spent more than half the year making a plan. They weren't addicted to murder. They didn't love it. They didn't need to continue killing after their first one. They just... wanted to try it. And I can't decide if that makes them even worse than someone who kills more for a compulsion.


These 2 men made the conscious decision over the course of 7 months to end a child's life. In the end, it doesn't matter what was going on in their heads or if they are worse or better than a serial killer. They took someone's son, grandson, brother, and friend away because they wanted to, 96 years ago today.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopold_and_Loeb

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