September 10, 2017

Leopold and Loeb sentenced

Disclaimer: the subject of the following post is a heinous crime and includes details and language that some may find disturbing. Not suitable for children.


On the afternoon of May 21, 1924, 14-year-old Bobby Franks disappeared while walking home from school in the affluent south Chicago neighborhood of Kenwood. That evening, his parents, Jacob and Flora Franks,  received a phone call from a man who identified himself as George Johnson. Johnson claimed that the boy had been kidnapped and that demands for his safe return would arrive by mail the following day.

The next day, the promised ransom note was received by the frantic couple. But just that morning, the body of a boy had been discovered at Wolf Lake, a preserve about 40 miles southeast of Chicago, on the Illinois-Indiana state border. The body had been stripped, disfigured with acid, and stuffed into a culvert-- discovered only by chance. Despite the attempt to obliterate the victim's identity with the acid, the body was identified as that of Bobby Franks. Near the body, authorities found a sock that appeared to belong to the victim... and a pair of horn-rimmed reading glasses that didn't.


Bobby Franks

Why would anyone kidnap a child and ask for ransom only to kill their captive before receiving it?

Police immediately focused on people who were known to frequent the Wolf Lake area, especially those who wore glasses. One regular visitor in particular caught their attention: 19-year-old Nathan F. Leopold Jr, a post-graduate law student at the University of Chicago. Leopold came from a wealthy and prominent family, and was something of a prodigy; he spoke 15 languages,  had started college at 15 and graduated at 18, and was said to have had an IQ of over 200. He was also an avid, published ornithologist who taught birding classes and often brought his students out to Wolf Lake. Although the frames and the prescription of the glasses were common, the hinges were not. When opticians in Chicago checked their records, it was found that only three people in the vicinity of the city had purchased eyeglasses with these newly-patented hinges; the first person had been in Europe for weeks, and the second had been wearing her glasses when she opened her door to detectives. The third person was Nathan Leopold.

Leopold, who had first denied that the glasses were his, now admitted that they must be, that he must have dropped them on his visit to Wolf Lake the previous weekend. When asked what he had been doing on the afternoon and evening of the 21st, he replied that he and his friend Richard Loeb had been eating dinner, drinking, and riding around with some women they had picked up in Leopold's car.

The state's attorneys immediately brought in Richard Loeb to be questioned separately. The Loeb family was even wealthier than the Leopolds; Richard's father Albert Loeb was vice-president of Sears Roebuck.

Like Nathan Leopold, Richard Loeb was extremely bright (his IQ was said to be 160), and had finished college just before turning 18. Other than that, the boys were very different, and people who knew them probably puzzled over their close friendship.

The more Leopold and Loeb were questioned, the more convinced the state's attorneys became that the boys were involved in the kidnapping and murder of Bobby Franks. However, they had only circumstantial evidence... until the Leopold family's chauffeur Sven Englund told them that he had been working on young Nathan's car on the afternoon and evening of the crime, and that he therefore couldn't possibly be involved. Englund had no idea that he had just destroyed the boy's alibi and sealed his fate.

Once presented with Englund's statement, Richard Loeb confessed: he and Nathan Leopold had lured Bobby Franks (a neighbor and distant cousin of Loeb's) into a rented Willys-Knight touring car and killed him with several blows to the head from a chisel. Loeb claimed that he was driving the car and that Leopold had struck the blows from the backseat. He also claimed that the idea had been Leopold's.

Nathan Leopold held up better under questioning, and only confessed after the state's attorneys proved that his friend had already done so. He vehemently denied being the actual murderer, however, and claimed that he was driving and that it was Loeb who had struck Bobby Franks.

Immediately the boys' families hired the best attorneys they could: Clarence Darrow and Walter and Benjamin Bacharach. The arraignment was set for June 10, 1924, and the boys -- to the surprise of everyone -- pled guilty to the charges of kidnapping and murder. By doing so, they would avoid a trial by jury and also deprive the State of a second opportunity for a hanging verdict (both murder and kidnapping were capital crimes in Illinois at that time).

Nathan Leopold (left) and Richard Loeb (right) after their confessions


Leopold and Loeb with their legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow (older man in jacket at right). 


For the next three months, it was State's Attorney Robert Crowe and his team versus Clarence Darrow and his defense team, and it was Judge John Caverly who, alone, would decide the fate of the adolescents. The hearing was a media-circus, and the story that emerged was shocking: Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were not just best friends, but also lovers. A letter that authorities had found in Richard Loeb's room, addressed to him from Nathan Leopold, advised being careful in the event that they broke friendship, that "the motif of 'a falling out of a pair of c___suckers is sure to be popular.'"

Richard Loeb, as it turned out, was obsessed with crime, pouring over detective stories and fantasizing about heading up his own criminal syndicate. And brilliant but lonely Nathan Leopold was obsessed with Richard Loeb. The two had been leading a double life for three years, in which Leopold would help Loeb shoplift, steal cars, burglarize, and burn buildings in return for Loeb's sexual compliance. Nathan was also heavily into the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and justified their criminal acts with the belief that he and Richard were "supermen" who were not subject to the morals and laws or ordinary people.

Their escalating crimes finally culminated in kidnapping and murder, which had been planned for months and the main motive of which was not money or blood lust, but simply the excitement of proving they were smart enough to get away with it. The ransom demand had been included to make their great plan more of a challenge, and they killed their victim to avoid being identified to the police. They hadn't even had a specific victim in mind -- their pre-typed ransom note was addressed only to "Dear Sir"; only after the murder was committed was it addressed and mailed. Bobby Franks had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While the State argued that the two young men deserved no more mercy than they had shown to Bobby Franks, Clarence Darrow and the Bacharachs tried something revolutionary: they argued that, while their clients were not insane (otherwise they would have had to have a trial by jury), they had psychological issues that should mitigate their punishment. One could say that the was the first trial in which "affluenza" was used as a defense.

On September 10, 1924, Judge Caverly finally made his ruling: For the crime of murder, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were sentenced to Joliet Penitentiary for the term of their natural lives. He gave them a similar term of 99 years for the kidnapping-- with a strong admonition to never admit the two young killers to parole.

Despite all of the psychological and physical exhibits and testimony presented by the defense, the only reason that Caverly spared Leopold and Loeb the noose was because of their youth; he was simply not comfortable executing minors. Had these two been just a couple of years older, their story might have ended differently.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were kept separated at Joliet as much a possible before a new prison, Stateville, was built in 1925, and then the two were kept at separate facilities altogether. In 1930, Nathan Leopold, at Stateville, finally convinced the warden to allow Richard Loeb to transfer there, and the two were reunited. They were as close as ever, even starting a correspondence school for their fellow prisoners in which Richard taught English and history, and Nathan taught math and foreign languages.

But on the morning of January 28, 1936, Richard Loeb was attacked with a straight razor by a fellow inmate, and died on the operating table a couple of hours later with a distraught Nathan by his side.

Nathan Leopold eventually returned to teaching, and was a model prisoner. He later worked as an x-ray technician, and during World War II, he even headed up an anti-malaria project to help soldiers in the Pacific who were dying of the parasitic infection. He volunteered himself as a guinea pig, deliberately contracting malaria to test experimental drugs. By the early 1950's, the now middle-aged convict began to think he might have a chance for parole. He applied in 1953, and was denied, but after writing an autobiography, Life + 99 Years, Nathan applied again in early 1958. This time the parole board disregarded Judge Caverly's advice and granted the inmate his freedom.

Nathan Leopold immediately moved to Puerto Rico, where he worked at a hospital and eventually married a widowed florist, Trudi Feldman Garcia. There he lived quietly until his death of a diabetes-related heart attack on August 29, 1971 at the age of 66. To the day he died, he kept a framed photo of Richard Loeb displayed in his home, much to the shock of visitors.


Nathan Leopold in 1971, a few months before his death

This strange case still fascinates, and there are several movies based upon it: Rope, Compulsion, Swoon, and Murder By Numbers (Swoon remains the only movie I know of that depicts the actual case).