People v Leopold & Loeb

Julian Burnside

In 1924, the depravities of the 20th century had not yet desensitized the world to random killings. Even a tough city like Chicago was horrified at the crime committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

“Babe” Leopold was the son of a rich Chicago family. His father was vice-president of Sears Roebuck. He was the youngest ever honours student at the University of Chicago. Aged 19, he was a gifted linguist and a noted ornithologist.

Dickie Loeb was 18. He had graduated from the University of Michigan at 17: the youngest graduate of that university. His family was among the richest in Chicago. He and Babe Leopold had been friends for years, as had their families.

Both were convinced of their own intellectual superiority; both considered themselves set apart by their gifts. They both believed that they were Nietzsche’s Supermen, unrestrained by the moral strictures which bound ordinary mortals. They had engaged in all manner of petty criminal activity, but they wanted to commit the perfect crime. They were lovers, with a relationship in which Babe Leopold adopted the role of Loeb’s slave.

The crime they fastened on was a kidnapping murder. They planned every detail meticulously. Each owned his own car, but for obvious reasons they decided to hire a car. In order to be able to hire a car, they opened a bank account in the name of “Morton B Ballard”, and hired a hotel room in that name. They used the bank-book and hotel receipt as proof of identity at the car-hire firm. They bought for cash all the equipment they thought might be needed. They devised an ingenious method of collecting the ransom, which was virtually foolproof.

On 21 May 1924, they collected the rented Willys-Knight motor car, and drove to Harvard Preparatory school, which both had attended as children. They spoke to Bobbie Franks, who was Dickie Loeb’s young cousin. They told him they wanted his advice about choosing a tennis racquet, so he got in the car with them.

Whilst Babe Leopold drove the car along a suburban street, Dickie Loeb beat Bobbie Franks to death with a chisel. They drove around until dusk, then took the body to some vacant swampy land south of Chicago. They stopped on the way to get some sandwiches.

When they got to the swamp, they stripped the body, and poured acid on it to make identification harder. They put the body in a culvert and drove home for dinner with their families.

Babe Leopold rang Bobbie Franks’ father and announced himself as George Johnson. He said Bobbie Franks had been kidnapped, but would be returned unharmed if the ransom was paid. A ransom demand had been posted, which gave the first of a sequence of instructions.

Next morning, Jacob Franks was waiting beside the phone, as instructed. The phone rang: it was “George Johnson” with instructions to get in a cab which had been called. Jacob Franks was about to leve when the police rang: Bobbie Franks’ body had been discovered by a group of railway workmen who used the swamp as a shortcut to the nearby railway yards.

Leopold and Loeb discovered the same fact soon after: newspaper placards said “Unidentified Boy Found in Swamp”. They returned the rented car, and disposed of the chisel and the typewriter which they had used to type the ransom note. They were quite relaxed, because there was no reason to think anyone would connect them with the crime.

They did not learn for another few days that police had found a vital clue beside the culvert: a pair of glasses made to an unusual prescription. Nine days later, enquiries showed that only 3 pairs of glasses had been made in Chicago to that prescription. One for a man who was in Europe at the time; one for an elderly lady, and one for Babe Leopold.

Leopold and Loeb were questionned. Initial denials turned into mutual accusations and ultimately confessions. Both were charged with kidnapping and murder.

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Although the Scopes “Monkey” trial was not to take place until the following year, Clarence Darrow was already America’s best known advocate. He was the great defender of the underdog, the champion of great causes. The boys’ families begged Darrow to take the defence. He demurred: they had confessed their crime, they were sane in the eyes of the law; what could he do? The families asked him to do one thing only: save them from the gallows. For an agreed fee of $100,000 Darrow agreed to take the case.

Across America and around the world, the public and the press were in uproar at the thought of two young, intelligent and privileged boys committing such an appalling crime. The overwhelming call was to see the boys hanged.

Darrow delicately started a rumour that he was going to plead the 2 not guilty by reason of insanity. The trial, before Judge Robert Caverly, began on 21 July (just 8 weeks after the murder). 3000 spectators jostled for one of the 300 seats in the courtroom. Leopold and Loeb entered the court, looking composed and relaxed. They seemed pleased to be the centre of attention.

Darrow announced that he was changing the plea to Guilty, and said he wished to call psychiatric evidence to show diminished responsibility. This meant that the sentence would be decided by the judge: under the criminal procedure in Illinois at the time, where a jury found a defendant guilty of murder, the jury would fix the sentence. Psychiatric evidence was called by Darrow and by the State. The District Attorney accused Darrow of defending the boys only for money, and insisted that a death sentence was the only appropriate result.

Finally Darrow rose to make his plea. He spoke, without a note, for 3 days. Every word of his plea was reprinted in the press. He used the case to develop the arguments against capital punishment generally. It is a justly famous speech, which has been republished several times. When he sat down, the court was completely silent for several minutes. The judge was openly weeping.

Judge Caverly adjourned until 10 September, when Leopold and Loeb were each sentenced to life in prison for murder, and 99 years for kidnapping.

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After 12 years in prison, Dickie Loeb was stabbed to death by another prisoner, James Day. Day was charged with murder. His defence was that Loeb had made a homosexual advance, and that he was defending himself. With more wit than taste, a journalist wrote:”Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition.”

Whilst in prison, Babe Leopold reformed the education system in the prison; he studied radiology and psychiatry, and he published a book Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years.

In 1958, Babe Leopold was released on probation. He spent the rest of his life in Puerto Rico, where he lectured in mathematics at the university, worked as an x-ray technician and continued his study of ornithology. He died in 1971.

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The families of Leopold and Loeb reneged on their fee agreement with Clarence Darrow. He finally received less than half the agreed amount, shortly before he died.

Julian Burnside

[Note: There is a very good collection of materials concerning the Leopold-Loeb trial at the Leopold-Loeb trial site]