Leopold and Loeb Trial: 1924

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Leopold and Loeb Trial: 1924

Defendants: Nathan F. Leopold, Jr., and Richard Loeb
Crimes Charged: Murder and kidnapping
Chief Defense Lawyers: Clarence Darrow, Benjamin Bachrach, and Walter Bachrach
Chief Prosecutors: Robert E. Crowe, Thomas Marshall, Joseph P. Savage, John Sbarbaro, and Milton Smith
Judge: John R. Caverly
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Dates of Trial: July 23-September 10, 1924
Verdict: Guilty
Sentences: Life imprisonment for murder; 99 years for kidnapping

SIGNIFICANCE: Clarence Darrow, America's foremost criminal lawyer at the time, saved the defendants from execution for their "thrill murders" by changing their pleas from not guilty to guilty. The change took the case away from a jury so it was heard only by the judge, giving Darrow the opportunity to plead successfully for mitigation of punishmentlife imprisonment rather than execution. The bizarre nature of the crime and the wealth of the victim and the defendants focused the nation's attention on the courtroom for nearly two months.

In May 1924, 18-year-old "Dickie" Loeb was the youngest graduate of the University of Michigan and already a postgraduate student at the University of Chicago. "Babe" Leopold, at 19 a law student at Chicago, had earned his Phi Beta Kappa key with his Bachelor of Philosophy degree. Each came from a wealthy and well-known Chicago family. Each believed his mental abilities set him apart as a genius superior to other people. Each dwelt in a fantasy world.

The Perfect Murder for its Thrill

Over several years, Leopold and Loeb had developed a homosexual relationship. In the fall of 1923, they devised a plan for the perfect murder, to be committed for the sake of its thrill. The more they detailed their plan, the stronger their compulsion to carry it out became. In March 1924, according to a report later prepared by leading psychiatrists for their defense, "they decided to get any young boy whom they knew to be of a wealthy family, knock him unconscious, take him to a certain culvert, strangle him, dispose of all his clothes, and push the body deep into this funnel-shaped culvert, through which the water flowed, expecting the body to entirely decompose and never be found."

On May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb rented a car. With Loeb in the back seat, Leopold drove slowly past the exclusive Harvard Preparatory School. They saw 14-year-old Bobby Franks, like them a son of a millionaire and also a cousin of Loeb, and offered him a ride. Within minutes, Loeb grabbed Franks and bashed his skull four times with a heavy chisel.

After wrapping the boy's body in Leopold's lap robe, the two drove around Chicago until dark. Then they went to the culvert, near the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks and carried out their plan. Next they buried Franks' shoes, belt buckle, jewelry, and the bloodstained lap robe, stopped off for dinner, and burned the lad's clothes in the furnace at Loeb's house. Later, they mailed a special-delivery ransom note to Franks' father and, at Leopold's house, washed the bloodstains from the car and phoned the Franks' home to say that Bobby Franks was safe, and instructions were on the way.

Unable to reach Bobby's father the next morning, they quickly learned why: Newsboys were hawking extras announcing discovery of the boy's body. A railroad workman had noticed a human foot protruding from the culvert. Another worker had found a pair of eyeglasses.

The police soon traced the glasses to Leopold. He admitted recent birdwatching near the culvert. His alibi for his whereabouts on May 21? Birdwatching with Richard Loeb, then a ride around Lincoln Park in his car with Loeb and a couple of girls. But the Leopold chauffeur said he had been repairing Leopold's car all day, and in the evening he had seen the boys washing the floor of a strange car.

Next the police pulled a beat-up Underwood typewriter from Jackson Park Harbor and proved that the ransom note had been written on it. Leopold said he owned a Hammond typewriter, but Chicago Daily News reporters checked with his college classmates and learned that when they borrowed "Babe's" typewriter to type their papers, it was an Underwood.

Now came the grilling. Through a day of intensive questioning, both Leopold and Loeb stuck to their story. But the next day, thinking that Leopold had betrayed him, Loeb angrily confessed.

"I Have a Hanging Case"

Now State's Attorney Robert E. Crowe tackled Leopold, surprising him with facts that could have come only from Loeb. Nathan Leopold confessed. Before noon, the confessions of each were read to them, admitting they had killed Bobby Franks for the thrill of it. Said Crowe, "I have a hanging case. The state is ready to go to trial immediately."

Clarence Darrow was already the nation's foremost criminal lawyer. (Tennessee's famous Monkey Trial, which would bring him worldwide fame, was still a year away.) He had saved some 50 accused murderers, many of whom were guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt, from execution. He told the Leopold and Loeb families he would take the case for a $100,000 fee.

Darrow threw his energy, and that of a battery of assistants, into researching the minds of his clients. Since State's Attorney Crowe had already lined up Chicago's best-known psychiatrists to examine the accused, Darrow turned to such national figures as the president of the American Psychiatric Association and the supervisor of the psychiatric clinic at Sing Sing Prison. Prominent psychiatrists Karl Bowman and Harold S. Hulbert developed profiles that revealed the defendants' mental instability and confused personalities. The doctors' extensive report came to several thousand pages and was supplemented by thousands more from the other psychiatrists.

"They Should Be Permanently Isolated from Society"

By July 23, when the trial opened, all America except Clarence Darrow and his team expected Leopold and Loeb to hang. Shocked by the idea that the sons of the rich had nothing better to do than kill younger rich kids for the thrill of it, the country wanted an eye for an eye. Darrow knew that no jury would settle for less. Standing before Chief Justice John R. Caverly, he went right to the point: "We want to state frankly here that no one believes these defendants should be released. We believe they should be permanently isolated from society. After long reflection, we have determined to make a motion for each to withdraw our plea of not guilty and enter pleas of guilty to both indictments."

Flabbergasted, the prosecution realized that Darrow had instantly wiped out the chance of a jury conviction. Now the judge alone would consider the case. Darrow went on. "We ask that the court permit us to offer evidence as to the mental condition of these young men. We wish to offer this evidence in mitigation of punishment."

The prosecution objected violently, but Judge Caverly said he would hear evidence of mitigation. "I want to give you all the leeway I can," he said. "I want to get all the doctors' testimony. There is no jury here, and I'd like to be advised as fully as possible."

"Total Lack of Appropriate Emotional Response"

At that point, Darrow had earned his fee. His job now was to convince the judge that Leopold and Loeb not only did not deserve to be executed but that justice and humanity would be served by reaching a thorough understanding of their peculiar mental states. He introduced psychiatrist witnesses who had found that Richard Loeb was a habitual liar. Since the age of 10, he had fantasized about crimes and imagined himself the "Master Mind" directing others, always outsmarting the world's best detectives; he had cheated at cards, shoplifted, stolen automobiles and liquor, thrown bricks through store windows, and only last Novemberwith Leopold, each carrying loaded revolvershad burglarized his own fraternity house. "The total lack of appropriate emotional response is one of the most striking features of his present condition," said the Bowman-Hulbert report, noting that Loeb felt no remorse for his actions. "He has gradually projected a world of fantasy over into the world of reality, and at times even confused the two."

Reviewing the reports on Leopold, Darrow noted that the young man had been strongly influenced by a governess who encouraged him to steal, so that she could blackmail him, and who "gave him the wrong conception about sex, about theft, about right or wrong, about selfishness, and about secrecy." To Leopold, said Darrow, "selfishness was the ideal life. Each man was a law unto himself."

Nathan Leopold's main fantasy was a king-and-slave relationship. He preferred to be the slave who could save the life of the king, then refuse the reward of freedom. Richard Loeb was his king. He had been in love with Loeb since they were 15 and 14 years old. "I felt myself less than the dust beneath his feet," Leopold had told the psychiatrists. "I'm jealous of the food and drink he takes because I cannot come as close to him as does his food and drink."

As to the kidnapping and murder, said the report, Leopold "got no pleasure from the crime. With him it was an intellectual affair devoid of any emotion. He had no feeling of guilt or remorse."

For a month, as State's Attorney Crowe's psychiatrists insisted that Leopold and Loeb were entirely sane and normal, Darrow pressed his psychiatrist witnesses to testify that the legal sanity of the defendants was undisputed, but that mental instability was not insanity and was not normal.

Finally, for 12 hours Clarence Darrow pleaded for mitigation of punishment. He noted that, while the prosecution charged the murderers with kidnapping Bobby Franks to get money to pay off gambling debts, testimony had proved that both boys had ample money and could get more from their extremely wealthy parents at any time.

"They Killed him Because They Were Made that Way"

"Why did they kill little Bobby Franks?" asked Darrow. "They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly, for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up of the boy or the man, something slipped. That happened, and it calls not for hate but for kindness, for charity, for consideration."

Darrow said he was astonished that the prosecution asked the judge for the death sentence. "Your Honor, if a boy of 18 and a boy of 19 should be hanged in violation of the law that places boys in reformatories instead of prisonsthen we are turning our faces backward toward the barbarism which once possessed the world. Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys by the neck until they are dead. But you will turn your face toward the past. I am pleading for the future, for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men, when we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man."

As Darrow ended his summation, no sound was heard in the courtroom. Tears were streaming down the face of Judge Caverly.

His verdict, two days later, sentenced Leopold and Loeb each to life imprisonment for murder, plus 99 years for kidnapping. "In choosing imprisonment," he said, "the court is moved chiefly by the age of the defendants."

The prisoners were taken to the Illinois State Prison at Joliet. In 1936, Richard Loeb was slashed to death by a fellow prisoner during an argument. After World War II, Governor Adlai Stevenson reduced Nathan Leopold's original sentence, thus making him eligible for parole, in gratitude for his contribution to testing for malaria during the war. Freed in 1958, Leopold was permitted to serve out his parole in Puerto Rico in order to avoid media attention. There he worked in hospitals and church missions, married, earned a master's degree, and taught mathematics. He died in 1971.

Clarence Darrow was forced to dun the Leopold and Loeb families repeatedly. Of the $100,000 fee agreed to, he collected $40,000 before he died in 1938.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Aymar, Brandt, and Edward Sagarin. A Pictorial Histoty of the WVorlds Great Trials. New York: Bonanza Books, 1985.

Leopold, Nathan F., Jr. Life Plus 99 Years. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1958.

Sifakis, Carl. The Encyclopedia of American Crime. New York: Facts On File, 1982.

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