Leopold and Loeb

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Leopold and Loeb

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the sons of two of Chicago's wealthiest and most prominent German Jewish families, precipitated one of the twentieth century's most sensational mass media events when they kidnapped and murdered a fourteen-year-old neighbor boy, Robert Franks, in May of 1924. At first, there was little suspicion that the pair—close friends since childhood—had any involvement in the disappearance of the Franks boy. The nineteen-year-old Leopold, son of a millionaire box manufacturer, was a law student at the University of Chicago and had earned earlier distinction for his path-breaking studies in ornithology. One year younger than Leopold, Loeb, whose father was a respected executive at Sears, Roebuck and Company, was also an accomplished student, having become the youngest person ever to graduate from the University of Michigan at the age of seventeen. On May 31, 1924, however, the pair shocked the nation when they abandoned their alibis, turned against one another, and confessed to the Franks murder. For the next three months, the combination of intense public interest in the case and the willingness of the national media to indulge, even encourage, that interest in an effort to increase circulation figures made Leopold and Loeb not only household names, but also two of the nation's most notorious criminals.

Seldom in the history of American journalism had the nation's press played such an instrumental role in the shaping of a news event as it did the story of Leopold and Loeb. Aside from the day-to-day reporting of developments in the case, journalists uncovered pieces of evidence and tracked down material witnesses to the crime that later proved critical to the prosecution's case. When the families of the two young men hired famed attorney Clarence Darrow and a team of expensive psychiatrists to defend their sons in court, the press encouraged the public to question whether justice could be bought. Finally, as the courtroom drama unfolded, the press covered the proceedings in relentless detail, giving extensive coverage to the testimony of the psychiatrists and Darrow's eloquent summation, in which he questioned the merits of capital punishment and called upon the court to spare the lives of his youthful clients.

The story of Leopold and Loeb earned widespread notoriety not only because of the media's efforts to prioritize it as a news event, but also because the image of the defendants was one onto which Americans could easily project their own fears and anxieties about modern society. During the initial rush to suggest explanations for the pair's actions, the media, in concert with prosecuting attorney Robert Crowe, depicted Leopold and Loeb as wealthy, over-educated, self-confident daredevils whose plot to commit "the perfect crime" represented a serious threat to the legal and moral foundations of society. Citing factors such as the pair's non-Christian upbringing, their growing interest in atheism, and their exposure to the allegedly subversive world of the university as possible causes for their strange behavior, the newspapers explained the killers' motives in a manner that reinforced nativist sentiments and common religious prejudices. Crowe and the media incited additional public outrage by labeling Leopold and Loeb "perverts," a then widely used euphemism that in this instance gave the public reason to fear that the two boys were not just murderers, but also pedophiles, pornographers, and homosexuals. As the courtroom proceedings unfolded, however, defense attorney Darrow and his expert psychiatrists offered a different and potentially far more unsettling theory to explain why Leopold and Loeb had behaved the way they did. Drawing upon theories of psychoanalysis and child development that had yet to become widely accepted, they recast the defendants as ordinary American youths whose immature crime was the product of inattentive parenting and unresolved childhood insecurities. Such was the effectiveness of the defense strategy that many parents, earlier frightened only that their son or daughter might become another Robert Franks, grew increasingly concerned that their child might become the next Leopold or Loeb, even as they persisted in their demands that the pair receive death sentences for their crime. In the end, Judge John R. Caverly, acknowledging the young ages of the defendants, spared their lives and sentenced them instead to life plus ninety-nine years in prison.

The lives of Leopold and Loeb continued to captivate the public's attention and remained an important part of American popular culture throughout the twentieth century. The national media kept close track of the pair's activities in prison, including Loeb's own murder at the hands of another inmate in 1936 and Leopold's efforts to win parole in the mid-1950s. Fictional accounts of the case, such as Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film Rope, also served to sustain the public's curiosity in the pair by explaining their crime in a manner that addressed the needs and concerns of contemporary Americans. The most influential of these fictional accounts was novelist Meyer Levin's Compulsion. Published in 1956 and remade into a Broadway play and then a motion picture in 1959, Levin's novel resonated with readers for its probing examination of the psychological and sexual motives behind Leopold and Loeb's friendship and criminal activities. Director Tom Kalin's 1992 movie, Swoon, similarly recast the story of Leopold and Loeb to suit changing times by examining the pair's likely homosexual bonds.

Late in life Leopold struggled to regain control over his public image. As part of his successful efforts to win parole, he completed his autobiography, Life Plus 99 Years, in 1958. Shortly after his release from prison in 1959, Leopold filed suit against Meyer Levin for misrepresentation and invasion of privacy. The suit was not resolved until 1970, when the Illinois Supreme Court decided that Levin's account of Leopold's life was not misleading and that the latter's status as a public figure denied him the right to privacy. Following parole, Leopold moved to Puerto Rico where he married, conducted research, and died in 1971.

—Scott A. Newman

Further Reading:

Fass, Paula. Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.

——. "Making and Remaking an Event: The Leopold and Loeb Case in American Culture." The Journal of American History. Vol. 80, No. 3, 1993, 919-51.

Higdon, Hal. The Crime of the Century: The Leopold and Loeb Case. New York, Putnam, 1975.

Leopold, Nathan. Life Plus 99 Years. Garden City, Doubleday, 1958.

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