Richard Leob and Nathan Leopold: A Passionate 1924 Plea for Mercy

Two bright, well-educated young students from up-town Chicago thought they had planned and executed the perfect murder. Leopold and Loeb were young men noted for their sharp minds and their wealth but used their intelligence for the most sinister of purposes.

Leopold and Loeb became fascinated by crime and held a desire to fool the system and commit a crime so clever they could never be caught.  Their plan failed and their trial in 1924 saw them convicted of the murder of 14 year old Bobby Franks. They were saved from death by the most passionate twelve hour plea against capital punishment witnessed in American history, delivered by their defence attorney, Clarence Darrow.

The neighbourhood of Kenwood in Chicago was affluent with some of the city’s top earners enjoying large homes in the district. Both Richard Leob and Nathan Leopold were the privileged sons of two such men.

In 1924 they were 18 and 19 years old. Born into wealth they had attended private schools and showed all the signs of a promising and successful future ahead of them. Both were academically gifted with IQ’s of 210 for Leopold and 160 for Loeb. By all appearances, they had the world at their feet.

While attending the University of Michigan, the boys became firm friends and began to spend all their time together. Their relationship however was not as simple as it appeared and they developed an intense dependency on each other, following a direction no one had predicted.

A period of petty crime followed where arson, vandalism and shoplifting provided a thrill and a secret they could share. Such activities soon failed to bring them attention in the press they were looking for. A spate of crimes in the local area so cleverly masterminded that the perpetrators could not be found. They realised in order to achieve their aim, to achieve a hidden fame and full satisfaction, they would need to up their game.

The Murder of 14 Year Old Bobby Franks

Intelligent young men they set about to plan a more dangerous crime with a much higher thrill. They decided to murder a young boy from the very neighbourhood they lived and had grown up in. They would demand a ransom from the child’s parents after the murder and their crime would be all over the news.

Six months of careful planning and preparations saw them create false identities, open bank accounts, test run hire vehicles and create a list of potential victims. These were two minds working together and feeding off each other. Whether either Leopold or Loeb would have taken such actions alone is questionable. Their relationship and dependence on each other fed their desires and encouraged each other without any sensible thoughts creeping in.

On 21st May 1924 they rented a vehicle as planned and patiently waited outside the Harvard School for Boys for a suitable target.

Little Bobby Franks accepted their offer of a lift home without question, they lived nearby, he had no reason to fear them. Once in the vehicle, this small child was beaten over the head and a rag forced into his mouth to stop him from crying out for help. They drove his body towards Indiana, taking him out of the car and hiding him in a drainage pipe within the wasteland near Wolf Lake.

After this deed was done they left and called Bobby Franks parents. Giving the name George Johnson, they told them the boy was safe and more instructions would follow. Horrified, the parents contacted police.

Leopold and Loeb drove home, cleaned themselves and the car and mailed the ransom note to Bobby’s parents. Their plan was complete and they thought they had got away with it. They believed their careful planning had ensured they would not be caught. They would soon have the gratification that they wished for when the crime broke and the police would have no clues.

Their Plan Unravels

The next morning a mill worker found the young body of Bobby Franks. A huge manhunt was launched and Leopold and Loeb were delighted by the attention their crime had attracted. While Loeb was content to stay under the radar and carry on his business as normal, Leopold was drawn to the investigation and couldn’t help but get involved where he could, discussing the case with anyone who would listen.

A few days later a pair of eyeglasses were found at the crime scene. With distinctive markings it did not take the police long to track down the owner; one Nathan Leopold. He was quickly arrested along with his best friend Richard Loeb. More evidence began to come to light. A typewriter used by Leopold was the same one that typed the ransom note. His driver told police he could not have been out in his car on the day of the murder as he claimed as it was in the garage all day being repaired.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Leob
Nathan Leopold and Richard Leob

Loeb cracked first and on 31st May 1924 he confessed to the murder of Bobby Franks, giving the police full details of the crime. State’s Attorney Robert Crowe turned this information over the Nathan Leopold making him realise Loeb had betrayed him. He too confessed and described their actions on that day.

They turned on each other, each blaming the other for the crime trying to save themselves. They showed no remorse and no emotion at their actions and seemed unaffected that they had brutally taken the life of a young boy.

On that same day, Robert Crowe told reporters the State of Illinois would be seeking the death penalty against both men.

The Loeb family employed the services of the famed Clarence Darrow to provide a defence to their son. He was 67 years old and prominent defence attorney. Darrow saw the opportunity to attack the death penalty, which he was fiercely against, in a landmark case and a trial date was set for 23rd July 1924.

While the State is trying Leopold and Loeb, I will try capital punishment. – Clarence Darrow

The Trial of the Century

Darrow’s approach to the trial and his plea for the lives of these two young men stunned the world. On 21st July 1924 he announced they were changing their plea from not guilty to guilty. A clever move some thought as this removed the jury from the courtroom and meant the decision on their fate would be down to one single judge, John R Caverly. One judge would be easier to convince than twelve jurors, he thought.

Reporters were fascinated by the wealth and privileged background of Leopold and Loeb. Two young men had fallen from wealth into dark crime and had confessed to murder. It was the ‘crime of the century‘ they reported, naming the men as ‘thrill killers‘ out to commit a terrible act to satisfy their own twisted desires.

The public were outraged and they wanted justice. Thousands came to the courtroom to try and watch the proceedings. They wanted to see these two monsters in person and they wanted them hung for their crime.

With two confessions, prosecutor Robert Crowe started the case confident. He put over 100 witnesses on the stand, detailed the crime, the actions of Leopold and Loeb and their confessions to the police. Psychiatrists had said they had no remorse; they knew exactly what they were doing and carried out the murder purposefully and wilfully.

The Defence Speech of Clarence Darrow – A Plea For Mercy

While Crowe’s psychiatrists said Leopold and Loeb were callous and aware, Darrow’s psychiatrists for the defence said they were not normal young men, they had unusual childhoods and had developed strange obsessions. They claimed diminished responsibility and pushed for Sigmund Freud himself to appear before the court to explain their actions, an offer he politely declined on health grounds.

When it came to summing up, Clarence Darrow took centre stage. His speech was described as ‘epic‘ and delivered an attack on capital punishment during twelve hours, over two days. “…their plans were the diseased plans of a diseased mind”.

This terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor… Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’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.

Now, your Honor, I have spoken about the war. I believed in it. I don’t know whether I was crazy or not. Sometimes I think perhaps I was. I approved of it; I joined in the general cry of madness and despair. I urged men to fight. I was safe because I was too old to go. I was like the rest. What did they do? Right or wrong, justifiable or unjustifiable—which I need not discuss today—it changed the world. For four long years the civilized world was engaged in killing men. Christian against Christian, barbarian uniting with Christians to kill Christians; anything to kill. It was taught in every school, aye in the Sunday schools. The little children played at war. The toddling children on the street. Do you suppose this world has ever been the same since? How long, your Honor, will it take for the world to get back the humane emotions that were slowly growing before the war? How long will it take the calloused hearts of men before the scars of hatred and cruelty shall be removed?

We read of killing one hundred thousand men in a day. We read about it and we rejoiced in it—if it was the other fellows who were killed. We were fed on flesh and drank blood. Even down to the prattling babe. I need not tell you how many upright, honorable young boys have come into this court charged with murder, some saved and some sent to their death, boys who fought in this war and learned to place a cheap value on human life. You know it and I know it. These boys were brought up in it. The tales of death were in their homes, their playgrounds, their schools; they were in the newspapers that they read; it was a part of the common frenzy—what was a life? It was nothing. It was the least sacred thing in existence and these boys were trained to this cruelty.

It will take fifty years to wipe it out of the human heart, if ever. I know this, that after the Civil War in 1865, crimes of this sort increased, marvelously. No one needs to tell me that crime has no cause. It has as definite a cause as any other disease, and I know that out of the hatred and bitterness of the Civil War crime increased as America had never seen before. I know that Europe is going through the same experience today; I know it has followed every war; and I know it has influenced these boys so that life was not the same to them as it would have been if the world had not made red with blood. I protest against the crimes and mistakes of society being visited upon them. All of us have a share in it. I have mine. I cannot tell and I shall never know how many words of mine might have given birth to cruelty in place of love and kindness and charity.

Your Honor knows that in this very court crimes of violence have increased growing out of the war. Not necessarily by those who fought but by those that learned that blood was cheap, and human life was cheap, and if the State could take it lightly why not the boy? There are causes for this terrible crime. There are causes as I have said for everything that happens in the world. War is a part of it; education is a part of it; birth is a part of it; money is a part of it—all these conspired to compass the destruction of these two poor boys.

Has the court any right to consider anything but these two boys? The State says that your Honor has a right to consider the welfare of the community, as you have. If the welfare of the community would be benefited by taking these lives, well and good. I think it would work evil that no one could measure. Has your Honor a right to consider the families of these defendants? I have been sorry, and I am sorry for the bereavement of Mr. and Mrs. Franks, for those broken ties that cannot be healed. All I can hope and wish is that some good may come from it all. But as compared with the families of Leopold and Loeb, the Franks are to be envied—and everyone knows it.

I do not know how much salvage there is in these two boys. I hate to say it in their presence, but what is there to look forward to? I do not know but what your Honor would be merciful to them, but not merciful to civilization, and not merciful if you tied a rope around their necks and let them die; merciful to them, but not merciful to civilization, and not merciful to those who would be left behind. To spend the balance of their days in prison is mighty little to look forward to, if anything. Is it anything? They may have the hope that as the years roll around they might be released. I do not know. I do not know. I will be honest with this court as I have tried to be from the beginning. I know that these boys are not fit to be at large. I believe they will not be until they pass through the next stage of life, at forty-five or fifty. Whether they will then, I cannot tell. I am sure of this; that I will not be here to help them. So far as I am concerned, it is over.

I would not tell this court that I do not hope that some time, when life and age have changed their bodies, as they do, and have changed their emotions, as they do—that they may once more return to life. I would be the last person on earth to close the door of hope to any human being that lives, and least of all to my clients. But what have they to look forward to? Nothing. And I think here of the stanza of Housman:

Now hollow fires burn out to black,
And lights are fluttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack
And leave your friends and go.
O never fear, lads, naught’s to dread,
Look not left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread
There’s nothing but the night.

I care not, your Honor, whether the march begins at the gallows or when the gates of Joliet close upon them, there is nothing but the night, and that is little for any human being to expect.

But there are others to consider. Here are these two families, who have led honest lives, who will bear the name that they bear, and future generations must carry it on.

Here is Leopold’s father—and this boy was the pride of his life. He watched him, he cared for him, he worked for him; the boy was brilliant and accomplished, he educated him, and he thought that fame and position awaited him, as it should have awaited. It is a hard thing for a father to see his life’s hopes crumble into dust.

Should he be considered? Should his brothers be considered? Will it do society any good or make your life safer, or any human being’s life safer, if it should be handled down from generation to generation, that this boy, their kin, died upon the scaffold?

And Loeb’s the same. Here are the faithful uncle and brother, who have watched here day by day, while Dickie’s father and his mother are too ill to stand this terrific strain, and shall be waiting for a message which means more to them than it can mean to you or me. Shall these be taken into account in this general bereavement?

Have they any rights? Is there any reason, your Honor, why their proud names and all the future generations that bear them shall have this bar sinister written across them? How many boys and girls, how many unborn children will feel it? It is bad enough as it is, God knows. It is bad enough, however it is. But it’s not yet death on the scaffold. It’s not that. And I ask your Honor, in addition to all that I have said to save two honorable families from a disgrace that never ends, and which could be of no avail to help any human being that lives.

Now, I must say a word more and then I will leave this with you where I should have left it long ago. None of us are unmindful of the public; courts are not, and juries are not. We placed our fate in the hands of a trained court, thinking that he would be more mindful and considerate than a jury. I cannot say how people feel. I have stood here for three months as one might stand at the ocean trying to sweep back the tide. I hope the seas are subsiding and the wind is falling, and I believe they are, but I wish to make no false pretense to this court. The easy thing and the popular thing to do is to hang my clients. I know it. Men and women who do not think will applaud. The cruel and thoughtless will approve. It will be easy today; but in Chicago, and reaching out over the length and breadth of the land, more and more fathers and mothers, the humane, the kind and the hopeful, who are gaining an understanding and asking questions not only about these poor boys, but about their own—these will join in no acclaim at the death of my clients.

These would ask that the shedding of blood be stopped, and that the normal feelings of man resume their sway. And as the days and the months and the years go on, they will ask it more and more. But, your Honor, what they shall ask may not count. I know the easy way. I know the future is with me, and what I stand for here; not merely for the lives of these two unfortunate lads, but for all boys and all girls; for all of the young, and as far as possible, for all of the old. I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all. I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it you are making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness must grope his way through the mazes which only childhood knows. In doing it you will make it harder for unborn children. You may save them and make it easier for every child that sometime may stand where these boys stand. You will make it easier for every human being with an aspiration and a vision and a hope and a fate. I am pleading for the future; I am pleading 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.

I feel that I should apologize for the length of time I have taken. This case may not be as important as I think it is, and I am sure I do not need to tell this court, or to tell my friends that I would fight just as hard for the poor as for the rich. If I should succeed, my greatest reward and my greatest hope will be that for the countless unfortunates who must tread the same road in blind childhood that these poor boys have trod—that I have done something to help human understanding, to temper justice with mercy, to overcome hate with love.

I was reading last night of the aspiration of the old Persian poet, Omar Khayyam. It appealed to me as the highest that I can vision. I wish it was in my heart, and I wish it was in the hearts of all:

So I be written in the Book of Love,
I do not care about that Book above.
Erase my name or write it as you will,
So I be written in the Book of Love.

He spoke of the war, how the actions of men have changed the world and how killing was taught, hatred and cruelty ingrained in children in preparation for the fight.

He spoke of this environment, this society in which these two young men had grown up in where life meant nothing and the years it will take to rid society of this impassive attitude towards others.

Our Honor knows that in this very court crimes of violence have increased growing out of the war. Not necessarily by those who fought but by those that learned that blood was cheap, and human life was cheap and if the State could take it lightly why not the boy? – Clarence Darrow

He spoke of those who do not think deeply being happy and satisfied at the hanging of these two boys, but those who do think and those who question will continue to do so and they will not be comforted at the taking of their lives.

They, he claimed, believe lives are worth saving and mercy is required. “I am pleading for the future, I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men….”

Clarence Darrow Speech
Clarence Darrow Speech

It was a heartfelt delivery of hope, of peace and of mercy. Clarence Darrow was pleading for the future and asking for a step out of the past and away from the cruelty of man against other men. His passionate plea worked. Three weeks later, Judge Caverly delivered his verdict. He stated he was unimpressed by the defence psychiatric reports however, it was the young age of the defendants at 18 and 19 years old which concerned him and death by hanging, he said, was not an appropriate punishment in this case.

He imprisoned both men for life for the murder of 14 year old Bobby Franks with an extra 99 years added for his kidnapping.

What Became of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb?

Leopold and Loeb were sent to the Illinois State Penitentiary and on 11th September 1924 they joined Joliet Prison as celebrities. They initially caused themselves more trouble by speaking to reporters and being derogatory towards fellow inmates suggesting they were better than others.

In 1985 Leopold was transferred to a different prison were he transformed, becoming a model prisoner and taught classed and tried to integrate with other prisoners. In 1931 they were reunited and together they established a school for other inmates, seemingly realising that playing by the rules would be an easier option. In 1936, Richard Loeb was murdered by another prisoner.

Leopold was taken to his bedside and was present when he died. Thereafter, Leopold became involved in a malaria project during WWII and became a guinea pig for testing along with other inmates. Reports suggest he wanted to show he was reformed and rehabilitated through his work and good deeds. Eventually in 1958, at 53 years old, Nathan Leopold was released after 33 years in prison. Once free he tried to live a quiet life, away from the press and away from his past. He died in August 1971 from a heart attack.

The murder of Bobby Franks, the two perpetrators and their subsequent trial sent shock-waves through America in 1924. Two young men from comfortable backgrounds who were intelligent and capable decided between them to commit the most terrible of crimes for their own satisfaction. It was a thrill killing that no one understood. The crime became the basis of numerous books, documentaries and films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.

Image Credits: Bobby Franks and Police Mugshots, Bundesarchiv, Bild, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons, Ransom Note, Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr. and Richard A. Loeb, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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