Casefiles

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.

Related: The 1946 ‘Lipstick Killer’ William Heirens: Was He Innocent?

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.

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.

Related: Addictive Thinking and Crime – Addicted To Murder?

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”. 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

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.

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