February 29, 2004
Richard Loeb with his arm around Nathan Leopold.
Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were as unlikely a pair of cold-blooded murderers as ever appeared in U.S. history. Privileged, brilliant, and coddled, they conjured up the perfect crime – just for the hell of it – and then executed it quite imperfectly. Only Clarence Darrow's virtuoso courtroom performance saved these remorseless, self-styled "supermen" from being hanged.
by Denise Noe
In 1924, 18-year-old Richard "Dickie" Loeb and 19-year-old Nathan "Babe" Leopold of Chicago had reason to think of themselves as "superior" people who could easily outwit the ordinary folk who enforced the law. Both were exceptionally intelligent and had academic careers in which they skipped several grades. Loeb, with an I.Q. estimated at 160, had already graduated from the University of Michigan, to which he had transferred after a year at the University of Chicago, completing his B.A. degree in two and a half years. Likewise, Leopold was a child prodigy, entering the University of Chicago at age 14. When he graduated four years later, earning Phi Beta Kappa status, he was among the youngest graduates in the elite university's history. Leopold's I.Q. was estimated to be stratospheric: over 200. There was much else remarkable about Leopold. He had already studied 15 languages and spoke at least five fluently. He had also developed a strong interest in ornithology and had collected nearly 3,000 bird specimens. According to the website, "Nathan Leopold and Ornithology," the teenage Leopold "kept about 3,000 bird specimens in the third-floor study of his home . . . lectured on the subject at the nearby Harvard [Preparatory] School and taught, as an unpaid volunteer, a 'bird class' to girls from the University Elementary School." In October, 1923, Leopold delivered a paper on a rare songbird called the Kirtland's Warbler to the annual meeting of the American Ornithological Union."
Their family backgrounds as well as their academic careers were unusual and, perhaps even more than their school achievements, laid the groundwork for their pronounced senses of superiority. Richard Loeb's father, Albert Loeb, was a top Chicago corporate attorney who had worked in that capacity for Sears, Roebuck & Co. before being made the retailer's vice-president. He was a multimillionaire who, as Robert Grant and Joseph Katz wrote in The Great Trials of the Twenties, "…indulged his son's every whim. 'Dickie' Loeb received an allowance of $250 per month, and there was a standing order from Albert Loeb to the family secretary that 'Dickie' was to have any sum at any time without question." Leopold's family was similarly wealthy and had the same pattern of indulging his desires. His father was a retired box manufacturer. According to Katz and Grant, Leopold "received a monthly allowance of $125 and whatever other sums he asked for. Nathan paid for nothing himself, his father taking care of tuition, room and board, books and clothing, personal expenses, and all the costs of maintaining his son's automobile. When Nathan contemplated a vacation in Europe, his father set aside $3,000 for that purpose – this at a time when the average annual income of employed wage earners was $1,228." His father seemed to suggest to young Leopold that the rules for ordinary people did not apply to him. If the boy wished to kill birds in the park or fish out of season, his father got a special permit for him or just paid his fines without complaint.
In other respects, Loeb and Leopold diverged sharply. Loeb was handsome, athletic and popular. In Leopold's autobiography, Life Plus 99 Years, he wrote that Loeb possessed "the social graces to the nth degree." Leopold himself possessed few social graces. He was short and awkward. Katz and Grant wrote that "classmates made fun of his size and teased him about his precocity, or ridiculed his interest in birds. They called him 'the flea' or 'Crazy Nathan.'" The yearbook at a school he attended had him saying, "Of course, I am the great Nathan. When I open my lips, let no dogs bark."
Leopold thought he had little need of other people, whom he defensively regarded as his inferiors, save for one other person: Richard Loeb. The two became fast friends when they were 14 and 13 respectively and attending the University of Chicago. Perhaps they were initially drawn to each other because they had both skipped grades and, thus, were so much younger than their classmates. But whatever the attraction, their relationship was intense. At a time when homosexuality was a social and legal no-no, something that could not even be mentioned in polite company, the pair was soon lovers although both continued to date women – Loeb being far more successful in that endeavor than Leopold. They often quarreled violently but continued to spend much time together after their numerous fights. Leopold thought Loeb was, like himself, a sort of superman. Leopold had read Friedrich Nietzsche's works and childishly misconstrued his philosophy. In his superficial reading, he believed that a Neitzchean superman had the moral freedom to violate the rules and laws that applied to ordinary people.
Breaking laws was an important feature of Leopold and Loeb's relationship. It was more important to Loeb than to Leopold, who was more interested in sex with Loeb. Thus, they made a compact by which Leopold would enjoy sex with his buddy as long as he acted as Loeb's partner in crime. Miriam Allen DeFord in "Superman's Crime," the chapter on this case in the book Killer Couples, wrote that the two "committed petty thefts, devised a system of cheating at bridge, set small fires and turned in false alarms, perpetrated acts of vandalism. They were caught sometimes, but they were never taken seriously, never punished or stopped."
A crisis point for the pair loomed ahead in 1924. As DeFord explained, "the four-year relationship was about to be broken up. Leopold was going to Europe on a vacation trip, and from there to Harvard." They wanted to do something dramatic to seal themselves together and decided they would commit the "perfect crime" as the final proof of their intellectual and moral superiority. This perfect crime would leave no clue. It would also be perpetrated completely in cold blood. They would kidnap a victim, kill him, and then collect ransom from the deceased's family. "An essential feature was that the ransom was to be collected after the murder, while the victim's family was still being assured that he was alive." That would show that both young men had risen above such pedestrian human emotions as compassion.
The pair meticulously planned what they believed would be their masterpiece of murder. They did not want to use one of their own cars for the crime so set about to rent one under a false identity. To create that false identity, Loeb rented a hotel room under the alias "Morton D. Ballard." Then Leopold went to a Rent-A-Car agency where he said he was a Peoria, Ill., salesman named Morton D. Ballard and needed a vehicle. When asked for references, he suggested they call Louis Mason and gave them Mason's address and phone number. The phone number was actually that of a shop around the corner. Loeb, playing Mason, waited by the phone and gave Ballard a glowing recommendation. As DeFord elaborated. "Leopold then paid a $50 deposit, took the car out for two or three hours to establish credit, and was all set to pick it up when it was needed."
They also provided for the disposition of the proposed ransom. They opened bank accounts under the names of Ballard and Mason. The money was to be paid in currency and would probably have been deposited gradually in these accounts.
How would they collect the ransom without getting caught? They decided they would tell the victim's father to collect the money in small, old bills, put it in a sealed box, and toss it from a train to a deserted brush area. To that end, DeFord writes, "every afternoon at 3 o'clock, from April to the week of May 15th , the two of them boarded a Michigan Central train, buying tickets to Michigan City. Standing in the observation car Loeb, the athlete, practiced throwing off packages of the right dimensions and weight at the spot selected by Leopold (who knew this territory well from his ornithological and botanical trips)."
Leopold typed up ransom notes using a typewriter he and his buddy had earlier stolen from Loeb's fraternity house. Since they did not yet know who their victim would be, he addressed them "Dear Sir."
They discussed what to do with their victim's body. At first, they planned to sink it into a lake but Leopold told Loeb he had a much better idea. There was a culvert under the train at Wolf's Lake, the area where Leopold often took birding classes. He had not at first been aware of it because the pipe was so well hidden. No one would ever find the body there, he insisted, or at least not until the body had been reduced to a skeleton.
What would be the method of murder? One of them would bludgeon the victim into submission, then they would strangle him with each killer pulling on one end of the rope so they would share equally in the guilt.
Who would they murder? The two discussed a variety of candidates. In Leopold's heterosexual fantasies, he often imagined raping a girl the way he had heard German soldiers had raped Frenchwomen in World War I. He suggested they kidnap a girl and rape her before they killed her. Loeb vetoed that idea because he said girls were too closely watched.
At one point, they discussed kidnapping and murdering their own fathers but decided that would not be practical since, as family of the victims, they would be surrounded by too much attention to collect a ransom.
They discussed a friend of Loeb's named Dick Rubel. Hal Higdon wrote in Crime of the Century that Loeb "fantasized being asked to serve as a pallbearer, giving him a tremendous thrill." They rejected this candidate because his father was a notorious tightwad. Hamlin Buchman, who had spread rumors about the sexual relationship between them, was considered but the pair decided that the heavily built young man would be too difficult for them to overpower.
They talked about kidnapping and killing Billy Deutsch, grandson of Sears head Julius Rosenwald but wrote off Deutsch because Loeb's father was a Sears vice-president. As Higdon wrote, "They considered Irving Hartman Jr., whose father owned Hartman Furniture Company, and Johnny Levinson, whose father was a prominent attorney. Other candidates included the sons of Clarence Coleman and Walter Baer."
Eventually they decided that on the appointed day, they would simply pick up a boy they found suitable from an area where affluent schoolboys were apt to be found. "Suitability" meant that the boy had to be small enough to easily subdue and be acquainted with at least one of them so he could be persuaded to get into the car with them.
Since the pair did not decide on a specific victim in advance, it is often said that their eventual choice was "random." This is misleading. The list of possible victims tends to focus on young, wealthy, male Jews – individuals who shared major characteristics with the plotters. This may have been for solely pragmatic reasons. Loeb thought males easier targets because females were more protected. Wealth was required to collect a ransom. They might have gotten close to Jews more easily.
They set the murder date for the afternoon of May 21, a Wednesday. The day before, the pair purchased a chisel, some tape to wrap around it to make it easier to handle, rope, and hydrochloric acid. The acid was to pour over the victim to obscure his identity. That they would think it necessary to do obscure their victim's identify displays some doubt about the hiding place chosen.
On Wednesday afternoon, as planned, Leopold and Loeb, after covering the vehicle's license plate, drove around in their rented dark blue Willys-Knight looking for a victim. Driving close to the Harvard Preparatory School, Loeb spotted 14-year-old Bobby Franks. The youngest of three children, Bobby was articulate and, at a school debate the week before, had made a good case against capital punishment.
He was also a distant relative of the Loeb's and sometimes played tennis on the their nearby court. The car slowed down next to the teenager. Loeb greeted the boy and suggested he hop in to look at a new tennis racket. Bobby got in the car.
Almost as soon as he settled into the passenger seat beside the driver, a chisel slammed against his head, hard and repeatedly. Both Loeb and Leopold later reported in their confessions that Leopold exclaimed, "Oh God! This is terrible! I didn't know it would be like this!" A cloth was forced down Bobby's throat. He died from the combined effects of blows to the head and suffocation. The killers would not use the rope to strangle him.
They proceeded to drive south toward nearby Indiana. In prairie lands near Hammond, they stripped Bobby's corpse and hid his clothes in the tall brush. Waiting for it to get dark so they could dispose of the body, they drove around aimlessly until they got to a hotdog stand. Leaving the dead teenager on the floor of the backseat of the car, they enjoyed hotdogs and root beers.
As night fell, Leopold and Loeb headed to Wolf Lake and the culvert. Before forcing the naked body into the drainage pipe, they poured hydrochloric acid over Bobby's face, a surgical scar on his stomach, and his penis. It seems odd to try to obscure someone's identity by mutilating his sex organs since few people can be identified by their genitalia but, in 1924, a Jewish background was evident from a penis since few gentile males were circumcised during that era. It is also possible that they thought they would make identification more difficult if they obscured the gender of the body. At any rate, the hydrochloric acid did not succeed in greatly disfiguring the areas over which is was poured, only in discoloring them.
As that afternoon shaded into evening, the mood at the home of Bobby Franks's family was one of increasing anxiety. Bobby's parents were Flora Franks, a homemaker, and Jacob Franks, who had made his fortune as a pawnbroker. In a profession famed for cutting corners, he had earned the nickname "honest Jake" for his square dealing. The couple had two other children, Jack and Josephine.
It was not like Bobby to stay out late without calling his parents to say where he was. Jack suggested he might have gone over the Loebs, who lived just across the street, to play tennis. Jacob Franks walked to the Loeb tennis court but did not see his son, or anyone else, there.
Flora got on one phone to call Bobby's classmates and Jacob got on another to call the Harvard School's headmaster. Getting no information from the headmaster, Jacob Franks phoned attorney and friend Samuel Ettelson. The two men met up and searched the school Bobby attended.
After stuffing Bobby's body in the culvert, Leopold and Loeb drove back home, stopping along the way for Leopold to make two calls, one to his father to say he would be delayed and the other to Jacob Franks to tell him his son had been kidnapped. Jacob was not home to answer the phone. Flora was and fainted after Leopold told her, "Your son has been kidnapped. He is all right. There will be further news in the morning." Jacob and Ettelson revived her when they returned.
After the call to the Franks, Leopold and Loeb mailed the first ransom note, and then went to Loeb's house to burn their bloodstained clothes. They also tried, unsuccessfully, to remove the bloodstains from the rental car. Later that night, the freshly minted killers stayed up late playing casino.
It was about 2 a.m. when Franks and Ettelson went to the police department.
The next day, May 22, a mail carrier brought the special delivery letter Leopold had written to the Franks home. It assured the recipients that their son was "at present well and safe" but warned that if they were to "disobey any of our instructions, even slightly, his death will be the penalty." The letter warned Mr. Franks not to contact the police or, if he already had, "do not mention this letter." It instructed the Franks to "Secure before noon today $10,000" in "old bills" and described the denominations wanted. The extorted funds were to "be placed in a large cigar box, or if this is impossible, in a heavy cardboard box" then "securely closed" and "sealed at all openings with sealing wax." Finally it said, "Have the money with you, prepared as directed above, and remain at home after one o'clock. See that the telephone is not in use." The ransom letter was signed "George Johnson."
Franks went to the bank to withdraw the money. Ettelson called a friend of his, the chief of detectives for the Chicago Police Department.
A newspaper reporter, who had been tipped off about the kidnapping as well as the discovery of a boy's body in a culvert near Wolf Lake, called Mr. Franks with a description of the corpse. Franks did not believe – could not believe – that the description matched his son. While Franks nursed a pathetic trust in the kidnappers' assurance that they would not harm Bobby, Franks's brother-in-law went to the morgue to view the dead body.
The telephone rang at the Franks home. Ettelson answered it and Leopold, again calling himself George Johnson, told him that a Yellow Cab would be sent for him and said he should "get in and go to the drugstore at 1465 East Sixty-third St." Ettelson handed the phone to Franks who asked the caller to repeat the message. He did.
As soon as Franks hung up the phone, both men realized they had forgotten the address.
Then the phone rang again. It was Franks's brother-in-law with terrible news: the dead boy found in the culvert was Bobby.
Early that morning, a Polish immigrant named Tony Manke had finished working the night shift at a millhouse and was walking to a repair shop to pick up a watch he had left there. He was on a path close to a channel connecting Wolf Lake to another lake. He saw something sticking out of a culvert and stood transfixed, his mind struggling to make sense of the shocking sight.
Two small bare feet poked out of a drainage pipe.
Manke was jerked out of his trance by the noise of railroad handcars. He flagged down the men on that work crew and they pulled the nude body of Bobby Franks out of the culvert. The director of the crew found a pair of eyeglasses in the brush around it. Then the group contacted police.
Not knowing that their perfect hiding place had given up its victim so quickly, Leopold and Loeb drove to a pay phone, then called the 1465 East Sixty-third pharmacy expecting to find a frantic, cash laden Jacob Franks. To their surprise, store personnel told them there was no Mr. Franks there. A few minutes later, Leopold phoned again and described what Jacob Franks looked like. He was told there was no one present of that description. Baffled, Leopold and Loeb left the phone booth to see newspaper headlines proclaiming that Bobby Franks's body had been found.
Chicago was in turmoil. Used to gangland slayings in these Prohibition days, it was shocked by wanton savagery against a teenager.
Robert Crowe, the jut-jawed, ambitious, 45-year-old state's attorney, headed up the investigation. Experts determined that the person who typed the ransom note was probably a novice typist but an educated, intelligent person.
Police experts focused on the eyeglasses found at the scene. Although the prescription for the glasses was a common one, the frames, made of Xylonite, were chewed at the ends. The newspapers carried photos of the glasses and police contacted optical companies in the area.
Many in Chicago wanted to help in any way they could in finding the perpetrator of the Franks slaying. One of those who seemed most enthusiastic was Richard Loeb. He got close to Howard Mayer, the campus liaison with a Chicago newspaper. The two were at the fraternity house to which Loeb belonged when he suggested they might be able to find the drugstore that Jacob Franks had been told to go to by the kidnapper. They could check all the drugstores and ask if any had gotten a phone call asking for a "Mr. Franks." Just as Mayer and Loeb were about to leave the frat house, two other young reporters, one of whom was a frat member, joined them.
The group of four traveled from pharmacy to pharmacy with this question until they came to Van De Bogert & Ross drugstore and were told that, yes, they had received the calls. It seemed a "Eureka" moment for Loeb, who crowed, "This is what comes from reading detective stories!" One of the reporters asked if Loeb had known the victim. Loeb replied that he had, then added, "If I were going to murder anybody, I would murder just such a cocky little son of a bitch as Bobby Franks." When this was first quoted in the May 31, 1924 Chicago Daily News, the newspaper left a blank in place of the B-word.
Eight days after Bobby Franks's death, police discovered that there was something special about those eyeglasses after all. The hinges were unusual. Only three eyeglasses with its type of hinges had been sold in the Chicago area. One pair had been sold to a woman who had them on when detectives visited her. Another belonged to a man currently traveling in Europe. Nathan Leopold Jr. had purchased the third pair.
Ironically, Leopold rarely wore the eyeglasses that would become famous for unmasking the "perfect crime." Roughly six months before the crime, Leopold began suffering headaches from eyestrain. He went to an optometrist who diagnosed a mild degree of astigmatism and prescribed reading glasses that Leopold wore off and on for a few weeks. He stopped having headaches and stopped wearing the glasses. He left them in the breast pocket of the suit he usually wore for birding – and wore on the night of the Franks killing – and apparently just forgot about them.
Detectives went to Leopold's home to inquire about the glasses. Appearing utterly unafraid, Leopold said he was certain his glasses were in his room. He went there to look for them but found only their case. Then he told detectives that he must have lost them on one of his frequent ornithological trips around Wolf Lake. Now he remembered! He had stumbled and fallen on his last birding expedition. That must be how he lost them.
Crowe and the detectives asked if Leopold was willing to go to a room at the LaSalle Hotel to answer further questions. A calm Leopold readily agreed. Once there, someone handed him his eyeglasses and asked him to try to demonstrate how they might have fallen out of his pocket. Leopold put the eyeglasses in the chest pocket of his jacket, then deliberately stumbled and fell.
The glasses stayed in his pocket.
Then, as Hal Higdon wrote in Crime of the Century, "The interrogators asked him to remove his coat, lay it on the floor, then pick it up from the hem. As he did, the glasses tumbled onto the carpet." Of course, it would have been possible for that to happen innocently on one of his birding trips but investigators probably reasoned that while he might have taken his coat off while birding, he would have had to remove it to help put a body in a drainage pipe.
The investigators inquired about his whereabouts on the day of Franks's killing. Still seeming perfectly cool and collected, Leopold replied that he had spent much of the day with his best friend, Richard Loeb. The pair had driven around, ate and drank, and looked for birds in a park. They had dinner, then picked up two young ladies who said their names were Mae and Edna.
When the conversation turned to the exact nature of the relationship between himself and Loeb, Leopold strongly denied any "perverted" acts as homosexuality was then called.
Leopold was taken to the police station at about 4 a.m. and allowed to get some sleep before submitting to another round of questioning the next morning. Again he told of an afternoon spent driving around, birding, dinner, then the ride with young women.
Unbeknownst to Leopold, Loeb was then being questioned in another LaSalle Hotel room. His story did not jibe with Leopold's. He confirmed that the friends had been together during the afternoon but said they parted ways after dinner.
But then something happened to make their stories fit. Howard Mayer went to the Loeb mansion and learned from a police officer that Loeb and his friend Leopold were telling conflicting stories. Mayer went to Crowe's office and was granted permission to talk with Leopold. After speaking with him, he got a chance to talk to Loeb and, without realizing he had been duped, relayed Leopold's message. "Babe said to tell the truth about the two girls," Mayer told him because "you can't get in any worse trouble than you are now."
With that, Loeb suddenly recalled Mae and Edna. Higdon wrote of the reason for the initial discrepancy in their stories: "After learning about the glasses being discovered by police they had invented the alibi in case they were picked up and questioned. Loeb felt they should not use the alibi if they had not been picked up within a few days. Leopold thought they should offer the alibi if picked up any time. Finally, they settled on seven days from the time of the crime as the point after which the alibi would not be used.
"A problem arose, however, concerning the time of the crime. Loeb reckoned the time interval from the time of the murder, or around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 21. Leopold reckoned the time interval from the time of the last telephone call, or around 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 22. When the police picked up Loeb the following Thursday, May 22, he figured the seven days were up, so did not use the alibi. Leopold, however, had been picked up at two thirty on Thursday, only an hour before the seven day time limit (as figured by him) would be over."
Once their stories agreed, Crowe and the other investigators began to think the pair was being truthful after all.
Not wanting hard feelings with their respected and wealthy families, Crowe even took them out for dinner at an expensive restaurant. After that, Leopold and Loeb talked to reporters and said they had no bad feelings about this unfortunate mistake. "I don't blame the police for holding me," a forgiving Leopold said, "I was at the culvert the Saturday and Sunday before the glasses were found and it is quite possible I lost my glasses there."
Knowing that Leopold was part of a law study group, some reporters checked with other members. They learned that Leopold typed up the study sheets and made carbon copies for the other students. He usually used a Hammond but students recalled that, on at least one occasion, he had used a portable. Study sheets were compared with the ransom letter. According to experts, at least some had been typed on the same typewriter.
Detectives searched Leopold's residence but could not find a portable typewriter. However, a maid said she had seen such a typewriter in the home in the recent past.
On May 31, the investigators talked with Leopold's chauffeur. He told them that Leopold could not have driven his car that day since he had worked on it throughout the day and it had been in the garage late that evening when he went home.
Confronted with this, Loeb broke down and confessed. Leopold confessed soon afterward. The "perfect crime" had been solved. After they confessed, authorities traced the rental car (they were still bloodstains on it despite the killers attempts to wash them off), dredged up the typewriter from the lagoon into which it had been hurled, and found the hotel room in which Loeb had registered as Ballard. They also found a suitcase he had left behind containing a library book checked out to "R. A. Loeb."
Nathan Leopold had written that, "the only crime a superman can make is to make a mistake." Leaving their victim's feet sticking out of the culvert, dropping traceable eyeglasses, turning in a blood-stained rental car, leaving telltale library books behind in the hotel room – he and his fellow "superman" had made more than a few mistakes.
Their confessions made the case even more of a newspaper sensation than it had been. Here was the spectacle of two of Chicago's most privileged young men committing premeditated murder as an "experiment."
Anguish was especially acute in the city's Jewish community because of the backgrounds of both killers and the victim. However, as Meyer Levin would disclose, that community also breathed a sigh of relief "that the victim too had been Jewish" since the killing of a gentile boy would undoubtedly have unleashed the anti-Semitism that, in 1924, was never far beneath American society's surface.
The point of the ethnicity and religion of killers and victim is something that requires further explication. It is often written about this case that "both the killers and their victim were Jewish." However, it might be more accurate to say that both were perceived as Jewish by the larger, gentile world. Richard Loeb was not Jewish by birth according to ancient Hebrew tradition since he had a non-Jewish mother (she was a German Catholic) but his last name meant that people thought of him as Jewish and he had been raised in that faith. The Franks family was Jewish by ethnicity but had converted to Christian Science. Nathan Leopold was Jewish on both sides of his family. However, he did not practice that religion, or any other, having been an atheist since he was about 11 years old.
Their confessions are another item needing clarification. While identical or nearly so in most respects, they were vitally incompatible about two significant matters. Loeb claimed that Leopold had come up with the idea for the experiment in perfect murder and that he had killed the boy while Loeb drove the car. Leopold said precisely the opposite on both counts.
Loeb agreed to pose for Crowe in the rental car that was used but only if he could sit in the driver's seat that he claimed he had been when the killing occurred. He commented, "I just want to say that I offer no excuse, but that I am fully convinced that neither the idea nor the act would have occurred to me had it not been for the suggestion and stimulus of Leopold. Furthermore, I do not believe that I would have been capable of having killed Franks." Loeb also made the statement that he hoped his family would not think him "the arch-fiend" although he did not make it clear whether he meant the originator of the idea for the crime, the first-hand killer, or both.
Almost all accounts of the case have taken Leopold's word that Loeb originated the idea for the killing and murdered Bobby. Part of the reason commentators have tended to find Leopold's version more plausible is that Loeb had much more of a criminal bent than Leopold, who acted as his accomplice in exchange for sexual favors. The "this is terrible!" outcry both parties say Leopold made during the killing appears to indicate that he had more suppressed conscience than Loeb did. Finally, Loeb made a verbal stumble many observers found telling. Crowe asked Loeb who struck Franks. Loeb pointed at his partner and said, "He did. Nathan Leopold, Jr. He was sitting up in the front seat. I said, he was sitting up in the front seat. I mean I was sitting up in the front seat." This could be a classic example of a "Freudian slip."
According to Irving Stone's biography, Clarence Darrow for the Defense, the respected attorney and his wife were asleep in their large brass bed when, in the wee hours of the morning of June 2, 1924, an insistent ringing of their front doorbell awakened them.
Mrs. Darrow went to answer the door. She opened it to see four men, all chalk-faced and wild-eyed. They told her they had to see her husband immediately and dashed into his bedroom where the 67-year-old, pajama-clad Darrow was just getting out of bed. The leader of the group, Richard Loeb's uncle, Jacob Loeb, threw his arms around the attorney and exclaimed, "Thank heavens you are here! No one else can save us. If you had been away we would have been ruined. You must save our boys!"
Darrow had been a friend of the Loeb family for years. Like so many others, Darrow had followed the case but assumed a mistake had been made in arresting Loeb and his friend.
Stone quotes a puzzled Darrow as saying, "But they are not guilty. You have your nephews, the Bachrach brothers, defending them; their innocence should not be difficult to prove."
"No, no," Jacob Loeb said. "Dickie and Babe confessed this afternoon."
When Darrow asked what they thought he could do, the uncle shouted, "Save their lives! Get them a life sentence instead of a death sentence. That's all we ask of you." According to Stone's book, later in the conversation, Jacob Loeb got down on his knees to beg Darrow, "We'll pay you anything you ask. Only for God's sake, don't let them be hung."
The decision to take the case was not an easy one for Darrow. He was overweight and in ill health. He knew of the public outrage over the Franks killing and that he would be even more bitterly reviled for taking this case than some of his previous controversial ones. Moreover, his career had been largely devoted to the defense of the poor and downtrodden. Many of the liberals who most admired him would regard him as a sell-out for taking the case of these scions of wealth.
But take the case he did. Stoutly opposed to capital punishment, he viewed it as an opportunity to put the death penalty on trial. The Bachrach brothers would assist him.
Relieved when Darrow said "yes," Loeb's uncle soon wrote out a $10,000 check as a retainer. The question of Darrow's fee would become a sore point both for him and the general public. It was widely and falsely rumored that Darrow was going to be paid $1 million by the distraught families.
Another rumor circulating was that Darrow was going to have his clients plead insanity. Many people feared Leopold and Loeb would be acquitted on those grounds, spend a few comfortable years in a mental institution, and then be free. One who believed in rather than feared that outcome was Richard Loeb who, as Higdon reported, said with jaunty confidence, "This thing will be the making of me. I'll spend a few years in jail and I'll be released. I'll come out to a new life."
Far more realistically, Darrow believed he had no chance with an insanity plea. In fact, he felt that would be a sure ticket to the gallows for his clients because an insanity plea would necessitate a jury trial and a jury was likely to be swayed by the emotions that ran at a fever pitch among the public.
Crowe would be chief prosecutor. Assistant state's attorneys, Thomas Marshall and Joseph Savage, would act as his assistants.
The judge was the respected John Caverly, chief justice of the Criminal Court of Cook County. He had helped put Chicago's first juvenile court into place.
On July 21, 1924, Darrow shocked the prosecutors and spectators by entering a plea of guilty for both kidnapping and murder for both Leopold and Loeb. He then asked "that the court permit us to offer evidence as to the mental condition of these young men . . . in mitigation of the punishment."
Crowe jumped to his feet with an objection. The defense could not plead guilty and then try to prove insanity, he argued.
Darrow retorted that he was not going to offer evidence of insanity but of mental problems short of insanity. It was a daring gambit for, as Higdon wrote, "Never before had evidence of a defendant's mental condition been offered to lessen a sentence. Such evidence had heretofore been used exclusively to show that a defendant was insane, not responsible for his actions, and thus not subject to punishment."
Judge Caverly decided, "I'd like to be advised as fully as possible" in making his decision regarding sentence and agreed to hear testimony about the mental states of the defendants. Although it would often be referred to as "the trial of the century," there was technically no trial since the defendants pled guilty. What followed was really a sentencing hearing, one that would consume the next three months.
Before putting on his own psychiatrists, Crowe called witness after witness to testify to every gruesome detail of the crime. Darrow objected that this testimony was unnecessary since Leopold and Loeb had admitted their guilt. The prosecutor argued that such testimony would also go to show the defendants' state of mind. The judge allowed it. Crowe would call 102 witnesses to testify; Darrow would only cross-examine two of them.
The most pitiful of Crowe's witnesses was the victim's mother, Flora Franks, who was only on the witness stand a few minutes. Pale and listless, her grief was palpable. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, many in her family were concerned for her mental health as she had gone into a state of denial insisting in the face of proof to the contrary that her son was alive and the kidnappers would eventually return him.
As might be expected, the prosecution's doctors testified that neither Leopold nor Loeb suffered mental illness or defect. Their only defect was in their moral sense. As Crowe said, "There is nothing wrong with them mentally. The only fault is the trouble with their moral sense and that is not a defense in a criminal case."
Darrow's doctors included endocrinologists who testified to pronounced glandular disorders, especially in the case of Leopold who had gone through an early puberty. Psychiatrists also discussed the boys' growing up. DeFord wrote that, "Richard Loeb appears to have been a congenital criminal." However, environmental influences leading him to criminality are not hard to find and were articulated by the psychiatrists who described his upbringing.
As was typical of children of their class, governesses did most of the day-to-day care giving for both Loeb and Leopold. Their mothers – typical of the times – did not work outside home and like many mothers of the upper-middles class, neither felt obligated to be with their young 24/7. In any case, Leopold's mother would have been unable to care for him adequately because she had been chronically ill since his birth. His being the youngest in the family resulted in the nickname "Babe."
It should be noted that the psychiatrists may have concentrated on the governesses partly because Leopold's father and Loeb's parents were paying them. The result is that it sometimes seemed during this hearing that, as Higdon put it, "the governesses were on trial."
A governess from Canada named Emily Struthers began caring for Loeb when he was 4 ½. A strict disciplinarian, Struthers spent much time helping her young charge with his schoolwork. As the web site LeopoldandLoeb.com says, her tutoring "led to his skipping of several grades of school." Perhaps believing she nurtured a genius who must not be distracted by the ordinary fun and games of childhood, Struthers "discouraged Richard from associating with boys his own age." Thus, he was deprived of normal socialization for a single-minded obsession with book learning. A classic example of what is now called the "hurried child," Loeb was deprived of a normal childhood and grew into an intractably childish young man. Rebelling against this all work and no play regimen, Loeb latched onto the vicarious excitement he found in detective stories that were also forbidden by Miss Struthers. He began habitually lying to get around his governess's strictures.
Taught that the normal things he craved were bad, he began to see himself as bad. According to a psychiatrist, he often fantasized himself "in jail, being abused, locked up, laughed at and stared at."
Complementing this fantasy was one of success as a "Master Criminal" in which Loeb imagined himself the leader of a gang. In real life, his "gang," became Nathan Leopold.
The psychiatrist found that, while popularity with young women was important to Loeb, sex itself was not. In Crime of the Century Higdon quotes psychiatrists as saying that Loeb confided he also had a problem with impotency especially when he had been drinking.
Loeb had strongly self-destructive tendencies. As Dr. William White put it, "All of Dickie's life, from the beginning of his antisocial activities, has been in the direction of his own self-destruction. He himself has definitely and seriously considered suicide."
Psychiatrists testifying about Leopold's growing up said he had been a precocious baby, pronouncing his first words when only four months old. From the time he was six months old until he was about 5, an older woman of German background called Mimi cared for him. A young woman named Paula replaced her. Although Paula only stayed six months, she had a profound effect on Leopold by introducing him to Christianity. He was fascinated by the crucifixion because "the idea of nailing somebody to something was very appealing to me." She also taught him about the Madonna and Leopold came to identify his mother and his Aunt Birdie with the Virgin Mary. Since Leopold was very fond of his Aunt Birdie, her nickname may have been a factor in his developing his early, almost obsessive interest in ornithology.
Mathilda Wantz, whom Leopold nicknamed "Sweetie," replaced Pauline. She caught young Leopold stealing stamps from a cousin and, according to LeopoldandLoeb.com, "instead of punishing him, Sweetie blackmailed him, to cover for her days off, etc." She also bathed with him and his brother Sam and engaged in inappropriate sexual play with them. Higdon wrote that Sweetie was fired "and the era of governesses ended – one day when Mrs. Leopold caught Mathilda dumping her son, who was ill at the time, out of bed. He then was 12, so she had been with the family a half dozen years."
When Leopold was a preschooler, his parents feared that the somewhat "sissyish" boy might grow up to be one of those types who "didn't like girls. Their solution to head off such a possibility was to enroll the 5-year-old Leopold at a school that had only female students except for him and one other boy.
A few years later, he transferred to another school. This one was a coed school in a working-class neighborhood where he was frequently bullied. Leopold's mother warned him strongly about possible germs at this institution and told him not to touch anything and never to use the restroom there. Higdon wrote that constantly "holding it in" until he got home led to extraordinary tension and, on one occasion, the trauma of urinating on himself.
At 15, the awkward Leopold had acquired enough social skills that he was often with a group of a half dozen or so guys at the University of Michigan. Then Richard Loeb joined the group. He and Leopold at first disliked each other but that soon changed dramatically. They became fast friends, then lovers. They roomed together at the University of Michigan until Loeb was accepted into the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity and moved into the frat house. His acceptance came with a condition: that he stop being friends with Leopold due to rumors that their relationship was a sexual one. Loeb told his frat brothers that he would break with Leopold but he continued to see his best friend. To squelch the rumors, he tried not to be seen alone with him.
Then the 16-year-old Leopold suffered a devastating trauma: his mother died. Described in Higdon's book as "a warm and gentle person" who "spent considerable time in charitable work," she had been in ill health all his life. The fact that her sickliness coincided with his birth tormented him since he believed that, if he had not been born, his mother would not have died when she did.
Accompanied by other guys, Leopold and Loeb sometimes visited houses of prostitution. Psychiatrists quoted in Crime of the Century said Leopold often fantasized that he was raping the hooker or that she was male.
According to Higdon, the scores Leopold made on mental tests given by the doctors were strangely discordant. He made extremely high scores on intelligence tests but his scores on tests designed to measure practical judgment were very low. At the age of 19, he had the practical judgment of the average 12-year-old, the psychiatrists found.
In 1922, Leopold transferred to the University of Chicago but traveled frequently to meet with Loeb. An outstanding student, Leopold graduated Phi Beta Kappa in March 1923. After Loeb graduated from the University of Michigan in 1923 (with no special honors), he began, like Leopold, taking graduate courses at the University of Chicago. Leopold was studying law and Loeb history. Both planned to attend law school eventually. Leopold thought he would go to law school after his trip to Europe.
But before that, they decided to commit the perfect crime.
The synergy of their relationship, the "fit" between them, was key to their crime according to doctors testifying on their behalf. As Dr. White put it, "I cannot see how Babe would have entered into it at all alone because he had no criminalistic tendencies in any sense as Dickie did, and I don't think Dickie would have ever functioned to this extent all by himself. So these two boys, with their peculiarly inter-digited personalities, came into this emotional compact with the Franks homicide as a result."
Another psychiatrist, Dr. Bernard Glueck, emphasized that point as well. "I think the Franks crime was perhaps the inevitable outcome of this curious coming together of two pathologically disordered personalities," he said, "each one of whom brought into the relationship a phase of their personality which made their contemplation and the execution of the crime possible."
The sentencing hearing took place during a heat wave. According to DeFord, Crowe frequently asked for recesses "to change his sweat-soaked clothing and have an alcohol rub."
After all the witnesses had been heard, the attorneys for the state gave their reasons for demanding execution. Thomas Marshall said, "…that there is but one penalty that is proportionate to this crime and that is the extreme penalty, death."
Savage emphasized the absence of mercy in the defendants. "The blow was struck from behind, that cowardly blow! … Mercy! Why, your honor it is an insult in a case of this kind to come before the bar of justice and beg for mercy! I know your honor will be just as merciful to these two defendants sitting here as they were to Bobby Franks." Later he thundered, "Hang them! Hang these heartless supermen!" According to Higdon, "Savage's remarks shattered the smug façade Leopold. had shown to the world for the past month. During recess he spoke with his brother Mike and began crying. 'My God, Mike, do you think we'll swing after that?"
The high point of the trial was Darrow's powerful, eloquent summation. The attorney pointed out that it takes "something more than brains to make a human being who can adjust himself to life."
Early in his summing up, he pointed to the heavy responsibility he had placed on Judge Caverly by waiving a jury trial. "I am aware that a court has more experience, more judgment, and more kindliness than a jury," he said, looking directly into the judge's eyes. "And then, your honor, it may be hardly fair to the court, because I am aware that I have helped to place a serious burden on your shoulders. And at that I have always meant to be your friend. But this was not an act of friendship. I know perfectly well that where responsibility is divided by 12 it is easy to say, 'Away with him.' But, your honor, if these boys hang, you must do it. There can be no division of responsibility here. You must do it. You can never explain that the rest overpowered you. It must be your deliberate, cool, premeditated act, without a chance to shift responsibility."
Addressing the prosecution's repeated references to the extreme atrocity of the crime, Darrow said, "Poor little Bobby Franks suffered very little. It was all over in 15 minutes after he got into the car."
The death penalty would not restore the victim to life, Darrow continued. It would only add two state-sanctioned killings to execute two "irresponsible, weak, diseased" boys.
The attorney asserted, "There is not an act in all this horrible tragedy that was not the act of a child, the act of a child wandering around in the morning of life."
Darrow said, "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 that Your Honor would be 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 lives in prison is mighty little to look forward to . . . 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."
He said he was certain the future would be one in which the death penalty was abandoned and for minors first of all. If the judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb to death, he would be joining with the barbarism of the past. The attorney said he was pleading "not merely for the lives of these unfortunate lads, but for all boys and girls; for all the young; as far as possible, for all the old. I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness and the infinite mercy that considers all . . . 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 living and that mercy is the highest attribute of man."
When Darrow finished his summation, several spectators had tears in their eyes as did the attorney himself and, according to some observers, so did Judge Caverly.
The judge did not announce his decision until Sept. 19, 1924. At that time, he said he was not swayed by the voluminous medical testimony although he called it "a contribution to the study of criminology." With that, a wave of tension went across the courtroom as many assumed he would sentence the defendants to hang.
But he did not. He claimed his only consideration was their ages and the reluctance of Illinois courts to sentence minors to execution.
He pronounced their sentences as, "For the crime of murder, confinement at the penitentiary at Joliet for the term of their natural lives. For the crime of kidnapping for ransom, similar confinement for the term of ninety-nine years."
Darrow did not get an enormous fee for this case. In the immediate aftermath of the trial, his office was in debt. As Stone wrote, "The $10,000 retainer fee that Loeb had given him that first hysterical night had been spent on court costs, psychiatrists and office expenses. Since the entire Darrow office had been concentrating on the case, the firm was now several thousand dollars behind in its efforts to save the boys' lives."
Seven months after the sentencing, Jacob Loeb went to Darrow's office in response to a letter from Darrow. "You know, Clarence, the world is full of eminent lawyers who would have paid a fortune for the chance to distinguish themselves in this case," he told his old friend. "A hundred thousand dollars is all we can pay in this case, Clarence. From that I'll have to deduct the ten thousand dollars I already paid you." He handed the attorney a check for thirty thousand dollars and showed him the two other checks he had in the same amount for each of the Bachrach brothers.
People who find it baffling that a young man from so privileged a background could go bad should find a clue to his character malformation in this arrogant expression of base ingratitude by the same man who had once fallen to his knees to beg for help.
Prison: Loeb's death and Leopold's release
The two spoiled sons of privilege were now confined in an environment of enforced deprivation. These self-styled "supermen" lived among the often-illiterate sons of the destitute and, like them, had to conform to the rules and orders of guards who were also from the working and poor classes. A man who had been in prison with Leopold recalled him as saying, "Why should we have to be told what to do by a bunch of illiterate farmers?"
For several years, prison officials kept Leopold and Loeb apart. In 1931 they were allowed to live in close proximity. Their renewed association proved constructive. In 1932, they opened a school for prisoners. There was already one in place but it stopped with the eighth grade. Also, according to LeopoldandLoeb.com, "The current system required an inmate to give up their present job and any privileges they might receive from it, for the sake of school. Leopold and Loeb's plan saw around that by creating an in-house correspondence school." The pair taught classes and performed administrative duties.
Loeb began researching a book he intended to write on the history of the Civil War.
On January 28, 1936, inmate James Day attacked Loeb in a shower, slashing Loeb over 50 times with a straight razor.
Leopold was allowed to go to the side of his wounded friend in the hospital. "I think I'm going to make it," Loeb gasped before losing consciousness. Leopold offered his blood for a transfusion but doctors said it was unnecessary. They struggled to save his life but he soon succumbed to his wounds.
In his autobiography, Life Plus 99 Years, published in 1958, Leopold wrote about his feelings: "We covered him at last with a sheet, but after a moment, I folded the sheet back from his face and sat down on a stool by the table where he lay. I wanted a long last look at him. For, strange as it may sound, he had been my best pal. In one sense, he was also the greatest enemy I have ever had. For my friendship with him had cost me – my life. It was he who had originated the idea of committing the crime, he who had planned it, he who had largely carried it out. It was he who had insisted on doing what we eventually did . . . Dick was a living contradiction. As I sat now by his cooling, bleeding corpse, the strangeness of that contradiction, that basic, fundamental ambivalence of his character, was borne in on me. For Dick possessed more of the truly fine qualities than almost anyone else I have ever known. Not just the superficial social graces. Those, of course, he possessed to the nth degree. . . . But the more fundamental, more important qualities of character, too, he possessed in full measure. He was loyal to a fault. He could be sincere; he could be honestly and selflessly dedicated. His devotion to the school proves that. He truly, deeply wanted to help his fellow man. How, I mused, could these personality traits coexist with the other side of Dick's character? It didn't make sense! For there was another side. Dick just didn't have the faintest trace of conventional morality. Not just before our incarceration. Afterward too. I don't believe he ever, to the day of his death, felt truly remorseful for what we had done. Sorry that we had been caught, of course. . . . But remorse for the murder itself? I honestly don't think so."
The tribute Leopold makes to his dead "pal" is as rife with contradictions as the character he describes. He completely lays the guilt for the crime in the coffin with Loeb. While Loeb may indeed have "originated the idea of committing the crime" and struck the fatal blows, Leopold was hardly a passive partner. He had gone on the train to help Loeb practice throwing out dummy ransoms and had suggested putting the body in the culvert. Leopold had typed up the ransom note and phoned the Franks residence.
Day was tried for the murder of Richard Loeb. He pled self-defense. Incredibly, he claimed that he was fighting off a sexual attack by Loeb despite the fact that Loeb had over 50 wounds while Day had none. Even more incredibly, the jury acquitted him. Many observers thought the jury simply did not want to punish the murderer of Richard Loeb.
Most students of the case believe Day was mad at Loeb because he stopped giving him money. Loeb's family had for quite some time supplied him with $50 per month. In turn, Loeb had divided it among cellmates. A new warden came in who drastically reduced the allowance a prisoner could receive to $3 but Day seemed to think Loeb must have been getting money he was no longer sharing.
Bereft of his partner, Leopold continued working for the prison school and studying many subjects. As he always had, he especially enjoyed learning languages. Leopold taught himself Braille in order to teach a fellow inmate to read. He also learned the trade of X-ray technician. In the mid-1940s, Leopold, along with many other inmate volunteers, took part in an experiment of malaria treatments and became very sick as a result. Although the prisoners were not promised parole in exchange for their participation in this project, many reasonably expected it would weigh in their favor.
Leopold went before the parole board in 1949 and was denied. For several years, he went before the board and was refused freedom
Then, in 1956, Meyer Levin came out with Compulsion, a brilliant fictionalized treatment of the case. The novel was an immediate sensation. In his foreword, Levin wrote, "Though the action is taken from reality, it must be recognized that thoughts and emotions described in the characters come from within the author, as he imagines them to belong to the personages in the case he has chosen. . . . I follow known events. Some scenes are, however, total interpolations, and some of my personages have no correspondence to persons in the case in question."
The following year, James Yaffe published a novel also inspired by the case entitled Nothing but the Night. The book was good but workmanlike. Homosexuality is not even hinted at. The two murderers and their victims have been re-imagined as WASPs and transported from Chicago.
Compulsion had by far the greater readership and more appreciative critical reception and for good reason. It is an exciting page-turner that possesses psychological depth. At the time Compulsion was written, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. The novel reflects this view of homosexuality, presenting it as pathology.
The novel is deeply sympathetic to Leopold and Loeb, here reborn as Judd Steiner and Artie Strauss. So sympathetic is Compulsion to its anti-heroes that a niece from the Franks family approached Levin at a lecture to tell him, "In our family we have always hated these boys. After I read your book, I felt also that this man should be paroled." Indeed, it is likely that Compulsion was part of the reason Leopold was finally paroled in 1958 after 33 years in prison.
The publication of his own memoirs in 1958, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years, may have also helped. The book begins right after the murder itself and follows Leopold's life through trial and imprisonment. As observed by Gilbert Geis and Leigh Bieny in Crimes of the Century, by the time Leopold was paroled, he had spent more time in prison than all but three inmates at Joliet or Stateville, the state's two maximum-security penitentiaries. "Many murderers with similar sentences and equally or more brutal offenses and much worse crime records had long since been back on the streets."
On the day of his parole, reporters swarmed around Leopold. Asked how he felt about his new freedom, he replied wryly, "I feel rather hemmed in." He got into a car. Just a few minutes later, the car stopped so Leopold could get out and vomit. It made several other stops for this purpose. Perhaps it was the excitement of freedom or, as his new attorney Elmer Gertz speculated, the fact that "he hadn't been in a car for 34 years. As Higdon noted, "Thus, regurgitating, did Nathan Leopold return to the free world."
He soon headed for Castaner, a small town in Puerto Rico where he had a job lined up as a hospital X-ray technician. It was also a place where the 52-year-old murderer hoped he could make a fresh start.
The parolee worked at a hospital run by a Protestant faith called the Church of the Brethren. The hospital paid him $10 plus room and board. He also received some funds from a modest inheritance.
He made a positive impression on the people at the hospital. The child-killer was especially interested in children. According to "Playing for Keeps," an article on the case in People, he "was known as Mr. Lollipop for the treats he gave young patients." Higdon wrote that, "He did many thoughtful things such as obtaining a motorized chair so a crippled girl could get around, obtaining surgery to correct a harelip on a girl, arranging for a boy to go to school in San Juan."
However, as a man on parole, he was supposed to adhere to many restrictions. The terms of his parole forbade him to drive, drink, or stay out past a curfew. He was not allowed firearms. Writing to Elmer Gertz, an attorney who helped him get paroled, he said frankly, "Now, almost from day one I have not abided by the parole regulations." He drank, drove, stayed out past curfew and kept a gun for birding purposes. Additionally, he bragged, "I have visited most of the better whorehouses, cheap bars, and gambling casinos in Greater San Juan and like 'em fine."
Ironically, a year and a half after being released, Leopold sued Meyer Levin together with publisher and distributors of Compulsion! He charged the author whose work built up public sympathy for him and was probably instrumental in his having gained his freedom with "misrepresentation of character" and "violation of the right of privacy." He asked for $2,970,000 in damages. The novelist was understandably outraged and said sardonically, "He's still trying to collect the ransom on Bobby Franks."
Several things in Compulsion upset Leopold. One was that Judd Steiner planned to commit a crime – forcible rape – on a young woman he was dating. While Leopold had wanted to kidnap and rape a girl, he had never contemplated violence against the woman he was seeing at the time of murder. Interestingly, the scene builds sympathy for Steiner. When Steiner has his chance to attack his date, a suppressed sense of morality surfaces and he cannot go through with it.
Another upsetting aspect for Leopold was the unconscious motives Levin postulated for his killers. In his foreword to the book, Levin said this psychoanalytic explanation might not be "literally correct" but hopes that it is "poetically valid."
Toward the end of the novel, an invented psychiatrist suggests how parts of the crime could be seen in light of the killers' personal issues. Their attempt to erase the victim's face when they assumed the body would not be found until it was a skeleton reflected a need to use him as a kind of stand-in for their internal conflicts. Their penises can identify few young boys but, in the year 1924, a circumcised penis told of Jewish origins that the killers sought to "undo" in themselves even as "Judd Steiner" sought to "undo" his conflict about feeling he had been born "a girl kind of boy."
The psychiatrist sees the final resting place that Steiner insisted on for "Paulie Kessler" as heavily symbolic. A nude young body scrunched up into a wet circular opening obscured by bushes suggests a kind of reverse-birth. As Levin wrote, "he had exorcised the curse on himself. He had become unborn, in the womb of the mother who was in the earth."
Perhaps this upset Leopold simply because it was false and the culvert was just a culvert as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar. Or perhaps it upset him because it was true. Even as the interpretation generated sympathy for him in Compulsion's readers, it meant he had not murdered solely to please his friend but out of a "compulsion" in his own psyche. Thus, as Higdon observes, "he was equally guilty with Loeb, not only before the law but before a higher justice." Always vain about the brilliance of his mind, Leopold would naturally be offended by the idea of motivation unbeknownst to his consciousness.
Attorneys for Levin and other defendants in the suit traveled to Puerto Rico to question Leopold. They asked him about various parts of Compulsion and, when he denied the accuracy of them, quoted from the hearing at which his sentence had been decided. Often he then agreed that they were true.
On one point he was belligerently insistent – and inadvertently subverted the picture he had always pushed that Loeb had dominated him. He was asked if he had had the king-slave fantasies related in Compulsion. He acknowledged that he had but when asked if he had fantasized himself the slave 90 percent of the time, suddenly became agitated. "That's not true!" he exclaimed.
The psychiatric report on him at the hearing said he had. Leopold replied that the doctors had gotten it reversed: he had fantasized himself as king 90 percent of the time and slave only 10 percent. Ephraim London, one of the attorneys for Simon & Schuster, publishers of Compulsion, found it bizarre that Leopold should be as insistent as he was on this point. "The only thing that had any real importance to him was his fantasies," the lawyer marveled, "and not the terrible events of his life."
Judge Thomas Kluczynski ruled in Leopold's favor on April 15, 1964. The defendants appealed and the case dragged on for several years. In 1970, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against Leopold. Justice Daniel Ward wrote in this final opinion, "Having encouraged public attention, he cannot at his whim withdraw the events of his life from public scrutiny."
At the same time as his suit was being adjudicated, Leopold was engaging in a variety of other activities. He attended the University of Puerto Rico where he earned a master's degree in social work – graduating first in his class – did research in health fields, was elected president of the student body, and published a book called A Checklist of the Birds of Puerto Rico. He also met a woman he wanted to marry.
The parole board turned down a request for early release from parole so Leopold could marry Gertrude "Trudi" Feldman Garcia de Quevado but did grant permission to wed and they did in February 1961.
At one point, Leopold fantasized about doing something truly great, something that would make him famous rather than infamous and remembered not as an "evil genius" but one of humanity's great benefactors. He had been working in leprosy research. Writing to a friend in 1970, he wondered what would happen if he could develop a vaccine: "Wouldn't THAT be a note to go out on – ridding the world of the scourge of leprosy?"
However, as Higdon noted, "Leopold would never rid the world of leprosy. He did not have enough time. Even had he lived another decade it seems doubtful that his interest could be focused on one activity for a long enough period to achieve anything of that magnitude. He still became bored easily and liked to move on to new sensations."
To the end of his life, he avoided discussing the murder, although he kept prominently displayed in his home the portraits of two men who could not help but remind him of it. One was Clarence Darrow, the brilliant attorney who had worked so hard to save Leopold's life. The other was that of Richard Loeb, his partner in murder. As awareness of his own impending mortality pressed down on him, Leopold appeared to see much of his life in perspective. "I would say that, on the whole, I have had a good life, a satisfactory life," he wrote. "Even many parts of the prison years. How many people outside prison have had time to pursue such nonremunerative subjects as Egyptian hieroglyphics and the theory of relativity? I did."
In stark contrast to the violent deaths of his victim Bobby Franks and his accomplice Loeb, the end came peacefully for Leopold. The 66-year-old man, his wife at his side, died quietly in a Puerto Rican hospital following a heart attack. He had willed his body to medical research and his eyes to an eye bank. A woman received one of his corneas and a man the other.
The odd story of Leopold and Loeb, two would-be supermen who committed a far-from-perfect crime, has inspired many artists. Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 movie Rope was about two college students who experiment with the "perfect" murder. One of Hitchcock's more experimental films, it was shot entirely in 10-minute long takes and the movie takes place in real time and is confined to a single setting.
In 1992, Tom Kalin released Swoon, a black-and-white film that alternates between realistic and surrealistic modes. Leopold and Loeb (Kalin used the murderers' real names) are shown with modern cell phones while other characters use phones appropriate to the time period suggesting that this pair is "tuned in" to a future in which violence lacks traditional motivations.
Murder by Numbers, a 2002 movie directed by Barbet Schroeder and set in the present, cannot be said to be based on Leopold and Loeb, but it has an aura of being inspired by it as it tells the story of two bright teenagers trying to commit the perfect murder.
Recently the stage play, Never the Sinner by John Logan, which, like Swoon, is explicitly about Leopold and Loeb, has run in various venues to mixed reviews. In Never the Sinner, one of the murderers asks, "Why did we kill Bobby Franks?"
Of all the depictions of this crime, Meyer Levin's novel Compulsion possesses the greatest emotional resonance. Perhaps the paradoxical reason for its power is that, by allowing free rein to his imagination while identifying so thoroughly with his major characters, this writer found the true answer to that question.