Nathan Leopold, Jr., born in Chicago, and his lover Richard Loeb, more commonly known as Leopold and Loeb, were two wealthy Jewish University of Chicago students who murdered Bobby Franks and received life sentences. Their crime was notable in being largely motivated by an apparent need to prove their belief they were capable of commiting a perfect crime, and for its role in the history of American thought on captital punishment.
Leopold and Loeb, each 19 years of age, believed themselves to be so clever, respectable, and talented that they could commit and profit from a kidnapping and murder without fear of punishment.
On Wednesday, May 21, 1924, they put their plot in motion by luring 14-year-old Robert ("Bobbie") Franks, a distant relative of Loeb's, into a car, where they suffocated him, after Loeb bludgeoned him with a chisel.
After dumping the body outside of Chicago, they did their best to make it seem that a kidnapping for ransom had taken place: The Franks family had enough money that a request for $10,000 in ransom was plausible. Before the family could assemble the ransom, though, railway workers found the body. Investigators saw at once that this couldn't be a simple kidnapping, since there would have been no reason for a kidnapper to kill Bobby Franks.
A pair of eyeglasses found with the body were eventually traced back to Nathan Leopold. The ransom note had been typed on a typewriter that Leopold had used with his law-student study group. During police questioning, Leopold's and Loeb's alibis broke down and each confessed. Although their confessions were in agreement about most major facts in the case, each blamed the other for the actual killing.
They had spent months planning the crime, working out a way to get the ransom money without risking being caught. They had thought, of course, that the body wouldn't be discovered until long after the ransom delivery. But the ransom wasn't their primary motive; either one's family gave them all the money they needed. In fact, they admitted that they were driven by the thrill. For that matter, they were still thrilled by the attention even while in jail; they regaled newspaper reporters with the lurid details again and again.
The public, driven by the newspapers of the day, were outraged. In the Jewish community, no one had imagined that such shining examples of success could have committed such a crime. Both of Leopold and Loeb's families were quite well-off, and each dapper young student at the University of Chicago surely had had a fine future ahead of him; there had been no need to turn to crime. Meyer Levin spoke for many in the Jewish community when he said that it was "a relief that the victim, too, had been Jewish."
Although anti-Semitic ministers such as Gene Scott have cited this case in their continuing propaganda, neither defendant was a practicing Jew. Furthermore, Loeb's mother was Catholic (thereby disqualifying her children from Jewish lineage), and Leopold often professed his atheism before and during the trial.
Loeb's family hired 67-year-old Clarence Darrow, who had fought against capital punishment for years, to defend the boys against the capital charges of murder and kidnap. When everyone expected them to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, Darrow surprised everyone by having them both plead guilty. In this way, he avoided a jury trial which, due to the strong public sentiment, would certainly have resulted in a pair of hangings. Instead, he was able to argue before a single judge, pleading for the lives of his clients.
Darrow gave a two-hour speech which has justifiably been called the finest of his career. It may be, in fact, that he took the case in order to be able to make such a speech, since he knew that his strong argument against capital punishment would be reprinted in newspapers around the world. And if he could show that such heinous murderers should not be executed, perhaps he would make other capital punishment cases more difficult to prosecute.
Facing the gallows, Leopold told Dr Glueck that he would rather hang than have the Dr. reveal that he was a homosexual. In the end, the judge sentenced each of Leopold and Loeb to a sentence of life in prison for the murder and 99 years for the kidnapping.
In prison, Leopold and Loeb used their education to good purpose, teaching other prisoners and showing signs of becoming rehabilitated. But early in 1936, at age 32, Loeb was attacked by his cellmate with a straight razor, and he died from his wounds.
Early in 1958, after 33 years in prison, Leopold was released on parole. He moved to Puerto Rico to avoid attention from the press. In 1971, at age 66, he died of a heart attack in San Juan, P.R.
In 1956, Meyer Levin revisited the Leopold and Loeb case in his novel Compulsion, a fictionalized version of the actual events in which the names of the pair were changed to "Steiner and Strauss." Three years later, the novel was made into a film (also called Compulsion), in which the leads were played by Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman. The character based on Darrow was played by Orson Welles, whose speech at the film's end adopting Darrow's closing arguments was one of the longest monologues in film history.
The crime was also inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope (1948).