Justice on Trial Revisiting Leopold Loeb

Confessed killers Nathan Leopold, left, and Richard Loeb, were defended by celebrity lawyer Clarence Darrow, at right in bottom photo, with the defendants.


By Gary Schmidgall

They gave a whole new meaning to the word “sangfroid,” those two famously not nice Jewish boys Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. Indeed, they became poster boys for cold-blooded murder after they kidnapped 14-year-old Bobby Franks, smashed his head with a chisel, poured hydrochloric acid over the body, then stuffed it into a drainage pipe in a nature preserve south of Chicago. It all happened on May 21, 1924, when Richard was 18, Nathan 19.

Though they confessed elaborately to the deed and scrupulous preliminary planning, they never expressed an iota of remorse. Indeed, while the rumor floated before sentencing that a despondent Leopold had hanged himself in the Cook County jail, he was blithely passing time playing the rec room piano and telling journalists that Rimsky-Korsakov was his favorite composer: “I like him for his precision and finish rather than for his emotional qualities.”

Emotional qualities were in eerily short supply in these two callow but exceedingly bright youths. Richard was, at 18, the University of Michigan’s youngest graduate ever in 1923, while Nathan matriculated at the University of Chicago at 14. Nathan intended to apply to Harvard Law School in the fall, Richard to Chicago’s Law School.

The murderers’ icy intelligence and suave good looks combined with their high social station — both families were wealthy pillars of Chicago’s Jewish community (Richard’s father was a vice president of Sears, Roebuck) — to make the 1924 trial a major media event, right up there with the Lindbergh and the O.J. Simpson murder trials later that century. Chicago’s six daily papers — those were the days! — assigned multiple reporters to the story, and the fate of Loeb and Leopold quickly became a national obsession.

When the centennial of the births of Loeb and Leopold passed in 2005, Simon Baatz was well into his extensive research for what is, astonishingly, the first full-scale attempt to explore how the criminal justice system dealt with the case in all its “complexity and intricacy.” The 541-page study, For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago (Harper), has just appeared — very fittingly, since Baatz is a professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center. He tells of becoming interested in the case after happening upon a London cinema that was reviving Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film “Rope,” which was based on the murder. (Loeb and Leopold had originally planned a joint strangulation with rope, but it was Loeb who wielded the chisel.)

Many other factors combined to give the trial an unprecedentedly high profile, most obviously the two families’ hiring of the celebrity legal firebrand Clarence Darrow. Famed for his defense of the Haymarket anarchists back in1886 and for a long campaign against the death penalty, Darrow, Baatz says, had been for 30 years “the most famous lawyer in the U.S.” Among his clients were the Communist Labor Party and the assassin of a Chicago mayor. The year after the Leopold-Loeb trial he headed to Tennessee for his most famous showdown — with William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial.

Darrow’s opponent in Criminal Court was no slouch: the wily prosecutor Robert Crowe, whose idee fixe was that the confessed killers must hang. Two-thirds of Baatz’s narrative is devoted to their epic courtroom dueling. The murder had been solved in just a few days, mainly due to the almost immediate discovery of the body and Nathan’s distinctive tortoiseshell glasses lying nearby, plus the later discovery that a ransom note was produced on the same typewriter as Nathan’s study notes for a law class.

Adding to the tension was the threat of an anti-Semitic backlash — and a homophobic one, for it soon emerged that the Loeb-Leopold relationship was sexual. According to Baatz, neither backlash broke leash. The Jewish community retreated to silence, and the discretion of the presiding judge, the poised, liberal-leaning John Caverly, kept sex matters under wraps. When the only testimony on the men’s sexual activities was to be given, Caverly made sure it was whispered in a huddle around the stenographers before his bench, out of earshot of audience and reporters. Spicing the atmosphere outside the courtroom was the Ku Klux Klan, newly resurgent in Chicago and promising a lynching if the wheels of justice did not produce a hanging.

Darrow’s brilliant initial gambit was to have his clients plead guilty (thus avoiding much washing of dirty laundry before a jury) and then focus on defending them at great length during the pre-sentencing hearing before Caverly alone. Darrow, whose sole aim was to avoid the gallows, would use the hearing to throw his clients on the court’s mercy. One historic aspect of Baatz’s narrative is Darrow’s attempt to “mitigate” the crime through scientific evidence delivered by expert witnesses. No fewer than 12 psychiatrists, including the nation’s leading one, William Alanson White of Washington, D.C.’s, famed St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, held forth on the causes of mental illness, the killers’ crippling “infantilism,” and their endocrinological disorders. Instead of being “spoiled rotten,” as Crowe and countless media kibitzers thought, the two boys suffered from “affective incapacity.”

Crowe countered with 90 witnesses intended to “aggravate” the crime, among them a slew of neurologists willing to say they found “no mental disease” in the men. In the end the judge ignored all the science and, simply on the basis of their youth, sentenced Loeb and Leopold to life terms for the murder and 99-year terms for kidnapping for ransom. His carelessly forgetting to state the terms should be “consecutive” rather than “concurrent” meant that, according to state law, they could be eligible for parole in 20 years. Darrow had triumphed, though he was widely seen in the media, Baatz writes, as “the villain of the piece.”

Baatz makes clear that he is troubled by the appearance of great legal panoply and expense saving Loeb and Leopold from the scaffold, while in many similarly horrific murders involving indigent or illiterate convicts the outcome was a noose. On the other hand, he is willing to grant that the trial marked an advance in the delivery of criminal justice. Baatz quotes Darrow’s remark to a New York Times reporter: “Modern science says that young mental defectives can be adjusted to meet the problems of life in a normal manner. ... Influences can bring about cures that, in their wider application, spell crime prevention.”

What happened to them? Thanks to family money funneled into his prison account, Loeb became something of a power behind the scenes in prison. He was not above bribing guards or pursuing other inmates for sexual favors. One inmate, a short 21-year-old named James Day, came under pressure from Loeb for sex. On Jan. 28, 1936, Day got his hand on a contraband razor and used it when Loeb entered a shower area for a tryst (Loeb had a key to the door to ensure privacy). Loeb died that day from more than 50 slash wounds.

Nathan Leopold behaved much better behind bars, teaching in a prison school, volunteering for experiments with anti-malarial medicines, and becoming an X-ray technician. In 1953, at his first parole hearing he testified, “I was a smart-aleck kid. I am not anymore.” Crowe wrote furiously from retirement that Leopold “ought to hang…it was a brutal murder.”

Leopold had to wait another five years, until March 13, 1958, for freedom. Soon he was working as a medical technician at a small Protestant hospital in Puerto Rico. There he met and in 1961 married a 53-year-old widow from Baltimore. They lived quietly and comfortably (thanks, in part, to a 1929 inheritance from his father), traveling widely after he emerged from parole in 1963. Leopold died of a heart attack in 1971.

Baatz notes that F. Scott Fitzgerald revealed in 1927 that he was working on a novel about the Franks murder. It never saw the light, which is a shame. The author of The Great Gatsby might have done it proud. He could have called it In Cold Blood.