Leopold, Loeb, the "Thrill" of Murder, and the Crime of the Century

A new history retells the horrific story of the crime of the century.

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It is difficult—looking back at the 20th century and the butchery that took place at sites like Stalingrad, Nanking, or Nagasaki—to consider the murder of a lone American teenager as a "crime of the century."

But so it was said and continues to be. More than 80 years later, the kidnapping and killing of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, in May of 1924, still inspires authors, playwrights, and screenwriters.

It was, to oversimplify just a bit, the first great (nonpolitical) murder that prompted Americans to ask, "Why?"

The story is told anew by historian Simon Baatz in For the Thrill of It, a new book from HarperCollins.

The killers—Nathan Leopold, 19, and Richard Loeb, 18—were from wealthy Chicago families. They had grown up in big homes, in an exclusive neighborhood, with governesses and chauffeurs.

Both were intellectually precocious. Leopold had graduated from the University of Chicago, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1923 and was about to leave for Harvard Law School, and Loeb had graduated from the University of Michigan at the age of 17.

With so much given to them and such promising lives before them, how could "the boys," as they were called, have lured the innocent Franks into a rented car, beaten and strangled him, poured acid on his face and genitals, and dumped his body in a rural culvert?

Leopold later told police they were disciples of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and, as Nietzschean "supermen," were not bound by conventional morality. They said they had killed Bobby Franks—Loeb's cousin—for "the thrill" of it.

Chicago, and much of America, howled for blood. The killers were Jewish homosexuals. Their guilt was certain. Before their parents could get them lawyers, they made full confessions and helped the authorities gather damning evidence. The district attorney suggested, and the newspapers reported, that Leopold and Loeb were suspected in other sadistic sex crimes.

Two men saved the boys from the gallows. The great American lawyer Clarence Darrow led their defense and pleaded for their lives. And Judge John Caverly listened and sentenced them to life in prison and 99 years.

It was the Roaring Twenties. Traditional morality and rules of behavior were in tatters.

The country, and most of Europe, had endured a terrible world war, in which the world's real value for human life was amply demonstrated at abattoirs like Verdun or the Somme. The teachings of Darwin, Marx, and Einstein cast man as a cog in the grip of forces far beyond his control or comprehension.

Darrow asked Caverly's permission to offer mitigating medical testimony. The judge allowed it, and that summer such topics as genetics, biological determinism, endocrinology, and Freudian psychiatry were introduced to millions of Americans via their daily newspapers.

"In a legal sense, neither Nathan Leopold nor Richard Loeb was insane. Both had been able to distinguish right from wrong when they murdered Bobby Franks; both had been aware, at the time of the murder, of the character of their act; both had known that it was wrong," Baatz writes. "Yet to admit their sanity was not to preclude the possibility that both Nathan and Richard were mentally diseased."

Hal Higdon's 1975 account in The Crime of the Century does a better and breezier job at capturing the temper of Chicago and the times, as well as the horror of the crime.

And it needs to be noted that Baatz has inexplicably chosen to omit, or maybe missed in his research, the awful blunder made by District Attorney Robert Crowe, who publicly questioned Caverly's objectivity—and thoroughly alienated the judge.

At the conclusion of the trial, Caverly chastised Crowe for "a cowardly and dastardly assault upon the integrity of this court" that "could not be used for any other purpose except to incite a mob and to try and intimidate" the courts.

But Baatz's thorough research, and particularly his analysis of the flaws and strengths of the medical and psychological testimony offered by the defense, are singularly impressive. He tellingly dissects Darrow's crude (to us—they seemed quite modern and progressive in the 1920s) attempts to explain the crime as a freakish result of glandular imbalances or psychological scarring.

Darrow's famous plea to save the boys was "interminably rambling . . . a disorganized chaotic mess of a speech" that often left his audience fidgeting and yawning, Baatz writes.

In the end, as the author notes, Caverly declared himself unmoved by the mitigating evidence and handed down a conventional sentence. It was a simple matter of precedent and statistics, Baatz says: Cook County just didn't execute such young defendants if they agreed to plead guilty.

Yet judges are as human as the rest of us, and their statements when explaining their rulings in such controversial cases can be as self-serving.

Darrow may not have swayed Caverly's heart and so saved Leopold and Loeb with a mighty emotional closing argument, as Hollywood has had it.

But the great defender undeniably created a climate—in Chicago, in the country, and in the courtroom—more receptive to life sentences and ushered Caverly to his merciful decision.

"You may hang these boys. You may hang them by the neck until they are dead," Darrow told Caverly. "I am pleading for the future. I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man."

Darrow has been a target of revisionist historians in recent years. Baatz—too unthinkingly—has fallen in with that parade.