Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were wealthy University of Chicago law students who kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Robert "Bobby" Franks in 1924, in Chicago. They were motivated by their desire to commit a "perfect" crime.
After their capture by police, Leopold and Loeb retained Clarence Darrow as their defense counsel. Darrow's advocacy in their trial was enormously influential in the capital punishment debate, becoming a touchstone for supporters of the concept of prison as rehabilitation instead of punishment. Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life imprisonment. Loeb was knifed to death by a prison inmate in 1936; Leopold was paroled in 1958, eventually dying from a diabetes-related heart attack at the age of 66 in 1971.
Nathan Leopold was born on November 19, 1904 in Chicago, the son of wealthy German Jewish immigrants. A child prodigy who spoke his first words at the age of four months, he had an IQ measured at 210. At the time of the murder he was a University of Chicago undergraduate and attending law school. In addition to being an accomplished ornithologist, he claimed to be fluent in 27 languages.
Richard Loeb was born on June 11, 1905 in Chicago, to the family of Albert H. Loeb, a wealthy Jewish lawyer and vice president of Sears. Like Leopold, Loeb was intellectually gifted, skipping several grades in school, though he lacked Leopold's academic rigor.
The pair knew each other casually while growing up, but did not become close friends until meeting at the University of Chicago as teenagers, where they quickly formed a strong alliance, spurred in part by their mutual interest in crime. Leopold also had an interest in Friedrich Nietzsche's theory of the superman.
It was not long before the duo moved beyond thinking about and discussing crime to committing it themselves. Leopold became an accomplice to Loeb, who was the dominant partner of the two. Starting with petty theft and vandalism, they broke into a fraternity house at the university and stole penknives, a camera and a typewriter. These minor transgressions whetted their appetite for larger ones. Soon they graduated to more serious crimes, such as arson.
Disappointed when none of their criminal exploits made it into the papers, Leopold and Loeb made a fateful decision. Inspired by the Nietschzean theory of "Supermen" – superior beings who were unaccountable to society's laws and moral prohibitions because of their greater intelligence and abilities – they began plotting a crime of much greater seriousness. When they finally acted on it, the infamy they craved would be theirs.
"A superman... is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do."
— Nathan Leopold, in a letter to Richard Loeb
The Perfect Crime
Over the course of seven months, Leopold and Loeb worked out the details of their "perfect crime". They would kidnap, assault, and murder a young boy. They would pick him out randomly. Though neither of them lacked for personal wealth, they would send the boy's family a ransom letter.
They took pains to account for every step and stage of the crime – from the choice of murder weapon, to body disposal, to the wording of the ransom note, to how best to obtain the ransom money undetected, to how to minimize and conceal physical evidence.
Under the name of 'Morten D. Ballad', Leopold rented the car into which their victim would be lured and then killed. The murder weapon was purchased – a chisel. On Wednesday, May 21, 1924, the time had come for the aspiring killers to put their plan in motion. Leopold was 19 at the time. Loeb was 18.
They drove around the Harvard School For Boys in the Kenwood Area of Chicago, searching for a young boy. In court Leopold would later admit to using his bird viewing binoculars. Purely by chance, they found their target: Robert "Bobby" Franks, the son of Chicago millionaire Jacob Franks. Loeb actually knew him; Bobby was both a neighbor and a cousin of Loeb's, who had played tennis at the Loeb residence many times.