Leopold and Loeb
The Trial of the Century
In 1924 two Chicago teenagers attempted the perfect crime. Influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb saw themselves as “supermen” and showed no remorse after they kidnapped and killed 14-year-old Bobby Franks. When Clarence Darrow was hired as the boys’ attorney, he gave an impassioned appeal for life imprisonment as opposed to the death penalty. But was this case, as the press described it, the “trial of the century”?
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1885), Friedrich Nietzsche introduces his concept of the Übermensch, translated literally as “overman” or “superman,” whom the philosopher describes as “Caesar with Christ’s soul.” His ideal was that such individuals would form a “natural aristocracy” and replace the “weak herd.” As Nietzsche puts it, “What is the ape to man? It’s just what man must be to the superman.”
Chicago teenager Nathan Leopold convinced himself that he and his lover, Richard Loeb, fit Nietzsche’s ideal of supermen. Leopold’s IQ was measured at 210, Loeb’s at 160; both came from wealthy families. The boys’ belief in their superiority all but justified, to them, Loeb’s plot to kidnap and murder a child and extort a steep ransom. They chose 14-year-old Bobby Franks, the son of a millionaire, as their victim. Despite seven months of meticulous preparation, their crime unraveled when authorities discovered Franks’s body—along with a unique pair of glasses sold in only one Chicago shop and owned by just three people, one of them Nathan Leopold. The glasses had fallen out of his coat pocket as he and Loeb hid Franks’s body in a culvert.
Nineteen-year-old Nathan Leopold and 18-year-old Richard Loeb led lives of privilege in a tony section of Chicago. Loeb was handsome, outgoing and obsessed with crime. Leopold was shy, bookish and obsessed with Loeb. Together they plotted to kidnap a child of wealthy parents and demand a ransom; because there could be no witness, they agreed their victim must die.
On May 21, 1924, the duo drove around their neighborhood in a rented car, searching for a victim. They decided on 14-year-old Bobby Franks, who happened to be Loeb’s second cousin, luring him with the offer of a ride home. In the backseat they smashed Franks’s skull with a chisel, then dumped his mutilated naked body in a culvert in an empty field, where it was discovered the next morning. Leopold and Loeb had planned their “perfect” crime for seven months but confessed 10 days after the murder. When the police confronted the two with the evidence against them, Loeb cracked first, crying, “I will tell you all!” Leopold admitted they had killed out of a “sort of pure love of excitement.” The Chicago tabloids had a field day, calling the resulting court case the “Trial of the Century.”
In 1911 the American Federation of Labor hired Clarence Darrow to defend John and James McNamara, brothers accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times building over a labor dispute. After the trial, Darrow was charged with two counts of attempting to bribe jurors. Though he was later acquitted on one count and a second trial ended in a hung jury, Darrow’s reputation seemed to be ruined. But after a switch to criminal law, he became the most famous attorney in the United States. The reason? Darrow was hired as defense lawyer in two cases newspapers called the trial of the century: Leopold and Loeb’s and the Scopes “Monkey” Trial.
But neither was the first “trial of the century.” That occurred in 1906, when millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw murdered architect Stanford White for bedding his wife, chorus girl Evelyn Nesbitt. Other trials that have earned the designation include 1935’s Lindbergh baby–kidnapping trial, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s 1951 espionage trial and the Charles Manson murder trial in 1970. Viewers of the Today show rendered the final verdict, voting the O.J. Simpson murder trial of 1996, which had transpired just three years earlier, the trial of the century.
Capitalizing on the notoriety of the Leopold and Loeb trial, Clarence Darrow launched a public campaign against the death penalty in the weeks following his clients’ sentencing of life imprisonment, in October 1924. Thousands turned out to hear Darrow’s spirited lectures, including one at New York’s august Manhattan Opera House. Less than a year later, Darrow was off the lecture circuit and appearing in a courtroom in Tennessee. The state had just passed the first anti-evolution law in history. Roger Baldwin, executive director of the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union, saw a chance to raise his organization’s profile by challenging the law. “We are looking for a Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing this law in the courts,” read an ad placed in Tennessee newspapers. “All we need now is a willing client.” That turned out to be John Thomas Scopes, a 24-year-old high school teacher who volunteered at the request of the town leaders of Dayton, Tennessee. (They hoped the trial would boost the town’s struggling economy.) Stanley Kramer’s 1960 film Inherit the Wind dramatizes the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, with Spencer Tracy as a controversial criminal lawyer modeled on the celebrated Darrow.
Dayton, Tennessee, science teacher John Scopes was indicted in 1925 for violating the Butler Act, which outlawed teaching “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.” The case erupted into a media circus when former congressman and secretary of state William Jennings Bryan (Fredric March played the character inspired by him in 1960’s Inherit the Wind) volunteered to lead the prosecution, and Clarence Darrow swooped in to defend Scopes. Chicago’s WGN Radio broadcast the trial live, and H.L. Mencken, who coined the name “Monkey” Trial, filed daily satirical dispatches for The Baltimore Sun. Dayton’s main street became a pedestrian mall for eight days while the new “trial of the century” riveted the nation. Though Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, his conviction was later overturned on a technicality. Nonetheless, educators could not teach evolution in Tennessee schools until 1967, when the Butler Act was repealed. In 1968 the Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that the First Amendment prohibits states from teaching the “principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma,” a law many school districts continue to defy with lessons on creationism or its cousin, intelligent design.
In 1893 Patrick Prendergast shot Chicago mayor Carter H. Harrison three times in the head. When Prendergast was convicted and sentenced to death, his family mounted an appeal, hiring Clarence Darrow to defend the mayor’s murderer. Prendergast was only the first in a long line of Darrow’s notorious clients, including communists, anarchists, union militants and corrupt politicians. Darrow even defended the chief engineer of the steamboat Eastland, whose negligence caused the drowning death of 844 people in the Chicago River. Though he earned the epithet “attorney for the damned,” Darrow believed “lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.”
Darrow was 67 when the fathers of admitted murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb burst into his apartment and promised to “pay you anything you ask. Only for God’s sake, don’t let them be hung.” It was reported that Loeb’s father offered Darrow $1 million. Chicagoans were so outraged that Darrow might try his legal wizardry to free the “thrill killers” that the boy’s fathers, Albert Loeb and Nathan Leopold Sr., issued a joint statement saying, “In no event will the families of the accused boys use money in any attempt to defeat justice.”
Bernard Glueck, a forensic psychiatrist, testified during the murder trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb that Leopold’s “complete self-realization as a homosexual was made possible only in connection with his association with Richard Loeb.” According to Simon Baatz’s book For the Thrill of It, Leopold “had a vivid fantasy life,” imagining himself “as a slave” who had rescued a king—a role Loeb was only too happy to play, ordering Leopold that he had “no choice but to obey.” Eventually a bargain was struck: Loeb would grant Leopold sex only if he joined him during robberies. When the duo grew bored with simple burglary, Loeb began to plan the “perfect crime”—the murder of a child.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is a fictionalized version of the Leopold and Loeb case based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play, which premiered just five years after the murders. The director, for the first time acting as his own producer, was eager to see how far he could push the homosexual nature of the murderers’ relationship and still get approval from the Production Code censors. In a nice touch, Hitchcock cast two gay actors, Farley Granger and John Dall, as the murderous couple.
Alfred Hitchcock’s leadoff film for his production company Transatlantic Pictures was Rope, inspired by the Leopold and Loeb murder case. It also marked Hitchcock’s initial foray into color and the first of four times he teamed with star James Stewart. In the film, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan strangle their “inferior” former classmate, David Kentley, with a rope—simply to prove they can do it. As Brandon says to his partner, “We killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing.” After they commit their crime, Brandon and Phillip throw a cocktail party to celebrate, serving food on a trunk that holds the body. Stewart plays the boys’ former teacher, who introduced them to the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche. During the party a guest asks Brandon if he believes in Nietzsche’s concept of the superman, to which the answer is yes. “So did Hitler,” the guest sadly replies. At the end of the film, Stewart’s character offers a stinging denunciation of the way the young killers have warped Nietzsche’s theory: “By what right do you dare to say that there’s a superior few to which you belong?”
In the essays that comprise On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), Friedrich Nietzsche argues that human beings do not punish one another to achieve justice but out of a more primitive idea “that every injury has its equivalent and can actually be paid back, even if only through the pain of the culprit.” Nietzsche wondered if there could ever be a society that would let those who harm it go unpunished.
Nietzsche cautioned against viewing civil punishment as a “right of the masters.” When the philosopher wrote “Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is strong,” he could have been writing an anti–death penalty polemic. Today 60 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that practice capital punishment, such as China, India and Indonesia. In the U.S., more than 30 states have death penalty laws on the books, although executions are relatively rare. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans support capital punishment for convicted murderers. For his part, Nietzsche had no illusions about where this type of public sentiment can lead. “Let us stop thinking so much about punishment,” he warned. “Let us not become darker ourselves.”
In 2013 more than 3,000 men and women await execution on death rows across the United States. Approved methods of capital punishment in the country include lethal injection, electrocution, hanging and the firing squad. As Clarence Darrow said, “When the public is interested and demands a punishment, no matter what the offense, great or small, it thinks of only one punishment, and that is death.” In the Leopold and Loeb case, the state of Illinois sought the killers’ death by hanging. But Darrow, who had his clients plead guilty to the murder of Bobby Franks, argued for life imprisonment, noting the boys’ mental condition, age and guilty plea as mitigating factors. In Darrow’s lengthy closing argument—one of the finest speeches in courtroom history—the attorney told Judge John Caverly, “You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past.” Leopold and Loeb were each sentenced to 99 years for kidnapping for ransom, as well as life imprisonment for murder. Reflecting on their youth, Darrow called the sentence “more of a punishment than death would have been.”